The 2014 Cleveland Browns feel like they've been Flight of the Navigator'd from an 80's football movie. A brand-new coaching staff hired to turn around a long-suffering organization based in monochromatic Cleveland. At the helm, a shaved-head, goatee-sporting head coach, borne from the ashes of anonymous coal towns in Pennsylvania. Mike Pettine is a man known for his fiery demeanor and as a tough, uncompromising disciplinarian, and it's integral that he's a middle-aged but somewhat youngish bald guy with a goatee, or this wouldn't work.
He's got his misunderstood but brilliant wunderkind at offensive coordinator (Kyle Shanahan); his gritty, lunchpail veteran quarterback (Brian Hoyer), who's coming off of a major injury but somehow holding off the cocksure, unapologetically charismatic rookie first-rounder nicknamed Johnny Football. (I'm not even making this up for my movie).
The cast of characters at the skill positions is largely filled out with a bunch of undrafted free agents (featuring disgraced former SEC Superstar turned small-school-standout Isaiah Crowell) and aging throwaway vets (like Miles Austin -- can you believe Miles Austin is still playing? I forgot about that guy).
Character concerns, off-field and injury red-flags abound. Somewhere, I'm guessing, Keanu Reeves is lurking around. Add in your hulking, beefy offensive line made up of this guy, this guy, this guy, this guy and DEFINITELY now this guy, and you've got a stew going.
The Plot: The wide zone run game
The Browns' new identity is centered around the Shanahan zone blocking run game, and it's been very effective thus far. It all starts up front with their excellent offensive line, and even after losing the inimitable Alex Mack for the season, this is one of the best offensive line groups in the NFL. Joe Thomas is the anchor on the outside, as he's been for years now. Rookie brawler Joel Bitonio (the son of a champion MMA fighter) is at left guard, veteran John Greco is now at center, journeyman Paul McQuistan at right guard and Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle.
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After finishing 27th in rushing last year, the Browns are running the ball 33 times per game in 2014 (second in the NFL), averaging 149.6 yards rushing (third), 5.0 yards per rush (third) and have busted out seven rushes of more than 20 yards, second-most in the league. Even though they've had to mount furious comebacks in three of their five games, the Browns have remained dedicated to the ground game, calling runs on just over 51 percent of their plays (behind only the Texans in that category).
The foundation of the Browns' offense is the zone blocking scheme. In very basic terms, the ZBS consists of two main plays -- the inside (tight) zone and the outside (wide) zone. Shanahan's teams over the years have been predominantly wide zone running teams. In this blocking scheme, rather than attacking downfield, offensive linemen are taught to step laterally at the snap of the football, moving down the line of scrimmage while occupying a defensive lineman or linebacker/safety. More on that here.
The basic overall idea is to get the defense flowing toward the sideline, and the running back then has a read to make based on what it does. If the defense is over-aggressive in pursuit to the outside, the running back will cut it back upfield in what will hopefully be a newly-created running lane. If the defense is too worried about the inside cutback lane, the back can take the ball all the way out to the edge of the formation, making a break for the sideline.
The Twist: Play-action and the bootleg pass
There's a wonderfully functioning marriage between the wide zone and the bootleg play action pass. It's really pretty simple, as the offensive line moves laterally down the line of scrimmage and the defense naturally follows, which opens up options for naked or protected bootlegs the other direction. Typically, zone teams will then send a tight end or receiver on a crossing route across the field, away from the pursuing defense. For example, here's an extremely common iteration of that idea:
Because of this marriage, Hoyer and the Browns are averaging a robust 7.5 yards per attempt in the passing game, including 13.6 yards per completion, and that's without one Josh Gordon thus far.
More impressively, per Pro Football Focus's excellent tracking, Hoyer is throwing for 12.0 yards per attempt on play-action (second) with an absurd 138.9 rating (first) and the Browns have run play-action on 30 percent of their pass plays (Russell Wilson is first in that category, running out of Seattle's similar zone-blocking scheme).
The scheme is working.
You want a quick preview of the Browns' 2014 season? Let's grab two plays from Cleveland's big win over the Steelers for a great look at how this all works together.
1-10-PIT 47 (12:15 2nd Quarter) B.Hoyer pass deep right to J.Cameron to PIT 5 for 42 yards (B.Keisel).
The Browns line up from around midfield and on first down and run a very common look in this offense. The elements of the play include 1) a play-action fake to the right, 2) a bootleg left by the quarterback, and 3), a "levels" route concept that gives the quarterback several options downfield, each at different depths.
This particular play, though, includes a fourth option: 4) chip and release down the backside of the play. This isn't quite as common, and it gets the Steelers, and good.
Pittsburgh's defense is duped by the route concepts, and the corner at the top of the screen follows wide receiver Travis Benjamin as he runs a deep corner route. Tight end Jordan Cameron slips in behind him after faking the block down the line.
Only a poorly-thrown ball and great hustle by the defensive end saves this from being a touchdown. Luckily for the Browns, they convert on the next play.
1-5-PIT 5 (11:49 2nd Quarter) (No Huddle) I.Crowell right end for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN
One of the biggest problems for offenses in running wide zone is that the backside defenders (safeties, defensive ends or linebackers) can come in from the other side of the field and take away cutback lanes upfield for the running backs. This pursuit down the line from backside defenders helps play-side defenders flow down the line, force the play back inside and, in concert, the defense can clog up any and all run lanes.
So, what do offensive coordinators do to mitigate this? Run bootlegs with the quarterback.
Even if the quarterback doesn't keep the ball, defenses must "honor" it, and thus, on the backside of the play, they're not as able to aggressively pursue down the line of scrimmage to try and blow up the running back going wide. This effects players on the playside of the field, because they're not as comfortable aggressively flowing to the sideline to force the running back upfield toward his teammates. In layman's terms, the mere threat of a bootleg by the quarterback spreads the defense out.
That's apparent below, the very next play after Brian Hoyer and the Browns had burnt the Steelers on a bootleg pass.
Above, you see backside defenders holding to their side, making sure if the bootleg is carried out that they can attack it aggressively.
In turn, the Browns have numbers they want (it's four blockers vs. four defenders) at the point of attack.
You can see the zone blocking in action. Center and guard, both "covered up" by defenders, simply block the guy in front of them. The right tackle, No. 72, runs to the second level to cut off the pursuit (he misses badly). The two tight ends to the outside double up on the outside linebacker before the furthest player outside moves to the second level. Isaiah Crowell gets the edge with the help of an uncalled borderline hold by No. 82 Gary Barnbridge. The execution isn't picture-perfect, of course, but Cleveland gets the job done.
Of course, with five games in the bag, there's still two-thirds of the season to be played. If Cleveland can stick to its equation of running the ball with authority then passing it over defenses' heads on play action, though, they'll be giving themselves a good chance in the AFC North.
To be continued ...