Quarterback Derek Anderson, who has been successful in the vertical passing game, has been relegated over the past two weeks to throwing underneath via a short passing game. Why has the quarterback suddenly gotten away from his previous strengths, as well as the previous strength of the team's offensive scheme ?
In the past two weeks, the Cleveland Browns have faced off against two of the best defensive teams in the game. Due to the pressure both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens apply to the opposing quarterback, their opponents often elect to throw quick, short passes in order to try to negate the blitzing style both times bring to bear. Anderson and the Cleveland offense have followed the "school solution" against these two imposing defensives.
At the same time, I believe the Browns offense, and Anderson in particular, have shown too much respect for the opposition.
The Cleveland passing attack has been predicated on the vertical game, mixing in the run to offset an all-out defensive stampede toward the quarterback, and the Browns have gotten away from their strengths as they've attempted to match up against Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
At the same time, opposing defenses have adoped some strategies to take away the Browns chief weapons. It has been increasingly evident in the past couple weeks, that the "book" on slowing down the Browns is to roll coverage toward wide receiver Braylon Edwards and drop a linebacker into the intermediate zones with a safety up in an effort to minimize the effectiveness of tight-end Kellen Winslow.
Opposing strategies have helped to reduce the Browns downfield threat, but other factors may be in play as well.
There is a growing concern among Browns observers that Anderson is taking the club's direction of minimizing mistakes and getting the ball out of the pocket to the extreme. Who could blame him? In both of the past two games, the Cleveland vertical offense has been a shell of what it had been. While opportunities were present in each game, the normally aggressive Anderson simply took what the defense offered, leaving the opportunity for big plays on the field.
Sunday against the Ravens, Anderson twice failed to throw the ball to an open Braylon Edwards down the sideline, as he had gotten behind cornerback Baltimore Chris McAlister. Also, Winslow and Tim Carter had beaten the defense on multiple plays, but the quarterback checked down quickly and went to the secondary receiver.
The Browns stunned the NFL with their offense because they combined an aggressive offensive scheme coupled with a quarterback who had the fortitude to make plays downfield to talented receivers. This is why the Browns are in the position they are in today. But it wasn't long ago that this team had a quarterback (Charlie Frye) who primarily checked down to a secondary receiver before he even took the snap.
Granted, the defenses this Cleveland team has faced the past two weeks are as good as it gets in the league, but there are always a handful of plays in a game which the opportunity is present to strike big. The Browns haven't taken advantage of this in the last two weeks as they had in the past.
There are other beyond a change in aggressiveness which might be having an impact. Against the Baltimore Ravens, the pass rush was certainly a threat. The Cleveland offensive line was a little "off" on last Sunday, probably due either to noise inside the stadium or a lack of concentration. Regardless, the Browns talented offensive line stood up to the spirited Ravens defense, although Anderson did not have an eternity to survey the playing field.
Lacking a legitimate third receiver is costly to this team. Far too often over the past two weeks and especially Sunday against the Ravens, the Baltimore defensive backs were able to man and zone the Cleveland second and third receivers, in keeping them in front of the play.
The change is tone is far more worrisome, however. Rather than attacking the corners, the Cleveland offense settled into a disconcerning rhythm of playing to the Baltimore scheme, rather than attacking the defense and making Baltimore make plays. This isn't to say Anderson did not recognize the defense. In most cases, he did, but seemed unable to take advantage of the situation.
With respect to how well the short game was excuted, Anderson got the ball out of the pocket and made better throws than against the Steelers, but it is evident he still needs plenty of work in this facet of the game. While his receivers have the opportunity to adjust to off-target throws down-field, the short passing game cranks up the importants of passing accuracy. Anderson tends to throw the ball with too much velocity and he is often off-target on short routes. The Browns starting running back and number-one receiver appear to be less inclined to adjust in the short game.
To win in this league consistently, an offense must be versatile and have the ability to take what the defense gives. The past two weeks are an indicator of what is in store for the Browns.
Their performances over the last two weeks have shown that the Cleveland Browns can play with the best defenses in the game. Now this team must find a way to regain their attack mentality and gain consistency in the shorter game in order to take their play to the next level.