Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver Josh Gordon in the Hue Jackson Pass Game Part II

In this week’s X's and O's, the OBR will continue our look at Josh Gordon’s fit in Cleveland Browns’ head coach Hue Jackson’s passing offense.

Last week we broke down two common uses of the ‘X’ receiver, or split end, in the Hue Jackson-pass game. We started with a look at backside isolation routes in which the offense aligned in 3X1 formations with the split end placed to the weakside of the formation (the side with fewer skill position players) to create one-on-one matchups. Both A.J. Green and Josh Gordon were primarily used in this role to take advantage of plus personnel matchups against cornerbacks playing man coverage with little over-the-top help from a safety.

In our first example we looked at the short passing game, breaking down slants from both Green and Gordon.

We then moved on to the classic ‘Mesh’ concept, a combination of deep, intermediate, and crossing routes that create a natural pick underneath for the receivers running the shallow crosses.

Via alignment and concept, both plays demonstrate Jackson’s philosophical roots of creating mismatches for his talented wide receivers and getting his playmakers the ball in space where they can maximize yards after catch.

In Part II of our film study we will look at three more core tenants of the new play caller’s passing game: the use of playmakers in ‘traditional’ route combinations, wide receiver screens, and isolation fade routes.

Several pass concepts jump out when breaking down A.J. Green’s 2015 tape. For our purposes pass concepts are defined as a two or three-receiver route combination that works together to create stress points on the defensive coverage (Note that I use the term ‘concept’ and ‘combination’ interchangeably).

Route combinations are a simple idea in which the routes run by the wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs work together to stress the defense. Routes are not run within a vacuum; effective routes should work together to create vertical (hi-lo) or horizontal (side-to-side) stretches on defenders and/or create a clear sequential progression for the quarterback. Well-designed route concepts take advantage of weak points in popular coverage shells like Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3 (like the popular Curl/Flat against Cover 3). The most-effective route concepts (like ‘Snag’) will feature man-beating routes as well as vertical and horizontal stretches (known as a triangle read) in the same play. These combinations are very effective as they stress multiple coverages, taking pressure off the play caller to ‘guess right’ and providing the quarterback with multiple options post-snap after the defense has declared.

A simple example of a horizontal stretch (side-to-side) on a Cover 3 Curl/Flat defender:

a simple example of a vertical Stretch (hi-lo) on a Cover 2 Flat defender:

Finally, a vertical and horizontal stretch with a man-beater (against man the quarterback should peek the corner route first) to create a 'triangle read':

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Now that we’ve defined route combinations, let’s take a look at several popular concepts that show up on the Bengals’ 2015 tape.

The first concept that shows up over-and-over is a 3X1 formation in which A.J. Green is aligned as the #2 receiver (receivers are counted outside-to-in) to the trips side, a departure from his normal split end position to the backside as a split end.

In our first example, the Bengals run ‘3 Verticals’ from a Trips Closed formation, hiding Green inside the three-receiver set. The tight end will run a shallow cross and the running back will release on a ‘sneak’ route as check downs, with the trip’s receivers running vertical routes upfield. 3 Verts and its kissing cousin 4 Verts are designed to push the ball downfield and create chunk gains, a component sorely lacking from the Browns' offense last season.

This offense gains two major advantages from this alignment: First, by placing Green in the ‘slot’ the defense will likely cover him with a nickel back, a mismatch heavily-favoring a receiver of Green’s caliber. Second, by placing Green inside his route-running skills and football I.Q. are put to good use as he can adjust his route based on the type of coverage he sees.

The Steelers’ defense is running a fire zone blitz, sending five rusher while playing a modified version of Cover 3 behind, known as ‘3-deep, 3- under’, in which the defense will cover the field with three deep defenders and three underneath defenders. We will see in a moment how Green is able to find a hole in the coverage due to the technique the cornerback and nickel back play in this example.

The nickel back (aligned over Green) is playing a ‘SCIF’ technique (Seam/Curl/Into Flat) in which he will:

1.       Get eyes on the #2 receiver to break on the quick-game routes (slant, hitch, flat). Stay overtop the receiver to a depth of roughly ten yards

2.       Collision the receiver if he pushes vertical into the seam, breaking the cushion. The SCIF player CANNOT allow the receiver a free release.

3.       Expand to the curl-flat, keeping the head on a swivel to pick up any short routes that threaten underneath.

It’s important to note that there is no universal football terminology. SCIF technique is also referred to as a seam drop, Bronco, etc. The rules within each technique can differ coach-by-coach as well.

Notice how Green is able to avoid the defensive back’s collision attempt with a nice in-out move (inside step with a shoulder shake before breaking back outside across the defender’s face). The collision is vital to the defensive coverage as the cornerback appears to be ‘mid-pointing’ the #1 and #2 receiver, back pedaling in between both in order to play vertical throws to either. In order to make a play on Green, the cornerback must get a good jam from SCIF defender as he has too much distance to cover otherwise.

Because Green can enter the seam unimpeded he is able to bend in away from the cornerback and make an easy catch in front of the free safety.

The second route concept we will look at is a Jackson-favorite against split-safety coverage (Cover 2, Cover 4, and Cover 6), the Split-Dig

Split-Dig is a popular three-man concept that can be run out of a variety of formations including 2X2 sets if the running back is used as the #3 receiver.

The idea behind the concept is to use the seam route by the #2 receiver as a ‘clear out’, running off the deep safety to open up the dig and flat. Against split-safety coverages like the Tampa 2 and Cover 4, the dig-flat combination creates a vertical stretch, or hi-lo on the flat defender.

Our first example is run off play action against Cover 4, or ‘Quarters’ coverage. In Cover 4 each deep defender (the two cornerbacks and two safeties) will cover ¼ of the deep field, with three defenders playing underneath.

Against Quarters the quarterback’s progression is ‘peak’ the seam, and then read the curl/flat defender to target the dig or the flat. If the defender gains depth in his drop to cushion the dig, throw the flat. If the defender jumps the flat, throw the dig.

Pay attention to the leverage by the left cornerback. Seattle plays an aggressive brand of pass defender in which the corners often press and bail, even in shells like Cover 3 and Cover 4 in which they must protect a deep zone. Because the cornerback is playing outside leverage on Green (aligned outside the receiver’s outside foot) he is already at a disadvantage playing the dig route as it will break away from his position. The defensive back compounds this difficult assignment by getting caught moving forward at the snap, forcing him to flip his momentum on the fly and thrn peeking into the backfield before the ball is out.

The play action easily pulls the curl/flat defender to the line of scrimmage, creating a large throwing window for the dig and leading to a 23-yard reception.

Later in the 2015 season we see the same concept against the Browns against identical coverage leading to an identical result.

The seam route by the #2 receiver clears out the play side safety, creating room for the dig to come underneath. The play action pulls up the curl/flat defender, allowing another easy completion to a dig run against outside leverage by the cornerback.

A third concept (and Air Raid staple) that shows up on tape is the two-receiver ‘Shakes’ combo.

A well-run Shakes combo is a Cover 2-killer, putting the flat defender in a hi-lo bind while forcing the safety to come off his hash too late to make a play on the ball.

The concept uses a flat route from the inside receiver in conjunction with a corner route from the outside receiver. The concept is unique in that corner routes are rarely run by outside receivers, as the route is cut off by the sideline due to the compressed space along the edge of the field. In order to create room for the corner route, the wide receiver must use an inside release (release towards the middle of the field), bend inside while getting upfield, and break back to the corner. This route must be precise, as there is little room for error due to the lack of space and timing with the quarterback’s throw.

In our example Green is lined-up in the X position with the tailback running the flat route.

Focus on the cornerback at the snap. In a Cover 2 zone (2-deep, 5-under) the cornerback is responsible for the flat. He wants to force an inside release from the wide receiver and must jam at the line of scrimmage. He will then pass off anything vertical to the safety while keeping his eyes on the flats to break on anything short.

The jam and inside release is vital to the structure of Cover 2 as the half-field deep safety will be forced to widen from the hash towards the sideline too early if the receiver releases along the sideline. Cover 2’s biggest weakness is the middle-of-the-field hole. If the safety widens too early, teams will relentlessly attack the bare grass with post routes.

The cornerback is unable to effectively jam Green as he releases inside across his face. Watch the cornerback get his eyes to his flat responsibility as Green passes by, looking to break on any short routes (the running back here).

Next move your eyes to the free safety. Notice that while he does widen from his hash by three lateral steps, Green’s inside release and subsequent cut to the front corner of the end zone create too much distance to make a play on the ball. The route and timing must be excellent to pull this type of throw off; the constricted space to the boundary (short side of the field) leaves little room for error.

The final route concept we’ll breakdown is known as the ‘Smash-Post’. This concept integrates another coaching-favorite, the ‘Smash’ concept, with a post route coming from the other side of the field. Like the previous ‘Shakes’ concept, ‘Smash-Post’ is a split-safety killer.

Before putting the routes together, it would be helpful to look at each individually to see how the combination stresses the two deep safeties.

‘Smash’ is an all-time favorite, consisting of a short in-breaking route like a hitch or fin from the #1 receiver and a corner route from the #2 receiver (should sound familiar to the hitch/corner in ‘Snag’). The play works best against Cover 2, in which the flat defender (the cornerback) faces a vertical stretch by the hitch and corner routes. Jump the hitch and the corner route will be thrown over his head against a safety that has to cover the distance from hash to sideline. Sink to cushion the corner route and the quarterback will throw the high-percentage hitch in front of the cornerback with opportunity for yards after catch. In this case the short bait route is run as a flat by the tight ends. The specific short route doesn't matter here; as long as it breaks in front of the cornerback he still faces a verical stretch.

The post route will come towards the flat and corner from the opposite side of the field. Like ‘Smash’ the flat defender will be put in a hi-lo stretch by a short route in front and a vertical route behind. The second receiver will run a ‘Dino’ stem (West Coast nomenclature), or corner-post.

The concept is simple. Recall that Cover 2’s biggest hole in in the middle of the field. When the safety breaks on the corner route, the hole is exaggerated, allowing the post route to run between the two safeties. The player running the post will use a ‘Dino’ stem (former San Francisco head coach Steve Mariucci included this route in a chalk session with Carson Wentz and Jared Goff) in which he fakes to the corner before breaking back to post. The fake should force the safety to open his hips away from the post, creating more room for the route.

Here's how the routes look together. Notice how each side compliments the other to open the hole for the post route.

First, watch the corner route at the top of the screen. The Bengals elect to run a flat route with the running back underneath rather than an inside-breaking route from a wide receiver, but the effect remains the same. The safety to the Smash-side is forced to come off his hash to cover the corner route, opening a huge hole in the middle of the field for the post.

Although Green’s slight outside break at the seven yard line doesn’t open the safety’s hips, Dalton threads the needle between the deep defender and the dropping MIKE (will sink to protect the deep middle-of-field hole). Good coverage by the defense, but better route design and execution by the offense.

Josh Gordon caught a beautiful 20-yard touchdown pass against ‘Single-Hi’ (Cover 1 man) off a similar concept to ‘Shakes’, the ‘Smash-Seam’.

Ohio State fans will recognize the route combination as it has become an Urban Meyer-favorite over the previous two seasons. Rather than run a corner route, the #2 receiver will fade from the slot towards the front pylon of the end zone. The outside receiver will fake a ‘Now’ screen or simply stand in place, taking the cornerback out of the play.

The cornerback is in a very tough spot as Gordon has a ‘two-way-go’, meaning the Pro Bowler’s position in the slot allows him to break inside or outside off the cornerback’s leverage. The middle-of-the-field safety i stressed as well; he simply has too much distance to cover from his alignment over the left tackle to impact the play.

Gordon easily beats the nickel off the line (the two-way-go threat), and in spite of good recovery by the defensive back he is able to effortlessly high point the ball for six.

The wide receiver screen game is a great way to attack the perimeter of the defense and get the ball in a playmaker’s hands with space to move.

Jackson made heavy use of the wide receiver screen game in 2015, using A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu to success several times per game.

Our next clip demonstrates not only Jackson’s desire to put the ball in the hand of his explosive players, but his creativity in designing and executing plays that have both a run and pass option pre-snap.

Green is aligned as the tip of the triangle in an inverted stack formation (three receivers closely-aligned on the line of scrimmage). The creativity in this play is the option giving to the quarterback at the line of scrimmage. Coming to the line Dalton likely has two play calls: Inside Zone and the Wide Receiver Screen. He will determine which play to call by counting the box defenders and scanning the defensive back’s alignment over the bunch.

Because the third stack defender is playing ten yards off the ball the wide receiver screen is an easy choice. With a blocker for each defender on the line of scrimmage and the third defensive back so deep in the secondary, this is stealing yards.

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Former offensive coordinators Norv Turn and Kyle Shanahan used Gordon in the screen game to great effect.

In the Browns’ 2013 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, Gordon put on a display of open field speed, power, and vision on the way to a 27-yard gain. Expect to see plenty more of this with Jackson calling the shots.

In our final look at Gordon’s fit in Hue Jackson offense, we’ll analyze a concept designed to take it all at once, the backside nine route, or go.

The ‘X’ receiver is in a unique position to run a vertical route like the nine due to the strength of the coverage generally being pushed to the opposite side, essentially leaving the cornerback in one-on-one coverage with no deep help. Big, strong, fast wide receivers like Green and Gordon feast in this spot.

Green caught a 73-yard touchdown against the Seahawks in a week-five victory over the Seattle Seahawks (although the play was called back for holding on the offensive line) on the backside of a ‘Trey’ formation (Two wide receivers and one tight end to a single-side of the field) running a go route against man coverage.

The Seahawk’s are bringing five-man pressure, playing a 3-deep, 3-under coverage behind the blitz. Because the Bengals’ have three receivers to one side of the field, the defense ‘rolls’ (brings more defenders over) the coverage to the strength of the formation, appearing to force Green’s defender to play MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) technique. This is a perfect spot for a nine route as Green should consistently beat the defensive back off the line of scrimmage with the safety's alignment just inside the left hash making it highly unlikely he can affect the play.

Green’s creates separation due to his outstanding release at the line of scrimmage. Let’s slow down the film to look at how he gets openand get into some route-running basics.

It all starts with the stance:

  • Wide receivers align with the inside foot up to avoid exposing the chest directly to a jam and because many inside-breaking three-step routes like the slant and hitch should stem (break) on the receiver's third step. By placing the inside foot up the receivers third step will be made with his outside foot, allowing him to break inside without wasted steps (receivers always break with the foot opposite the route's direcn). The back foot should be one to two feet behind the front foot, with the heel slightly off the ground. The knee should be bent forward over the toe, with 70%-80% of the body weight placed on ball of the foot (where the shoestrings end).

  • The shoulders are square and the back is bent to create a straight line from the top of the helmet to the bottom of the back.

  • Hands and arms can be relaxed at the side or raised depending on player preference. Against press the arms should be at least ¼ up as the receiver will need to hand fight.

  • Head and chin are turned slightly inside to watch the snap of the ball as receivers often cannot hear the snap count.  

Moving to the release:

  • The hands and feet must work together. This becomes more important when facing a jam as the receiver will need to hand fight in order to keep the defensive back’s hands off his chest and shoulder.

  • At the snap roll off the back foot then explode of the front. The receiver must not raise the front foot off the ground before exploding,known as ‘false stepping’. False stepping slows the route down and opens the receiver to a jam. Remain low through the explosion like a track and field sprinter in order to generate maximum force.

  • From here the footwork takes over. Wide receivers use a variety of footwork to release clean off the line of scrimmage. Jap steps away from the intended release point are very popular. The receiver must ALWAYS use the foot opposite the break (left foot if breaking right), otherwise he will lose his center of gravity and be unable to make a hard, sharp cut.

Green uses four steps to get hip-to-hip with the cornerback. His first step brings his outside foot parallel to his inside foot, squaring his body to set up a two-way go (can release inside or outside), while his second step is a hard push off his inside foot to cross the defender’s face back outside. The third and fourth steps put Green even with the defender’s hips, forcing him to ‘open the gate’ without executing a route-disrupting jam.

Now lets speed it up to real time: 

Note the slight movement Green’s lead foot makes at the snap. This could be a false step, but is more likely a technique he uses to bring his feet parallel to create the illusion of a two-way go before breaking across the defender’s face.

In the next clip Green uses a similar move, although he takes a hard shoulder shake inside to sell the inside release before breaking back outside (known as an in-out release).

If Gordon (a BIG if) comes back in strong physical and mental condition, he will be put in position to repeat his 2013 record-setting Pro Bowl season. There is no doubt Hue Jackson will consistently use a variety of concepts, formations, and alignments to put his top receiver in position to create explosive plays. The only question that remains is, will Josh Gordon put himself in position to resurrect his career with his creative, offensive-minded coach? 


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