On September 24, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Cleveland Browns. In this week three match up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of what we’re up against. The Browns have a young roster chocked full of young talent and high draft picks. The last time our Colts played the Browns we needed a patented Andrew Luck led game winning drive to bring home the W.
A lot of faces have changed for both teams since 2014, hopefully that turnover results in a similar outcome. Let’s figure out what we can expect in week three.
Hue Jackson’s scheme
Hue Jackson runs an Air Coryell system. As often as Jackson is called an innovator, in my opinion he’s just running Don Coryell’s system the way it was meant to be run after accounting for the fact that it’s 2017. The linked article lists the following staples of Coryell’s scheme:
- Single back sets
- Pass heavy
- Using a lot of pre-snap motion
- Option routes
- Pass catching TE’s (it was the 70’s this was a big deal)
- Trips (3 receivers on one side of the field)
I know, you’re thinking that every team in the NFL uses all of those things. You’re correct. It’s why so many people credit Coryell with crafting the modern NFL game. The fact he isn’t in the Hall of Fame is borderline sacrilegious.
Jackson’s scheme uses a lot of the same principals that the league seemingly left behind sometime in the 1980’s which makes his brand of offense seem gimmicky at times. One of them Hue uses extensively is heavy pre-snap movement. In week one things were more mundane than what is typical for a Jackson led team as they started a rookie at QB, but Hue Jackson has been using “his” offense for a long time. This article from Dave Archibald over at Inside the Pylon breaks down what I mean from his time as the Bengals offensive coordinator:
...what’s more interesting than the Bengals’ success is how they are doing it. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson takes his whole bag of tricks and dumps them right on the table at the beginning of the game, employing shifts, motion, package plays, varied personnel groups, unusual formations, and other wrinkles to put pressure on opposing defenses and get easy gains for his team.
Consider the first play Cincinnati ran this season:
The Bengals, who boast one the game’s best offensive lines and a duo of terrific running backs, come out in a run-heavy look with no one lined up as a wide receiver. The Oakland Raiders counter by loading the box, only for Cincinnati to introduce chaos by shifting players in all directions, ultimately showing a five-wide empty backfield spread. This forces the Raider defense to change positions and communicate among themselves to try to combat the new look. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (#14) winds up completing a four-yard pass to tight end Tyler Eifert (#85) on the play.
The play itself wasn’t overly complicated for Cincinnati, but the moving parts pre-snap present a mental test for the defense. Jackson loves to spring “pop quizzes” on opposing defenses early in the game.
Another point this illustrates is just how often Jackson spreads the field and uses 4 and 5 wideouts. In case you were thinking that Jackson left the “exotic” formations and shifting behind when he left Cincinnati, rufio over at Dawgs By Nature wrote up a great breakdown of Jackson’s first few games as the Head Coach of the Browns:
As a tease, Jackson ran several formation shifts and other "gimmicks" on Friday. On the first play of the game, everyone knows that Terrelle Pryor went deep for 49 yards. But what not as many are talking about is the shift that preceded the play. The Browns started with a "4 WR" formation:
Then, we shifted a fullback and Isaiah Crowell into a Pistol formation:
From there, we ran a Coryell Staple, 3 verticals. And Pryor did his thing.
Later, a 2nd and 13 saw us motion the other way, from an I formation to 4 wide:
From there, we ran a nice easy Y stick play to TE Gary Barnidge, which picked up 7 yards and got us into a manageable situation.
One thing to take from these breakdowns is how much freedom the quarterback in this system has. Generally speaking he needs to be able to make reads and progress though his down field options as Hue Jackson isn’t interested in running a lot of short routes.
We can expect to see the ball pushed down the field early and often. The question isn’t how they’re going to attack our defense, the question is; who is going to do it and are they any good?
QB: Deshone Kizer, Franchise Quarterback?
So I know we left all of the scheme talk behind and we’re on to the guys who are responsible for executing the scheme, but this is a good piece on how Hue Jackson makes the game easier for his QB’s by simplifying the game and taking what are complex ideas and shrinking them into quick reads designed to take what a defense gives.
The question is, can rookie QB Deshone Kizer be that kind of a quarterback? In week one he went 20 for 30 for 222 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. The box score looks okay for most QB’s around the league. Most teams would be okay with that kind of production from their starting QB from time-to-time, but when you realize it came from a second round rookie on a team that earned the number one overall pick in the draft and then you watch the tape and see how he played, this was a really promising start.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Kizer is the future of the position, I’m not even saying he’s going to be good or even starting caliber this year and beyond. What I am saying is that playing for what is considered a bad team against what is considered a good defense and doing it in his first career game, is great news for Browns fans.
Unfortunately for Kizer and the Browns week two didn’t yield such results. Against what looks to be another dominate Ravens defense, Kizer went 15-of-31 for 182 yards, 0 TD’s and 3 INT’s. He also ran the ball five times for 26 yards and he lost a fumble on the day as well. Kizer left the game in the second and third quarter due to a migraine headache. What isn’t known is if the migraine was brought on by the stress of playing like a second round rookie against a very good defense.
- Kizer takes a sack
If he doesn’t improve this behavior his offensive line is going to be labeled “bad” by everyone in the media. Truth be told he escaped a pretty clean pocket. Had he stood in for another .5 seconds he could (should) have found a target and got the throw off. Instead he did this.
- Kizer has a nice arm:
He put this one on a rope to fellow rookie David Njoku. Clean pocket, receivers working multiple levels and he puts it right on his tight end.
- Not afraid to put his head down:
Kizer sticks his head in and sneaks his way in for his first career TD. The only fault I can find with this play is that awful heel-click celebration. I’m not a guy that hates celebrations, but this was bad. Not starting QB material.
- Keeps his composure, completes pass:
This is one I think he would like to try again, he initially gets tripped up by a lineman but gathers himself and makes a throw. Had he gotten the pass up Corey Coleman probably picks up some yards after the catch. Either way it’s 20 yards and a first down.
- Try counting out loud at the snap:
I get to 4 watermelons. And for those of us who went to Immanuel Lutheran Elementary School in Seymour know, 4 watermelons is far too long. Seriously though, he feels pressure pretty well but he has to get this ball out.
- Not Sure What Happened:
But TJ Watt looked really open on this play.
- Designed screen at the bottom:
There was a screen setting up to Kizer’s right. Instead he got one-on-one coverage to his BFF Corey Colman, who made a play and secured the catch. Every time either of them were asked about the other they’ve sung each other’s praises. While that’s common place when asked about a teammate, their on-field chemistry looked evident in week one.
Bottom line, Kizer is a young QB who played well in week one and poorly in week two. If you had to pick the two worst defenses to face to start your career as a QB, you can make a good case to pick both the Steelers and the Ravens and unfortunately for him, that’s the exact way he has started his career. He’s going to continue to have ups and downs as the season goes on. Will he be good? Maybe. Will he be in the league in four years? Couldn’t say. What I do know is any quarterback that’s working with Hue Jackson and has NFL caliber ability (something Kizer has), is a guy that will have a chance to play well.
If Kizer begins to struggle or simply refuses to hold the ball less for than four seconds before making a throw, his other weapons will need to step up and carry some of the load.
RB: Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson.
Isaiah Crowell has had a great career after going undrafted out of Alabama State. In his first three years Crow has averaged 951 yards from scrimmage per year to go along with 20 total touchdowns while playing for bad Browns teams. Last season he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and played well by all accounts.
Duke Johnson was a third round pick out of Miami. In two seasons Johnson has rushed for fewer than 750 total yards but has found a role as a receiver. In their week one match-up I didn’t notice Johnson line up in the backfield at all. Instead he lined up in the slot and provides an interesting threat as a runner/receiver.
- Called back:
Crowell didn’t have a good day against the Steelers averaging 1.9 yards on 17 carries. Of the couple times he managed to find a crease against what looks like a really solid Pittsburgh front seven, it was called back due to holding.
- Duke doing Duke things:
This isn’t a spectacular play, in fact there’s not much special about it other than Kizer throws a six-yard rocket and Johnson pulls it in. It’s safe to say Johnson has better than average hands for a running back and he’s excelled in this role.
- Duke Again:
This is a spectacular play, in fact there’s a lot that’s special about it. In case you wanted one of those from Duke, instead.
After their struggles on the ground in week one it seems Hue Jackson may be shaking things up in the backfield:
#Browns HC Hue Jackson said Duke Johnson isn't strictly WR now, that was yesterday, very valuable for run game and pass game— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) September 11, 2017
Hue Jackson wasn’t lying and neither was Nate Ulrich, Duke Johnson carried the ball four times for 21 yards including a 16 yard scamper towards the endzone, had he been able to stay in bounds Johnson would have had a TD as well. He was still targeted six times in the passing game, hauling in three catches for 59 yards. While Johnson isn’t a traditional threat, every coach in the league would take 80 yards from scrimmage from their RB2.
Ultimately these Browns backs are talented but I feel confident in saying they aren’t the most talented backfield Indy will face this year. I was far more concerned with Todd Gurley, and stopping Todd Gurley may have been the only positive to come out of week one for the Colts.
The Colts secondary has been hot and cold early in the year coming off an encouraging but inconsistent day against a talented Arizona Cardinals receiving corps, the question is are the Browns receivers talented enough to challenge the Colts young DB’s?
WR: Corey Coleman, TE David Njoku
When looking at the Browns receiving corps it probably doesn’t strike fear in my fans hearts. Kenny Britt, Ricardo Lewis, TE Seth Devalve, Sammie Coats, yeah, nothing to worry about. This receiving corps isn’t dripping with talent, with the exception of Corey Coleman, David Njoku and Rashard Higgins?
Wait, who? Rashard Higgins was called up from the Browns practice squad 24 hours before the Browns played the Baltimore Ravens. Playing mostly from the slot, he responded in a big way. He was targeted 11 times, hauling in 7 catches for 95 yards. Was this a fluke? Maybe. In any case watch for #81 to have an impact, as a Colts fan I hope he has 40 targets with 0 catches on the day. As a person I hope he continues to produce starting in week four and earns a nice contract for him and his family this off-season.
Yes this was a trick play and trick plays are fun, but Coleman is a legitimate first round talent. He looks like a guy that could break out this year as the most talented receiver on the roster and Kizer’s number one target.
This is a breakdown of Njoku’s time at Miami. Long story short; he’s a fantastic athlete that can run and catch but struggles blocking. Watching him reminds me of Dallas Clark.
In week two Corey Coleman injured his hand and the Browns believe it is broken. Coleman suffered the same injury and missed six games in 2016. If he is unable to play, which seems likely look for Higgins and Njoku to receive the majority of the Browns targets. We can expect Njoku to struggle from time-to-time in his rookie year, and the rest of the Cleveland Browns receivers don’t inspire, this could end up being a big day for our young secondary.
Offensive Line: Joe Thomas
The left tackle position for the Browns has been the only position they haven’t needed to upgrade at some point in the past decade. He’s a rare player, but he only plays one position.
By all accounts the Browns offensive line is one of the best in the league, on paper. Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Kevin Zeitler, and Shon Coleman form a good if not great front five to protect Kizer and open holes for guys who wish they could be Jim Brown. These five will be asked to run a lot of man blocking concepts that head coach Hue Jackson prefers and will sprinkle in some zone from time-to-time. Look for Bitonio and Zeitler to try to get to the second level with regularity.
These guys look good on paper, but after one week the numbers look bad. They’ve given up seven sacks and are averaging just 2.3 yards per carry.
The 2.3 yards per carry is problematic. Even if the Steelers front seven are good (they are) you would hope a decent back like Crowell could find some room to run and that number would be higher. But he didn’t. So this will be something to watch. Indy has looked stout against the run so far this season, hopefully this trend continues.
The seven sacks are far easier to explain. Deshone Kizer seems to believe that once the ball is snapped you have time to read the defense, check Twitter and make sure the ball boy is properly inflating footballs, before finally making a throw. I’m joking, obviously, but his internal clock is mostly at fault for those seven sacks.
The battle in the trenches will be one to watch on Sunday. At this point the Browns have the advantage on paper, but I feel that the Colts match up pretty well here. It’s possible I’m searching for any light I can find in what looks like a very dark tunnel, but I really believe this will be a good test to see if our defensive front seven is as good as we believe.
On a more personal note, I know there will be people out there that can watch this video and hate Joe Thomas but I don’t want to be friends with those people. Not only is he a Hall of Fame LT, he has come to work every single day, every single snap for a franchise that he knew sucked. I don’t know that there’s a guy in the league that I respect more than Thomas:
When I look at the Cleveland Browns offense their most dangerous weapon is Hue Jackson. That’s both a testament to the coach and a result of rebuilding a bad roster. If Corey Coleman is unable to play and our front seven fills their gaps, we might not need to score many points to win this game. Which is a good thing, not only is our offense anemic, this Browns defense looks good.