The Browns rushed for 307 yards last week against the Cowboys. The Colts have allowed 308 rushing yards in four games.
The Browns have scored at least 34 points in the last three games. The Colts haven’t allowed more than 11 in the last three.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has found an effective rhythm as a play caller, wearing down defenses with the run while mixing in enough trick plays and deep shots to keep them honest. Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who coached Browns linebackers in 2009-10 and interviewed to be the head coach in 2019, orchestrates a solid scheme based in fundamentals and effort.
The Browns will be without running back Nick Chubb (knee), perhaps the team’s top player. The Colts will be missing linebacker Darius Leonard (groin), arguably their best player.
A lot is on the line as the 3-1 teams with three-game winning streaks square off Sunday at 4:25 p.m. in front of 12,000 fans at FirstEnergy Stadium. The intrigue will be everywhere, but it starts with the matchup of the Cleveland offense vs. the Indianapolis defense.
“This will be the biggest challenge of the year, we feel,” Browns coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “They do not do a lot schematically, but they play extremely hard and they are very sound — fundamentally sound and scheme sound. They run hard to the ball so we are going to have to be able to play at a level that we can match or exceed their finish and their fundamentals.”
The Browns have scored 15 touchdowns during the win streak while punting just 10 times. The offense has capitalized on the defense’s eight takeaways in the last two weeks with 38 points. Stefanski has spread the ball among the stars, including involving receiver Odell Beckham Jr. early and often (154 total yards and three touchdowns) against the Cowboys.
“The sky is the limit for us,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “We are a very different team from Week 1. You can look at the calls, the plays, the schemes and all of it. We are very different, and we are continuing to evolve and grow and see what is working for us.”
The Browns are first in the league with 204.5 rushing yards a game, first with 5.9 yards a rush, tied for second with an 80 percent touchdown rate in the red zone and fourth with 31.0 points a game. They have three players with 300 yards and four TDs — Chubb, Beckham and Kareem Hunt — while no other team has more than one.
“From Week 1 to Week 2, we learned a lot about ourselves, and I hope I am changing and getting better each week,” Stefanski said of the rebound from the 38-6 loss in Baltimore. “I am getting a better grasp of what our guys are really good at and we have to double-down on those things and we have to protect those things.”
The Colts counter with a stream of quality players at each level of the defense. Tackle DeForest Buckner and end Justin Houston (3.5 sacks, six straight games with at least a half-sack) lead the way upfront, Leonard is the playmaker in the middle and cornerback Xavier Rhodes has energized the secondary after signing in free agency.
The Colts haven’t played an offense ranked in the top half of the league, but part of that is because the Colts have been so good defensively. They rank first in scoring (14.0 points a game), first in yardage (263.3), first against the pass (159.3), first in yards per play (4.44), first on third down (31.1 percent converted) and fourth against the run (77.0).
Protecting the ball will be critical for the Browns. The Colts have seven takeaways, all interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. The Browns are first in the NFL with a plus-six turnover margin, while the Colts are fifth at plus-four.
Mayfield must continue to be prudent and accurate. After throwing at least one interception in eight straight games, he’s gone two in a row without one. He has three straight games with a passer rating above 100 — tied for the second-longest active streak in the NFL — and has completed 67.1 percent in the win streak.
“They play zone so they have eyes on the Q,” Stefanski said of the Colts. “They play some man and they are tight in coverage where they are making plays on the ball. For every quarterback and for Baker for this week and for every week, just make sure that he goes through his reads and stays pure to them, and make sure that we do everything in our power to not give the ball away.”
Stefanski has received high marks for many things in his first time as a head coach, including play calling. He’s stuck with the run even when it isn’t perfect, accentuated Mayfield’s strengths and put up a plethora of points.
“He has some (guts),” receiver Jarvis Landry said. “Nobody would think that the first series of the game we would run a toss-reverse-pass. We still had a lot of sequences of football where we just ran great plays, mixing the run in with the pass very well and a screen here and there. That is something that he was in a flow.
“To me, it all comes down to his preparation, and I think he is definitely a confident guy once he gets to calling plays and in a rhythm, and that is what makes us good.”
“A smooth operator,” Mayfield said of Stefanski. “Right now, we are continuing to call things that are working until teams show us otherwise that they can stop it. We are going to do that and then we are going to take our shots when we can. We are going to pound the rock and try and create matchups on the outside and take advantage of that.”
The offense has been explosive through the air and on the ground, with 11 rushes and seven passes of 20 yards. The Colts have allowed the fewest 20-yard plays, and all 10 were passes.
Cleveland’s run game takes a hit without Chubb, but Hunt is eager to fill in as the No. 1 back and take on the extra work. The Colts allowed only 28 rushing yards in a win over the Bears last week.
“If we are worth our salt, we are constantly evolving so we know who is available to us each week and play to your players’ strengths,” Stefanski said.
With a struggling defense weakened by injury facing a respectable Colts offense, the Browns will likely need big plays to win four in a row for the first time since the end of 2009. They hadn’t been 3-1 since 2001 and haven’t been 4-1 since 1994.
“I know that this is big for the fans. I know this is big for the community, as well,” right guard Wyatt Teller said.