Know Your Enemy: Defending the Browns Pass Game
The Browns have served as an active Bye Week for many teams in years past. This season’s edition of the Browns have shown that they are on the right track to return to the playoffs in the next few seasons. They have shown huge strides under Ray Horton on the defensive side of the ball (which I previewed before the Week 2 game) but their offense is a work in progress. I reviewed the Browns loss to the Chiefs from last week to see how the offense under back-up QB Jason Campbell will plan to attack the Ravens.
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This offense has undergone some personnel changes since we last saw them. Josh Gordon is back from suspension, Willis McGahee is the #1 running-back, and Jason Campbell has replaced a healthy Brandon Weeden who was replaced by the now-injured Brian Hoyer. So has their approach changed?
It come as no surprise that this Norv Turner led offense wants to a) run the ball using power/gap schemes and b) throw from deep to short. McGahee is a serviceable back in the Power scheme as he doesn’t have straight-line speed any longer and lacks lateral agility but he can still effectively penetrate through designated holes with surprising power given his 235lb frame. His body can’t last as an every-down banger so they substitute Chris Ogbannaya, the shifty pass catcher, on third downs. The Browns are 23rd in Rushing DVOA (via Football Outsiders) and one can assume that this is due to teams stacking the Browns front line to force them into their weakness: passing.
Jason Campbell is an upgrade over Brandon Weeden behind center but mostly because of raw arm talent and willingness get the ball out of his hands after the final step of his drop. However when the coverage wins, Campbell tends to hold the ball far too long. This weakness is minimized by Cleveland’s better-than-average offensive line but, like Weeden, Campbell tends to feel pressure before it arrives and hurries through his already elongated mechanics.
Weaknesses aside, the Browns installed a very quarterback friendly game-plan on Sunday that was effective against Kansas City’s predominant man-coverage approach. They stuck to three standard pass concepts:
“Z-Drive” (image via Smart Football)
“Mesh” (image via Smart Football)
Each of these plays were effective because
- They all gave Campbell a check-down option in the flats.
- They were all run with a play-action element (Campbell gained 16.6 YPP with play-action, 6.8 YPP without it) with intermediate routes breaking behind the linebacker level.
- They got receivers across the middle of the field to take advantage of linebacker coverage mismatches.
Their version of “Sail” is versatile enough to flood Cover-3 zones as well as beat man-coverage. It’s a play that is indicative of their overall approach:
The Chiefs are playing Cover-3, a coverage that the Ravens have used throughout 2013. It suits the Ravens well because they can hide their linebackers in zone coverage, they can play a safety near the box (uppermost underneath zone in this image), and they can unpredictably rush either of their OLBs while dropping the other.
At the snap, Campbell uses play-action to McGahee who will eventually race to the left flat. Jordan Cameron (#84) releases vertically and OLB Tamba Hali carries him.
What makes Cover-3 so flexible is that it can force the Browns best pass protector (LT Joe Thomas #73) to be a non-factor while TE Gary Barnidge (#82, right) blocks a OLB rusher. Meanwhile in the middle, the Browns run a “TON” twist (Tackle/Nose) to allow NT Dontari Poe an open rushing lane.
The middle of the Browns offensive line has been shaky in pass protection throughout the year and they are beaten by the stunt in this example, as Poe rips through RG Shawn Lauvao toward Campbell.
Downfield the Browns are running “Sail”, a great call against Cover-3 as it floods the two left-most zones of the coverage. An added wrinkle is Jordan Cameron’s “Shake” route. In this image, he shows an Out-cut but will work vertically to stack on top of the Corner. CB Sean Smith gets caught with his eyes in the backfield and is standing flat-footed.
Image #1 shows Cameron breaking horizontally and Image #2 shows his vertical reroute. Campbell’s throw is wobbly and off-target so Cameron is forced to turn his head completely (Image #3) and then turn his hips again (Image #4) to make an off-balance catch.
Jordan Cameron is an impressive athlete with excellent body control. As a tight-end he matched up against defensive backs throughout the Kansas City game and beat them with route-running (“Whip” route) and speed on crossing patterns.
Campbell’s deep ball accuracy is very poor. Speedy receivers like Gordon and Little are rarely targeted vertically. Although Campbell’s reads are usually deep first, the check-down option or the flat route is usually the eventual target.
How to play effectively against this offense
The first method is to mix man-coverage with various zone coverages to muddy Campbell’s pre-snap reads. With a good grasp of the defensive scheme, Campbell has shown to be successful.
The second method is to blitz and hurry Campbell through his mechanics and force him to dump it off:
The Chiefs ran a rush scheme I’ve never seen before. They started with their 1-3-7 “Quarter” (7 DBs) personnel with a Free Safety aligned in press against the X-Iso receiver and a Strong Safety stacked behind their SAM linebacker.
The eventual play was a Double Cat (corner blitz) with two Safety Exchanges, a single half-field safety, and a Lurker. The overload blitz (from the strong side) created a 3-on-2 with RT Mitchell Schwartz and TE Jordon Cameron (Y) blocking three stunting speed rushers. The result was a quick dump-off the “H” in the flat for a 4-yard gain on 3rd and 11.
Quick thoughts on the Ravens approach
- Cleveland uses a lot of quick in-breaking routes (e.g. Double Slants, Follow) to get the ball out fast. If the Ravens play Cover-1, they need their safety (Elam) to come down-field fast to tackle the catch.
- Campbell does not have timing with his receivers yet. Many of his passes were poorly thrown and inaccurate. Playing press-coverage on the outside can help to re-route receivers and disrupt timing.
- As mentioned above, Campbell likes to throw the 3-4 yard Flat route. This can be taken away by using Trap/Gold, Cover-3 Cloud, or Cover-6 to keep a Corner in the flat.
- Using Slot Blitz Exchange on 3rd down (as shown above) can force the ball to come out fast on 3rd down.
- Cleveland used some trick-plays that had success vs. KC: Fleaflicker (for a TD) and a direct snap to McGahee after Campbell motioned outside. Safeties need to play with discipline.
- Although Campbell’s deep accuracy is poor, he will throw the ball if his first deep read has a step. Ravens DBs can allow short routes if they tackle the catch as long as they don’t get beaten over the top.
- Speed at WR is an advantage for the Browns. They’ll throw Tunnel Screens which the Ravens have had difficulties defending. Tackling in the secondary is a must.
- A linebacker on Cameron will not work. Elam played a great deal of slot-corner at Florida so he may see this match-up even though the height advantage is clearly with Cameron.
- Switch releases and rub-routes are the Browns typical man-beaters. Defensive backs need to play at different depths in order to avoid being picked.