Make no mistake, the Cleveland Browns still have a lot of problems. But one by one, they are pruning them away.
Since former head coach Hue Jackson and former offensive coordinator Todd Haley departed, the Browns have shown improvement. New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens has put together an offense that makes great use of formations and personnel while keeping it relatively simple for his rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Kitchens has also made changes to the lineup, including making better use of rookie running back Nick Chubb that has paid off for the Browns in a big way. With the way that the Bengals defense has continued to struggle, this new-look Browns offense presents a legitimate threat. Let’s explore why.
This is a really simple pass concept that every team in the league runs. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway lines up on the bottom of the screen and runs a slant route to the inside. The running back, Chubb, runs an arrow route to the flat on the same side. Mayfield reads the outside linebacker who is lined up directly on the 25-yard line about three yards outside the hash. If he were to sit, Mayfield would throw the ball to the arrow, but in this case he expands so Mayfield throws the slant. This is a good read by Mayfield and Callaway is able to pick up some good yardage after the catch.
On this third down play, wide receiver Jarvis Landry motions to the top of the screen and runs a deep out right to the sticks. With the ball on the opposite hash, this pass has to travel a long distance in the air, but Mayfield is able to deliver it with speed and precision.
3rd down pass to Landry moves the chains pic.twitter.com/aNUbyJT8B3— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 20, 2018
The previous two plays were good plays, but not uncommon. Here Mayfield shows why he was the first-overall pick. A defender breaks through the center of the Browns’ offensive line, which forces Mayfield to scramble to his right. But Mayfield does not take off running. He keeps his eyes downfield and despite yet another defender heading right for and his unconventional body position, he is able to throw a dart to Rashard Higgins in the end zone. This is a special play by a special player.
Off balance TD throw to Higgins pic.twitter.com/B4BSf3sMBp— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 20, 2018
Chubb may have had some injury concerns from college, but he was terribly underrated by many in this year’s NFL Draft. On this inside run he jump-cuts to the right, but seeing an unblocked defender barreling down on him he immediately jump-cuts again and bends way back to the left for a first down.
Of course, this is the Chubb run that made the highlight reels. He is running an outside zone and cuts it back inside the right tackle. He uses his speed as a gradual fade to the outside, to beat the initial backside pursuit. He then picks up a great “block” from Callaway who never actually engages with cornerback Desmond Trufant, but mirrors him enough and allows Chubb to cut inside of him. From there, it is all Chubb’s speed.
This is an interesting formation that the Browns ran a series of plays from. They have a single receiver spread out. On the opposite side of the formation, there is a tight end, There are three running backs in the backfield, with Chubb deep and Duke Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard on either side of him about half as deep. On passing plays lines up in the shotgun, but here he is under center.
Here they run the option, but in a rather unconventional way. Mayfield makes no read and simply hands the ball off to Johnson. Johnson runs the speed option with Chubb. The end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLOS) is left unblocked so Johnson can read him. Johnson runs straight for the EMOLOS, who runs right past him to Chubb. Johnson tucks the ball away and runs for a first down.
This formation in itself creates a lot of options. With a tight end and five offensive linemen, there are seven gaps that the defense needs to account for. With three backs in the backfield, there are potentially three extra blockers in the run game (on a quarterback keeper) so most teams will stack the box. This dictates coverage, forcing teams into Cover 3 or more likely Cover 1. The two outside running backs are in a pretty good position to release into routes, particularly on out cuts that are good against both Cover 3 and Cover 1. This makes things nice and simple for their rookie quarterback.
Essentially, this look can be classified as a “flexed bone” or “broken bone” formation which is used heavily in triple option offenses. Although none of the backs are true blocking backs, the presence of extra blockers could facilitate toss, counter, and zone runs.
This is the same play as above, but the defense plays in differently. Here the EMOLOS stays tight and plays Johnson. This should immediately be a “pitch” read for Johnson, but instead he keeps the ball and breaks the tackle. When the next defender hits him, Johnson pitches the ball out to Chubb. Johnson broke a cardinal rule of option football by pitching off of something other than his read, but in this situation it worked out. Pitching off of bad reads and when getting hit can cause turnovers so confusing Johnson on these plays could lead to pig plays for the Bengals.
That's Mayfield handing off to Duke Johnson who runs the option with Nick Chubb pic.twitter.com/1MX2BhFao3— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 20, 2018
This is essentially the same formation, but Mayfield if now in the shotgun. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman runs a slant to the top of the formation, while Hilliard, the left running back, releases directly into the flat. Recognize this route combination? It is the exact same as the first clip in this article, just out of a different formation.
Mayfield likely knows pre-snap that the Falcons are in man coverage, but that is quickly confirmed when he sees the linebacker chase Hilliard into the flat. Perriman has gotten a good release on the cornerback and there is plenty of room for Mayfield to deliver the ball to him inside. This is a very simple, but effective route concept that is made even easier by the formation dictating coverage.
Despite the departure of Teryl Austin, the Bengals defensive struggles continued against the Ravens in Week 11. The Browns have some good players on offense and know how to put them in good positions, and their defense is adept at causing turnovers. The Bengals defense will need to step up in order to make Mayfield feel uncomfortable and force the young signal caller to make mistakes and give the ball back to the Bengals.