During Cleveland Browns’ head coach Hue Jackson’s previous stints as a play-caller (Oakland and Cincinnati), the offensive guru has demonstrated the flexibility and willingness to build his unit around personnel strengths, rather than taking the square peg, round hole approach.
Just before his first season as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator (replacing current Washington Redskins’ head coach Jay Gruden) Jackson articulated his offensive philosophy telling the Cincinnati Enquire “You got to do a little bit of whatever it takes to win. Whether it is West Coast, East Coast, side coast, north coast, whatever coast. We’ll be whatever coast you need us to be to win games.”
Based on current roster construction (specifically the signing of Robert Griffin III), the 2016 NFL draft (four wide receivers, including the first round selection of Corey Coleman), and Jackson's previous body of work, all signs point towards an offense that utilizes many of philosophies, concepts, and formations used during his two seasons running the Bengals’ offense. Expect to see a variety of ‘spread’ looks using 3-4 wide receivers, run/pass options, a diverse wide receiver screen game, the power running game, unorthodox formations, and offensive tempo (All of which are major components of Art Briles’ Baylor offense). With an eye towards the overlap between what Corey Coleman was asked to do at Baylor and what he will be asked to do in Cleveland, let’s go to the tape to predict how we might see the versatile weapon deployed during the 2016 season, looking at the all-hitch concept, unorthodox formations/wide receivers screens, run/pass options, direct snaps, and ‘traditional’ looks from the perimeter and slot.
Based on two seasons of film, a pass concept that quickly stands out in Jackson’s offense is the West Coast-classic ‘all-hitches/all-curls’. The concept creates a simple horizontal stretch (sideline-to-sideline), forcing defenders to cover the entirety of the field’s width by running hitch/curl routes with all five eligible receivers. A completion will generally net five or six yards (a solid gain) but one missed tackle will lead to ample yards after catch (YAC), an opportunity Coleman feasted on last season.
All-hitches is a go-to concept in Baylor’s’ offense as many Big 12 defenses elected to play off-man or Cover 4, opening up the quick short-game routes for easy completions. In fact, according to PFF 34% of Coleman’s 2015 targets came on hitch routes. Put on his Baylor film and the sheer volume of hitch routes jump out of the screen.
While Coleman’s hitch route technique certainly needs some work (he rarely sinking his hips, gets his head over his feet, chops, and explodes out of his cut back towards the quarterback) common sense says Jackson wants to put the ball in his shiny new toy’s hand and let him use his superior COD and vision to create explosive gains after the catch.
In the Bengals’ opening-weekend victory over the Oakland Raiders, Jackson aligned in five-wide look midway through the first quarter, looking the stretch the Raiders’ defense across the field. The quarterback’s read here will vary by coverage; in this case the cornerbacks tipped the Cover 3 shell by both alignment and pre-snap movement as they bailed to their deep-third zone.
Focus on the left cornerback just before the snap. He is likely the first read in this progression as he is aligned to the boundary (short-side of the field), creating the shortest throw for the quarterback. Because he turns his back to the sideline (known as a ‘zone turn’) and side-shuffles he solidifies his receiver as the primary read because the route will break at five yards, leaving the defensive back little chance to make a break on the ball due to his depth.
We see another example of the all-hitches concept out of a ‘Quads’ alignment in the Bengals’ 16-10 victory over the Pittsburg Steelers.
The Steelers are known as a Cover 3-heavy defense, making them particularly susceptible to spacing concepts that stretch the underneath zone defenders. Jackson exploits this defensive tendency by placing twin receivers on both side of the formation, again forcing the defense to cover sideline-to-sideline.
The cornerback’s pre-snap depth allows the quarterback to predetermine his target, as both are aligned eight yards off the line of scrimmage. With the routes breaking at five yards, few defensive backs have the ability to come out of a backpedal and break on the ball from that distance. While the receiver does not break the tackle, the offense will take a six-yard gain on first down all afternoon.
Our final example comes from Cincinnati’s 34-21 week six victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Facing a third-and-short, the offense aligns in the same Quad look we saw in the previous example.The defense makes no attempt to disguise their intentions here; this is Cover 1, or man-hi, all the way. This appears to be a match-up based throw targeting Marvin Jones as the quarterback is looking his way from the snap.
Jones does a great job breaking the cornerback’s cushion, stemming his route past the first down marker, and coming back to the ball, but the real beauty of the route is the subtle move he makes at the 15-yard line. Notice how Jones leans in on the defender’s left hip, giving the impression that the route is going further downfield before breaking. This lean likely caused the cornerback to eliminate the possibility of a short-game route, creating more separation for a tough throw form the opposite hash.
Based on Coleman’s highlight-reel college film, one can imagine him catching a hitch, making a defender miss in the open field, and creating the type of explosive play the Browns’ offense has lacked from the wide receiver corps since Josh Gordon’s suspension.
Moving on to the second section of Corey Coleman’s usage in Hue Jackson’s offense, we will breakdown two concepts for the price of one, looking at both the wide receiver screen game and unorthodox alignments to create space and mismatches. Returning to PFF’s data, we see that screens accounted for 11% of Coleman’s total targets in 2015. With Coleman averaging over 4 yards YAC per reception, expect the trend will continue in Cleveland.
Before taking a closer look at Jackson’s screen game, we return to Baylor in order to establish similarities in philosophy. Like Jackson, Baylor’s offense utilizes a robust wide receiver screen game to get the ball to their playmakers in space. Also, like Jackson, Art Briles uses unorthodox alignments to create a numbers advantages and force defenders to guard and tackle in space. While both coaches go about establishing numbers and space differently, the philosophy is congruent.
Art Briles is well-known for the massive wide receiver splits (distance between the wide receiver and the end man on the line of scrimmage) his offense utilizes. The sheer amount of open grass in the middle of the field forces a defense to declare their strength and make consistent open-field tackles. He will then place his receivers in a ‘stack’ alignment, throwing simple screens and forcing the defense to tackle.
Hue Jackson accomplishes the same goals through the use of unorthodox alignments that place up to four players on each sideline, with three offensive linemen, a tailback, and a quarterback as the core of the formation.
The quarterback has a bevy of pre-snap options to choose from here. He can run:
- Inside zone
- A two-man wide receiver bubble screen
- A four-man wide receiver bubble screen
The play decision will be made before the snap by simply counting the defenders over each ‘section’ of the offense. The two-man bubble screen and inside zone are both covered by numbers, leaving the wide receiver screen at the bottom of the image as the clear choice. With three blockers over two defenders at the line of scrimmage, the offense has numbers at the point of attack.
Because the offensive line does not know what play the quarterback will elect to run, they will run block, assuming the tailback is getting the ball. Dalton does not execute a mesh with the tailback while reading the defense post-snap as he already knows which play to target based on the pre-snap numbers. The wide receivers do a great job executing their blocks, allowing the ball carrier to pick up 18 yards on a 1st and 20 down and distance.
We see a similar concept against Buffalo, with the offense using three offensive linemen, a tailback, and a quarterback as the core of the formation and three ‘receivers’ on each number.
The Bills elect to play a four-man box, placing the extra defender to the field (wide-side) and guarding the boundary (short-side) with three defenders. Like the previous play, the decision here will be made pre-snap based on numbers. Because the defense elects to use a single ‘point man’ on the line of scrimmage and place the third defender twelve yards off the ball, the correct call is the boundary bubble screen.
Yet again the offense is able to take advantage of the numbers advantage of the point of attack, sealing the point man and cornerback on the way to a 13-yard gain on second down.
Coleman is a likely candidate to be the primary target using Jackson’s screen concepts as the head coach will look to manufacture touches for the rookie while he develops his route-running skills and to take advantage of open open-field COD and vision.
A third concept that stands out on tape is Briles’ and Jackson’s use of the run/pass option. The OBR has covered the RPO in depth several times (here and here), but before continuing we will briefly review the concept.
The concept blends passing and running plays, allowing the quarterback to decide who gets the ball based on what the defense does pre and post-snap. Generally a single defender is designated as the 'read man'. His actions will dictate where the ball goes. In its original form the concept combined inside zone and wide receiver screens, but innovative coaches have adapted the concept to include the power-run game and a variety of short-game routes like hitches, slants, and 'pop' passes.
In a previous article we took an in-depth look at Tyler Eifert’s week-nine touchdown against Cleveland off an RPO concept.
A common RPO run from high school-on-up (and the play those with familiarity of packaged plays likely think of) integrates the ubiquitous inside zone with a ‘pop’ pass to a tight end or wide receiver aligned tight to the line of scrimmage.
Inside zone (think Ohio State’s go-to play in the run game) requires linemen to block an assigned area based on a set of rules. The running back will read a defender (generally the first defensive linemen to the play’s direction) and make a cut based on his linemen’s blocks and defensive line movement.
The pop pass is run away from the running play’s direction, as the angle of the quarterback’s body at the mesh point (the point where the quarterback and running back come together to execute the handoff) allows him to easily read the assigned defender. The read must be made quickly, otherwise the run/pass window will close. Do not give the defender time to correct his mistake.
The throw is a simple pass route run straight off the line of scrimmage on the edge of the box. The route runner will often subtly bend the route outside to put more distance between themselves and the linebacker, creating a wider throwing window for the quarterback. The receiver must whip his head around quickly; the ball should be out within 4-5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Cleveland Browns’ linebacker Karlos Dansby (#56) is the read man here. Remember the term run-pass conflict? We see it in action here due to Dansby’s run fit.
The third-year player is responsible for the A-gap (the gap between the center and guard) to the running back’s side. When Dansby reads his run key (likely the left guard or the running back’s flow), he must fill his gap or the tailback will hit the huge cutback lane created by his lack of movement.
The conflict arises when Dansby aggressively hits his run fit as he has now created a throwing window to the tight end. This example serves as a great illustration of the run-pass conflict run/pass options put on the read defender. If Dansby plays the run the ball will be thrown behind him into the open window. Conversely if the inside linebacker cushions the seam to take away the pop pass, he will create a huge hole in the backside A-gap a running back of Giovani Bernard’s caliber will easily crease.
Dansby is damned if he does; damned if he doesn’t.
Focus on Dansby at the snap. Notice the aggressive read steps towards his A-gap and the open window to the tight end created by his run fit. Because Eifert’s defender (free safety Tashaun Gipson) is aligned on the goal line, he has no chance of stopping the six-foot-six, 251-pound Pro Bowl selection before he breaks the plane.
Although most run/pass option combine inside zone with a short-game route or wide receiver screen, teams are increasingly integrating gap-blocked concepts into their RPO package.
Our next example combines ‘power’ with double slants to the backside. The read man is the WILL, mid-pointing the left guard and left tackle.
Like most run/pass options, the read is relatively simple. If the WILL crashes on the run, he will clear out a wide throwing window for the slant route. If the WILL hesitates when reading his run key ( the left guard), give to the tailback as the defense will be short a defender at the point of attack.
The Browns’ defense takes the decision out of the quarterback’s hands with an ill-timed run blitz. Notice the throwing window created by the WILL attacking the line of scrimmage. With the slot corner four yards off the receiver and backpedaling at the snap, this is about as easy a completion as you will see.
Both Hue Jackson and Art Briles will use their explosive wide receivers in the backfield, with Briles using Coleman in a traditional tailback role (22 carries for111 yards during the 2015 season) and Jackson using Marvin Jones to take direct snaps.
Most of Coleman’s 22 carries came on ‘ghost power’, a variation of the traditional power blocking that alters the tailback’s aiming point to the same-side as his alignment (shotgun power is usually run in the opposite direction from the tailback’s alignment).
Our first example shows Jackson dialing up ‘inverted veer’ or ‘power read’, a Carolina Panthers’ staple.
The concept runs like power with one key difference: rather than blocking the play-side defensive end (#97) the offense will leave him unblocked so the quarterback can read him. Based on the read, the quarterback will make one of two decisions:
- If the read man chases the tailback, he has run himself out of the play and created a five-on-five match-up in the box. The quarterback will pull the ball at the mesh point and follow his pulling guard through the C-gap.
- If the read man squeezes the line of scrimmage to attack the quarterback, give to the tailback running outside zone as the edge defender has run him-self out of the play.
Watch the left defensive end (#97) as his path will determine where the ball goes. We see his free release by the offensive line and his direct path to the tailback, allowing Jones to pull the ball at the mesh point and follow his guard in for six points.
Our next example is the ‘Pin-and-Pull’, an outside zone variant run out of an empty formation (we are unlikely to see Coleman in empty if he does not have the ability to throw the ball).
The offense will use the wing and tight end (right-side of the screen) to seal the edge defenders, while the center and left guard pull around the pick up the force defender and first linebacker to threaten from the inside.
We know Jones has the speed to turn the corner on NFL defenders; Coleman’s remains an uncertainty. With that said, I do not believe it is a stretch to assume Jackson will use Coleman in the backfield to manufacture more touches.
Our final example takes us to the ‘traditional’ passing game, looking at plays out of the X, Y, and Z position.
Coleman’s versatility allowed him to be used as a Swiss Army Knife in the Baylor offense, moving all over the field to align in a variety of positions. Coleman’s burst and COD make him a dangerous weapon in the slot as his ability to run a ‘two-way go’ from this alignment will put extra pressure on a (likely) nickel defender, while his excellent technique will allow him to beat press coverage from the X and Z positions.
In our previous article we looked at Coleman’s ability to avoid the ‘wall off’ from the slot, allowing him a free release into the seam.
Focus on the slot receiver's ability to avoid the 'collision' from the seam defender, allowing both to beat the deep safety.
In addition to alinging Coleman in the slot, Jackson will likely use him as the #2 and/or #3 receiver inside of trips formations putting less-skilled defensive backs over him and creating opportunities for routes with great YAC potential.
In the example below Jackson ‘hides’ Mohamed Sanu as the #3 receiver in a trips formation (receivers are numbered outside-to-in), clearing out the left side of the field for an intermediate cross that leads to a 20-yard gain.
Our final examples looks at routes run off from the spit end or flanker positions, where Coleman will likely see a majority of his snaps.
While the pass concept and execution are excellent, the take-away here is the ability to envision Coleman in the role of the split end or flanker beating press coverage using his outstanding technique (hands and feet ALWAYS work together when beating press coverage).
Good offenses that utilizes numerous short-game routes will punish defenses for over-playing the base concept by using double moves. Hue Jackson is no different. Our final example of the film study shows A.J. Green running a beautiful hitch-n-go on the way to a 66-yard touchdown.
Coleman scored two touchdowns in 2015 running good-looking sluggo (slant-and-go) routes.
After reaching OTA's and summer training camp we should have a better idea of exactly how Coleman will fit in Jackson's offense. We can only go so far with educated guesses. Until the 2016 regular season kicks off, it is impossible to say with any certainty how the rookie will be deployed. Expectations for the first wide receiver drafted by the Browns in the first round since Braylon 'New York Essence' Edwards are high (maybe too high?), and will the rookie may fail to meet the standard his first season it will not be because Hue Jackson did not put him in the best position to succeed on the field.