Browns will offer a tough test for Cowboys run defense in Week 1

The Cowboys have yet to find out their full schedule, but they learned where they’ll be in the first week of the season on Monday. The Cowboys will kick off their 2024 regular season away from home, facing the Browns in Cleveland.

This matchup will be intriguing for a variety of reasons. Tyler Guyton facing Myles Garrett in his NFL debut will certainly be a storyline to watch, and Amari Cooper facing the Cowboys for the first time since being traded away will also draw some attention. There’s also the matter of Ezekiel Elliott making a bit of a homecoming to the state where he blossomed into a college football star.

However, the most challenging – and, potentially, the most exciting – factor in this game is the test that Mike Zimmer’s defense will be facing. It’s no secret that Dallas has struggled against the run in recent years, and particularly against offenses that run the Shanahan style of offense.

Well, the Browns check both boxes. Head coach Kevin Stefanski spent the vast majority of his coaching career with the Vikings, spanning three different head coaches in Brad Childress, Leslie Frazier, and finally Zimmer. He was promoted to offensive coordinator for the 2019 season, but was paired with Gary Kubiak as a mentor of sorts. In that lone season, Stefanski mastered the Shanahan offense, of which Kubiak was a co-founder.

Stefanski soaked up as much knowledge as he could of Kubiak’s offense, specifically nuances of the play-action game and the wide-zone scheme that he’s known for. A disciple of Mike Shanahan, Kubiak runs the version of the West Coast scheme — complete with plenty of bootlegs or “keepers” — that he and Shanahan passed down to others such as 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, Packers coach Matt LaFleur and others.

“For years, that scheme has been very hard on defenses, when you talk about defending the run game and the play-action game,’’ Stefanski said. “And I had never been in that scheme specifically. I’ve been in other ones, and I had my own thoughts about the run game and play-action game, but to be able to be exposed to coach Kub and the different nuance that he had into those plays was was incredible for me.’’

After just one year calling plays in that system under Zimmer, who was notorious for wanting a ground-and-pound offense. Stefanski landed the head coaching gig for the Browns. In Cleveland, he’s enjoyed plenty of success. Stefanski took the Browns to the playoffs right away in Year 1, and just last year he reached the postseason again with 38-year old Joe Flacco (as well as four other quarterbacks) under center. It was enough to earn Stefanski his second Coach of the Year award in four seasons.

A big reason why Stefanski, who calls the plays in Cleveland, has been able to succeed in Cleveland even as the quarterback position remains unstable is his expertise in run game designs. In his first three seasons, Stefanski’s Browns have featured a dominant tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way, aided by an elite offensive line coached by the revered Bill Callahan.

Last year, though, Cleveland lost Chubb for the season early on. Riding a trio of Jerome Ford, Pierre Strong, and Hunt after being re-signed following Chubb’s injury, the Browns still managed to finish the season 12th in rushing.

Chubb is still making his recovery, and it seems unlikely he’ll be ready to play in this season opener. But Cleveland should still have an imposing ground game with Ford in tow, along with free agent signings in Nyheim Hines – one of the more efficient pass-catching running backs of the last few years – and D’Onta Foreman, a textbook definition of a power back.

As for the Cowboys, shoring up the run defense has been a focal point for Zimmer this offseason. There was a public desire to get bigger in the middle of the defensive line, which has happened in the draft selection of 300-pound Justin Rogers as well as Mazi Smith showing up for offseason workouts at a listed 328 pounds. The Cowboys also brought in veteran linebacker and Zimmer disciple Eric Kendricks, along with drafting Marist Liufau.

Legitimate steps have been taken to improve this run defense, and there is reason to be optimistic that those steps will work out. However, the Cowboys are drawing one of their toughest tests of the schedule – as far as effective ground games, that is – in their very first game. The Browns will tell us right away where this new-look run defense is, and also how much further they have left to go throughout the season.


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