For at least a week, the pressure crawling up the neck of Pat Shurmur has subsided. After Shurmur's Browns struggled to generate any type of offensive consistency over the past month, a two touchdown virtual explosion of sorts occurred last week against Jacksonville. And while a mere 14 points normally wouldn't be characterized as anything celebratory, the Browns badly needed any type of positive momentum heading into a brutal stretch of AFC North games.
To his credit, Shurmur – the Browns' often embattled rookie head coach – has been willing to experiment with an otherwise impotent offense over the past couple weeks. Last week, Shurmur reached into his past and pulled out a variety of trick plays against the Rams – his former team. The results were mixed, as the Browns showed some sparks of life but were unable to reach the end zone.
However, trick plays aside, two surprisingly simple – yet completely effective trends emerged during what proved to be a soul-crushing 13-12 loss.
First, Shurmur's offense finally featured more of quarterback Colt McCoy operating out of a shotgun and making quicker reads. McCoy, who has taken a Tim Couch-sized beating this season, has desperately needed extra time – especially given the erratic play of the Browns' offensive line. Second, the timely return of a valid rushing attack has taken pressure off McCoy and allowed the Browns' offense to regain a sense of normal balance.
Both of these features were on display against Jacksonville – at least in the brief examples that led to the Browns' two touchdowns.
The first scoring opportunity began with 7:53 left in the Second Quarter, as the Browns were trailing 7-0. To this point in the game, the Browns' offense had showed a quicker pace, moving from one play to the next in a smooth manner. However, as evidenced in past games, the offense struggled to sustain drives, already punting three times. Adding to the offense's dilemma was a special teams holding penalty that pushed the Browns back to their own 13.
On what proved to be a 9 play, 87-yard drive, Shurmur's play calling allowed McCoy to make quick decisions, rather than settling deep in his own pocket. With the exception of one red zone passing play, McCoy did not have a drop back longer than five steps. In all, Shurmur called four Shotgun formations and only once was McCoy was pressured in the pocket.
The drive began with McCoy under center, taking a short drop back. After a quick scan of the field, McCoy stepped up into his pocket and ran for three yards. At this point in the season, McCoy's fight or flight instincts have become an inherent part of his quarterback DNA. Against the Jaguars, these traits were effective. Following this first down run, five consecutive Shotgun formations were called, culminating with a thrilling downfield strike to Jordan Norwood.
Setting up Norwood's play were quick strikes over the middle to Greg Little and a swing pass to Josh Cribbs near the Jacksonville sideline. On both plays, McCoy barely had the football in his hands for more than a second. Taking advantage of a still settling Jacksonville secondary, McCoy was able to isolate Little over the middle for a 23-yard gain. Little's route was a simple cross, yet as part of a three-receiver set to McCoy's left side, the North Carolina rookie was able to create space for himself.
The pass itself was a perfectly-timed bullet that hit Little's hands as soon as the rookie wideout turned to face his quarterback. To some – including CBS's announcers – the pass arrived too early. Yet, in the instance of tight NFL passing windows and an offense designed on anticipating where receivers will be on the field – McCoy's pass was nearly perfect.
Two plays later, McCoy connected with Norwood on a 51-yard gain that was mainly attributed to the young wideout's electric cutting ability. Norwood – lined up in the right slot of a four-receiver set – made a brilliant cut to get open on Jacksonville's Dwight Lowery. McCoy delivered another bullet pass, close to the first down marker. However, Norwood's second cut opened up some thirty yards of running room – giving a play designed for 12 yards an exceptional result.
In the red zone, Shurmur was obviously still reeling from the Rams' game – in which the rookie coach was criticized for being overly conservative. On the Browns' first two red zone snaps, Shurmur called pass plays. McCoy – back under center – had Little open on a wheeling slant in the back end zone. Little trapped the ball underneath him, which led to a second pass to Chris Ogbonnaya. Ogbonnaya drew pass interference, which led to a touchdown run on the following possession.
Later in the game, the Browns again found themselves in the red zone. But, two penalties and an ugly McCoy interception led to a return of that familiar feeling of dread. Again, the Browns' offense had stumbled - along with McCoy feeling the effects of a bruised shoulder. However, the return of the Browns' long-suffering rushing game allowed the offense the kind of balance needed to sneak out another score.
With 3:37 remaining in the Third Quarter, the Browns began at their own 15. Ogbonnaya provided an early spark with a 12-yard gain. The darting run up the middle of the Jaguars' line was set up beautifully by a McCoy fake pump – which helped to slow down Jacksonville's interior linebackers. Shurmur then called a solid play designed to again attack the middle of Jacksonville's defense. On second down, McCoy took a shotgun snap, dropped a few steps and completed a 12-yard pass to a sliding Josh Cribbs.
After a well-timed McCoy scramble – one that featured a load-clearing block by Joe Thomas, McCoy's other improvisational skills were showcased. First, McCoy was able to twist away from pressure and shovel a pass into fullback Owen Marecic's hands for a critical first down gain. Two plays later, McCoy went under the shotgun and was scrambling away from what appeared to be a broken blocking assignment. McCoy was able to find Little – presumably his "hot read" for a short completion that eventually turned into a 12-yard pickup.
Once inside the red zone, Shurmur showed his trust of McCoy – even after the earlier interception. On a Second and Goal situation, McCoy lobbed a looping pass for tight end Ben Watson that was broken up. A play later, McCoy took the snap from under center, rolled right and then waited for Cribbs to appear in the front corner of the end zone. McCoy fired a tight spiral against the sideline, which Cribbs snagged for what ultimately proved to be the game-winning score.
Overall, there was nothing sensational about what the Browns' offense produced against the Jaguars. Seldom will two touchdowns either satisfy a fan base starved of entertainment or win games against NFL teams. However, in the Browns' specific case last Sunday, two touchdowns were exactly the remedy against a banged up Jaguar roster led by an erratic rookie quarterback.
Yet in the grand scheme of offensive possibilities, what was demonstrated against Jacksonville could prove to be an omen for things to come in Cleveland. While there were no pertinent long-term questions answered regarding franchise quarterbacks and head coaches, a simple reality emerged.
First, these current Browns and any future variations are doomed without a competent rushing game. The emergence of Chris Ogbonnaya over the past two weeks has certainly helped the passing attack to succeed. In the span of barely two games, the trends of defenses that have faced the Browns have already begun to slightly change. Just as the Rams stopped sending extra rushers on every down last week, the Jaguars began to alter their original plans as Sunday's game wore on.
On a related note, the pacing of the Browns' offense has finally begun to take on a more proactive approach. McCoy is finally being handed more plays designed to lessen his chances of taking big hits in the Browns' backfield. Against the Jaguars, McCoy was able to quickly unload the ball, which offered more protection and kept the Jaguars' defense off balance.
Sometimes – it's the simple things that work best. Let's hope all involved remember this as the Browns now make their way through the AFC North.