To help pass the time during the long offseason – and as a way to familiarize myself with some non-Packers teams – we got this little page set up to dig into film study on non-Packers teams. I’m pretty excited to have a space to dump these thoughts. These posts will not be coming at regular times, but I’ll be posting whenever I find something interesting.
I have spent this offseason watching the Cleveland Browns. My reasoning was simple: I like Hue Jackson’s offensive mind and I wanted to see what kinds of things they were running. It’s a well-known fact that their QB situation is bad, and I was curious if the system looked like something that we could see improvements in with better QB play.
For the record, Brock Osweiler does not count as a QB improvement. DeShone Kizer, on the other hand…
So let’s hop to it.
I haven’t gone through every Browns game in depth yet, but I did want to point out something I’ve seen through Week 10 of the 2016 season: the Browns love running Four Verticals. It’s not just that they like to run it, but it’s how they run it. The concept stays the same: stretch the defense vertically and tack on cut-off options when a receiver sees space. Have a hastily-designed example:
Four receivers streak downfield, but some of the routes have options depending on what they’re seeing. Does the receiver in the left slot have the safety on his heels and a defender on his outside shoulder? Run a hook 20 yards down the field when you have some space. The Browns like to sneak a running back out late into the vacated middle of the field as a checkdown option.
If run well, it’s extremely hard to defend. The Browns run it well and run it out of multiple looks. I didn’t want to get too in-depth here, but I did want to show a few different looks they give and then some variations they can run out of it.
Week 6 in Tennessee. The Browns go with a single back, balanced line look. A tight end lined up on both sides of the line and a single receiver set wide on both sides of the line. Technically the receiver on the right is running back Duke Johnson . But he acts as a receiver here and is split out wide, so he’s a wide receiver in the context of the play. By motioning Johnson out, that removes a linebacker from the box, giving more room in the middle should the quarterback need to checkdown to the running back. (By the way, I think I’m madly in love with Duke Johnson.)
If you draw a line straight down the center, both sides are identical in terms of alignment.
At the snap, all four receivers streak downfield. Gary Barnidge  is the tight end on the left side of the line. He sees Curtis Riley  playing outside technique, so Barnidge starts his route by angling to Riley’s outside shoulder. Once Riley commits, Barnidge cuts the route back to the post, splitting Riley and the dropping Avery Williamson .
The throw is a little behind Barnidge, but that’s fine. A throw to the post would have led Barnidge directly into the safety. By throwing to his back shoulder, Cody Kessler  is able to protect Barnidge from a big hit and allow him to pick up some yards after the catch.
Notice Isaiah Crowell  setting up to block in the backfield before sneaking out into the vacated middle. This will not be the last time you see it.
With the heavy line, the Browns force the Titans to keep bodies in the middle. The single-high safety is playing 11 yards off the line over the right tight end. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kessler determined he would be throwing to Barnidge before the ball was snapped. His vision drifts to the right to start the play, but that’s just to hold the safety.
No one else gets open on the vertical routes, but if Barnidge doesn’t get open, Kessler could have checked down to Crowell.
A mere two weeks later, the Browns broke out this play against the Jets in Cleveland. Kessler had gone down with an injury, so Josh McCown  was under center this time.
Like the last time, the Browns come out with a heavy look, but this one is slightly different. Still a single back look, but there’s only one receiver split out wide. If you look at the Jets pre-snap alignment, you’ll see they’re in Cover 0. If the Browns can get someone behind the second level of defense, there will be no one left to break up the pass.
Since there are two receivers off the right side of the line, they can’t both fire straight upfield, so the widest receiver releases to the outside and sheds the jam before heading upfield. Just like the last play, we have four receivers running vertically with a running back – Crowell, once again – releasing late into the middle of the field as a checkdown if McCown needs him.
Once again, Barnidge is off the left side of the line and he runs the exact same route: veer to the outside, get the defender turned, then cut the route back to the post. The Titans dropped a linebacker late, making for a tough recovery. The Jets drop a linebacker exactly where they need him, making this a much tougher throw.
Barnidge is able to split the defenders and McCown throws a perfect pass over the defense.
Slightly different look. Same concept. Same result. On this play, if Barnidge wasn’t open, McCown could have gone to Terrelle Pryor  on the outside – who gets inside Darrelle Revis  – or Crowell in the middle.
One week later, the Browns ran this against the Cowboys in Cleveland. Where the Browns lined up tight in the previous two plays, they spread them out here, going single back, three wide receivers. Like all the other times, the concept is the same: fire four receivers off the line and sneak out a running back late. Kessler is back under center for this game. The Cowboys defend this well and the Browns are extremely lucky this was not intercepted.
Corey Coleman  is lined up in the slot off the left. This is where I refer you to my diagram up top. If you remember, receivers running four verticals will often have an option as to whether they push up the field or cut back into an opening. If you watch Coleman, he sees the safety coming over the top and makes the decision to slow down and look back. He doesn’t cut back towards the ball, but I believe he’s looking to do exactly that.
However, he doesn’t really have a place to cut back. He has two deep-dropping defenders underneath him, which prevents Kessler from throwing a comeback route. If you look across the field, you won’t see a ton of open windows. Barnidge – off the right side of the line – is doing it veer-out-cut-in route again and has gotten inside his defender, but there’s a safety over the top. The safety is shading over Coleman, but if that pass goes to Barnidge, he could have covered that ground. Pryor – wide right – has gotten inside his defender. It’s not a huge window, but Pryor is a big guy. I like the match-up on that throw.
Now check the running back coming out of the backfield. Same deal as before: slight hesitation before running a curl in the middle. The difference this time is that a linebacker – the excellent Sean Lee  – sees this and peels off Barnidge to converge.
So Kessler goes to Coleman and it almost ends poorly. Even if Coleman had kept running, this is an extremely tight throw and Coleman would have gotten lit up.
Here’s the thing about four verticals: it is hard to defend. Even here, where the Cowboys have defended it well, there is still a receiver who could be considered open.
We have now looked at three instances of the Browns running this from different looks. I now want to look at a couple variations to it they have worked in.
This play comes in week 8 against the Jets. We looked at a play from this game earlier. The Browns go single back, three wide. At the snap, the receivers all push upfield, trying to sell the vertical routes. The two outside receivers go vertical, while the interior receivers off the right side run dual outs.
The really interesting thing to me here is Duke Johnson  out of the backfield. The linebacker has no doubt seen play after play of running backs running hooks, so that’s what he’s playing here; you can see that by the way he charges the inside shoulder of Johnson. If the Browns are running a hook with the running back, this would have ended poorly. Johnson sees this. Instead of running a hook, Johnson gives a little shake, cuts inside and runs upfield. McCown gets Johnson the ball out of the break. With two vertical routes and the receivers on the other side of the ball running towards the sideline, Johnson has a ton of room in the middle of the field.
By setting up tendencies, the Browns are then able to run variations off of that. Gamebreaking plays aren’t always something new: a lot of times it’s a little variation of something you’ve shown in the past. Get the defense to think they know what’s coming, then hit them with something just slightly different.
Football is hard, man.
Last play today. You know it by now; sing along with me.
Week 1 in Philadelphia. The Browns go single back, three wide. Four receivers, pushing down the field. The two closest receivers cut back towards the line at the first down marker. With Johnson coming out of the backfield pulling the linebacker up, Barnidge is wide open off the right side.
Pryor – wide right – gets a sliver of daylight on the defender and cuts back. There’s not much room to put this ball, but Robert Griffin III  throws to the sideline. Pryor slips and the ball sails harmlessly out of bounds. This really isn’t a bad throw: it’s high and to the sideline. It’s a tight window, but it’s a ball that only Pryor could make a play on. Sometimes people slip. Again, football is hard.
Also, it’s worth noting that Griffin didn’t do great here. Instead of feeling the pressure and climbing the pocket, he sat back and ended up fading back while throwing this one as the pressure got into his face. He could have handled it better, but this isn’t a terrible throw.
Since this was week 1, it’s a bit too early to call this a variation, but I wanted to show the kinds of things that could be used as a variation. Break out this same play midway through the season when you’ve shown a number of four vertical looks and you may have a little more daylight to work with.
I plan on doing more of these posts during the offseason. If you have a team/play/player/whatever you want me to look at, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. You can reach me on Twitter or over email. As always, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy these.