The Cleveland Browns' offense has been short on surprises in recent years. The unit has finished among the NFL's worst in each of the past three seasons, ranking a dismal 25th in total offense (and averaging just 18.9 points per game) in 2012.
Such woes certainly should have been expected, given that Cleveland, which was fielding the third-youngest roster in the NFL a season ago, wound up getting a combined 87 starts out of its rookies. Moreover, first-year starters included the quarterback (Brandon Weeden), running back (Trent Richardson) and No. 1 receiver (Josh Gordon) -- which is to say, the core of their offense.
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Of course, it also should've been expected that the following bold proclamation from Gordon would raise eyebrows:
"Defenses will be shocked, to say the least, with how much we're running downfield," Gordon recently told the Akron Beacon Journal.
Folks will be forgiven for doubting both Gordon's excitement and expectations that new head coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner will establish an "attack" mentality in Cleveland. However, after studying the marriage between personnel and scheme, I think the Browns might be on to something.
Here are four reasons to believe Cleveland will take off in 2013:
1) Trent Richardson will be the bedrock of the offense.
For all of the credit Turner gets for his innovative passing game, he is a run-first play caller who prefers to build his offense around a dynamic running back.
In his accomplished career as a head coach and offensive coordinator, Turner's systems have produced the NFL's leading rusher five times: Emmitt Smith (1991-93), Ricky Williams (2002) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2007). Turner prefers a downhill running game built upon the lead draw and power, which allow his running backs to hit the hole with their shoulders square at the point of attack. This reduces the number of negative runs, while also setting the table for a lethal play-action passing game built around downhill run fakes and vertical routes.
In Richardson, Turner inherits a dynamic young runner who has the strength, power and physicality to excel between the tackles, as well as the quickness and burst to get to the edges. Although a host of nagging injuries prevented him from maximizing his potential as a rookie, Richardson still managed to rush for 950 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 15 games last season. Most importantly, he showed the stamina and fortitude to handle a heavy workload as the team's primary ball carrier. Richardson notched at least 17 rushing attempts in nine games, including a stretch of five straight in the middle of the season in which he carried the ball 20 times or more.
Thinking about how Turner might want to use Richardson leads me to believe the Browns will feature the draw and power from a variety of one- and two-back formations. The utilization of one-back sets will eliminate some of the clutter in the box, while the traditional two-back formations will give Richardson an escort between the tackles. As far as using the draw, Richardson is a patient runner with the vision, anticipation and instincts to find creases in the middle. The delayed handoff slows the linebackers who are attacking the box, allowing the Browns' blockers to lock on to defenders in the hole.
In the video clip above, taken from the Browns' Week 3 game against the Buffalo Bills, Richardson scores a 6-yard touchdown on a draw. He slide-steps to his right before taking the handoff and finding a crease on the backside. Most impressively, he slips out of a pair of tackles in the backfield on the way to the end zone. Richardson should be very comfortable with what I expect will become one of the bread-and-butter plays of the offense, given Turner's penchant for those kinds of runs.
Richardson is also adept at running the Power-O play between the tackles, which is another play that requires patience. The running back is instructed to take delayed steps or counter steps to give his lead blockers (the back-side guard and fullback) enough time to get into the hole.
The clip to the right shows Richardson running the Power-O against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 12. Notice how he patiently takes his counter steps before following the path of the guard through the hole. Most young runners lack the discipline to wait for their blockers, but Richardson already has shown he has the poise to let plays develop. This should help him notch big gains in Turner's system.
2) Brandon Weeden is a perfect fit for Norv Turner's vertical attack.
Turner has earned a sterling reputation for developing quarterbacks throughout his career. Utilizing an intricate passing game that features a variety of timing-based vertical routes, Turner helped Troy Aikman garner Hall of Fame accolades with the Dallas Cowboys and transformed Philip Rivers into a perennial Pro Bowler with the San Diego Chargers.
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In Turner's system, the quarterback is instructed to quickly work to the top of his drop (normally a five-step drop) and throw the ball to a designated spot on the field. The quarterbacks who are most effective in this system are those who can let the ball go without hesitation, anticipating the open window and trusting their receiver to get to the spot. Additionally, the emphasis on the vertical portion of the route tree requires quarterbacks to possess above-average arm strength. Passers must be able to connect on the comeback and the "Bang-8" (skinny post) on the outside. When thrower and catcher are in sync on the perimeter, the intricate timing and rhythm of this passing game makes it nearly impossible to defend against.
Weeden flashed fine potential as a first-year starter in 2012, completing 57.6 percent of his passes for 3,385 yards with a 14:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers might not pop off the page at first glance, but it should be noted that he averaged 34.5 attempts for an offense that, in addition to lacking experienced players on the perimeter, was routinely in "catch-up mode." Weeden constantly faced exotic blitzes and stacked coverages that were designed to force hurried throws and take away the downfield passing game.
After breaking down Weeden's performance as a rookie, I came away impressed with his arm strength, awareness and anticipation. He can make every throw in the book with zip and velocity. Most importantly, Weeden will let the ball go on time, trusting his receivers to get to their designated spots down the field. In the video clip to the right, from the Browns' Week 15 loss to the Washington Redskins, Weeden does just that on a superb throw down the sideline to Travis Benjamin. After fielding the snap from the shotgun, Weeden quickly reads the safety hanging on the hash in "quarters" and takes the deep shot down the boundary to Benjamin against one-on-one coverage.
These are the kinds of throws that Weeden will be asked to routinely make in Turner's system, which plays to his strengths as a playmaker from the pocket.
Weeden also shows promise as an efficient passer on play-action passes. He is clever with his ball handling and fakes in the backfield, and displays impeccable timing, getting the ball out of his hands quickly after the set-up. This is an overlooked aspect of quarterback play, but one that is critical to success in Turner's system. Given the fact that the Browns will build their game plan around Richardson's dynamic running skills, the utilization of play fakes should create big-play opportunities for Weeden downfield, assuming opposing linebackers and safeties will be lured to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
This was a part of the Browns' game plan a season ago, but it will become a focal point with Turner taking over the offensive controls. The video clip to the right, from the Browns' Week 7 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts, showcases Weeden's effectiveness in the play-action game. He takes the snap and fakes a stretch handoff to his left before executing a half-bootleg rollout to set up deep in the pocket. The perfectly executed play fake induces an overreaction from the Colts' front seven, leaving Gordon in a favorable one-on-one matchup on the right. Weeden makes a pinpoint back-shoulder throw away from the defender for an easy 33-yard touchdown.
With Turner slated to implement a vertical passing game that should play to Weeden's strengths as a passer, I expect the Browns' quarterback to make significant strides.
3) Josh Gordon and Greg Little could form an impressive 1-2 punch.
If the Browns are going to field an explosive offense in 2013, the young receiving tandem of Gordon and Little will play an instrumental role. Each receiver is an intriguing talent with the combination of speed, athleticism and skill that coaches covet in playmakers on the perimeter. They should be key to Turner's offense, which places an emphasis on getting the ball to big, athletic players in space.
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Gordon, a second-year pro from Baylor, showed glimpses of immense talent and potential in 2012, finishing with 50 receptions for 805 yards and five touchdowns. Most impressively, he averaged 16.1 yards per catch and amassed 12 receptions of 20-plus yards. Those are strong numbers for a rookie wideout, particularly one who joined the team relatively late following his selection in the supplemental draft last July.
Looking at the tape, I believe Gordon is an explosive athlete with sneaky speed and acceleration -- an excellent deep-ball playmaker with a knack for sneaking past defenders on vertical routes. Although he still needs to refine his route-running skills, he is such a talented athlete that he consistently finds a way to create separation. Considering the additional repetitions and tutelage he'll get in offseason workouts, I expect that Gordon could develop into a solid No. 1 receiver in Cleveland.
Little is also a dynamic pass catcher with outstanding speed and running skills who excels at making things happen with the ball in his hands. The Browns started to capitalize on those skills in 2012 by routinely getting him the ball on the move, and Little started to show more polish and consistency as a route runner. He utilizes various stems and change-of-pace moves to create space from defenders out of the break. Additionally, he started to show better hands and ball skills in traffic.
In the video clip to the right, from the Browns' matchup against the Colts, Little puts it all together. Aligned on the right prior to the snap, he sneaks past the defense on a short post route, then displays outstanding concentration while pulling down a high ball in the shadow of the goal post for a 14-yard score. Little can expand Weeden's strike zone with his athleticism and ball skills, and the Browns could use him as a primary weapon in the red zone.
This offense struggled to score points last season; the identification of a dependable playmaker could pay huge dividends in 2013.
4) Jordan Cameron is the X-factor to the Browns' offensive success.
For all of the attention that is given to running backs and receivers in Turner's scheme, the presence of a dangerous tight end in the middle of the field could take the Browns' offense to another level. This is an aspect of Turner's scheme that goes largely unnoticed, despite the illustrious careers of Jay Novacek (in Dallas) and Antonio Gates (in San Diego) under Turner's direction.
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With his unique combination of athleticism and ball skills, Cameron could assume the role of between-the-hashes difference-maker in Cleveland. As a former collegiate basketball player (Cameron played basketball at BYU before transferring to USC to play football), he has a knack for using his body to create separation from defenders. Additionally, he is a terrific pass catcher with a penchant for pulling down tough grabs in crowds. This should be a huge asset to Weeden, because it will give him a safe, dependable receiver to target in the middle of the field.
With defenses forced to decide between using eight-man fronts to stop Richardson or some form of two-deep coverage to defend Little and Gordon, the area between the hashes should be vulnerable to frequent tosses to Cameron. Based on his impressive physical tools, that could lead to more big plays from the Browns' passing game.