The Cleveland Browns are quietly emerging as legitimate playoff contenders behind a punishing offense spearheaded by a wily veteran and a tough running game. Following their dominant win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, I thought it was time to figure out why opponents are having such difficulty defending coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense, even with the unit presumably disadvantaged by the 10-game suspension of one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL (Josh Gordon).
1) Kyle Shanahan's scheme perfectly accentuates the running attack.
For all of the emphasis placed on Xs-and-Os, the marriage between scheme and personnel is critical to succeeding in the NFL. The top offensive coordinators build their schemes around the strengths of their players or find players ideally suited to thrive within their system. I believe the success of the Browns' ground game stems directly from the fact that the backs mesh well with a zone-based scheme that emphasizes running decisively at the point of attack to consistently produce positive gains.
Shanahan, a longtime proponent of the zone-based running scheme, believes disciplined runners can consistently churn out 4-yard gains by staying on their assigned tracks and efficiently attacking creases against the flow of the defense. Runners are required to adhere to a one-cut rule that limits the amount of dancing in the hole (a bad habit that routinely leads to negative runs and minimal gains even when the blocking is solid). Runners with patience, vision and instincts are preferred over jitterbugs bent on trying to turn every attempt into a big play. The Browns' roster features three backs who are ideal fits for a scheme built around the inside- and outside-zone play:
Tate, one of the Browns' marquee free-agent signees this offseason, flashed outstanding potential as a part-time runner with the Houston Texans. The fifth-year pro posted five 100-yard games in three seasons as Arian Foster's backup, displaying the kind of vision, toughness and physicality that is needed to excel in a zone-based scheme. Most importantly, Tate got to learn the nuances of the system under one of Shanahan's mentors, Gary Kubiak. (Shanahan served as a Texans assistant from 2006 to '07 and as Houston's offensive coordinator from 2008 to '09.)
The same scheme serves as the foundation of the Browns' ground attack -- and, not surprisingly, Tate has hit the ground running as the feature back in Cleveland. The 5-foot-10, 220-pound veteran has rushed for 202 yards on 47 carries with two touchdowns over the past two games, following a two-game absence due to a knee injury. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film of Tate's performance against Pittsburgh on Sunday, I was most impressed with his ability to grind it out between the tackles. Tate shows tremendous strength and power when running through arm tackles at the point of attack, yet he has enough agility to slip and slide through holes and reach the second level. This offense lives for the 4-yard gain, and Tate's toughness, tenacity and discipline have keyed Cleveland's recent success on the ground.
On his first of two touchdown runs against the Steelers, which is depicted below, Tate displayed all of the traits Browns coaches covet in a feature back. Aligned as the running back in an Ace formation, Tate will run an inside-zone run to the right. He is instructed to aim for the inside leg of the right guard before deciding whether to bang it between the tackles or find a cutback lane on the backside. Feeling the defense flying fast on the play side, Tate slips into a cutback alley to his left. He blows through a series of arm tackles and finds paydirt in the form of an 8-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Fans of SEC football certainly remember Crowell lighting it up at Georgia before a series of off-field incidents led to his dismissal from the program. The 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year, who entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie this year, has certainly displayed the explosiveness, agility and burst that initially made him a highly intriguing talent in college. The 5-11, 225-pounder has surged up the Browns' depth chart as a dynamic change-of-pace player adept at getting to the perimeter on outside-zone runs and stretch plays. His per-carry average of 5.4 yards leads the team, and he has a pair of runs of 20-plus yards that showcased his acceleration and burst at the second level.
The All-22 Coaches Film leaves no doubt that Crowell is the Browns' most explosive runner. He shows exceptional stop-start acceleration in the hole, but also has the pure speed to turn the corner without hesitation. The Browns take advantage of his skills by calling a variety of outside running plays from various formations to help him get to the edges of the defense.
In the play depicted below, the Browns are aligned in an Ace Wing to the right, with Crowell positioned at halfback. Cleveland has a stretch play called to the short side of the field. Crowell will take his initial steps toward the outside leg of the offensive tackle and read the flow of the defense to determine whether to bend (cut the ball back against the flow of the defense), bounce (run to the outside around the corner) or bang (attack the first crease on the inside at the point of attack). Seeing his blockers seal the edge, he races around the corner for a 5-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, from the Browns' loss to Baltimore in Week 3, Cleveland aligns in an I-formation, with Crowell at tailback. The team has a toss sweep called into the boundary, with zone blocking at the point of attack. Crowell will read the lead block of his fullback and decide whether to bounce outside or attack an inside crease at the line of scrimmage. When Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw flies up the field, leaving a void on the inside, Crowell attacks the seam, bounces back outside and runs away from the defense for a 14-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Crowell capable of turning the corner against any defense, the Browns have made a concerted effort to get their home-run hitter plenty of touches on the perimeter to complement an attack anchored by Tate's hard-nosed approach.
When the Browns expended a third-round selection on West in the 2014 NFL Draft, I expected the Towson product to make an immediate impact on the offense as a feature runner. The 5-9, 225-pound rookie was a dominant player on the FCS level, exhibiting outstanding strength, power, vision and quickness with the ball in his hands. He frequently broke tackles in the hole and displayed impressive pitter-pat in traffic, despite his size. Additionally, West showed a knack for finding the end zone and thrived as a hard-nosed ball carrier on inside runs. In fact, the small-school standout made such an impression, a couple of NFL assistants likened him to former Pro Bowl RB Natrone Means during his prime.
The Browns have certainly tapped into those skills by featuring West prominently in the game plan early on. West registered 35 carries in Cleveland's first two contests, including a 16-carry, 100-yard effort against the Steelers in Week 1 that showcased his potential as a workhorse runner. West repeatedly found creases in the middle of the Steelers' defense and made an impressive array of cuts in the hole that displayed a level of balance, body control and quickness that was surprising for a big-bodied runner.
In the play depicted below, taken from that Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh, the Browns are aligned in an Ace Wing formation, with "13" personnel (one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver) on the field. West is positioned as the single back, directly behind the quarterback. A stretch play is called to the right, with West instructed to bounce, bang or bend, based on the flow of the defense. Sensing the defense pursuing aggressively to the corner, West quickly shoots through a crease on the edge to get to the second level. He avoids a couple of defenders in the hole and eventually weaves through the secondary to pick up 22 yards on a well-executed play at the point of attack (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
2) Brian Hoyer is the ultimate game manager.
I will be the first to admit that, based on his preseason performance, I disagreed with the selection of Hoyer as the starting quarterback, but the veteran has proven me wrong with his efficient play in the games that count. Hoyer is playing winning football from the pocket, completing 60.4 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7:1. He has flashed exceptional management skills in key areas, including in the red zone (where he's completing 72.2 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 6:0), during the two-minute drill (when he's completing 66.7 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2:0) and in rally situations (when trailing by eight or less points, he's completing 71.9 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3:1). Most importantly, he has taken superb care of the football (just one interception in 149 pass attempts) and given his team an opportunity to win by avoiding the critical error in the pocket.
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From a schematic standpoint, the Browns have helped Hoyer thrive by featuring a vertical play-action passing game. The threat of the run lures linebackers to the line of scrimmage, creating big windows for Hoyer on digs and crossing routes behind the linebackers. Additionally, the Browns have been using a variety of misdirection bootleg passes designed to exploit aggressive defenders moving out of position after overreacting to ball fakes in the backfield.
In the play depicted below, from Sunday's win, the Browns are aligned in an Ace Wing formation, with "13" personnel on the field. Jordan Cameron is positioned as the tight end to the strong side. At the snap, Hoyer will fake a handoff to the right before executing a bootleg rollout to his left. Cameron will fake a "down" block before working down the line to run down the boundary to the right. Travis Benjamin is running a crossing route to the left, to pull the cornerback and safety out of position. Hoyer whips around and, spotting his Pro Bowl tight end all alone down the boundary, lobs a perfect pass to Cameron behind the Steelers' defense. This results in a 42-yard gain for the Browns(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Later in the game, the Browns ran a similar version of that play, leading to another big gain. Here, the team is aligned in an Ace Wing formation, with Jim Dray (No. 81) positioned at tight end inside of Gary Barnidge (82). The Browns are running a bootleg pass to the right, with Dray sneaking down the opposite boundary following a fake "down" block. Benjamin and Cameron are instructed to clear the zone with crossing routes, leaving plenty of space for Dray to work down the boundary. With the Steelers' defense out of position, Hoyer finds a wide open Dray for a 31-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Browns also tormented the Steelers with fake reverse action in the backfield, as demonstrated by the play below. Here, the Browns are aligned in a bunch formation to the left. Andrew Hawkins will fake a reverse heading to the right. Cameron is instructed to run a deep hook route while Benjamin runs across the field on a deep crossing route. Hoyer fakes the original handoff to Tate, then pulls off a clever play fake to Hawkins on the reverse. The backfield action confuses the Steelers' defenders, allowing Benjamin to work away from coverage on the crossing route. Despite the Steelers being in man coverage, the Browns have the ideal play called, due to Cameron's ability to set an inadvertent pick on Benjamin's defender on the deep crosser. Benjamin eventually comes open and Hoyer delivers a dime for a 31-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Hoyer's numbers won't make him a fantasy football favorite, but his production is solid enough to complement a powerful running game that allows the Browns to control the tempo and wear down opponents. Hoyer has also shown he can make plays when the game is on the line. In other words, he's the ideal game manager for Cleveland's old-school approach.
3) The O-line allows Cleveland to compete with the AFC heavyweights.
Whenever a team is able to win consistently with a conservative game plan, it is largely due to the dominance of the offensive line in the trenches. The big bodies must seize control of the line of scrimmage and create push at the point of attack to encourage an offensive coordinator to stick with a run-first approach.
The Browns' offensive line has shown surprising chemistry and continuity despite adopting a new scheme this season. Led by Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, Cleveland has carved up some stingy defenses on the ground; the team ranks third in rushing offense and leads the league in rushing scores (eight). Most importantly, the team ranks second in rushing attempts per game (33.0), which indicates a commitment to the run and supreme confidence in the offensive line's ability to impose its will on the opposition.
Some will wonder whether the Browns can sustain their high level of play without Mack, who suffered a broken fibula Sunday. But the collective athleticism and toughness of the unit should help compensate for the loss of the Pro Bowler. Sure, there will be a drop-off on the interior as Paul McQuistan moves into the starting lineup, but the combination of disciplined running and underrated athleticism along the interior (in the form of Joel Bitonio and John Greco) will enable Cleveland to keep rolling.
If the Browns can continue to keep Hoyer clean in the pocket and create seams at the point of attack in the running game, they can make a legitimate run at the playoffs when Gordon returns. Between his impact as a dynamic playmaker on the outside and the strong play of a rock-solid offensive line, veteran quarterback and dynamic running back rotation, Cleveland could be the team no one wants to face down the stretch.