The Cleveland Browns are a team whose quarterback situation looks poor: Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan are firmly in the bottom tier of signal-callers league wide. It is not surprising to see various mock drafts forecasting Cleveland’s selection of a quarterback in the first round. The Browns themselves have leaked that Mitchell Trubisky could be the pick at number one.
Many rookie passers struggle with identifying NFL defenses and making the right reads due to the speed of the NFL game. Offensive mind and Browns head coach Hue Jackson uses various methods to simplify this process, particularly for those lacking skill or experience. One such method is shifting formation before the snap.
Jackson utilized shifting pre-snap excellently to ease things for the various players who took direct snaps in 2016. Cleveland used five different quarterbacks last season, which at times was forced and on other occasions formed part of their offensive game plan.
Example #1: The 1v1 Deep Shot
This opening example of formation shifting comes from Robert Griffin III’s first game in Cleveland colors. It is a simple yet effective play call on the first snap of the preseason for the Browns’ offense. This is great at building confidence and momentum.
Cleveland comes out in an empty shotgun set in 21 personnel. Green Bay responds with a Cover 1 / Cover 3 press look, in base personnel. The split 3-4 front that the defense is in shows a potential blitz, particularly with both outside linebackers down at the line of scrimmage. Then the Browns shift, into a pistol strong formation. The Packers’ coverage still appears to be either Cover 1 press or Cover 3.
The crucial thing about Cleveland’s formation shift on this play is that it moves versatile safety Micah Hyde (#33) from covering fullback Malcolm Johnson (#42) in the slot to playing in a strong safety, in-the-box alignment. This leaves wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (#11) isolated outside, lined up against cornerback Damarious Randall (#23). Whether the coverage is man or zone, Randall is the man Pryor must beat. It is a simple size mismatch, with Randall 5’11” and Pryor 6’4”. It is also a skill mismatch, as Pryor wins this battle.
Being in a pistol strong formation, the Packers may expect some sort of option run from the Browns with Griffin (#10) taking the snaps – particularly on his first live play for Cleveland. Having eight defenders in the box is the clearest indication of this. Instead, the Browns run two outside vertical routes, a deep tight end hitch, and a checkdown option from tailback Isaiah Crowell (#34). It turns out that Green Bay is in Cover 1, with their strongside linebacker as a perimeter spy designed to negate the option. The deep hitch ensures the free safety is occupied. Pryor gains separation on Randall, and lays out for the 49-yard reception on the throw from RGIII.
The formation shift from the Browns on this play simplified the throw and read for Griffin. It left Cleveland’s best deep weapon in isolated coverage. It eased the process of identifying the defense for Griffin, with isolated coverage obviously going to cover the opponent down the field.
Example #2: The Emory and Henry Wrinkle
A Hue Jackson offensive shifting article would not feel right without featuring the Emory and Henry formation, which Jackson likes to use as a wrinkle. This clip is taken from the first regular season game, with RGIII making his first start for the Browns. Cleveland comes out in a singleback formation with tight, stacked twins to the right of the formation and a tight end and wingback to the left. They are in 11 personnel. Philadelphia comes out in a 4-3 Over front, with two high safeties and off coverage indicating either Cover 2 or Cover 4.
The Browns are forced to get creative down by 10 points in the second quarter, with just a pitiful seven offensive yards gained. They shift into a shotgun Emory and Henry formation. The Eagles only send two men to both three-man bunches of the formation, so their pass defense is clearly going to be some sort of zone. You can assume the reason for them having their ends split out into the slot is to look in on any run, particularly one from the quarterback, and also to jump an inwards screen.
Whatever the motive, the outcome should be disastrous for Philadelphia. The Eagles are likely anticipating a wide receiver screen. However, the Browns are running a fake screen. The outer wide receiver, on the line of scrimmage, runs a post route. Meanwhile, the man off the line of scrimmage – behind the pair – runs a wheel route.
After executing the play-fake, which makes the linebackers step up, RGIII’s first read is to his left, to the field side where there is more space for this concept to operate in. Outside receiver Corey Coleman (#19) is gifted a free release, and is clearly wide open in the seam due to the defense that Philadelphia runs. Before the snap it was evident that this would be the case due to the numbers advantage the Browns have on the perimeter.
Linebacker Nigel Bradham (#53) is so aggressive in trying to take out what he thinks is a receiver running a bubble screen, or a would-be lead blocker that he leaves the correct man, the second person to release downfield, wide open as wel. Griffin (#10) delivers a perfect throw to the first man to release, and Coleman drops it – potentially due to the incoming hit of safety Rodney McLeod (#23). A 22-yard pass is wasted.
Example #3: The Isolated Fast Pass
Example three is taken from Week 2 of the 2016 regular season, against the Baltimore Ravens. Robert Griffin fractured his left shoulder in the Week 1, so Josh McCown is now the quarterback. It is 3rd and 5 with the ball on Cleveland’s 41. This is the first offensive drive of the game. The Browns have already gained one first down, and converting this would be a statement.
The Browns initially line up in an i-formation, running look, with 21 personnel on the field. Baltimore responds with a Cover 1 press look, and eight men in the box. Cleveland shifts from its i-formation into the shotgun. A bunch of receivers line up on the hashmark of the open side of the field. The Browns’ 21 personnel are now lined up as four wideouts.
The Ravens still look to be in Cover 1 press. Eric Weddle (#32), lined up as a free safety, is shaded heavily over the bunch side. Ladarius Webb (#21), traditionally a free safety, is lined up as a cornerback in isolated coverage with the single man outside, running back Duke Johnson (#29).
McCown (#13) is given an easy read by the passing concept that the Browns run. He can see the clear isolation that Johnson has. He immediately looks to the right side, reading what is clearly man coverage. McCown executes on the slant-flat concept well. Johnson has the foot speed and route-running ability to leave Webb flat-footed, and McCown leads him inside on the slant. Johnson can create in space, and his yards-after-catch ability sees him take the slant for a 28-yard gain. If Johnson had not generated separation, McCown would simply have thrown the ball outside to the flat route of running back Isaiah Crowell (#34).
Example #4: The Simple Quick Hitch
Example four features another quarterback as Josh McCown injured his left shoulder against Baltimore, so rookie Cody Kessler was given his first NFL start in the Browns’ Week 3 visit to Miami. The Browns’ opening drive had suffered from back-to-back fumbles, and Kessler was clearly in need of a confidence boost.
What better play to give Kessler (#6) that boost than a simple one to start Cleveland’s second drive of the game? The Browns shift pre-snap from a singleback, 21 personnel formation – with Terrelle Pryor (#11) lined up as a wingback – into an i-formation. They then shift tight end Gary Barnidge (#82) to the right side of the formation. In the eyes of the defense, this changes the strongside: Previously the offense’s strongside was to the left, it is now to the right. The Dolphins leave Pryor in one-on-one coverage, and they are showing a Cover 1 press / Cover 3 press look.
The Browns run hitch routes on the outside, and Pryor manages to sell his route deep. Kessler throws this ball well, to where only Pryor can get the ball as he is at the stem of his route. Cornerback Byron Maxwell (#41) can not click and close in time. The pass is complete for the nine-yard reception.
Example #5: The Option
In the Dolphins game, converted WR Terrelle Pryor took some snaps at his old position: quarterback. This was a way of trying to keep the offense effective even with Cody Kessler as the starter. Pryor’s mobility was used often, for instance on rollouts or running plays. In example five, it was his running ability that was put into action by an offensive shift.
This play comes immediately after the shift of example number four. This time the Browns line up in i-formation, in 22 personnel and with Pryor (#11) under center. They shift into a full-house formation, moving tight end Randall Telfer (#86) and fullback Malcolm Johnson (#42) into strong and weak fullback positions.
The shift makes the option-run possible and increases the likelihood of its success. It gives Pryor a very simple read. Lined up as a wide 9 technique defensive end Andre Branch (#50) will be targeted by the weakside option-run at the mesh point, and probably the only defender who could stop the quarterback keeper. Pryor puts the ball in the belly of Isaiah Crowell (#34), sees Branch crashing on the inside run, and keeps the ball, running it outside. Weakside linebacker Jelani Jenkins (#53), a defender who could have limited the run, hesitates at the mesh point, and is then blocked out of the play by Johnson. Pryor shows good ballcarrier vision, getting outside for a 15-yard gain.
Example #6: The Two-Point Conversion
This example is the third and final one taken from the Dolphins game. Cody Kessler (#6) is back as the quarterback for this two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter. If Cleveland can convert from the two-yard line, they can cut Miami’s lead to just a field goal: They are down 24-19 with 10:12 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Browns first come out in what looks to be a jumbo, goal line running formation – with 23 personnel on the field. Miami appear to be arranging a goal line formation. Cleveland then shifts into a spread i-formation. Miami reacts by putting their defenders in zero coverage, leaving seven men in the box. This is a clear, simple identification for the quarterback.
The Browns block seven defenders in an attempt to pick up the blitz. To the right of Kessler, they execute a fade from the slot and a slant from the outside. This is designed to create a rub between defenders. Gary Barnidge (#82), in the slot, is lined up off the line of scrimmage. Given a free release to run his fade, he beats his man, safety Isa Abdul-Quddus (#24) to the corner. While the defenders avoid each other, Kessler’s throw to the back corner of the endzone is excellent, where Barnidge uses the separation he created to catch the two-point attempt. Cleveland closes the gap to 21-24.
Example #7: The Easy Pass
The Patriots Week 5 game was Tom Brady’s return from suspension, and NFL fans and media alike were expecting a blowout. The Browns kept the game close for a while though. This was partially thanks to savvy play calls, such as the one featured in this example. Cleveland went three and out on the opening drive and is down by seven against the juggernaut of New England. This was the sort of pass that got rookie quarterback Cody Kessler into a rhythm, gifting him much-needed confidence on his second drive. It was no coincidence that Cleveland went on to score a touchdown on this series.
The Browns line up in an i-formation, looking very likely to run the football with 22 personnel on the field. New England have just their middle linebacker, Dont’a Hightower (#54), off the line of scrimmage. As Cleveland shifts into an empty set, the Patriots do not alter much, staying with their two-man under coverage look, with Hightower moving over tight end Gary Barnidge (#82) as he directs outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich (#50) further outside to line up over Connor Hamlett (#89), a tight end in the slot. The other outside linebacker, Jamie Collins (#91), stays in his blitzing look, but he is over the other slot receiver, Isaiah Crowell (#34). It is much clearer to Kessler (#6) that the Patriots will not bring pressure from the edges, as they threatened to do so in the first formation Cleveland showed.
New England actually rushes just three defenders. They play a pattern-matching version of Cover 2, and drop defensive end Chris Long (#95) underneath the tight end to try and take away any quick hitter. Cleveland, though, runs a smash concept. The tight end runs an option route, the slot runs a deep fade angling towards the sideline, and the outside receiver runs another hitch. Barnidge’s option route is too deep and fast for Long, and he nestles down well in between Long and Hightower’s zones. Kessler throws it right into Barnidge’s hands, and the pass is complete for a seven-yard gain. No matter the coverage – man, zone, or a combination of both – Barnidge would be open due to the seven-yard cushion that Hightower gives him. This is an easy pre-snap read for Kessler.
Jackson shut the frequency of shifts down toward the end of the season. Notice how the latest example of shifting in this article comes from Week 5. There are a number potential reasons for this, and it could be a combination of some. Perhaps there was no point in giving away more secrets because it was clear Cleveland needed another year of roster building. Perhaps shifting was no longer needed because RGIII had become fully acclimated to the system, and Kessler was injured. Maybe the bracketing of coverage prevented shifting from isolating Pryor out wide, making it less effective. Perhaps teams had become better at combating the shifting: I have only included a sample of some effective plays to illustrate my point. Furthermore, I have only focused on the effect on the quarterback, not the running back – so only one running play is featured.
Yes, the Browns were still a bad football team in 2016. Yes, there is a reason they are picking first in the 2017 draft. Yes, they lost all the games these examples of offensive shifting are taken from.
However, their offense did manage to play teams close at points during the season. The formation shifting did negate some of the effects of bad quarterback and offensive play. It confused defenses. With a rookie quarterback, Jackson’s shifting would ease the difficulty of the transition from college to the NFL. With the current group, it would still help. A few offensive shifts a game simplifies reads and identifying a defense for the quarterback, therefore reducing mistakes and increasing offensive effectiveness.
You can find more information about the quarterbacks Cleveland could select, plus other draft prospects, at www.itpdraftguide.com
Check out more of Matty’s work here, including a look at how Dalvin Cook’s combine confirmed the tape, why Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers isn’t an NFL linebacker, and an interview with New Mexico DB Lee Crosby on his journey to the NFL.
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All film courtesy of NFL Game Pass.