Browns-Titans X's & O's: Breaking Down Every Cody Kessler Throw From the First Half

Last Sunday Cleveland Browns' rookie signal-caller Cody Kessler threw for a career-high 336 yards and two TD passes as he continued to play above expectations despite a suddenly dormant running game and a slew of injuries to the offensive unit. Join The Orange and Brown Report in the film room as we break down every throw Kessler made during the first half of the Browns' 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Tennessee Titans.

Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson's tenure could be defined by eight words uttered after selecting former USC quarterback Cody Kessler with the 93rd pick in the 2016 draft:

"You'll have to trust me on this one."

So far so good.

While the third-round selection has not received the press clippings of fellow rookie quarterbacks Dak Prescott or Carson Wentz, Kessler has quietly kept pace with both statistically, as The OBR's Jared Mueller recently broke down.

Despite a slew of injuries along the offensive line, the loss of fellow rookie Corey Coleman after the best game of his young career, and a running game that has consistently placed him in difficult 2nd and 3rd down situations over the previous two games, the quarterback has managed to protect the ball and extend plays with his legs. Jackson has protected his player by creating targeted isolation match-ups and limiting shots downfield, but the rookie is also identifying coverages, making reads, and executing the offense better-than-expected for a first-year player.

With that said, make no mistake about the Browns' current quarterback situation. As The OBR's Sobo recently stated, there is no player on the current roster that doesn't have a potential replacement in the 2017 draft, including Kessler.

With the state of the team and Kessler's specific situation in mind (he was not expected to play this year, starting the season third on the quarterback depth chart), let's get to the breakdown of every first-half throw the signal caller made.

Throw #1
1st Quarter, 10:17
1st and 10
7-0 Titans

The offense comes out swinging on their first play of the game as they push the ball downfield via the ever popular '4 Verticals' concept.

The Sid Gilman-created concept utilizes four vertical routes by any combination of wide receivers, tight ends, and/or running backs to create a horizontal stretch (sideline-to-sideline) on the defense. A variety of routes can be used to achieve the stretch, including the go, seams, skinny posts, and wheels.

Furthermore, many of the routes will have built in options based on factors such as the number of deep safeties, defensive back depth, and man or zone coverage.

The offense disguises the concept by motioning tailback Duke Johnson Jr. out of 22 personnel (Two tailbacks and two tight ends), a grouping in which Jackson's offense has traditionally shown a high run tendency.

The outside receivers will run 9 routes, ensuring they achieve an outside release to put themselves between the defender and the ball. The inside receivers - the tight ends in this case - will run seam 'read' routes in which they read the safety rotation and adjust the route accordingly. Against a one-hi look like Cover 1 or Cover 3, the tight ends will stay in the seam to put the single safety to a decision. The ball will generally go to the route he does not cover. Against a two-hi look like Cover 2 or Cover 4, the tight ends will bend their routes inside "towards open grass" to target the middle of the field hole.

The Titans drop into an obvious Cover 3 shell, using 3 deep and 4 underneath defenders to create a seven-man zone. Because Cover 3 uses a signal deep safety, the tight ends will run their routes through the seams. With seven defenders to account for four receivers, how does tight end Gary Barnidge get so open?

Many coaches teach Cover 3 using 'landmark drops', in which a defender aims for a certain part of the field as he plays his assigned zone. A key component of landmark drops is the rule that players do not chase receivers out of their zone.

Other coaches - most notably Nick Saban - utilize a combination of landmark drops and pattern-matching principles to handle this exact seam route of out the 4 verts.

Because there is no threat to the field (wide side) curl area, the curl/flat defender (located just below the left hash mark) will carry any verticals by the tight end using pattern-match principles. However, because the Titans appear to be spot-dropping, the seam route falls on the field seam/hook defender, located on the right hash.

The defender is very slow reading his run/pass key, forcing a late drop into his hook/seam responsibility. By the time he gets his eyes on the #2 receiver, Barnidge is already on the 30-yard line and heading downfield with a full head of steam. The curl/flat defender uses poor technique as well, missing a chance to reroute the Pro Bowl tight end. The defender must get hands on any receiver entering the seam in order to protect the seam/hook zone.

Kessler does a great job holding the free safety with his eyes and getting the ball out at the top of his drop to hit Barnidge in stride for an explosive gain.

Throw #2
1st Quarter, 9:56

1st and 10
7-0 Titans

On the very next play, Jackson elects to break tendency by again throwing out of a run-heavy formation, dialing up a targeted play action concept to receiver Terrelle Pryor.

As we will see throughout the film study, Kessler and Pryor excel at executing the comeback route against both man and zone coverage.

The route concept utilizes three receivers, with two outside routes and tailback Isaiah Crowell acting as a check down. Likely expecting a blitz, the offense uses a seven-man blocking scheme to provide Kessler with time to throw the ball.


The pass protection holds up, however, Kessler's first option - Pryor - slips as he stems his route.

He likely slipped because he did not follow the coaching point "Eyes, knees, and nose over the toes" when executing his break. Because he leaned so far forward in his break, he did not create a power position from which he could cut effectively.

Kessler takes off as soon as he sees his primary read will not be there, however his options are very limited as the route concept uses only three receivers. 

He could have flipped the ball to the tailback, although the gain would likely have been very short as two defenders had the player bracketed from inside-out. Instead, the rookie takes off for the sideline and wisely runs out of bounds to avoid an unnecessary hit.

Live to fight another day.

Throw #3
1st Quarter, 9:31
2nd and 11
7-0 Titans

Our third play circles back to a popular concept we have examined in previous film studies, the RPO, or run-pass option.

Facing a second and long, the play call here is a great example of Jackson putting his quarterback in a comfortable situation as Kessler has shown the  ability to consistently make the correct read when running RPOs (his first preseason touchdown came via an RPO concept). 

The concept combines the traditional 'Power' play with a short hitch from the single receiver on the left side of the formation. Remember, the offense wants to make the 'read' defender wrong every time in order to create a numbers advantage.  

The read man appears to be the drop safety spinning down just above the number at the 30-yard line. If the safety inserts into the alley in order to play the run, he will create a clear throwing window for the hitch. If he buzzes the curl zone to squeeze short game routes and comebacks, the offense will have enough blockers to create a hat-on-a-hat situation at the line of scrimmage.

Because the drop safety aggressively fits the run, the hitch route is the correct read. The cornerback simplifies the read further by bailing just before the snap to play off-man coverage. Notice that Kessler and Crowell forgo the post-snap mesh as the quarterback knows he has the hitch as soon as the cornerback bails out.

It could be argued that this was a simple play-action concept using slide protection and a pulling guard to influence the linebackers, but generally the pull would be run away from the route and the left guard would not attempt to climb to the MIKE.

Great pre-snap recognition and good throw to get the ball in a playmaker's hands in space.

Throw #4
1st Quarter, 8:57

3rd and 5
7-0 Titans

Our fourth play looks at a Hue Jackson-favorite, the comeback route.

A well-run comeback route is about as deadly as it gets. Like the back shoulder fade, when run correctly and thrown with timing the route is virtually unstoppable. The team clearly spent countless hours over the summer perfecting the route and throw as they run it very well.

The route is a man-coverage killer, as it requires the cornerback to break over the receiver's shoulder towards the sideline in order to make a play on the ball. It also works well against zone, as the route will hit in front of the bailing defensive back before he has an opportunity to transition into his break.

Notwithstanding the previous play, Pryor has excelled at running the comeback route this season.

The idea here is to run mirrored routes with the outside receivers and likely make the throw based on a pre-snap read. The Pryor match-up is enticing against man coverage; Kessler may be coached to target Pryor every time he reads man when running the concept.

The ball is tipped here for two reasons:

  1. Pryor needs to stem at a sharper angle back towards the cornerback. The route is not bad, but he is a little slow coming out of his break and needs to come downhill.
  2. Kessler is late getting the ball out. Ideally, the route and quarterback drop would be synced so the ball comes out as soon as Kessler hits the top of his drop. Because he takes a single step into the pocket creating a slight forward lean, his weight is probably not balanced properly. Kessler simply does not have the raw arm strength to rocket the ball into his receiver when the timing is off. Furthermore, he is making the throw from the opposite hash, increasing the distance the ball must travel.

These factors come together to create a pass breakup by the cornerback. A quarterback and wide receivers slightly out of sync. Errors in mechanics. A late ball to the inside shoulder of the pass-catcher.

Kessler's greatest strengths thus far have been his anticipation and accuracy. We see breakdowns in both here.

Throw #5
1st Quarter, 6:42

1st and 15 (Illegal formation on previous play)
7-3 Titans

On throw number five Jackson elects to make a return to the RPO well via an Outside Zone Right/Orbit Screen combination.

The key to this play is how the defense responds to the orbit motion from the Z receiver (Duke Johnson Jr.).

Does the cornerback follow the motion across the field?

Do the safeties rotate and drop to the motion?

Do the linebackers bump to adjust for the new gap created by the motion?

If the cornerback follows the receiver across the field, the safeties drop towards the motion, or the linebackers bump away from the run play, give the ball as the defense will now be a defender short at the point of attack.

If the cornerback passes off the receiver and the safeties stay in their 2-deep shell (as we see here), throw the screen as the offense will have a blocker on every defender within seven yards of the line of scrimmage.

First, focus on the cornerback. Notice that he does not follow the motion, indicating zone coverage or a 'spin' by the deep safeties. Because the safety on the right side of the field does not attack the motion coming his way, the decision is obvious. 

Throw the bubble.

Kessler's mesh with Crowell influences the MIKE enough to pull him away from the play for a precious second, creating enough room for Johnson to cut the ball inside his blockers for an easy 10-yard gain.

Once again, we see Jackson put his young quarterback in a comfortable situation on a tough down/distance by focusing on his areas of strengths. 

Throw #6
1st Quarter, 6:05
1st and 10
7-3 Titans

Our sixth throw features the classic West Coast offense 'Snag' concept, a three-receiver route combo that features a flat, corner, and snag route.

Snag is run successfully at all levels of football due to its flexibility and ease of reads. It plays well against both man and zone coverage, with defined progressions for both coverage shells. 

The Titans defense drops into a Cover 3 shell this play, making the flat/snag routes the primary read. From here, the quarterback will read the curl/flat defender as he will be horizontally stretched by the route combo.

If the defender widens with the flat route, through the snag. If the defender sits inside to defender the snag route, throw the flat route.

Notice how quickly Kessler identifies the coverage and moves to his read. He immediately sees the curl/flat defender widen, making the snag route his primary. The USC product patiently waits for the receiver to cross the curl/flat defender's face as he breaks inside, patting the ball as the route develops.

Andrew Hawkins does an outstanding job sitting down in the open grass and offering a target to his quarterback, resulting in another easy pitch-and-catch.

Between Kessler's quick coverage recognition and Hawkin's great route, the offense takes an easy 10 yards for another first down.

Throw #7
1st Quarter, 5:24
2nd and 7
7-3 Titans

On second and seven Jackson elects to take his vertical shot of the game, splitting tailback Duke Johnson Jr. out wide and running a Go route off play action.

The Titans' defensive staff pays Johnson the ultimate accolade, covering him with cornerback Jason McCourty as they clearly fear his route-running ability from the wide receiver position.

Although Jackson would like to see a safety across the line from his talented pass-catcher, he'll take his chances with Duke in a one-verse-one situation.

The play action is designed to look like the common 'Split Zone' concept in which the tailback runs an Outside Zone path and the second tailback 'Arc blocks' across the formation to create a backside seal. The offensive line accounts for the pass rush by using a 'slide right' protection in which each lineman is responsible for the gap to his right side. a six-man protection should give Kessler the time he needs for the vertical route to develop downfield. Kessler must ue his eyes to hold the middle-of-the-field safety long enough to take him out of the play along the sideline.

Johnson does a good job winning his outside release and swimming his left hand to clear the cornerback's press coverage. Rather than immediately flipping his hips 180 degrees as Duke draws even with his depth, the cornerback inexplicitly continues to run without fully opening his hips. This error results in separation for Duke as he runs downfield. 

Kessler executes a good mesh fake, lowering his hands like he is going to mesh with Crowell to false key the safeties if they are using a "low hand/high hand" run/pass key.

The ball comes out at the top of the drop and the location is good, dropping in between the receiver and the sideline. Knowing he is beat, McCourty does not bother trying to get his head around and chooses to tackle Johnson and take the spot foul.

Again, good execution by the quarterback and receiver and the offense is 2/2 on verticals attempts.

Throw #8
1st Quarter, 4:38
2nd and 7
7-3 Titans

On another second and seven down/distance, we see another comeback route, this time off Outside Zone play action.

Like the previous play action concept, the line will use a six-man protection, although this blocking scheme appears to be a BoB (Big on Big). 

In addition to the targeted comeback, the offense will run an intermediate drag from the tight end. The field wide receiver will run a deep vertical route designed to take the deep safety out of the play by crossing his face. It's hard to determine what exactly the tailback is running as he does not complete his route. This is a great spot for a backside wheel as the linebacker's eyes should be on the primary receivers by the time Crowell gets out of the backfield.

The man coverage creates a comeback, cross, tailback's route progression. The vertical route is there as a dummy to hold the safety; nothing more.


The cornerback's pre-snap depth should key Kessler to the comeback. At seven yards and bailing at the snap, the defender will likely have too much distance to cover in time to make a play on the ball. His inside leverage (aligned inside the receiver) makes his task that much more difficult, as he must now play through the receiver's body as well.

The play does not start well as center Cam Erving whiffs on his block, leading to immediate pressure through the A-gap. Luckily Kessler booted away from the leak due to the play design, although the pressure did create urgency in his steps.

The comeback route is the primary throw against man coverage. Again, the corner's depth and leverage make it highly unlikely he will be able to impact the play in any way.

Pay attention to the difference in Pryor's route from play #4. You should see the sharper stem out of the break and back to the ball. Kessler could have slightly improved the ball placement by squaring up his shoulder slightly more as he made the throw, but the detail is nitpicking considering the outcome.

Great job escaping pressure, great route, and great catch.

Throw #9
1st Quarter, 3:32
2nd and 10
7-3 Titans

Hue decides to take a shot at the end zone on second down, using mirrored seam/double moves to attack the defense vertically.

Both tight ends will run seam routes while the outside receivers will attempt to double move the cornerbacks with out-and-ups.

The first item of note is the fact the center-quarterback snap was not crisply executed, leading to a bobbled exchange. This likely threw off the play's timing.

Kessler arguably has a shot targeting the #1 receiver on the right side of the formation. Notice that the line of scrimmage defender jams the route then passes it off to a deep defender, indicating zone coverage (Cover 3 in this case). The offense has created a horizontal stretch on the boundary cornerback with the vertical routes, but Kessler has chosen to read the other side of the field. Whether this is by choice or coaching and what factors are used to determine the read, I can't say without the exact play call.

With no separation on the left side Kessler steps up into the pocket and makes a nice play flipping the ball to his check down, Isaiah Crowell.

The question remains if Kessler should have stepped up in the pocket. The tackles set the depth of their pass sets using landmarks based on the quarterback's drop. If Kessler did not get enough depth in his drop, he created the pressure himself as Joe Thomas would expect to wash the defensive end across his quarterback's face. 

If Kessler did reach the proper depth in his drop, he was correct to step up as Thomas would have ended up getting bull rushed into his lap.

Again, without the exact play details and in light of the bobbled snap, it's impossible to say for certain either way.

Kessler does a good job knowing where his check down throw is located and Crowell makes a nice move after the catch to gain another four yards, setting up a third and one.

Throw #10
1st Quarter, 0:39
1st and 10
7-6 Titans

Our final play of the 1st quarter features a max protect, two-receiver route of play action. Both outside receivers will run 10-yard curl routes, betting that the Titans' cornerbacks will continue to provide a cushion via bailing to their Cover 3 zones or playing off-man coverage. If the defense elects to press, Pryor's ability to win his match-up will make him the primary target.


Pryor does a great job winning his outside release and threatening the cornerback with a vertical route, forcing him to stay overtop the receiver when the route will be stemmed back towards the quarterback.

Notice the boundary linebacker buzz into the curl window when he reads pass. This is an in-game adjustment in response to the success of the completed comeback routes. Tennesse wants to squeeze the throwing window and hope the rookie throws a ball that could be tipped or picked off. At the very least, they want Kessler to come off the read and work another part of the field, giving the pass rush time to get home.

Kessler's mechanics aren't perfect here. He doesn't get a good step into his throw due to the pressure, but he can get away with the mishap as he is throwing to the short side of the field. Pryor has to work back five yards to the ball, but this is likely a result of good ball placement.

With the buzzing linebacker clearly squeezing the throwing window, Kessler can't make the throws he made on comebacks earlier in the game. The linebacker will get his hands on the ball. Kessler is likely coached to throw this ball at a sharper angle towards the sideline when he sees the bracket in order to ensure that his receiver is the only player with a chance to make the catch.

Go back and look at Kessler's ball on the comeback over the last several games. He throws this route extremely well when his feet are set. Either he threw a bad ball the first time he faced a buzzing linebacker, or he adjusted the throw as quarterbacks are often coached to do in this situation. 

The reader can decide.

Join us in the Tap Room tomorrow as we break down every throw made during the second quarter.

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