X's & O's: Three Cornerstone Concepts of the 2016 Cleveland Browns Offense

The Cleveland Browns ended the 2016 preseason with a 21-7 defeat to the Chicago Bears, capping a winless exhibition campaign with a game that again left fans with more questions than answers. Despite the lack of clarity, three offensive concepts stood out and should be heavily leaned on during the regular season.

While the first team defensive unit played the first series of the game before sitting for the evening, head coach Hue Jackson played his first team offense the entire first quarter, a highly unusual move when most established starters sit out the final game of the preseason. The move did pay dividends as the offense scored a touchdown on the third possession of the quarter to take an early 7-3 lead (albeit against the Bears’ second and third teamers), but the scoring train stopped right then and there for the evening.

While an overreliance on takeaways and observations from the preseason is always dangerous – particularly the fourth game of the preseason in which the primary focus is the competition amongst the bottom third of the roster for a spot on the team – three key offensive concepts stand out that will likely form the cornerstone of Jackson’s 2016 squad. In light of the likelihood the offense will be forced to score points in bunches to cover series defensive deficiencies including a non-existent pass rush, poor run fits, and even worse man coverage, the unit must execute these three concepts with consistency to stay in games.

The Swap Boot

While Jackson has shown very little of his play action package, he did pull back the curtain to reveal an outstanding half-field ‘Flood’ known as the ‘Swap Boot’.

While Flood concepts come in many flavors and will be window-dressed via formation and personnel, the basic structure is consistent.

The play design features a vertical route, an intermediate route, and a short route to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Draw up an effective flood concept on paper, connect the arrows at the top of each route, and notice the triangle. This ‘triangle read’ is the cornerstone of most modern-day passing plays that must rely on the aforementioned stretches to defeat complicated pass coverage shells.

Image courtesy of Chris Brown via SmartFootball

Personnel mismatches are (and will remain) a potent way to attack, but teams cannot line up and expect their skill players to consistently win one-on-one matchups across the board. NFL defenders are simply too smart, fast, and physical.

So why is the Flood concept so effective at all levels of football?

  • It executes well against man or zone
  • It cuts the field in half for the quarterback, compressing the space in which he reads
  • It provides clear progressions based on the coverage shell
  • It is often used in conjunction with quarterback movement, allowing a mobile quarterback to create extra time for the routes to open or tuck the ball and run.

      When used in conjunction with play action (the greatest strength in the author’s opinion), floods create clear separation and throwing lanes for the quarterback, as the defender’s eyes are put in run/pass conflict

Facing 1st and 10 with 6:35 to go in the first quarter, Jackson pulled the string on a down in which he shows a heavy run tendency by faking Outside Zone to the left-side of the field while flooding the right-side of the field with receivers.

The unique part of the play occurred as the short route was run by wide receiver Josh Gordon, rather than the usual tight end or tailback. This is where the concept gets the "Swap" label.

Teams will run the Swap for several reasons. First, because the wide receiver runs under the offensive line, it is very easy for a man-coverage defender to lose him the run action. Against most zone coverages, the flat defender (usually a linebacker or safety) must first discern "pass" from the play action, and then move his eyes to locate the threat to his area of responsibility. Defenders consistently placed in run/pass, play direction, and coverage responsibility conflict will experience breakdowns. The action happens too fast to be processed in time for all defenders to pick up the correct receiver. Breakdowns will occur. 

Another advantage of the Swap boot is the ability to put the ball in a playmaker's hands with space to work. While NFL tight ends and tailbacks do have the ability to make the first man miss, one will rarely see a short route go for an explosive gain (25+ yards). An explosive wide receiver can turn 7 yards into 70. 

Finally, the Swap boot is a great constraint to teams that want to overplay the wide receiver's motion after the snap. Defenders will overpursue the motion if the pass is a legitimate threat, setting up the ground attack to target the left side (in this specific play) as the defense flows to the right.

The Swap Boot will be very effective for the Browns this season because it provides the aforementioned constraint off Jackson’s run game, creates simple half-field reads for RGII, and  puts the ball in an explosive player's hands with space to work in

Let's watch the play in action....

Notice that Gordon is put in short "Zip" motion in order to decrease the distance he must run to cross the formation. The motion can also be used to discern coverage checks and run fits based on how the defense reacts. We see the Bears' cornerback make a hand signal as Gordon resets, likely alerting the near safety that he will carry an vertical route through the seam as the defense appears to be in Cover 4.

At the snap we see the defensive line, linebacker corp, and field safety react to the run fake by taking hard steps towards the line of scrimmage. 

The 'X' receiver (on the line of scrimmage) runs a clear out to make space while the tight end releases on an intermediate drag. We can see how slowly the flat defender reacts to Gordon's motion, creating a simple pitch-and-catch for the quarterback and receiver. While Gordon ran out of bounds just short of the first down marker, he likely could have turned this upfield in the regular season and used his dynamic open field ability for more YAC.

Inside Zone with a Quarterback Bootleg

As The Orange and Brown Report has analyzed in previous articles, quarterback Robert Griffin III’s running ability adds an extra component to most run-game concepts in the Jackson playbook as the speedy reclamation project is always a threat to pull the ball and run if backside defenders do not play gap-sound football.

The ‘read’ portion of the play will cause considerable problems for defenses in the red zone because defenders must both assign and account for backside gaps away from the tailback’s direction in order to prevent Griffin from sprinting around the corner for an easy six.

Keep in mind that running offense and defense is a numbers game. Both units want to establish numbers, or ‘leverage’, at the point of attack, with the team that does so successfully generally “winning” the play.

Pulling defenders away from the tailback’s entry point at the line of scrimmage creates less would-be tacklers and clear holes for the ball carrier to press and exploit. An offense that can create this scenario via schematics and personnel will gain yards.

The first unit’s lone touchdown came via a well-executed “Inside Zone Right” concept in which the defense assigned two defenders to play the quarterback bootleg and tailback cutback, creating a numbers advantage for the offense at the points of attack.

After losing two yards running an ill-advised tailback sweep on first down, the offense came out in a ‘Quad’ (2X2) formation, with two receivers on each side of the quarterback. Tailback Isaiah Crowell initially aligns to Griffin's left, before realigning to his right. The realignment call could have been communicated before the play by the coaches or made at the line of scrimmage by Griffin based on a set of predetermined rules. 

After Crowell sets to the right side of his quarterback, we see the Bear’s defense communicate the new run fits as the frontside (tailback’s path) and backside (quarterback bootleg) responsibilities and technique are markedly different.

Let's start with the box numbers. Even before reading off a defender, the offense and defense have six players apiece. By reading off the backside edge player, the offense increases their advantage to a plus one. If the unit cannot get into the end zone with such obvious leverage at the point of attack, we are looking at a long season of red zone futility.

As Crow takes the ball in for six we see two extra blockers as the tight end was left with no second level defender and the center/left guard did not have to come off their double-team to pick up a linebacker. So where is the defense?

Focus on the left defensive end and stand-up rusher.

Both squeeze inside at the snap, with the left defensive end (#49) responsible for the tailback cutback (backside B-gap) and the rush linebacker (#94) responsible for the quarterback bootleg. With these specific run fits, the success of the play comes down to stalemating the 1-technique nose tackle, which the line easily accomplishes.

While executing against first teamers is a far cry from back end players in the fourth preseason game, Jackson will utilize Griffin's ability to pull in the run game in order to create leverage.

MESH

The final concept that will likely be a key component of Hue Jackson’s base offense is the famous Airraid “Mesh” play.

As writing in a previous film study:

Mesh is a very flexible concept that works well against both man and zone coverage. The concept is named from two shallow routes that come from opposite sides of the formation, crossing in the middle of the field to screen (think a pick in basketball) the defenders. The crossers should pass close enough to slap hands in order to maximize the chance a defender is picked. Coaches run variety of vertical routes with the outside receivers, oftentimes posts, seams, deep digs, or fades. The tailback generally runs a flat or wheel route to widen the linebackers, creating throwing windows for the shallows.

As you can see from the image above (from Bob Stoops' 1999 Oklahoma playbook), the concept features a clear progression read with option routes to be converted verse zone coverage. The quarterback will generally read the progression against man coverage by 'peeking' at the vertical route, then moving to the same-side shallow to the back-side-shallow. Good coaches will look for opportunities to specifically target the wheel route if a linebacker takes the tailback in coverage.

The crossing routes require both the quarterback and receivers to read man or zone coverage. Against man the receivers will run across the field at full-speed, flaring up-field between the hash mark and numbers. Against zone the receivers will throttle down in the first hole they see after executing the mesh. To execute the route combo against zone the quarterback and receivers must read the zone coverage and anticipate the hole correctly.

While the mesh concept was a staple of Jackson’s offense during his time in Oakland and Cincinnati, game four marked the first down Browns’ fans have seen the concept from the new head coach.

The offense is aligned in the ''bunch' formation Jackson has featured in the three subsequent games, although he has primary run Inside Zone out of the alignment. The "Z" receiver (Corey Coleman) is in a 'Nasty' split, indicating a crossing route or crack block on a weak-side run.

The goal here is two-fold: convert a third-and-short via an easy throw and get the ball in Coleman's hands to see what he can do in the open field.

The Bears bring five-man pressure, leaving two linebackers to handle the mesh routes. Because the backers passed the routes off rather than chasing, the defense was likely in a zone coverage (most likely the Cover 3 variant 3-deep, 3-under). Even as the defense communicates the shallows and passes both off effectively, Coleman does separate. If he makes the catch he will have plenty of field to run in as the wheel route has run off the playside cornerback.

Unfortunately, Coleman does not seem to anticipate the velocity of the throw, leading him to attempt the catch after the ball has passed his helmet. While the pass certainly was not the greatest he has ever seen, he needs to make this catch. No excuses.

In addition, the shallows could have been run with better spacing. As a rule of thumb, the receivers shoyld be able to slap hands without fully extending their arms as they pass by. This distance (or lack of) maximizes the chance of pass defenders picking each other as they chase or pass off.

While the execution was lacking, this route concept will gain yards this season. Expect Gordon, Coleman, and Hawkins to be featured on the shallows as all three have the ability to seperate and go in space.


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