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Steelers Film Room: Cleveland Browns’ Offensive Scouting Report

This year, Jon Ledyard and I will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.

Our reports for the Cleveland Browns’ offense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT: 

Cleveland’s Running Offense

I admit I don’t have the best pulse on Browns’ unit but am mystified that Duke Johnson only has 59 carries on the season. He is the offense’s best threat, don’t let the 3.0 YPC scare you, yet only has four carries over the last two games and has touched double-digits just once.

Overall, the rushing attack was been spinning their wheels. Not including the recently released Robert Turbin, Browns’ runners have only two carries of 20+ yards. Including Turbin, they still only have 19 runs of 10+, ranking 26th in the NFL.

Isaiah Crowell is still out-snapping Johnson. Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Crowell had 60% of the snaps while Johnson had 47%. Yes, that means the Browns will utilize a pony backfield with both on the field at the same time.

The team has a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo who is actually calling plays at any level for the first time in his career. A very Browns thing to do. It does bring a slightly different philosophy than what the Pittsburgh Steelers faced in 2014. The Browns still run a lot of zone schemes, but there is much more power mixed in. They do a nice job of running their power – it’s their right guard that is pulling the majority of the time – and mixing their schemes. Inside zone/man/traps/split zones/and even some wham blocks all showed up in the two games I watched.

Here’s an example of their power.

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And their wham, which turned out to be a hot where the QB threw the ball.

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Their fullback, Malcolm Johnson, is playing about 21% of the Browns’ snaps in 2015. They always seem to find a random fullback and plug him into the offense – Ray Agnew was that man last year.

They will run their zone scheme out of one and two back.

I vaguely remember writing this about their offense last year. There is an awful lot of window dressing in both phases – the run and pass. It’s surprising the Browns haven’t actually run an end around this season considering how often they fake it. Here’s an example of it against the Arizona Cardinals in Week Eight.

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Because of their limitations and struggles, it appears they’ve gotten very creative to see how you react so they can gameplan off it later. Ignore the threat of the end around and bite hard on the back? Maybe they’ll actually give the receiver the ball the next time and burn you. Force yourself to respect that threat? You lose your backside defender and the Browns don’t have to worry about blocking you or having you chase the back down from behind. It’s a nice touch to try and jumpstart a sub-par rushing attack.

One other note. The Browns ran Wildcat twice against the Cardinals. Direct snaps to the running back. Both were power runs with the guard pulling.

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Cleveland’s Passing Game

I actually want to start with this stat even though it isn’t applicable for just one category. The Browns have been a pretty good first half team. They’ve just been dreadful in the second half. Despite their 2-7 record, they’ve led at halftime four times. But they’ve only led after the third quarter once, back in Week Two in their win over the Tennessee Titans.

Of course, Cleveland is having their own QB injury watch with Josh McCown. I’m sure there’d a debate over who should start there but the most striking stat between the two is their completion percentage. McCown is sitting at 65% on the button. Johnny Manziel is at 51.8%.

Duke Johnson has acted as a receiver almost as much as he has been a runner. He has 35 catches this season, including catching a TD pass in last week’s loss to the Bengals.

Though the Browns don’t have any big-name WRs, they can be a big play offense. They have 28 completions of 20+ yards, at least one in every game this year, which ranks tied for 14th in the league. They also have nine passes of 40+. That is the more striking stat and ranks second in the NFL…only behind the Steelers. There is speed abound with Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, and Andrew Hawkins.

Still, their wide receivers only account for six of their 15 passing touchdowns in 2015. And only Benjamin sits above the 70% snap count for the season. The team has dealt with injuries at WR and were especially hit hard last week without Brian Hartline and Hawkins. Hartline did play 81% in Week 8 and appears on track to play this week. He should start.

Before we get into some of their passing concepts, one quick look at the offensive line. Each OL had played 98%+ of snaps but they lost guard Joel Bitonio last week and he will not play Sunday against the Steelers. On a personal, individual view, I’ve always viewed Mitchell Schwartz as one of the poorer right tackles in the league.

One thing I noticed the Browns do a lot, especially early in the game, is a lot of trades and shifts. Part of that helps reveal coverages and I think in general, it’s part of their script to see how you as a defense react to certain scenarios. Does the DL shift when the TE comes across the formation? When the TE is flexed out wide, is it a LB or a CB who covers him? Those are some relatively simple examples of what I’m referring to.

On the second play of the game against the Cardinals, the Browns shift to an empty set.

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Specifically, Gary Barnidge is a renaissance man and arguably the Browns’ top weapon in the passing game. They’re not afraid to isolate him in some 3×1 looks, displacing him from the formation, and take some vertical shots with him. Here they are on third and five.

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Like I wrote in their run game, they use their window dressing to distract you and fool your eyes. Here they are faking the end around and then throwing the RB screen away.

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Doing little stuff like that to try to give their playmakers a crease.

They’ll pair other plays, too. On consecutive plays versus the Cardinals, they faked their split zone and booted off it and then actually ran the split zone on the next play.

Their boot looks to hit the tight end across the formation in the flat. The secondary read is usually a backside crosser by #1.

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Several times, I saw the Browns run basically a snag combination in the red zone out of Trips Bunch. Something to definitely look for Sunday.

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Cleveland’s Special Teams

The Browns’ kick return formation is a 4-2-1-2-2. Malcolm Johnson is the upback while the team has seen Justin Gilbert and Marlon Moore get work as the kick returner. #2 TE Jim Dray and DE Armonty Bryant make up the wedge.

Don Jones, Johnson Bademosi, and Gilbert make up the team’s jammers.

Moore, one of their top special teamers, blocked a punt against the Bengals last week.

JON’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT: 

The Browns offense has been one of the worst units in the NFL for the better part of the past several years, a trend that has continued this season. The roster isn’t devoid of talent, but there certainly isn’t enough of it, and the best skill players in Cleveland aren’t being utilized nearly enough.

Cleveland ranks 29th in points per game at 19.7, 27th in total yards per game at just 335, and second-to-last in rushing offense at a measly 82 yards per game on the ground. Averaging just 5.2 yards per play, the 6th worst mark in the league, the Browns have just three rushes of more than 20 yards, tied for the second-worst number in the NFL. A turnover differential of -4 (five interceptions and a mind-boggling 12 lost fumbles) limits their offense significantly, as 17 total turnovers is tied for the third-worst mark in football.

Amazingly, the Browns are very good on 3rd down, converting 44 percent of their attempts this season, tied for 7th place in the league. I’ll note the team is just 3-9 on fourth down, one of the lowest marks in the NFL. Finally, the Browns 71 offensive penalties is a horrid number, poor enough for sole possession of 29th place in the NFL.

So what do the Browns do at a high level? Well, in past years one could have said protect the quarterback, but seeing as how the offensive line is on pace to allow over 53 sacks, their worst total since 2006, it is difficult to make that argument this season. The Browns have given up 30 sacks this season, just one mark off the 16-game total of 31 sacks allowed last year. I went to the tape to figure out what the issues could be amidst a lineup with Pro Bowl caliber talent at almost every position.

The Browns starting offensive line has been on the field together for almost every snap of the 2015 season, with center Alex Mack, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, and left tackle Joe Thomas playing 100 percent of the time, while guards John Greco and Joel Bitonio are both over 98 percent. The individual numbers according to the Washington Post:

LT Joe Thomas: 6 penalties (5 false starts, 1 holding), 0.5 sack allowed

LG Joel Bitonio: 7 penalties (3 false starts, 3 holding), 2.5 sacks allowed

C Alex Mack: 3 penalties (1 false start, 2 holding), 4 sacks allowed

RG John Greco: 2 penalties (both false starts), 0 sacks allowed

RT Mitchell Schwartz: 4 penalties (2 false starts, 1 holding), 9 sacks allowed

Before I get into the tape, it should be noted that Schwartz is Pro Football Focus’ highest ranked right tackle, a designation the Washington Post would seem to contradict. Sacks allowed are a little bit tricky to evaluate, I’ve always found both sources to be fairly reliable, but take that nine sacks allowed with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that Bitonio, one of the Browns top offensive linemen, is expected to missthis Sunday’s game with an injury, and rookie first round pick Cameron Erving will start in his place.

Cleveland has allowed a sack in every game this season, including three or more sacks in seven of their nine contests. It was difficult to know where to begin, but I started with this past Thursday against Cincinnati since early indications are that Johnny Manziel may start again this Sunday against Pittsburgh.

Schwartz has trouble sealing the edge, that was evident watching him work against Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry last week. I’ve noticed the same weakness from him previously in his career, so it didn’t surprise me.

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Schwartz can’t seal the edge with his feet, so he tries to stop Gilberry’s efforts with a punch, but the defensive alertly slaps the tackle’s outside arm down, causing him to double-over. All Schwartz can do is lunge and knock Gilberry off-balance just a tad to allow Manziel to escape for a short gain. Schwartz is pretty plodding, a little heavy-footed and a little methodical with his punch. Bud Dupree’s get-off could give him issues.

The Bengals sugar the A-gaps pre-snap, causing Schwartz to read inside-out in his blitz pickup. No issue there, except he’s slow to get his eyes to Dunlap, allowing the edge rusher to get a step on him before Schwartz can initiate contact. The read, kickslide, punch, it all just happens a bit too slow, and nearly gets his quarterback drilled.

Geno Atkins leveraged Bitonio badly on one snap for a sack, but other than that I didn’t think Cleveland pass protected that poorly as a unit. While I don’t think Bitonio has been quite as stellar as his rookie season in pass protection, the Browns will lose one of the best in-space linemen in the league, who often was a key blocker in their screen game. Erving is a solid athlete, but can’t replicate what Bitonio brings to the table.

Erving got into the game late in place of the injured Bitonio, but I’m not sure he was ready. Second snap of the game, gets absolutely pile-driven into the ground by Gilberry.

Played just a handful of snaps, but the rookie struggled with playing too high in his stance and proper hand placement on his punch. I’d attack him relentlessly if I’m Pittsburgh, force Manziel to roll to his right and win the edge there against Schwartz.

Manziel absolutely has to get the ball out quicker on many occasions, and it is clear that the young quarterback is still struggling to get through his progressions quickly and efficiently. His legs and ability to extend plays are keeping him afloat, but contain him in the pocket and your defense will get sacks. Manziel’s internal clock just isn’t good enough right now. He’s boom or bust snap-to-snap.

As a run-blocking unit, the Browns are still an excellent group on the move, but, but have struggled to sustain blocks long enough to give their backs openings. The downside to Cleveland’s athletic line is that they aren’t really maulers at the point of attack with the exception of Thomas on occasion. Mack struggles to move more powerful defenders (Calais Campbell just tossed him aside early in their Week 8 matchup), and Greco can get overextended and lunge at blockers instead of bringing his lower half.

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Should be a substantial gain for the offense on this play, but neither Thomas nor Greco can sustain their blocks, leading to a gain of just half a yard.

Without former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, there was expected to be some drop-off in Cleveland’s rushing game, but the offensive line again isn’t the only unit to blame. Tight end, while enjoying a breakout season at age 30, is probably one of the worst blockers at his position in the entire NFL. He just isn’t powerful at all at the point of attack, as even cornerbacks and safeties discard him like a flea.

Barnidge tries fruitlessly to reach block Arizona defensive end Josh Mauro (Ed Note: Cue “we should’ve kept Mauro” comments), but offers little more than a speed bump as the defender works his way down the line for the stop. Despite Barnidge’s inefficiencies as a blocker, he has played over 82 percent of the team’s snaps this season, more than any non-offensive lineman on Cleveland’s offense. I was curious why Barnidge was on the field such a high percentage of the time, before I realized that Cleveland is throwing the ball just under 70 percent of the time, an insane amount. They’ve dropped back to pass on 399 of 579 plays this season, rushing only 180 times. I know they’ve been trailing in a few games, but nothing that would encourage that type of disparity. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has some explaining to do there, particularly with both unit’s top two threats playing running back.

While watching the Browns offense, easily the two most dynamic weapons the team has are Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. I’m still not as enamored with Crowell as many draft analysts were, but there is no denying his blend of quickness and power in the open field. His vision isn’t ideal as a runner, but give him a lane and Crowell will show off some top-notch burst and acceleration through the hole. I’m a sucker for running backs who can vary their speed at the drop of a hat, and Crowell possesses quite the control on his throttle.

Johnson is the shiftier of the two backs, with game-breaking ability and better vision than his counterpart.

Don’t need to see much more to believe this guy should be leading this team in touches and targets right? The Browns curious personnel usage has Johnson on the field for just 48.6 percent of the team’s offensive snaps however, and just 59 rushes on the season. Given Johnson’s ability to play from the slot or in the backfield, the limited snap count just doesn’t make sense. He can help a hurting offense in all phases of the game, and sooner or later you’ve got to believe DeFilippo and the other coaches figure that out.

The downside of the duo is that Crowell is averaging just 3.3 yards per rush, while Johnson is at 3.0 exactly. Not all their fault, but not exactly inspiring their coaches to trust them with a heavier workload on the ground.

As far as the Browns other weapons, Travis Benjamin is enjoying a breakout season with 41 catches on 70 targets for 623 yards and four touchdowns. Barnidge is just ahead of him with 42 receptions for 602 yards and six scores, including nine grabs of 20 yards or more, 4th in the NFL amongst tight ends. Johnson has converted 42 targets into 35 catches, with five of those receptions going for 20+ yards, tied for first amongst all running backs in the league.

Quick run-down of the Browns wide receivers, a group that lacks a true #1 threat, but has speed and can create big plays in a hurry. Benjamin plays almost 78 percent of snaps, while Andrew Hawkins is the only other receiver over 50 at 59.4 percent. Taylor Gabriel edges out Brian Hartline by two snaps for third place, but the rotation is pretty consistent among this group. Forget about Dwayne Bowe, as even special teams ace Marlon Moore has more snaps than the struggling veteran. Needs to be noted that neither Hawkins nor Hartline were active against Cincinnati, as both players missed the game due to concussions, opening the door for Bowe to receive a season-high 15 snaps.

Benjamin, Hawkins and Gabriel all stand 5’10 or shorter, with Hawkins currently existing as the shortest player in the NFL at just 5’6. He’s incredibly shifty in his routes and can gain separation against the best man-cover corners, but is coupled with the two worst quarterbacks for his style of play in possibly the entire league. With a couple outside threats Hawkins could really open things up for an offense, but alas, Cleveland doesn’t believe in drafting top-tier wide receiver prospects.

Benjamin is a big play guy with 4.3 speed and blazing vertical ability. He can get behind a defense in a hurry, as the Jets found out the hard way in Week 1.

Just sprints right past Antonio Cromartie, and has that extra gear to separate when the ball is in the air. Burned Tennessee twice the following week, from 60 and 50 yards out. Just a guy you constantly have to be aware of for deep shots.

Gabriel has been a versatile target this season, 24 catches for just 197 yards, only an 8.2 average per catch, but accumulated 56 on one catch against Baltimore. Hartline’s picture is probably next to the dictionary definition of possession receiver in Webster’s, with 16 grabs for 182 yards and two scores. He is 6’2 however, which makes him a straight-up giant amidst Cleveland’s receiving corps.

Still uncertain who will start at quarterback for the Browns, as Josh McCown tries to make his way back from a rib injury that held him out against Cincinnati. From what I’ve seen on tape, McCown clearly gives the Browns the best chance to win now, but at 2-7, I’m not sure that really matters. I’ve gone on record many times as saying I believe Cleveland needs to play Manziel as much as possible this season, evaluate his growth and ability, then make a decision about their marriage together during the 2016 draft. Head coach Mike Pettine seems to be sticking with McCown when the quarterback is healthy however, so expect this decision to be up in the air until later in the week.

I won’t go into a ton of detail with either quarterback, but I’ve already said a decent amount about Manziel. He’ll leave clean pockets to make plays at times, sending the offense into scramble mode. Sometimes his bad habits work due to his athleticism and improvisational skills. Other times it wastes a down, or puts him in position for a sack he wouldn’t have had to absorb had he just trusted his progressions. DeFilippo has done a nice job designing a package of bootlegs and rollouts to get Manziel on the move already, but he’s still a wild card. He’ll make some fun plays, and he’ll miss some big plays. Until he learns to be more cerebral in his approach, there will always be a hold-your-breath aspect to Manziel, for good and bad reasons.

When he does work quickly from the pocket, Manziel has been more accurate this season than last year. The bad news is that improvement still only puts him at 51.8 percent, well behind an acceptable mark. His release is very quick, but his lower body mechanics can be all over the place. Manziel’s had some nice deep balls this year, but he really hasn’t thrown enough for me to get a great gauge on his pocket passing ability. The bottom line is that inconsistencies still riddle his game, and while he’s clearly more comfortable within the Browns system this season, there isn’t many trustworthy aspects of his game – yet.

McCown is McCown, man. Leader, fearless, tough-as-nails guy who knows the offense and runs it efficiently. In some ways he’s the anti-Manziel, efficient, safe, pocket passer who will get the ball out much quicker and take what the defense gives him. And he’s far more accurate. McCown isn’t nearly as mobile as Manziel, although he’s not a terrible athlete, and his delivery is a little more elongated, thus the decently high sack numbers. His arm is adequate, but he doesn’t have the zip on the ball that Manziel does.

And McCown can’t do this:

Kicker Travis Coons is a perfect 15-15 to begin his rookie season (technically his second season, but he was waived from the Titans last year before the season), and has missed just one extra point. His longest NFL boot is from just 44 yards, and even going back to college, his longest made field goal was from 48 yards. Amazingly enough, Coons has missed just one field goal since 2012, going 15-16 his final year in college. That miss came on November 15, 2013, on a 48-yard try that was blocked against UCLA. The date of Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh? November 15, 2015. Two years to the day.

Coons lack of leg strength is a factor however, as only 17 of his 43 kickoffs have went for touchbacks, the second lowest percentage in the NFL amongst kickers who have been with a team all season. There will be return opportunities for Jacoby Jones, who will have a chance to make his mark on Sunday’s contest.

Benjamin’s game-breaking abilities carry over into the punt return game, where he’s already housed one kick this season from 78 yards out. That score is no fluke either, as Benjamin has three return scores in 47 career attempts over four seasons. He’s averaging 12.4 yards per return in 2015, the third highest number in the NFL among full-time punt returners.

Cornerback Justin Gilbert handles most of the kick return duties for the team, and is averaging over 26 yards per return on 10 attempts, with a long of 38. The team has not had a kickoff return for a touchdown since 2009, when Joshua Cribbs did it three times in one season.

 

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