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

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 for Part II 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.

Throw #11
2nd Quarter, 15:00
3rd and 5
7-6 Titans

Our first play of the second quarter opens with the Browns' offense facing a 3rd and 5 from their own 25-yard line.

Jackson elects to throw the ball out of 11 personnel, with twin receivers to the field and a Z receiver and tight end to the boundary.

The play features a 'Drive' concept from the right-side of the field, with the outside wide receiver running a shallow underneath the tight end, who will run a dig overtop. The releases are designed to beat man coverage by creating a potential pick situation, with the drag releasing into the middle of the field off the rear end of the tight end. 

The left-side of the formation runs what appears to be a clear out from the #1 and a deep out from the #2 receiver.

The routes provide several 'beaters' to most common coverages including Cover 2, 3, and 4. They do not play out as well against man coverage, although the pick created by the Drive concept could create seperation for the shallow if the defedners do not play it correctly.

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The Titans bring the kitchen sink, blitzing six defenders to force the ball out quickly. The original blitz was probably designed as a five-man pressure, with the left outside linebacker playing a 'blitz peel' technique on the tailback. The defender will start the play by blitzing as he reads the tailback's assignment.

If the tailback stays in to block, continue the blitz. If the tailback releases on a pass route, peel off the blitz and take the back' in man coverage.

Kessler clearly wants to target the clear-out/deep out from the jump, although this route combo works most effectively against zone-based defensive shells like Cover 4. Against man coverage, the combo relies on a player winning an individual match-up rather than stressing weak points in the coverage.

Both receivers are blanketed from the snap on the left side, but Kessler stays on the routes rather than moving to his man beater underneath. By the time he hits the top of his drop, his eyes should already be on the shallow coming from the other side (unless he was coached to read the routes through the top of the drop). If the rookie's eyes quickly move to his short route, he can hit the receiver in stride for a solid gain as the wide receiver has separated.

Unfortunately, Kessler has no time to move to the check-down route as the pressure gets there for a sack and 10-yard loss.

The author is making an educated guess here because he does not know the details of the play call or coaching, but Kessler should have been quicker coming off the vertical routes to his shallow. Target the route that stresses the defensive shell (Cover 1 so the the rub release) as opposed to relying on an individual winning a match-up.

Throw #12

2nd Quarter, 10:27
3rd and 8
7-6 Titans

After failing to pick up meaningful yardage on the ground, Jackson goes to the air on a tough third and long down/distance.

The play call looks like a modified 'Shakes' concept, although it is difficult to figure out the slot's route as he is completely walled off from his route by the nickel back.

The defense responds with another five-man blitz, hoping to force the ball out before the downfield routes develop.

The progression likely goes: 1. Peek the seam route 2. Corner route 3. Check-release by the tailback

Both the pass protection and routes go wrong here.

Center Cam Erving is infamously pushed to the ground by a slight tap to the arm, while the slot receiver is locked down by the nickel defender. The lock-up is so complete that the receiver cannot run his route; with that Kessler's first read is eliminated before he hits the top of his drop.

The USC-product has no chance to wait on the corner route to come open as he must step up and escape the pocket due to pressure from both sides. After avoiding the pressure Kessler does a good job keeping his eyes downfield and spots an open Ricardo Louis, who works his way back to the quarterback as part of the scramble drill.

Through four games Kessler has shown the ability to throw on the run, however he does not make a good throw here due to poor mechanics. His chest is open and facing his target and the release point is late. Kessler simply does not possess the raw arm power to get the ball there without a proper power base.

Throw #13

2nd Quarter, 7:45
1st and 10
14-6 Titans

Unlucky 13 brings another example of poor execution as the offense attempts to go downfield on first down pinned deep in their own territory.

The play concept is mirrored 'Switch' routes, in which both receivers wheel and exchange positions in order to confuse defenders. The concept is flexible, working well against both man and zone coverage as the switch routes provide a natural rub and distort zones as defenders chase the routes.

Kessler decides to target the combo on the left-side of the field, using his eyes to hold the free safety for just a moment.

First, kudos to the offensive line for providing the time to throw downfield (although the Titans used a standard four-man rush).

Many have criticized this throw and cited it as "lack of arm strength", but the author believes the fault lies with the route, not the quarterback's arm (remember I have already pointed out instances of lack of arm strength in both articles).

The slot receiver is unable to create an iota of separation on the slot defensive back. Like the previous play the defender walls off the route, preventing the receiver from turning upfield. Instead, the pass-catcher is ridden to the sideline at an angle that makes for an extremely difficult throw.

Kessler needs some distance between his receiver and the sideline in order to drop the ball in. He is coached to place that ball over the receiver's outside shoulder! If the ball happens to end up out of bounds, so be it. Better to throw an incompletion than an interception.

Kessler's main fault here is not holding the middle-of-the-field safety long enough, as he might have been in position to make a play on an in-bounds throw.

Throw #14
2nd Quarter, 6:55
3rd and 7
14-6 Titans

Throw 14 illustrates a great example of a defense switching up the coverage to confuse a rookie quarterback and force him into a bad throw.

The Titans switch up from their usual third down pressure with a Cover 1 or 3 shell by playing a Tampa 2 zone coverage behind a 4-man rush.

(Image courtesy of Matt Bowen)

The important points to this specific play are the cornerback playing flat coverage and the deep safeties picking up any vertical routes past 10 yards.

The goal is to bait Kessler into a making an ill-advised throw on any out route from the #2 or #3 receiver, as the route will run right into the squat cornerback who will have passed off any vertical route to his deep safety

The coverage works perfectly as the cornerback releases the #1 receiver while simultaneously alternating his eyes between the quarterback and the #2 and #3 receivers. As soon as Barnidge stems his route outside, the cornerback jumps inside to make a great play on the ball. 

This was an extremely dangerous throw. The kind that gets returned for six points. If Kessler wants to throw this ball, he has to squeeze it in as soon as Barnidge stems his route. Anything late will put the cornerback in the position to make a play on the ball.

So why did Kessler throw the ball here?

He probably did not recognize the coverage, as the Titans' defense had almost exclusively played Cover 1 or Cover 3 to this point. They threw him a change up, when he was sitting on a fast ball.

He likely saw the slot defender cover the inside-breaking dig from the #2 receiver and assumed the cornerback would be run off by the clear-out route, leaving no defenders between Barnidge and the sideline.

Incorrect, and frankly the offense got off cheaply with an incomplete pass here.

Throw #15

2nd Quarter, 4:05
2nd and 5
14-6 Titans

On Kessler's 15th throw of the half, Jackson brings out heavy personnel and runs play action with a designed quarterback bootleg.

With the Browns' offense showing a high run tendency out of this formation and personnel group, the play action should hold the linebackers longs enough for the tight end or tailback to slip out of the backfield for an easy completion.

This concept is really a two-receiver combo as the route from the X receiver (right-side of the formation) will rarely be thrown and is designed to hold the safety. These routes can be read either hi-lo or lo-hi depending on the defensive coverage and coach's preference. In this case, Jackson clearly wants his young quarterback to immediately hit the tailback if he sees open space.

The play action work to perfection as Crowell's defender takes a step inside before recognizing pass. 

Kessler does a great job seeing the bare grass in front of the tailback and delivering the ball with no hesitation to a playmaker in space. Crowell does the rest, turning the ball upfield and cutting inside the defender for a 12-yard gain.

Great job taking what the defense gave and decisively delivering the ball to the first read.

Throw #16
2nd Quarter, 2:58
1st and 15
14-6 Titans

After a false start led to a 1st and 15 deep in his own territory, Jackson went back to the comeback for Kessler's 16th throw of the game.

Facing man coverage Kessler has his choice of match-ups. He likely chose to target the right side as the ball was on the right hash, reducing the distance the wall had to travel on its way to the receiver.

As before, we see great anticipation as Kessler releases the ball before the receiver is out of his break. Louis does a good job coming back to the ball, although it would be nice to see him keep the ball out of his body by using his hands to pluck the ball out of the air.

Throw #17
2nd Quarter, 2:26
2nd and 5
14-6 Titans

Jackson returns to the boundary 'Drive", field deep out/fade concept the offense ran on throw eleven.

He likely returned to this play because the Z shallow route was wide open with plenty of room for YAC if Kessler had come off the deep routes earlier in his drop. If a play works, Jackson will come back to it over and over again until the defense adjusts.

Unfortunately, the offense does not catch the Titans in a blitz this time. Notice the RILB drop to play the weak hook zone, cutting off the shallow route before it can get started. The vertical routes get no downfield separation so Kessler exits the pocket, looking to make a play on the run.

After cutting off the shallow route, Louis displays excellent awareness as he rolls with his quarterback and pushes upfield. Kessler does a great job keeping his eyes downfield to spot the open receiver and delivers a dime on the run.

Pay attention to the mechanics.

Kessler does a nice job keeping the shoulder opposite his throwing arm upfield, clears the lead shoulder as he releases for proper rotation, follows through the throw, and continues running towards the sideline.

Great job maintaining the eyes upfield when the protection breaks down, good mechanics on the run, and accurate throw.

Throw #18
2nd Quarter, 2:00
1st and 10
14-6 Titans

With the offense in the "take a shot" zone of the field, Jackson does just that, isolating Terrelle Pryor on a single defender by aligning him to the backside of a 3X1 formation.

In order to play the three-receiver surface correctly, the defense must declare MOFO or MOFC pre-snap to create a simple read for Kessler. As long as the offense gets the single deep safety look they are looking for here, Kessler's only job is to hold the safety with his eyes and deliver the ball to Pryor. 

Facing an outside-leveraged press cornerback, Pryor does a good job winning an outside release and keeping the defender's hands off his body. From the 15-yard line on, we see Pryor's outstanding straight-line speed create enough separation to create room for the catch.

While Kessler's pass is not the worst you will ever see, the ball is not ideal in light of Pryor's position. This should be six points.

There is no getting around the fact that the ball is underthrown and a tad inside. Why the ball was underthrown is the driving question.

Did Kessler underestimate Pryor's speed or did the ball fall short due to lack of arm strength?

While the writer is reserving judgment until he has watched several more games, his money is on an underthrown ball. Kessler is a quarterback who will likely need to rely on flawless mechanics and excellent anticipation to drop the ball in this basket.

With that said, the jury will be out for a good while on Kessler's arm strength.

Throw #19

2nd Quarter, 1:54
2nd and 10
14-6 Titans

Facing a second and long just outside field goal range, Jackson correctly guesses the Titans' defense will run a variation of man coverage and dials up a great man-beating concept, double slants with a flat.

The play is designed to get the ball to Johnson in the open field from the tailback position and let him use his speed in the open field.

Not only does Jackson get the coverage he wants, but the defense brings the house,blitzing six men and playing Cover 0 (no deep safety help) behind.

Notice the slant route from the #2 receiver on the top of the screen. This is less of a route and more of a pick on whatever defender flashes outside to cover the flat route. 

Notice how the defender if forced to work overtop the route on his way to Johnson, clearing extra space for the catch and allowing the speedy tailback to quickly turn upfield.

Johnson finishes off the play with a solid stiff arm, gaining seven yards and putting the offense in a solid position to run or pass on third down.

Throw #20
2nd Quarter, 1:47
3rd and 3
14-6 Titans

Due to the game situation and lack of success running the ball, Jackson decides to stay in the air on third down with a nice shallow concept out of a bunch alignment.

The Browns will run a variety of concepts out of this bunch, including the aforementioned Snag and several variations of the shallow series Mark Richt popularized with the great Florida State teams of the 90s.

Jackson adds a nice twist to the concept, converting the flat route to a wheel route.

From inside-to-out the routes are a hitch, wheel, and shallow. Against man the progression is probably:

  1. Wheel
  2. Hitch
  3. Shallow

Pay attention to the wheel route. By running it with the 'point man' in the bunch the defender responsible for the #3 receiver is forced to widen, creating space for the hitch route. Kessler immediately sees the opening created by the wheel route, and like the Snag route before, waits on his receiver to work open before delivering a decisive ball. 

Throw #21

2nd Quarter, 1:25
1st and 10
14-6 Titans

Throw 21 was not originally called as a pass, however Kessler checked to a 'Smoke Screen' due to the cornerback's pre-snap depth.

With Pryor aligned to the short-side of the field, Kessler can turn and fire the ball to his receiver, hoping Pryor makes a move in space to take it in for six.

Notice the offensive line's blockings. The play call was Outside Zone left, however, the quarterback and receiver likely have a hand signal to check to the Smoke screen when they get the correct look. 

The ball sails on Kessler, forcing Pryor to bail him out with a nice catch. If I had to guess, I'd say his stride was a bit short, causing the ball to sail.

Throw #22
2nd Quarter, 0:47
2nd and 6
14-6 Titans

The final throw of the first half fittingly ends with six points, although the ball should not have been thrown in the first place.

The offense comes out in a Trips right look, with Pryor hidden in the slot as the #2 receiver. The concept is a double slant/corner, a flexible concept against both man and zone coverage.

Against Cover 1 the first read is probably the inside route from #3, with Pryor's corner route and the slant from the #1 as the second and third.

Kessler gets away with one here.

He clearly locks onto Pryor from the snap, likely deciding he wanted to target the corner route pre-snap. It goes without saying that predetermined throws are usually a bad thing. 

Notice that unlike previous plays, Kessler makes not attempt to manipulate the safety with his eyes, allowing him to get into the play.

The touchdown happens because more times than not, big bank takes little bank. Pryor's physical gifts allow him to high point the ball and snatch it out of the air while being double-covered.

The proper throw was to the slant route from the #1 receiver. Look at the separation created by the wide receiver at the four-yard line. This throw is much easier to make and likely would have led to a touchdown as well.

Great result, but a coach cannot be result-oriented in this spot. Kessler caught flack for this throw from his quarterback coach and Jackson in the film room on Monday, guaranteed. Run the play, work the appropriate progression, and hit the open man.

While Cody Kessler's future is far from settled, he has shown signs of life over his first four games. He has shown accuracy, anticipation, and perhaps most importantly poise within an offense missing key pieces.

While the odds are long he will become the proverbial "franchise quarterback" (the odds are always long here), he does give Browns' fans something to look forward to each Sunday as the squad stumbles its way towards the worst record in football.


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