Cleveland Browns X's & O's: Hue Jackson's Offense and What Could Have Been

Entering the 2016 season there was a definite buzz around new head coach Hue Jackson's offense.

After years of ineptitude –with very brief periods of exciting football - on the offensive side of the ball, Jackson’s mix of non-traditional formations, power running game, and West Coast passing system featuring vertical shots downfield generated genuine expectations of something resembling an NFL offense. Combine these components of a “traditional” NFL scheme with spread elements such as no-huddle, zone read, repos, and a focus on getting the ball to playmakers in space, and fans had the making of what should have been a progressive philosophy and scheme.

With the signing of reclamation project Robert Griffin III, Jackson’s body of work with Oakland and Cincinnati, and the visit of disgraced ex-Baylor head coach Art Briles Sr. to “consult” during summer camp, the tea leaves predicted a spread-based offense that utilized the core concepts that made the second-time head coach a successful, well-respected play caller at his two previous stops.

Instead, fans were treated to an often anemic offense that averaged a paltry 311 yards per game and finished second-to-last in scoring, averaging 16.5 points.

No one single factor dominated last season’s poor offensive performance.

Young players learning on the job at key positions, the usual carousel of quarterbacks, iffy offense line play, injuries to key contributors, and Jackson’s erratic play calling all contributed to last season’s futility. While the offense did flash at times – the running game was very successful at various points throughout the season – sustained scoring drives were tough to come by.

Jackson’s vision of his 2016 offense was fundamentally altered after RGIII was placed on injured reserve due to an opening weekend injury (fractured shoulder). While no one could question the toughness and heart of rookie Cody Kessler and veteran Josh McCown, neither possessed the necessary skill set to run Jackson’s version of an NFL spread.

While the former Heisman Trophy winner’s week 14 return against the Cincinnati Bengals and subsequent shellacking courtesy of the Buffalo Bills was less than stellar, the offense did improve enough over the final four games weeks to almost cost the team Myles Garrett (albeit against the 5-11 Chargers and a depleted Steelers’ squad).

More importantly, despite the offenses’ continued inconsistency due to the factors mentioned above, Jackson’s play calling over the final weeks of the season appeared to reflect what he wanted the offense to look like entering the season.

The OBR went through the squad’s season-ending overtime loss to the Steelers to identify what appeared to be core concepts of the offensive game plan. Many of these concepts were used throughout the season; others were virtually non-existent. What matters is the way the game was called as whole.

What new elements did RGIII bring to the offense? What concepts did the offense lean on? Most importantly, what can be inferred about Jackson’s “ideal” offense using a meta-view of the game?

Run Plays with an Unblocked Defender

A large part of Jackson’s run game was built around RGIII’s ability to ‘read off’ a backside defender in order to create an extra blocker at the point of attack.

Last offseason the OBR broke down RGIII’s success running zone-based principles with a quarterback bootleg durign his rookie year with the Washington Redskins.

Hue Jackson clearly reads the site as he leaned on the backside read to jump start his running game when RGIII was at the helm.

The basics of the backside read are fairly simple:

  1. The EMLOS(end man on line of scrimmage) away from the play’s direction is left unblocked
  2. The quarterback will key this defender’s actions as he meshes with the tailback
  3. If the defender ‘squeezes the dive (chases the tailback inside), the quarterback will pull the ball
  4. If the defender ‘defends the boot’ (stays wide to tackle the quarterback if he pulls the ball to run), the quarterback will hand-off to the tailback


As long as the quarterback makes the correct decision at the mesh point, the defender can never be right and should not be able to impact the play. By reading this defender out of the play, the offense has eliminated a player that must be blocked and created a +1 at the line of scrimmage.

All else being equal, the unit that creates numbers - often referred to as ‘leverage’ - at the point of attack will win the play.

It is important to note that while unblocked defenders and backside reads are associated with zone blocking schemes, the concept is easily integrated with gap-blocked concepts such as power, counter, and the tailback sweep.

The marriage of backside read and gap-blocked runs is nothing new to Jackson as he has run the concept as far back as his days with the Oakland Raiders.

In fact, Terrelle Pryor’s record-setting (longest run by an NFL quarterback) 93-yard touchdown against the Steelers came off the same concept during the 2013 season.

The Browns’ longest run of the afternoon was the result of the same power concept, as Isiah Crowell scampered 67 yards to set-up the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Jackson also dialed up the 'Sweep Read' concept he showed several times during the season for positive yards.

As defenses developed effective counters such as 'scrape exchanges' and gap games to slow down option-style plays that read the EMLOS, offensive coordinators adjusted by moving the read from the edge to linebackers.

As we will see in a moment, the Sweep Read maintains option principles while blocking the edge. 

Much like the previous play we looked at, this concept uses traditional gap-game techniques like down blocks and pullers and maintains the same philosophy; read off an in-the-box defender to create a +1 at the point of attack.

REPOS (Run/Pass Options)

A second major component that showed up several times on the tape was the use of repos (run/pass options) to conflict a defender while eliminating the quarterback run aspect of option football.

Last offseason, the OBR broke down the philosophy and concept behind the repo as well.

From the article…

“The idea is surprisingly simple; merge a pass play and run play into a single concept. The offensive line will run block while the receivers and tight ends run pass routes. The quarterback will decide whether to hand off to the running back or throw a pass to the receivers based on the action of a single ‘read’ defender. The goal is to put the read defender in a pass-run conflict by forcing them to choose between their run or pass responsibility, making them wrong no matter what they do.

RPOs work particularly well in a no-huddle, hurry-up offense as they allow the quarterback to make quick, simple decisions without the need to make complicated line calls and pre-snap coverage reads. The passing aspect of the play allows the offense to get the ball to playmakers in space, as the pass routes consist of quick-game slants, hitches, and seams that are a broken-tackle away from going for six. Most packaged plays do not utilize intermediate or vertical routes as the offensive line may not block further than five yards downfield (a controversial issue within the coaching community as this rule is rarely enforced).”



 The Browns successfully ran repo concepts several times over the course of the afternoon.

With the ground attack hitting on all cylinders - particularly in the second half – Jackson’s ability to credibly threaten via the ground game created opportunities for the offensive unit to capitalize off several play action concepts.

Play action was a big part of the weekly game plan throughout the season, but on that particular Sunday the run game’s volume (33 carries) and success (231 yards) had the defense aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage on any run action.

The play action package paid immediate dividends in the first quarter as RGIII found rookie Seth Devalve in the red zone to take an early 7-0 lead.

The play concept is a simple, yet effective two-level flood that creates a horizontal and vertical stretch on the pass defense using a combination of flat and crossing routes with a late-breaking dig.

The defense is in a red zone coverage shell known as ‘Red 2’, a two-deep zone-based coverage.

The cornerback is responsible to the flats with the outside linebackers playing the seam/hook zone. #50 likely has the play-side seam/hook drop.  

Watch them both throughout the play

The linebacker bites hard on the run fake as Jackson effectively uses ‘false keys’ (the linebacker is likely keying the right guard; on a pull he should expect to scrap across the formation to the ball) from the right tackle and right guard.

Because the linebacker is not in his zone to pick up the crossing route, the cornerback finds himself in no man’s land.

If he jumps the flat route from Devalve, the ball will go to Barnidge.

If he cuts off Barnidge, the ball goes to the flat.

Great design, great execution, great routes, and great decision by RGIII.

Jackson used play action to target Gary Barnidge for a first down on the first play of the Browns’ next scoring drive off a similar three-receiver flood.

The initial backfield flow is designed to look like 'Split Zone' with the tailback taking an inside zone path to the right and the tight end arc blocking the EMLOS to the left.

Rather than block the first alley threat to seal the inside for a cutback, the Pro Bowler continues to the flat. A dig and corner route from the outside receivers complete the three-level read, although RGIII correctly gets the ball out as soon as he recognizes his tight end has out leveraged the flat defender.

Quick Game/Horizontal Spacing

While Jackson has rightfully earned the reputation as a coach who will aggressively attack downfield, his adherence to many tried-and-true West Coast concepts is often overlooked.

 The flexible coach wants to force his opponent to guard all 53 1/3 yards of grass. To accomplish this philosophy, Jackson will mix class, 3-step concepts with a variety of formations in order to horizontally stretch a defense and get the ball to his skill players in space.

The offense started the second drive of the day with the West Coast classic ‘All Hitches/Spacing’

Notice how the routes work together to find and exploit holes in the zone while also leveraging the pre-snap depth of the pass defenders.

Late in the second quarter the offense dressed up the classic ‘Snag’ concept with tailback motion to convert a key third down.

Again, notice how the routes work together to creates holes in the zone. The receiers do a great job of feeling the holes and sitting down the routes in areas that provide their quarterback a clear throwing window.

During the squad’s first possession of overtime, Jackson dialed up man and zone-beating ‘Double Slants’, a concept that showed up throughout the afternoon but was noticeably absent during the season.

Vertical Shots

Hue Jackson hangs his hat on the vertical pass game.

While the offense saw mixed success at best on vertical shots this season, RGIII and Pryor hooked up on a beautiful hitch and go double move that could have won the game.

After attacking the Steeler's heavy Cover 3 pass coverage with the short game all afternoon, Jackson pulled the string at just the right time to spring Pryor for a huge gain.

While the offense only took two other legitimate shots downfield (completing neither), this was likely a gameplan specific move as the Steelers play a Cover 3 base shell. Because the cornerbacks are tasked with protecting a deep 1/3 of the field in this coverage, it is difficult to beat over the top outside as they generally start with 7-8 yards depth at the snap and bail towards their deep zone. The soft spot is upfield through the seams with tight ends and slot receivers, but Jackson did focus on this area of the field. 

Only those inside the organization know exactly what the 2016 offense was supposed to look like, but based on the final two games of the season several educated guesses can be made. With the quarterback situation in flux, it is impossible to project exactly what next season's offense will look like because Jackson will tailor his scheme to his quarterback. Should the Browns stick with RGII over sign a quarterback like Tyrod Taylor, expect to see much of the same. If the team moves in a different direction, the core concepts will center around what that quarterback does well. 

Should the Browns stick with RGII over sign a quarterback like Tyrod Taylor, expect to see much of the same. If the team moves in a different direction, the core concepts will center around what that quarterback does well. Once the quarterback situation is clarified it will much easier to project what 2017 might look like. Until then, fans are stuck with visions of last season's ineptitude. 

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