Expect Cleveland Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson to Utilize Duke Johnson Jr. on the Ground and through the Air

After a rookie season in which he proved to be one of few playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, Cleveland Browns’ running back Duke Johnson Jr. is poised for a breakout season playing the Giovani Bernard role in head coach Hue Jackson’s offense.

The Cleveland Browns’ rushing attack was at best, tepid, during the 2015 season. The unit ran for less than 100 yard per game, scored a total of five rushing touchdowns, and averaged 4.0 yard per carry. The lack of a credible rushing attack put extra pressure on a mediocre passing game, forcing too many second and third-and-long situations that severely hampered the unit’s ability to run the full playbook. While Johnson’s rushing numbers were modest (104 carries for 3.6 yards per rushing attempt) the former Miami Hurricane made the most of his limited opportunities (Johnson recorded a season high 19 touches in a 30-27 loss to the San Diego Chargers) by heavily contributing in the passing game with 61 receptions for 8.8 yards per catch.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pound tailback lived up to his college scouting profile, exhibiting burst, elusiveness, and excellent COD (change of direction) with the ball in his hands. He was at his most dangerous catching balls out of the backfield, recording nine games with four or more receptions and eight games with a 20-yard gain. While the Hurricane's all-time leading rusher (3,519 yards) needs to continue working on his patience in the between-the-tackle run game, the future looks bright for the second year player in a Jackson-designed offense.

To envision how Johnson will be utilized in the 2016 season we can breakdown tape of a comparable (although by no means identical) player, Bengals tailback Giovani Bernard. Both backs are similar in size, explosiveness, and cutting ability. Most importantly, both are excellent receivers out of the backfield.

The North Carolina product recorded 49 catches for 9.6 yards per reception during the 2015 season, recording six games with a catch of at least 20 yards. While Bernard is the more accomplished runner of the two at 4.7 yards per carry (the question of how much of the difference is due to player skill and how much is due to scheme remains unanswered), a look at Bernard’s 2015 game film should allow us to project how Hue envisions the Duke’s role moving forward.

Let’s put on the tape and compare the two talented running backs:

The narrative that Jackson installs and executes a strict gap-blocked run scheme is untrue and unfair to the second-time head coach, as Jackson’s run-game is likely one of the more diverse in the NFL. The offensive-minded coach will utilize zone concepts like Tight Zone, Split Zone, Outside Zone, and Pin-and-Pull alongside the ‘traditional’ gap-blocked concepts like Iso, Power, and Counter. Jackson excels at identifying and attacking misalignment and personnel matchups along the front 7 with a variety of concepts designed to hit run bubbles in the defensive line, create positive blocking angle for his offensive linemen, and put his tailbacks in position to utilize their unique skill sets.

A common run-game concept that shows up on both teams’ tape is Inside Zone, an area-blocked concept in which the tailback generally reads the first playside defensive lineman to determine which hole to press. All effective zone running backs possess excellent vision, patience, and one-cut ability. The tailback gets exactly one cut and must get North-South, as the offensive line is focused on moving defenders laterally down the line of scrimmage. If the ball carrier hesitates or makes multiple moves in the backfield, the defensive will get penetration, likely leading to a TFL (tackle for loss).

Because quarterback Andy Dalton is a threat to pull the ball and run a bootleg to the backside of the play, Jackson likes to run Inside Zone out of the Shotgun with the back aligned to Dalton’s left or right. When running Inside Zone out of Shotgun the play direction will be away from the back’s alignment, as he must cross the quarterback’s face to ‘mesh’, either receiving the handoff or faking if the quarterback pulls the ball.

During the Bengals’ 36-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs Jackson dialed up ‘Inside Zone Right’ in the red zone out of 10 personnel.

Notice the three receivers in a ‘bunch’ alignment at the top of the screen. The #3 receiver (just under the 20-yard line) will run a bubble screen, giving Dalton a run and a pass play to choose from (known as an RPO) based on pre and post-snap keys. The defense keeps six men in the box, with the strong side interior lineman playing ‘loose’ 3-techniques (aligned over the outside shoulder of the guard) and the weak side interior lineman playing a 4i (inside shoulder of tackle). The defense fills out the box with two edge rushers and a MIKE and WILL playing ‘20’ technique (aligned over the guards).

Although the offense appears to be at a numbers disadvantage (five blockers for six defenders) Jackson will rebalance the numbers by leaving the backside edge defender unblocked. If this player stays wide to defend his C-gap, Dalton will give to Bernard at the mesh point as the linebacker will be unable to cover the necessary distance in time to impact the play. The offense now has five blockers for five defenders and a huge run bubble from guard-to-guard.

If the defender crashes inside to  chase the play down from behind, Dalton will simply pull the ball at the mesh point and run through the area the edge linebacker has vacated.

Let’s go to the tape to breakdown the play.

First, notice the offensive line’s lateral steps. When running zone-based concepts the goal is to ‘reach’ the defender by getting into his outside shoulder and creating movement down the line of scrimmage. The tailback will cut off the movement based on his key. Also, notice that because the center is uncovered (no defensive lineman in his playside gap) he can immediately scoop to the linebacker (#56). 

Because there is no defensive lineman to play the gaps on either side of the center, Bernard knows before the snap press the strong side A. The linebacker compounds this scheme issue as he tries to avoid the scoop by jumping out of the way, creating an even larger hole. Bernard gets North-South with no hesitation and scores an easy six. Normally it is not this simple to score an NFL touchdown, but the Chief’s alignment created a natural run bubble that Jackson exploited with the Inside Zone call.

Former Cleveland offensive coordinator John DeFilippo ran Inside Zone as well, although he preferred to execute the concept from under center and eliminated the backside read (Josh McCown is not fooling anyone with a quarterback boot and was likely to be injured running the concept).

Because the Browns’ ran so much Outside Zone over the course of the 2015 season, Flip often altered the quarterback’s path to the mesh point to make the play look like it was targeting the edge, although the goal was to bang the inside A-gaps. Any box defenders reading the quarterback's path and tailback flow were likely to overpursue away from the play's intended direction. He would often utilize an ‘Arc’ block from a tight end or fullback to account for the backside defender, hoping to seal the edge when the running back cutback the ball.

Our first example of Johnson running the ball takes us to Cleveland’s’ gut-wrenching 26-23 overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

The offense is aligned in an ‘Ace’ look with 12 personnel (one tailback and two tight ends). Notice that both tight ends are aligned to the same side of the formation as an ‘inline’ (on the line of scrimmage) and ‘wing’ (just off the line of scrimmage and slightly overlapping the inline tight end). This is often a directional run tendency, as teams often attack the strong side in two tight end sets.

Rather than running the ball outside (Outside Zone and Stretch are the two most likely run concepts here) Flip elects to break tendency and run Inside Zone right up the middle of the field.

The offense will use zone blocking, with the left tackle and left guard securing a double team on the ‘loose’ 3-technique (#97) as a good block will create a huge cutback lane for the tailback. After securing the defensive lineman one of the two will climb to pick up the linebacker (#59) depending on which direction he 'shows'. The coaching point here is get hip-to-hip on the block, put four hands on interior lineman, and keep four eyes on the second level to read the linebacker's movement.

The EMLOS (#58) will be accounted for by the wing, which will come across the formation to execute an Arc block and seal.

Johnson is likely reading the 1-technqiue (#92) by simply cutting off his movement (Note that the read man will vary based on coach and scheme). If the nose tackle is reached or holds his ground, the explosive back will hit the front-side A-gap as the defender is cut off from the play. If the nose tackle is pushed down the line of scrimmage Johnson will cut the ball into the backside A-gap that should be secured by the double-team.

Let's see what happens.

Center Alex Mack does a great job pushing the nose tackle down the line of scrimmage, no easy feat for a single blocker. Unfortunately the left tackle/left guard double-team is not very good. The linemen fail to secure the interior defender before climbing to the linebacker, allowing him to spin off the block and into the hole.

Johnson does a great job making a hard, decisive cut based on the nose tackle’s movement. He has to trust that the double team will handle to backside interior lineman and linebacker as the play hits too quickly to make multiple reads. Notice that there is no hesitation in the cut and how he ‘gets skinny’ as he presses upfield off the left guard’s rear end. Unfortunately the failure to secure #97 limits what should have been an explosive gain to four yards. Although the play was well-designed, failure to execute a basic assignment dooms the offense again.

While Jackson will run zone-based concepts he hangs his hat on the gap-blocked running game, utilizing man-blocking and a specific aiming point for the running back.

During the Bengals’ 34-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills the offense executed a Jackson favorite, the Counter Trey. Before moving on, please click here for a complete breakdown of each position’s assignment and technique.

The play’s aiming point is the D-gap just outside the inline tight end. The offense MUST win this gap for the concept to hit for good yardage. The key blocks occur to this side of the play, with the left guard kicking out the EMLOS, the left tackle wrapping through the hole to pick up the first inside threat to cross his face, and the tight end’s block on the walked-up linebacker (#53).


Focus on the left side of the screen. The tight end does an outstanding job controlling the linebacker and forcing him inside away from the ball, the left guard kicks out the EMLOS (#91), and the pulling tackle easily picks up the scrapping linebacker (#52).

Move back to Bernard. He takes a hard jab step away from the play directions for two reasons:

  1. The guard and tackle time to pull across the formation and get to their blocks. The jab step gives them a head start.
  2. Defenses often key tailback ‘flow’ (the direction the tailback moves after the snap) for run direction. The outside step momentarily freezes both #52 and #55. The hesitation by #52 is very important to the play’s success as his run fit (responsibility) is to scrap overtop and tackle the back as he enters the hole. Slowing him down for even a split-second allows the pulling guard to beat him to that spot.

Bernard again does a great job getting skinny in the hole, cutting off the puller’s rear end, and accelerating straight upfield.

Johnson’s season-long run came against the Seattle Seahawks off a similar gap-blocked concept, the classic ‘Power’.

Power run to the same-side as the back's alignment is sometimes called ‘Ghost Power’. The play works well as a tendency breaker because traditional power out of the shotgun will be run away from the tailback’s alignment. The offense wants to block down on all interior defenders and use a pulling guard to pick up the scrapping linebacker in the hole. Johnson will aim for the C-gap between the right tackle and tight end.

Notice Johnson’s inside step before taking the hand off. Like the previous play, the step is designed to give the pulling guard time to cross the formation and also false key any linebackers reading the tailback’s flow. 

When the Duke receives the ball he wastes no time pressing the hole with square pads and properly reads puller’s block by cutting in the direction of his rear end (this ensures the defender is cut off from the ball). Only a downfield tackle by the best free safety in the game prevents a touchdown, although the offensive unit takes 39 yards on the ground.

While both tailbacks displayed proficiency as runners, Johnson and Bernard separate themselves from their peers through outstanding receiving skills. Johnson finished the 2016 season with 61 catches, while Bernard hauled in 49. Jackson and Flip took advantage of these receiving skills by consistently installing and dialing-up pass plays to get the ball in their playmaker’s hands in space via personnel matchups.

A Jackson-favorite was the tailback swing, designed to get the ball to Bernard on the edge with a running start matched-up on a linebacker.

Returning back to the Bengals victory over the Bills we can see the swing executed for a 24-yard gain.

Look at the routes by the tight end and receiver to the swing-side. The tight end runs straight at the linebacker who must cover Bernard in the flat, attempting to slow down his flow to the sideline with a pick. The Z receiver takes an inside release and bends his route to just below the right hash, clearing out the cornerback and creating more space for Bernard to work in. The concept works to perfection as all playside linebackers and cornerbacks have their back to Bernard when he catches the ball. His defender is eight yards away and chasing from inside-to-out, taking him out of the play as few linebackers have the sideline-to-sideline speed to match the speedy back.

Like Jackson, Flip constantly created positive personnel matchups by scheming his hard-charging tailback to the edge with a linebacker in coverage.

Conceptually our next play is very similar to the Bernard swing pass, although Johnson comes across the formation rather than shooting out to the flat. This play is specifically designed to target the rookie; the rest is window dressing.

The Z and Y receivers both run routes designed to clear space for the pass to the flat. The Z receiver will release outside and attempt to run the cornerback out of the play before turning at a pre-determined point to block. The Y receiver will cut across the field to pick the SAM as the MIKE has no chance of matching Duke’s speed to the flat. With the aid of good downfield blocking by Travis Benjamin, the offense takes 27 easy yards to continue the drive.

Because Bernard and Johnson were targeted so often in the flat, both coaches ‘constrained’ opposing defenses by using angle routes.

The ‘Texas’ concept is a West Coast offense staple that punishes defenders who fly to the flat when they see the tailback release to the outside of the field. The running back will run an angle route in which he releases to the outside of the field, before breaking back inside across the defender’s face. The play is brutal on linebackers because they must attempt to match the tailback's COD (change of direction) as he makes his break.

Watch the WILL (located just below the bottom hash) widen with Bernard, likely anticipating the flat route before the burner cuts across his face for any easy completion

Johnson was targeted using a similar concept early in the season against the San Diego Chargers.

With six potential blitzes on or near the line of scrimmage Johnson initially stays in to block. He appears to be reading inside-to-out, looking for the MIKE to shoot an interior gap. When the MIKE does not come with the rush Johnson check releases, using an angle route to cross the linebackers face and pick up 15 well-earned yards. Again notice how easily he crosses the linebacker's face into the middle of the field.

The second-year pro brings an added dimension to the passing game that Bernard cannot match through his ability to split out and run legitimate routes from a wide receiver alignment. Duke scored his first touchdown of the season out of an empty formation, split out the boundary (short-side of the field) to take the deep safety out of the play.

By splitting Johnson out wide Flip has created a plus matchup on a linebacker who has little chance of sticking with him in the open field. The route concept is a ‘Slot-Fade’ in which the outside receiver will run a short in-breaking route to keep the cornerback near the line of scrimmage while the slot receive releases vertical and bends his route outside away from the deep safety. Ohio State fans will recognize the concept as it is an Urban Meyer-favorite.

Although the running back is aligned on the line of scrimmage the defense cannot attempt to disrupt his route by pressing as he is covered by a linebacker. The best the defender can do is hope to collision Johnson after his release to throw off the timing of the play. When Duke bends his route towards the sideline, eliminating the possibility of the jam, the play is over. The quarterback just has to get the ball there.

The deep safety is unable to cheat towards the mismatch because he must account for three receivers to the field. Barnidge runs a vertical route to keep the safety occupied, and by the time the safety makes his turn by reading the quarterback’s shoulder the play is behind him.

Expect Duke Johnson to again be a force in the passing game this upcoming season. With a template already in place through his use of Giovani Bernard, Hue Jackson will utilize Duke in both zone and gap run-game concepts, as well as target the talented pass catcher through the air via personnel matchups. Jackson already has his lightning. The pressing question of who will play the thunder role remains unanswered.

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