By: Chris Jones
This is a fan post dedicated to how I believe a football team should be put together. These have been my thoughts for many years, even throughout this new day in age where many people think the key to winning is spreading out the defense and airing the ball out 70% of the time. While I have had these thoughts for a while, this is the first year that the Cleveland Browns finally have the player personnel and coaches in place to succeed following this outline.
In my opinion, the key to winning in the NFL (and not just winning games, I’m talking about championships) is a combination of three main components. Obviously, there is more to these intense matchups each week than only three factors but these are the keys to winning games. The winning combination comes in the form of having an elite defense, a great running game, and a smart, low-mistake QB who can beat you deep down the field.
First, the main ingredient to putting together a championship football team is a great defense. Whether or not you have a dominant offense, an elite defense can keep you in the game against any opponent. The Browns have clearly showed that they value defense as a priority, by spending most of their big bucks on defensive free agents the past two years with the likes of Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby, and Donte Whitner. The Browns have also hired first time head coach Mike Pettine, who is known around the NFL as one of the brightest defensive minds in the game. Last year the Browns strong suit was its front 7. While Pettine will be running a defense with multiple fronts, we can assume that there will be 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers on the field in most generic situations. Our front 3 (Bryant, Rubin, Taylor) rivals any other in the league, and that’s without recognizing quality depth in the likes of Billy Winn and John Hughes. There are likely 6 linebackers that will see playing time. At this position we have great talent and depth. Kruger, Sheard, and Mingo can all get to the QB and hopefully the presence of Pettine will help Mingo progress in his second year. Dansby is an all-around stud who is one of the best cover linebackers in the league. Rookie Christian Kirksey will likely man the other ILB spot beside Dansby, and while I’m unsure how he will fit in the defense, his speed and athleticism for the position seems like a good fit with our stout defensive line. The front 7 was good last year but I believe has still improved tremendously for this year. The biggest improvement this offseason for the Browns is their secondary. While we lost Pro Bowl safety TJ Ward to the Broncos, all signs point to a better year for the secondary in 2014. With Joe Haden being a stalwart at corner since he’s been drafted, teams have been picking on our second corner for the past couple years. While we had the #4 pick in the draft, having a variety of playmakers on offense and big time OL prospects on the board, we opted to trade back and take Justin Gilbert with the #8 pick. Initially, I did not agree with the pick (I had Manziel fever) but quickly I saw the strategy. Have two lock down cornerbacks that you can trust in 1 on 1 situations which allows for a lot more freedom to pressure the QB or mix up zone looks. I believe Pettine knew that having two lock down corners is essential to winning in today’s NFL and would have taken one regardless of if we could have found a deal worth trading down or not. In trading down we also picked up a first round pick for 2015 which could be a very high pick as the Bills are considered fringe playoff contenders at best. But two corners can’t do it all. With the increase of 3, 4, and 5 WR sets being shown in the NFL recently, you must have corners capable of working in the slot. Buster Skrine will move from outside corner to the slot and may see playing time there along with intriguing rookie Pierre Desir. If Desir and Gilbert pan out like Pettine believes they will, with Haden getting locked up long term, our corner situation went from being below average to potentially great. While Gipson isn’t the most dominant player on the field, he is reliable at free safety. The addition of Whitner adds to the secondary by providing punishing hits on any players in his area. Merely having his name on the roster will make opposing wide receivers thing twice about catching passes over the middle. While the defense was the strong point of the team a year ago, I believe this unit has improved greatly and will be the backbone for a playoff run this year for the Cleveland Browns.
The second key: a dominant running game. About a year ago we were certain that we would be set at running back for years to come. Then Trent Richardson turned in a few bad games at the beginning of last season and was flipped for a 1st round pick (which the Browns should be facing jail time for robbery of the Colts). After Dion Lewis’ season ending injury, that left us with very little to work with in the running back department leading to poor production throughout the year. This year looks to be a completely different story. Ben Tate was picked up as a free agent to presumably be the workhorse of this Browns backfield, having already had experience and success in the zone run game in Houston. Also, two rookies, Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell look to help out in the run game. West is a 5’9" bruiser who claims that his best attribute is his vision, which is a necessity in the zone blocking scheme the browns look to run under Kyle Shanahan. It seems as though he will see his fair share of snaps. The offensive line has been bolstered with the addition of rookie LG Joel Bitonio. This is a former LT in college who is big and strong and can help right away in the run game. With Thomas, Bitonio, Mack, Greco, and Schwartz, our line looks like it will be above average in both pass and run blocking. The key to our entire offense this year is how effectively we run the ball. If we can pick up large chunks of yards on the ground consistently, as the zone blocking scheme has done very well over the years (look at the Texans, Broncos, Redskins under the Shanahan’s scheme), this forces the defenses to keep an extra man in the box and opens up all kinds of options such as option reads, bootleg rollouts, and wide receiver reverses with our speed guys such as Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins and Josh Gordon (please don’t suspend him Goodell!). Establishing the run needs to be the priority for the Browns which is ultimately why I believe Johnny Manziel should and will win the starting job before Week 1. Johnny brings a running element that Brian Hoyer simply cannot, and I think it is that fact that makes Johnny a better QB for our situation. This leads me to my next point.
The third and final key to a winning formula works hand-in-hand with the previous one. I believe that we need to have a quarterback that can stretch the field and beat defenses over the top. If we can create a combination of a consistently strong running game, big plays over the top, and effective redzone play, the playoffs will be ours for the taking come January. Of course this is easier said than done, but I believe it is a very possible thing. Johnny Manziel has shown great touch and accuracy down the field in his 2 year college career. That coupled with his amazing elusiveness, ability to re-create the pocket, and scrambling ability can completely blow the top off the defense. If we establish the running game, this opens up play action passes which, in my opinion, should be ran very frequently. Play action passes draw in the defense while allowing our wide receivers to beat their man deep or over the gap left by linebackers creeping up to play the run. Also, corners in the NFL are not used to covering their man more than 5 or 6 seconds, so Johnny scrambling will open up many big play opportunities. And I know what you are thinking… Who will we throw the ball to with the impending suspension of Josh Gordon? And that is a tough question but I believe we have as much as we need to get the job done. The Browns will need big years out of TE Jordan Cameron and WR Andrew Hawkins in the passing game. I believe we need to get Hawkins the ball often as he is one of the quickest players in the league and can make fools out of defenders after the catch. The only issue with that is – will his small frame allow him to catch 6-8 balls per game without catching the injury bug? If healthy, I believe Hawkins will undoubtedly lead the team in receptions. While most are expecting Cameron to be the go-to target, every defense we play will be thinking the same thing and try to take him out of the game, like many teams did at the end of last season. Also, Cameron is a poor run blocker which means he might be losing some snaps to better blockers such as Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray. If we had Josh Gordon, our receiving corps would be perfect for the system. Now that we most likely have lost him for at least most of the season, we need to utilize deep threats in the likes of Travis Benjamin and former Redskin Anthony Armstrong to keep the safeties back and open up the field for Cameron and Hawkins to do their work from the 5-20 yard range. Veterans Earl Bennett and Miles Austin came come in and contribute, but I believe in this offense we need speed and explosive plays out of our outside receivers, which Benjamin and Armstrong are more suited for. Even the threat of deep passes helps the running game tremendously and vice-versa.
The Browns have are seemingly following the formula of some of the most dominant teams in recent memory. The Steelers and Ravens of years past, the Redskins in RG3’s rookie year, the Seahawks and 49ers currently. Ray Farmer has done a great job with the personnel and Coach Pettine, Shanahan, and O’Neal look to have the systems in place to create a winning football team. The question is, will it work on the field on Sundays? Only time will tell.
Prediction: 10-6, make playoffs, lose in divisional round