With the media’s ability to record 11-on-11 training camp periods this summer severely limited, fans have had been forced to rely on short snippets, conjecture, and best guesses to envision what the ‘Hue Action’ offense will look like when the Browns open the regular season against the Philadelphia Eagles.
From the day of Jackson’s hire, the expectation has been a run-heavy, vertical-based offense. Many have pointed to the acquisition of reclamation project Robert Griffin III and a wide-out heavy draft as evidence of a ‘Spread’ approach, although little-to-nothing has been seen on the field to support this sans a small sample of random clips that show ‘indy’ drills and offense/defense competing in 1-on-1s. While the team clearly took a “don’t tip the hand” approach to play calling last Saturday (particularly in the running game), the squad did show enough to offer stantalizingzing hints as to what to expect in both philosophy and scheme from the 2016 offensive unit.
RPO’s are a go…
As the OBR has broken down on several previous occasions (here and here), newly-named starting quarterback RGIII excelled in running run/pass options, or RPOs, during his college days at Baylor and during his 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign with the Washington Redskins.
Let's briefly review RPOs before diving into the film. 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.
Midway through the first half, we see the offense run an RPO out of a two tight end, two wide receiver set using Inside Zone, a ‘pop’ pass to the inline tight end, and a bubble screen to the #2 receiver.
Watch the GIF below with a focus on the ‘read man’. Keep in mind that his actions will dictate where the ball goes post-snap.
If the read man aggressively flows to his run fit (likely the B or C-gap), the quarterback will pull the pull and throw the short ‘pop pass’ to the tight end in the seam, as there should be a throwing window and no threat of safety help at that depth.
If the read man hesitates in his run fit (gap responsibility) the quarterback will hand the ball off to the running back with the expectation that the offense has eliminated a defender from the blocking scheme.
Although the linebacker does not come downhill to the line of scrimmage, his lack of width allows the tight end to subtly bend his route inside and catch the ball between the second and third level. Even in shorts this is a first down pitch-and-catch.
Go back and focus on the quarterback. Notice that although the running play is aimed to the left side of the formation, his head and eyes clearly point to the read man. We can see that the offensive line is blocking a run play by their lack of a vertical pass set (hi hat, lo hat rule) and the fact that several end up past the line of scrimmage to pick up linebackers at the second level.
RPOs have moved well beyond the reputation of “gimmicky college offense concept” with many of the NFL’s top play callers featuring them heavily in their game plans. A progressive coach like Hue Jackson will feature the concept in his offense as well.
Playmakers will get the ball in space....
A hallmark of Jackson’s offense during his time in Oakland and Cincinnati was his desire to put the ball in his playmaker’s hands in space via short-breaking routes and the screen game.
The Browns’ offense demonstrated a continuation of this philosophy last Saturday through a ‘Tunnel Screen’ concept to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.
As the athleticism, quickness, and change of direction skills of NFL receivers have accelerated over the previous decade, the wide receiver screen game has evolved to leverage these talents. Offensive-minded coaches now combine a variety of screens including Smoke, Now, Bubble, and Tailbacks into a single concept, forcing the defense to flow one in one direction before making a quick throw back against the grain.
Wide receiver screens rely on a level of detail and timing that is precise even by NFL standards. Teams that run the concept well must spend countless reps mastering the minutia required to consistently execute against NFL defenders. If the team is showing the concept in a glorified walk-through, it is safe to assume that the offense has put in A LOT of work behind closed doors mastering that portion of the playbook.
The concept itself is fairly simple. An outside receiver will take one or three short steps upfield (because a wide receiver’s inside foot is on the line of scrimmage pre-snap, he will take an odd number of steps as this will allow him to push off his outside foot as he cuts back inside to keep his body balanced) and then cut back hard inside to receive a throw parallel to the line of scrimmage. The #2 receiver to the screen side will drive hard to block the outside defender, with several offensive linemen releasing to block the slot defender, linebackers, and safety.
Many teams will integrate a tailback screen to the backside of a Tunnel to force the defense away from the play’s ultimate direction. In this case, Hue uses play action to his running back to achieve the same result.
Before focusing on Gabriel, notice both linebackers flow away from the ball due to the play action. This creates a large alley to the field (wide side) for the receiver to hit once he catches the ball and demonstrates why flow away from the screen’s direction is so important to the play’s success or failure.
The play’s execution is not spotless as Gabriel is forced to jump for the ball, preventing him from immediately pressing upfield. Furthermore, the left tackle slightly overruns the slot defender, allowing him to possibly make the tackle if the pads were on and players were going to the ground.
In spite of these errors, live or not this play is gaining positive yardage. Notice the left guard and center 15 yards upfield in position to fit on the safety and backside contain. If Gabriel had made it past the slot defender’s tackle, this had a chance to go all the way as the alley fill (the play-side safety) had to contend with the blocks of two offensive linemen.
It is easy to imagine a player like Corey Coleman catching this ball and scoring six here.
Our next play features a clear-out concept that is designed to run off pass defenders before targeting a slot receiver on a shallow route. The goal is to clear out a majority of the pass defenders before getting to ball to an athlete running at full speed with space to work in. The concept is run out of an Empty formation (apologies for missing the first part of the play), although many teams will run it out of a variety of formation including Trips, with a tailback running a flat route away from the shallow's direction.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (amongst others) utilize this concept several times every game to put the ball in star receiver Antonio Brown’s hands, allowing him to pile up YAC using his outstanding open-field speed and vision. You will see Corey Coleman catch the ball via this play several times this season.
Notice how the vertical routes carry both linebackers downfield away from the line of scrimmage, creating a simple pitch-and-catch for the quarterback and pass-catcher. If the receiver is able to turn the corner in conjunction with quality open-field blocking from his unit, we will see explosive gains from Coleman, Andrew Hawkins, Duke Johnson, and company.
The offense will dictate match-ups...
Another hallmark of Hue Jackson as a play caller is his ability to create mismatches for his skill players through formations, alignments, and concepts.
RGIII’s second touchdown of the afternoon came off a slant route to Duke Johnson, flexed to the weak side of an Empty formation to allow the talented back to utilize his route-running skills against a slot defender.
The defense appears to be in a “Red 2” call, a common Cover 2 red-zone check that creates a five-across, two-deep coverage. Jackson attacks the coverage by manipulating the middle hole to create room for the slant route, while trusting that Johnson’s route-running prowess will lead to separation for the throw.
The WILL, MIKE, and safety are responsible for the coverage here.
The weak safety must cover any inside-breaking routes from the #1 wide receiver, while also playing anything vertical from Johnson. The WILL (starts at the top of the hash) has hook-zone responsibility, meaning he must play anything inside-breaking from the slot. Ideally, the MIKE (starts between the hashes) will take a vertical drop to cushion to middle hole, although as we will see momentarily the route concept takes him out of play.
Because both receivers initially release upfield, the safety is forced to midpoint the two in order to play both routes. The #1 wide receiver’s route is a dummy, designed to hold the safety on his spot and prevent a break on the ball when it goes to the middle of the field.
To the strongside of the formation the #2 and #3 receivers both take outside stems, widening the MIKE and strong safety from the middle hole and creating a clear throwing window. Duke does the rest, taking a hard outside step before cutting back across the defender’s face (known as a speed cut) before hauling in a well-placed ball.
Four concepts do not make an offensive scheme, although we can now credibly project parts of what we will see during the 2016 season while also affirming that Jackson will stick with many of the core philosophies that have brought him success as a play caller in multiple locations. While the team may be short in wins in the near term, it is exciting to think about the possibilities of an offense built and executed around the ability of young skill position players. Preseason contests are notoriously vanilla, but expect the August 12th opener at Green Bay to reveal more about the Hue Action philosophy, scheme, and concepts.