Cleveland Browns' X's & O's - Preseason Game #2 The Run Game

Despite a 24-13 loss to the visiting Atlanta Falcons, the Browns' second exhibition game of the 2016 season offered another intriguing glimpse into the "Hue Action" offense, as the first unit moved the ball on the ground and through the air using a variety of well-designed concepts to create favorable personnel match-ups and place stress on the defender's eyes.

For the second game in a row, the gap-blocked run game was well-executed (for the most part) and gained consistent yardage during the first half. The offensive unit averaged 5.7 yards per attempt (YPA) on all gap-blocked concepts through 2 quarters of play, ultimately finishing the game with a 6.3 YPA average. The ground attack finished with 102 yards on 20 attempts for a healthy 5.1 YPA, a positive sign in light of last year's struggle to move the ball on the ground (on the surface 100 yards of rushing is not impressive, but the offense's ability to rack up yards on the ground was severely hampered by a lack of offensive possessions).

Successful running teams share two common traits:

  1. Ability to create numbers at the point of attack (POA) via concept, formation, and leverage.
  2. Ability to execute the basic gap and zone blocks.

During his time with the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, Hue Jackson's offenses have demonstrated both.

While there have been some missed assignments from the tailbacks and offensive line through two games, the team has shown the ability to create numbers and execute at the POA. More importantly, the team has already shown a variety of concepts, distancing itself from last season's narrow, predictable scheme.

The ground attack was particularly effective when integrating a backside 'read man' into tried-and-true concepts like 'Power' and 'Inside Zone'. 

"Reading off" a run defender is very effective because it rebalances numbers at the line of scrimmage. By playing option football with a first or second-level defender, the offense can eliminate a would-be tackler from the play and use the free blocker on another run defender. In order to work effectively, the option game must include a legitimate threat to pull the ball and run at the quarterback position. With that said, the athletic ability needed to be considered a true "threat" is overstated. 

Consider Jackson's two seasons in Cincinnati.

While Andy Dalton is far from an immobile, cement-in-his-shoes quarterback, his ability to threaten with the quarterback bootleg allowed Jackson to dial up option plays several times per game. The concept was extremely dangerous on third down and in the red zone (Dalton scored a touchdown against the Browns last season after pulling the ball running Inside Zone.

The diversity and volume of Jackson's read game will be contingent on quarterback Robert Griffin III's ability (or inability) to keep himself out of harm's way when he becomes a runner. It remains to be seen if this will carry over to the regular season when schemes become more complex and the defense plays at full speed, but so far Griffin has done an outstanding job protecting himself from unnecessary hits.

Tied 7-7 early in the second quarter, Jackson dialed up the ubiquitous Power concept with a twist. Rather than 'hinge blocking' the backside defender (the RDE) with the right tackle, the progressive coach opted to release the left tackle to the boundary linebacker and 'read' the defender out of the play.

The read concept is simple. If the defender squeezes down the line of scrimmage (as he is coached) when he reads the right tackle's release, the quarterback will pull the ball and run through the just-vacated area. If the defender does not squeeze down the line of scrimmage, the quarterback will hand the ball off to the tailback. Most defenders, even at the NFL-level, will not be able to recover in time to chase the play down from behind. Click here and here for a more detailed explanation of option football and read men.

The keep/give read is taught different ways by different coaching staffs, but a popular technique used at all levels of football is a 'number read'. If the quarterback can clearly see the read man's numbers, the defender's shoulders will be pointed inside towards the tailback, preventing the quick change of direction necessary to play the quarterback boot.

If the quarterback cannot clearly see the read man's numbers the defender's shoulders are likely squared to the line of scrimmage, preventing him from quickly cutting inside to chase down the tailback.

Let's see the concept in action:

Focus on the blocking. This is basic Power; nothing fancy here. 

The play-side linemen will down block the interior defensive line, the tight end will kick out the EMLOS (LED), and the backside guard will pull to meet the SAM in the hole. 

Move your eyes to the read man. He clearly shows RGIII his numbers, creating a simple pull read for the quarterback. Although the read is defined very quickly, RGIII shows great patience 'riding the mesh' with the tailback to further suck in the defensive end before pulling the ball and running.

Next, note that the offense is able to block a seven-man box with six blockers, dictating that the defense must play with a single deep safety. Forcing a defense into relying on a single deep safety is advantageous for the passing game as it limits the coverage shells to variants of Cover 1 or Cover 3, cutting down the pre and post-snap reads the quarterback must make when identifying the pass coverage.

Another often-overlooked detail that makes traditional Power with a backside read particularly deadly is the effect it has on the WILL linebacker.

Defenders rely on 'keys' to alert run/pass and play direction. A common key used by linebackers at the high school, college, and NFL-level is the 'backfield triangle'. When using this specific key, the linebacker will read the near-guard, quarterback, and tailback. The defender will start by keying 'hi-hat, low-hat'. If the offensive lineman's helmet rises, he is likely pass blocking. If the offensive lineman's helmet stays low, he is likely run blocking. 

Once the defender has identified run or pass, he will read the guard's block-type for play direction. A pulling guard is generally a sign of a gap-blocked concept like Power or Counter (although most coaches will pull their guards on play action to false key the defense). The backside linebacker must scrape overtop towards the ball as the MIKE will be responsible for meeting the puller in the hole to force the ball back inside to the scraping linebacker.

In the GIF below, focus on the WILL (#22).


The WILL correctly reads his key and executes his scrape, however by shuffling four yards away from the pull, he is now in position to be blocked by the right tackle and unable to make a play on the ball. Many coaches refer to this concept as an 'influence pull'. Use a puller to move a second-level player away from the ultimate direction of the ball.

The influence pull also prevents the backside defensive end and linebacker from playing 'scrape exchange' games to muddle the quarterback's read at the mesh point. This will be very important during the regular season when opponents game plan in detail to take away read plays.

Due to the read man's squeeze and the WILL's scrape, RGIII exploits the massive alley run-lane for a 23-yard gain before sliding to protect himself.

Jackson pulled the string on another read concept on the very next play, running the popular Inside Zone with a backside read on the left defensive end.

While the blocking rules will vary by front, basic zone blocking often calls for a double-team on the first interior defensive lineman away from the play's direction. The playside linemen will attack the outside number of their assignment to create vertical displacement, with the tailback aiming for the guard's leg and reading B gap, A-gap, backside A-Gap. 

Focus on the read defender. Because he was burnt by the quarterback bootleg on the last play, he appears to focus on maintaining parallel shoulders to the line of scrimmage while laterally shuffling towards the ball (known as a 'squeeze and pop' technique). Because the end does not show is numbers, RGIII wisely hands off the Isaiah Crowell for a solid 5-yard gain on first down.

A deeper look into the concept reveals two more plays that could have been run based on the read-man's action. This seemingly simple example of Inside Zone is actually a spread version of the Triple Option.

Notice tight end Gary Barnidge's Arc release on the right-side of the formation. If the quarterback pulls the ball, the tight end will block the alley invert in order to create a clear running lane. 

The slot receiver runs bubble motion with the #1 receiver releasing upfield to block if necessary. It is impossible to say for certain without the play call, but if he had pulled the ball, RGIII probably had the option of running through the alley or targeting the bubble screen based on the slot defensive back's actions. 

The point is moot because the tailback received the ball, but an RGIII pull would not have necessarily led to a quarterback run hLike Liek the previous play, Jackson has designed plays to stress the defense and test eye discipline at multiple levels.

After a rough start against the Green Bay Packers, second-year center Cam Erving showed improvement in his run blocking Thursday night. Although he still plays too high, narrows his base, and doesn't consistently utilize violent hands, the first round draft pick did flash better technique and athleticism on the way to several solid blocks.

Mid-way through the first quarter, the offense ran a basic one-back Iso on first down out of a heavy formation, using two tight ends and an extra offensive lineman.

The play is designed to hit the A-gaps (the area between the center and right guard), requiring the tailback to read the interior double team. Ideally, Erving and the right guard will root the 1-technique out of the A-gap so the tailback can come downhill with a full head of steam and quickly press the hole. After securing the double-team Erving or the right guard must then climb to a linebacker, as there is no fullback or puller to handle second-level players.

The Florida State product plays the role of 'post man' in this double team. He must attack the inside number of the defender, using a violent punch to the chest while splitting the defender's crotch with his second step. The right guard plays the role of the 'drive man', attacking the outside number of the defender and moving hip-to-hip with the post man. Many offensive line coaches teach the principle of "4 hands, 4 eyes", meaning four hands on the defender and four eyes to the second level, as one of the blockers will need to come off the block to pick up a linebacker.

If the footwork is executed correctly, the blockers will work hip-to-hip simultaneously, with the inside leg of both in the defender's crotch. The post man will then read the defender's hip. As soon as he feels the hip collapse he will disengage to climb to a linebacker, although it is important to note that when teams play run stunt games with the front seven, the drive man may end up blocking the linebacker. It's all about both players keeping eyes on the second level while reading the hip of the defender being blocked. 

Erving does a good job firing off at the snap, although he does come out of his stance too high. The goal is to "hide the numbers" on the get off. If the offensive lineman explodes and makes contact with low pad level, the defender will not be able to see his numbers as the blocker's flat back will not create an angle of sight. In addition, Erving wants to keep his left hand on the shoulder pad to generate more force, rather than sliding down along the defender's back.

With that said, the force generated by the double team is evident as the nose tackle immediately collapses. Erving correctly reads the hip and flashes his athleticism as he climbs to the WILL, makes solid contact, and sticks with the block to the echo of the whistle. Note where Erving and the linebacker first make contact and where the duo finish the play. The double team has rooted the nose tackle out of the A-gap and Erving has effectively walled off the linebacker from the ball, a clear win.  

While Erving still demonstrates technical deficiencies, he took part in several effective double teams through out the course of the first half, offering a glimmer of hope that the light has come on. Whether this carries over to the complexity, speed, and rigor of the regular season remains to be seen.

Up next, touchdowns to Pryor and Barnidge, Cover 3 beaters, why RGIII was correct in not throwing the ball to Barnidge on his 12-yard scramble, and when slide protection goes wrong...

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