Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
The Philadelphia Eagles fast tracked their rebuilding process by trading away Sam Bradford and ushering in the Carson Wentz era. First up, the Cleveland Browns, who might be perfect fodder for the Eagles as they transition to a new coach, new scheme and new quarterback. Here is a scouting report on what to expect from the Browns and weaknesses that the Eagles can exploit.
Big Picture: The Browns are a team in the midst of a youth movement
A lot is being made about whether Carson Wentz is going to be a liability in this game. But less attention is being paid to the Browns again being the youngest team in the NFL. This offseason, the Browns let go veterans Josh McCown, Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. In their place are 17 rookies and 32 players with three years or less experience in the league.
So don’t let flashy names like RGIII, Josh Gordon and (I guess?) Terrelle Pryor fool you. This is a young team in the midst of a total rebuild. Add in a new coaching staff and system, and I expect to see a lot of self-inflicted wounds from the Browns on Sunday.
Hue Jackson’s Offense: power run mixed with deep passing
Hue Jackson is a brilliant offensive mind. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin once said his offense in Cincinnati was the hardest to game plan against in the entire league.
Jackson’s offense is predicated on the run game, which he uses it to set the tone and open things up for his deep passing attack. While it’s often called a power rushing scheme, Jackson mixes things up with man and zone blocking concepts as well. In Cincinatti, he’d dial up power runs with Jeremy Hill, but relied on more zone blocking schemes with the shiftier Gio Bernard.
I would expect to see a similar approach with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson this year in Cleveland, with Crowell serving as the battering ram for Jackson’s power run game, and Johnson being brought in to attack the Eagles on the perimeter.
Jackson likes to use multiple formations and creative play designs to keep defenses on their heels. In that way, he is the anti-Chip Kelly. Don’t be surprised if the Browns offensive lineman split out wide as receivers or Jackson overloads one side of the line with an extra lineman.
We all know that Jim Schwartz’s scheme is built on his defensive line getting upfield and after the quarterback. One of the achilles heels of the wide nine is that it leaves the heart of the Eagles defense vulnerable to the run. Jackson’s offense presents the early perfect season test for whether the Birds are equipped to stop the run game. Expect Jackson to use the Eagles aggression against it with a heavy dose of misdirections, screens, draws, and some read options for RGIII. Another play that can pose problems to the Birds is the power sweep, which involves multiple lineman pulling to get the running back to the edge.
In the passing attack, we will see shades of Chip Kelly with plays that have read and pass options built in to counteract how the defense is defending the play (hence why it’s called the read-pass option). If the defense stacks the box to stop the run, the quarterback will likely have a WR bubble screen on one side of the field, and a go or dig route on the other. If the defense defends the pass, the quarterback has the option to hand it off or, in RGIII’s case, keep it.
Another staple of Jackson’s areal attack is the four verticals. With weapons like AJ Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, the Bengals put enormous pressure on defenses by attacking the seams with tall and athletic receivers.
While the Browns don’t have the same talent at receiver — Pryor and Coleman have a long way to go before they are considered in the same breath as AJ Green — tight end Gary Barnridge has emerged as a legitimate threat in the passing game. Expect to see him used early and often in the 4 vertical route concept. It will be up to Mychal Kendricks, Malcolm Jenkins, and even Jordan Hicks to limit the damage that Barnridge causes up the seam:
This vertical passing attack is likely one of the reasons why Jackson targeted RGIII this offseason. While RGIII’s game has plenty of holes — more on this in a moment — he continues to excel throwing deep.
Terrelle Pryor has emerged as Griffin’s favorite deep target this offseason. At 6’4, 230 lbs and with a 4.38 40, Pryor poses a significant challenge for the Birds secondary. They don’t have any player that can match Pryor’s size (or, quite frankly, speed). RGIII routinely looked to Pryor for the long ball during the preseason, so I would expect to see Pryor targeted at least 2-3 times deep in this game.
The Weaknesses: Offensive Line and Quarterback
Now that you understand the basics, let’s look at some ways the Eagles defense can throw a wrench in Jackson’s offensive gameplan.
The most obvious mismatch is in the trenches. The Eagles boast one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the league, and they will finally be let loose under Jim Schwartz’s attack scheme. Meanwhile, outside of future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, the Browns offensive line is a mess. Gone are Pro Bowl center Alex Mack (signed by the Falcons), and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (who signed with the Chiefs), and the remaining pieces make up potentially one of the worst offensive lines in football.
The Browns are attempting to replace Mack with last year’s first round pick, Cameron Erving. Erving struggled mightily at guard last year, routinely getting overpowered at the point of attack. Part of that was expected, since Erving had played offensive lineman for only two years and was being asked to switch from center to guard. Erving has switched back to center this year, but if his preseason play is any indication, it hasn’t helped. Don’t even watch the run on this play; focus on Erving’s attempt to get to the second level and block the linebacker:
Erving has been equally suspect in pass protection. He seems overwhelmed by the position at times, which carries with it added responsibilities like protection calls, blitz recognition, and staying on point with the snap count. Here, the Bucs dialed up a stunt, and Erving looks like he is trying to block his man while wearing ice skates.
Schwartz is a smart man. He’s seen this tape and is likely salivating about the ways that he can force Erving to match up one-on-one with Cox and Logan. Expect stunts, double A gap blitzes, and other creative scheme calls designed to take advantage of Erving tomorrow.
But the offensive line problems extend beyond Erving. Joel Bitonio was great at left guard during his rookie season in 2015, but injuries and poor play derailed his sophomore campaign. Meanwhile, 31-year old John Greco was a shell of his former self last year, producing his worst rated campaign of his career according to ProFootballFocus.com. These problems reared their ugly head during the third preseason game against the Bucs, where RGIII was sacked five times.
Speaking of RGIII, I still haven’t seen anything that suggests he’s improved at the most important aspects of being a quarterback. While RGIII has immense physical talent, he hasn’t figured out the cerebral part of the game. His pocket presence is nonexistent and he routinely lowers his eye level when he’s under pressure. RGIII has a tendency to lock onto his primary target and struggles to understand how offensive plays interact with the defensive schemes he is reading.
Jackson will likely look to keep things simple for RGIII early on, with defined reads and simplified play calling in the pass game. But if RGIII’s primary option was taken away, he often held onto the ball too often, leading to unnecessary sacks. At least three of the five sacks during that Bucs game were avoidable, but RGIII’s lack of pocket presence led to the sack.
Now, Hue Jackson is one of the best in the game at working with quarterbacks. Joe Flacco once said he was the best quarterback coach he has ever worked with. So maybe Jackson was able to help RGIII overcome the holes in his game. The reports out of Cleveland have been positive, with RGIII being named as a team captain by his teammates. If so, RGIII will pose a significant test for the Eagles tomorrow. But RGIII has already had a number of high level offensive coaches during his career, and none of them were able to unlock his full potential. I don’t see how this ends any differently in Cleveland, and I expect him to struggle tomorrow behind that suspect offensive line.
Ray Horton’s Aggressive 3-4 Defensive Front
Ray Horton spent the early part of his coaching career cutting his teeth as the Steelers’ secondary coach. While he still runs that aggressive 3-4 defense, he will switch up his fronts to create confusion along the offensive line and pressure on the quarterback.
Horton discussed this progression with ClevelandBrowns.com after he was hired this offseason: “The genesis probably comes from the 3-4 of Pittsburgh because everybody is familiar with that, but since I left, I’ve changed quite a bit and we do some things they do not that are unique to us,” Horton said. “The personnel here will allow me to do even more creative things. I’ve talked about a multiple defensive front. It could be a 3-4, it could be a 4-3, it could be a 5-2, sometimes it will be a 4-4 depending on what we do. I guarantee we’ll have 11 on the field but the arrangement and configuration will be limitless.”
In fact, when you turn on the film you are much more likely to see Horton’s defense line up in a 4-3 under front than the 3-4.
Overall, Horton is widely respected in NFL circles as a defensive coordinator. After his time in Arizona, there was thought he would be next in line for a head coaching gig. But that opportunity hasn’t happened yet. And lately, his defenses haven’t been very good. Here are the FootballOutsiders.com rankings of Horton’s defenses:
- 2011: Arizona, 20th
- 2012: Arizona, 6th
- 2013: Cleveland, 24th
- 2014: Tennessee, 29th
- 2015: Tennessee, 23rd
Ways the Eagles can Attack Horton’s Scheme
Of course, a defensive coordinator is only as effective as the talent at his disposal. And while I have tremendous respect for Horton as a coach, this Browns defense figures to be a work in progress, especially early on.
Like Schwartz, Horton wants his defense to attack. But this is a young defense across the board, so that aggressiveness can be used against them with misdirections and play actions:
While the defense lacks talent, two players especially stood out in the tape: safety Jordan Poyer and cornerback Jamar Taylor.
Poyer might sound familiar to some of you, and that’s because he was a former seventh round draft pick of the Eagles. But he never stuck in Philly, and has become the de facto starter at safety after the Browns lost both starting safeties to free agency.
I counted at least four plays this offseason where Poyer took bad angles in run defense. In that respect, he reminds me of another former-Eagle: Nate Allen, who was notorious for taking poor angles in both run and pass defense:
Person can look to take advantage of Poyer in both the run and passing attack. Ryan Mathews flashed some big play ability for the Eagles last season, with a 63 yard touchdown against the Panthers and 5 20+ yard runs in limited action. If he is able to get to the second level, he should be able to feast on Poyer. The Eagles can also look to attack Poyer with DGB and Zach Ertz running go/seam routes up the middle.
Meanwhile, Jamar Taylor is a former second round pick of the Miami Dolphins that the Browns acquired on draft night in exchange for swapping seventh-round picks. Taylor’s time in Miami was marred by injuries and poor play. He started in only nine games in three seasons, and never recorded an interception or forced fumble, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The Browns just traded 2014 first round pick, Justin Gilbert, to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a sixth round pick in 2018. (Makes the return on Eric Rowe seem a little better now, eh?). So the coaching staff might see something in Taylor that made them comfortable giving up on Gilbert so soon. But whatever they have seen, it must have been in practice, because he has been a liability during the preseason.
Here, Taylor gets beat by Mike Evans initially on the go route, and then barely makes any effort to tackle Evans before he waltzes into the end zone.
I don’t know how much the Eagles will be attacking the Browns vertically with Carson Wentz under center. But if I am Pederson, I am testing Taylor early and often, especially with Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on the other side of the field.
The Eagles aren’t world beaters by any stretch. But they still have some talent on their roster, which is more than can be said for the Browns, who will likely challenge for the worst record in the league. If the Eagles can’t win this game? We are in for a long season.
I am trying to temper my expectations, here. Part of me thinks this is going to be a sloppy, ugly game with the Eagles coming out on top but not giving the fan base any reason to feel excited about the rest of the season.
But I just don’t see how the Browns keep this close, even with the Eagles starting Carson Wentz at quarterback. That Browns offensive line is a train wreck, and the Eagles defensive line will likely treat RGIII as a human pinata. I think the Eagles win 27-17, causing drastic overreaction from fans and media members about the Eagles potential for this year.