The rookie coach has made multiple head-scratching decisions during his first year as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Numerous Sunday’s this season have featured Kitchens appearing overwhelmed by his new role. He’s also struggled to properly utilize the arsenal of playmakers he has at his disposal on offense.
All in all, signs proving Kitchens was the right hire have been few and far between.
That said, we’ve seen a significant one develop over the past three games.
Despite having issues getting the ball to his best players this season, Kitchens deserves praise for how he’s worked with Kareem Hunt. Cleveland’s coach has successfully incorporated the pro bowl back into the game-plan, doing so without stealing targets from other members of the offense.
Said balancing act might just be one of Kitchens’ biggest successes of the season.
I’ll be honest – I had low hopes when it came to Hunt’s presence with the team once he returned from his eight-game suspension. This certainly isn’t a knock on his talent, as he quickly became one of the league’s most productive backs in just two seasons. On paper, putting him on an offense featuring Nick Chubb, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. almost felt like cheating.
My concern wasn’t with Hunt, but instead how he’d be utilized in Kitchens’ offense.
To that point in the season, Kitchens had been struggling mightily when it came to getting the most out of his playmakers. Beckham was unable to get more than nine targets a game. Chubb, despite putting forth a monstrous season, still wasn’t getting carries when it mattered most. Mayfield spent the first half of the season appearing frighteningly tentative, looking nothing like the confident rookie we saw last season.
Knowing this, I found myself wondering if Hunt’s Week 10 return would actually hurt the Browns as opposed to help them. Despite averaging 5.0 yards per carry, Chubb was already losing red zone carries to third-string back Dontrell Hilliard. Knowing that, Hunt’s addition just seemed like it would only further hurt limit the usage of Cleveland’s most consistent weapon.
This hasn’t happened.
Since Hunt’s arrival, Chubb is still rolling right along, generating over 100 yards on the ground in two of the past three games. Even more surprisingly, despite now sharing the backfield with a pro bowler, Chubb is averaging more carries. He received 19.25 per game while Hunt served his suspension, and has been getting 22.66 per game since Hunt returned.
Meanwhile, keeping Chubb as a focal point of the offense hasn’t prevented Kitchens from getting Hunt involved any way he can.
Hunt is currently averaging over six targets per game, with 99 yards receiving over the past three weeks. He’s also getting six carries per game, and just cashed in on his first rushing touchdown as a member of the Browns this past weekend against Miami.
Though his numbers won’t blow anyone away, Hunt has become the multi-purpose weapon Cleveland’s offense badly needed. He can effectively give Chubb a breather without stealing too many of his carries, while also offering Mayfield a check-down option who averages 6.6 yards per reception.
That said, Hunt wouldn’t have been able to provide this spark had Kitchens not figured out how best to use him, and do so without leaving a key player or two on the backburner. It was no easy feat, but three games in, Kitchens has been pulling it off on a weekly basis.
Of course, some of this is dependent upon Hunt accepting his place as a third-down back. His resume is impressive enough to merit a much larger role, but the circumstances which brought him to Cleveland certainly limit how much he can say about that. Regardless, Hunt embracing his position on the Browns’ offense certainly made Kitchens’ job easier.
Despite this, how Cleveland’s coach has been able to incorporate Hunt can’t be ignored.
It felt safe to assume receiving another pro bowler to work with would only further overwhelm Kitchens. Instead, he’s figured out a way to get Hunt the ball while also increasing the usage of players like Chubb and Beckham, which has helped Mayfield put together his strongest play of the season.
Kitchens still has his work cut out for him when proving he was the right man for the job. However, what he’s done with Hunt has certainly helped his cause.