Cleveland Browns X's & O's: Missed Opportunities and Rookie Quarterback Cody Kessler

After pulling rookie quarterback Cody Kessler during an embarrassing prime-time beat down delivered by the Baltimore Ravens, Browns' head coach Hue Jackson made his dissatisfaction with the signal caller's unwillingness to push the ball downfield very clear. The OBR goes to the film room to break down several plays from the first half in order to determine if there were, in fact, opportunities for more yards.

Much as already been writing about Jackson's decision to pull Cody Kessler after the first series of the second half during a Thursday night 28-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. OBR Senior Reporter Fred Greetham has provided in-depth covered of Jackson's defense of his decision (here and here); our goal is to look at the film to determine if Kessler did indeed leave yards on the field.

Before we get into the film, I want to go through the process, criteria, and assumptions used to analyze Kessler's performance:

  1. The film was graded by three coaches, including myself. I received input from two coaching mentors, one an accomplished high school coach who has called plays on teams that have gone as far as the State final, and another who is currently a position coach at a large college football program you have heard of. We came to a consensus on seven of eight plays.

  2. The coverage will dictate where the ball should go, unless a specific personnel match-up is targeted. For example, Kessler should target man-beating concepts when he reads man coverage. He should target zone-beating concepts when he reads zone coverage.

  3. Kessler should be prepared to throw to his first read when he hits the top of his drop.

  4. The process is not result oriented. I am disregarding what actually happened, including completed passes. The question is, were there opportunities for more yards to be gained on the specific play? I am also disregarding receivers who were open, but not part of the progression Kessler is likely coached to follow based on the coverage.

  5. Jackson did not make the decision to pull Kessler solely based on his view from the sideline. He has several offensive spotters in the booth that know the play call and appropriate route combos that Kessler has been coached to target. Jackson is in constant communication with these coaches via his headset and likely based a large part of his decision on what he was told during the first half and halftime.

With the aforementioned process, criteria, and assumptions in mind, let's go to the film room. The plays are presented in chronological order.

Play #1

1st Quarter, 12:13 - 1st and 10

Pinned inside his 20-yard line, Jackson elects to run play action using the popular 'Swap Boot'. Offensive coordinators show a high run tendency in this area of the field and down/distance, so Jackson is clearly attempting to catch the defense napping. 

The concepts is a 3-level 'Flood' that uses a deep comeback, drag, and flat route to create a triangle read that provides options at all levels of the field (deep, intermediate, short).

Flood concepts are generally read long-to-short unless the defense is slow getting to the flat route, so Kessler should look:

  1. Comeback
  2. Crossing Route
  3. Flat Route

The defense rotates into Cover 3 and shows great eye discipline as no defenders get caught peeking into the backfield on the run action.

The comeback route is stemmed at 15 yards, so Kessler will need some time for the receiver to get there. By bootlegging the signal-caller out, Jackson is creating that time while also defining a half-field read for his rookie quarterback. The ball needs to be out on a deep comeback as the receiver breaks down to stem his route. If the ball comes out late, the receiver will run out of space as he breaks towards the sideline or the defender will come through the pass catchers back to make a play on the ball. Either way, Kessler needs some time for the route to develop.

Focus on the left defensive end as the ball is snapped. He pushes upfield to play his run fit, the C-gap, and prepares to attack the tight end's outside shoulder to force the ball back inside. When the tight end releases towards the sideline, he moves on to his assignment on this play, covering the quarterback bootleg.

Notice how quickly he attacks Kessler, eliminating the throwing window to the comeback before the receiver has reached the proper depth to stem his route. The crossing route is bracketed (although Kessler does not have time to get there in his progression) and the boot defender has shut the door on a throw to tight end Gary Barnidge.

This is what a fast, well-disciplined defense looks like. Make quick, accurate key reads, locate your assignment, and close down space. The Ravens did all three here, leaving Kessler with no option but to chuck the ball towards the sideline.

Result: Not his fault

Play #2

1st Quarter, 11:44 - 3rd and 3

Revisit the criteria and assumptions I laid out before going any further. Kessler completes a first down pass to fellow rookie Corey Coleman on this play, but it appears that Jackson went to this formation and concept in order to attack the match-up of tailback Duke Johnson Jr. on a linebacker in pass coverage.

We see mirrored hitch/flat route combos to each side of the formation, but looks can be deceiving. Focus on Duke Johnson Jr. and Terrell Pryor in the clip below:

Johnson has been tagged to run the West Coast classic 'Angle' or 'Texas'. He will release outside to give the appearance of a standard flat route before cutting back into the middle of the field. A linebacker cannot cover Johnson on this route. His speed is simply too much to handle in space.

Watch Pryor's "route". Does this look like a legitimate pass route or a rub to keep his defender out of the middle of the field? He's clearing space for the angle route, nothing more. Furthermore, keep in mind that the offense has successfully targeted the middle of the field with tailback match-up routes three weeks running.

While the first down catch was nice, we are not being result oriented. Duke was the target here. If he makes a move on the single deep safety he has the speed to take this all the way.

Result: Left yards on the field

Play #3

1st Quarter, 10:35 - 2nd and 7

Our third play is a well-designed dual concept that gives Kessler a man-beater combo on one side and a zone-beater combo to the opposite side. The offense is running another West Coast staple, the Slant/Flat combo to the boundary, with the popular 'Snag' concept to the field.

Kessler's progression and reads are entirely dependent on the post-snap coverage shell. If he sees man, target the man-beating routes. If he sees zone, target the zone-beating routes.

Remember, we are not being result oriented.

From a Tap Room thread....

"The defense is in a Tampa 2 shell (two-deep, zone-under) with squat corners playing the flat, two deep safeties, and the MIKE opening to the three receiver surface to protect the deep middle. The corner/flat combo should be the first read here.

I had some back-and-forth with several coaches about this play, but ultimately the majority want to hit that corner route as the flat/corner create an easy hi-lo on the squat cornerback like the 'Smash' concept (likely the most popular Tampa 2 beater in football). Because the cornerback did not sink to cushion the corner route, Kessler should get the ball to the tight end  although he needs to make the throw as soon as the route runner hits the 'B' in the Baltimore logo. Route anticipation that comes from an understanding of how route combos work against the coverage is a must to make this throw.

The slant/flat was open, but those routes are irrelevant as Kessler should be targeting the Cover 2 beater. If it was man coverage and he missed it, that's a different story. The coverage dictates the targeted route concept and read."

Although the throwing window may look tight, the USC product has plenty of room to throw the receiver open if he gets the ball out before the route stems and he leads his target towards the sideline. He has to be decisive and pull the trigger here.

While Kessler was forced to bail out due to interior pressure, he had time to hit his primary read. This is on him as he was unable or unwilling to attempt the throw he is coached to make.

Result: Left yards on the field

Play #4

1st Quarter, 10:35 - 2nd and 7

Facing a third and medium, Jackson dials up a beautiful three-receiver concept out of a bunch alignment. The combo creates a horizontal and vertical stretch on multiple defensive shells using the Peyton Manning-favorite 'Drive' concept (dig and shallow) with a wheel route. As in our previous examples, the progression will change based on the defensive coverage, so the quarterback must accurately define the defense post-snap in order to target the appropriate receivers. In addition, the boundary receiver will run 9 or go route. Kessler may have been told to target this route against man coverage, although the primary read is a moot point as we well see

The defense responds with a 'Box' check, a 4-over-3 pattern-matched zone to the three-receiver side with man coverage and deep help to the boundary.

The dig route will come open verse the box check due to the pattern-matching rules, but because the backside receiver is clearly facing man coverage Kessler looks that way. He does not appear to attempt any manipulation of the safety via his eyes, but the defense was running a high-low bracket on the single receiver so the safety will end up capping the receiver regardless. Still, he needs to hold the safety if he is going to throw the 9 route.

Kessler has no time to get rid of the ball and nowhere to run as the defense splits the right tackle and guard and bring two linebackers through the crease. There is no opportunity to step up as the pressure was brought up the middle and Kessler's eyes were likely downfield. The play simply happens too fast and without any short-game routes to act as hot reads, the play is over as soon as the guard and tackle get split.

Result: Not his fault

Play #5

2nd Quarter, 9:06 - 1st and 10

On another first and ten  Jackson again attempts to pull the strings on the defense by running play action out of a run heavy formation on a run heavy down. The concept appears to be a two-man option route with max protection. The tailback will run an angle route to the flat after carrying out the play action fake, but he is a check down.

The defense runs a 2-deep, zone-under coverage the blankets both routes. Kessler does not have a throw and rightfully holds the ball, but from here he makes the rookie mistake of not stepping up into the pocket. Kessler created the pressure by running to his right, rather than stepping to let the outside pressure pass him by and look for a receiver working his way open.

Watch the receiver on the top of the screen work his way back to the line of scrimmage just as Kessler scrambles. If Kessler steps up the pass-catcher will be directly centered in his vision with the closest defender five yards away.

We'll split this one up as neither receiver achieved any separation on the original route concept, but did work open into a nice throwing window that Kessler missed because he bailed out.

Result: 75/25 left yards on the field.

Play #6

2nd Quarter, 3:10 - 1st and 5

Our next play is another '4 Verts' concepts in which the Jackson finally caught the defense with their pants down.

Knowing that he has two plays to pick up five yards, the play caller takes attempts to take another shot downfield with vertical routes. Pryor's route at the top of the screen is determined one of two ways (it is impossible to say for certain without the play call). If he feels he will not be able to stack (overtake) the cornerback, he has the option of running a comeback route as the defender will have too much depth to defend a route breaking back towards the quarterback. Conversely, the comeback route may be part of the play structure in order to provide a safe check-down route that beats man/zone coverage and gains yards.

The defense is running a 3-deep, 3-under coverage behind a five-man blitz. Kessler should immediately move to his seam routes as the two outside/underneath defenders must carry the vertical routes as part of their SCIF technique (play the seam-curl-flat in that order). The deep middle safety will determine the throw. The MOFC safety is over the right hash, which should immediately move Kessler's eyes to the other side of the field as the SCIF defenders must now attempt to play a vertical route from a slot receiver flat-footed.

Not happening.

The ball goes to the seam route here 10/10 times.

Sure Kessler completed the comeback to Pryor for seven yards, but the offense could be looking at six points if he hits the slot receiver seam route. 100% he is coached to look to look there first as the vertical routes attack one of the two soft spots in Cover 3 (the seam and curl/flat areas). The "look at Kessler's TD/INT ratio" crowd will love this throw, but this HAS to go downfield. Kessler locked onto the safe, high percentage throw and did execute, but you are not winning games just throwing comebacks, hitches, and tailback/tight end flat routes.

Result: Left yards on the field 

Play #7

2nd Quarter, 2:34 - 1st and 10

Kessler misses another big one here against the Ravens' Tampa 2 shell on another well-designed play action concept.

Remember, the Tampa 2 is a 2-deep, zone-under defense that utilizes squat cornerbacks to play the flats, two deep safeties, and a  hole drop from the MIKE to protect the deep middle of the field. The post/cross/flat combo we see works with the shallow cross and run action to distort the zones, leading to another deep throw that should have been made.

Start with the in-the-box linebackers. All three bite on the play action and take steps towards the line of scrimmage. This is exactly what Jackson wants in order to create a throwing window for the post route. The outside linebacker to the tight end's side must carry the vertical route up the seam as the cornerback will have to pass it off if anything shows up in the flat. If the MIKE was not fooled by the play action he would have opened towards the tight end's side of the field and dropped 10-15 yards to protect the open field between the split safeties.

The play's timing is outstanding. Notice that the tight end stems his route inside just as Kessler takes a hitch step at the top of his drop. The ball should be out here. If Kessler leads Barnidge into the middle of the field, the safety is not making a play on the ball. The question remains, does Kessler lack the arm strength, the willingness, or both to make this throw?

Result: Left yards on the field 

Play #8

3rd Quarter, 13:50 - 3rd and 11

Our final play is the straw that broke the camel's back.

The Browns have caught the Ravens' defense with their pants down as the run another 3-deep, 3-under blitz against a 3 Verts concept.

Go back to play #7 and reread the section breaking down the SCIF defender's responsibility in this coverage. He must carry all verticals by the slot receiver, a tough task made more difficult by poor technique (stance is too high, body position is not athletic, does not mirror the receiver's steps to collision the route0).

Kessler immediately glances to his left but does not appear to recognize the match-up he has based on the route and coverage or decides not to throw the ball for unknown reasons. He should have released the ball on the hitch at the top of his drop (just before the receiver reached the defender), but instead, comes down to the tailback in the flat. 

Kessler is the creator of his own pressure as he leaves the pocket instead of stepping up between the right tackle and right guard. If Kessler had climbed, he likely could have hit Pryor running a dig route that would have come into his vision at just the right time. Although the window isn't there yet, the flat route from the second back would likely have pulled up the SCIF defender and created a large throwing lane in the middle of the field.

Result: Left yards on the field

We have seen a bit of everything during these eight plays. Poor concept design. Great concept design. No separation. Good pass blocking. Poor pass blocking. An inability to step up in the pocket to avoid exterior pressure. What appears to be a lack of anticipation or a lack of confidence to make vertical throws.  

What does it all mean? 

If Cody Kessler wants to keep himself in the mix as a starter with this football team he must push the ball downfield. Whether it's because of lack of arm strength or a desire to overprotect the ball, he needs to take chances and risk interceptions if he wants to be considered the quarterback of the future. The offensive staff needs to see if he can throw downfield. It is that simple.

This team will not win many games if the offense cannot consistently complete anything beyond a comeback, hitch, and flat route.

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