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Film Study: The Browns’ offense vs. the Patriots’ defense

NFL: New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, we looked at some of the Browns’ defensive woes from this past Sunday against the Patriots. Now, we’ll take a look at some notable plays from Cleveland’s offense — some good, and some bad.

1. 16-yard pass to WR Andrew Hawkins

The Browns went three-and-out on their opening series, and New England responded with a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. Cleveland fared much better on their second drive, which began with this 16-yard completion to WR Andrew Hawkins.

Hawkins lined up wide right, running a deep comeback route. WR Terrelle Pryor was wide left, running the dig. The Browns are probably hoping New England is in a strict man-to-man coverage on the outside receivers, and that the two defenders in the middle of the field around the 30 yard line will either double team Pryor or bite on the playaction fake. The trick here is that OL Spencer Drango, who is playing left tackle in an unbalanced line (OT Joe Thomas is lined up to the right) will give a quick chip block before leaking out as a receiver.

The Patriots play the zone coverage well on the left side of the field, with one defender dropping right into Pryor’s path and the other keeping an eye on Drango. The cornerback initially lined up on Hawkins turns around to look back at QB Cody Kessler at the precise moment Hawkins runs his comeback, so the cornerback continues sprinting upfield.

When Kessler finally gets to his third read (Hawkins), he hits him open for 16 yards. Head coach Hue Jackson said this play was originally designed to get the ball to Drango.

2. 18-yard pass to RB Isaiah Crowell

Several plays later, the Browns faced a 3rd-and-6 from the Patriots’ 43 yard line. TE Gary Barnidge is running the fade at the top of the screen. WR Andrew Hawkins is running a crossing route, and RB Duke Johnson is between both of them, faking a sideline route before cutting in. RB Isaiah Crowell will delay and then cross the field short.

The primary read for QB Cody Kessler is to hit Johnson right out of his break. He’s locked and loaded, and we saw this go for a nice play against the Ravens in Week 2. Unfortunately, Johnson trips and falls to the ground.

Kessler moves a little in the pocket and then spots Crowell flashing in front of him. With New England playing man-to-man and Crowell losing his guy, he can take this up the sideline for an 18-yard gain to extend the drive. The touch and ball placement on the pass to Crowell is perhaps an underappreciated aspect of this play.

3. 11-yard TD pass to WR Andrew Hawkins

Now it’s time to look at the touchdown pass. This is a 1st-and-10 play from the 11 yard line. WR Terrelle Pryor is wide right, running the fade. TE Gary Barnidge is tight right. You can see that the Patriots’ defense is heavily favoring the right side of the field pre-snap, indicating to QB Cody Kessler that he’s going to have one-on-one match-ups for WR Andrew Hawkins in the slot and WR Ricardo Louis on the outside.

Hawkins cuts to the left of his defender and then has the leverage with a ton of field to work with on the left. Hawkins got open like this against the Eagles in Week 1 too, but QB Robert Griffin III threw some poor passes. Kessler hits him with ease, tying the game at 7-7.

4. Patriots get QB Cody Kessler for safety

The Patriots answered right back with a touchdown drive to go up 14-7. On the kickoff, it was kicked short to the 1 yard line, but CB Tracy Howard could only get the ball out to the 12 yard line. The first down play went for a loss of 2 yards, setting up 2nd-and-12. That’s when the safety happened.

Here is what Hue Jackson had dialed up here: a split back formation, with RB Duke Johnson to the left of QB Cody Kessler, and WR Andrew Hawkins to Kessler’s right. There are two receivers wide left who are running crossing routes. This is intended to vacate the right side of the field so that Johnson can then run over that way for a swing screen (with RT Austin Pasztor and RG Alvin Bailey out in front).

I personally don’t like this type of play for one simple reason: I feel like I’ve seen teams in the NFL try to execute this many times, and although on paper it looks good, there are too many moving parts and something usually ends up falling apart. What fell apart on this play? A well-timed guess by the Patriots.

ILB Dont’a Hightower (No. 54) looks like he’s playing at normal depth for a linebacker. The team probably hopes he’ll get caught up in traffic, either chasing Hawkins or dropping back for one of the two crossing receivers. Instead, right as the snap is happening, he times a blitz perfectly, kind of like Troy Polamalu used to do, but a little less extreme.

Making matters worse for the Browns is that the right tackle and right guard are bailing their lanes immediately because of the play design. Hightower and the Patriots guessed right, and before Kessler can even turn to make a forward throw, he’s planted into the ground, with the “pass” dribbling in and then out of the end zone for a safety. That gave the Patriots a 16-7 lead and forced Kessler to exit the remainder of the game.

5. Read-option for WR Terrelle Pryor doesn’t work

With QB Cody Kessler out and the Browns now down 23-7 after the Patriots scored another touchdown, WR Terrelle Pryor took the first snap at quarterback in the second quarter. The read-option is on here, but New England has a defensive back uncovered in the slot. I’m not sure if he had the option, but this has got to be a play where Pryor throws the screen to the second receiver in the stack.

Instead, Pryor fakes the handoff and runs left. He actually out-runs the defensive back, but the receiver with the initial cut block on the outside defender can’t sustain the block and Pryor is taken down after a gain of 1 yard. If the outside receiver had been able to maintain his block, can let your imagination run wild about how many yards Pryor would’ve gotten on this in the open field.

6. Pass attempt for WR Terrelle Pryor falls incomplete

On the very next play, a 2nd-and-9 from their own 26 yard line, WR Terrelle Pryor again lines up at quarterback. He has FB Malcolm Johnson to his left, TE Connor Hamlett to his right, and RB Isaiah Crowell behind him. Running from wide left to the right (not seen) is WR Rashard Higgins. When Pryor playaction fakes to Crowell, he wants to find Higgins open on the crossing route. The playaction fake is very poor, though, so the linebacker doesn’t sell out very much and is able to get into the lane to which Higgins is running.

This is an excellent play by the linebacker. Pryor tries to thread the needle and it appears as though Higgins had somewhat of a chance at making his first catch of the season, but it ultimately falls incomplete.

7. RB Isaiah Crowell hit for a loss of 6 yards

QB Charlie Whitehurst then entered the game and found TE Gary Barnidge on 3rd-and-9 for 11 yards and a first down. Hooray, right!?! Not so fast — there was no way the Browns were going to be able to sustain anything under Whitehurst with the Browns’ run blocking having an off day.

TE Connor Hamlett (yellow) and WR Andrew Hawkins (magenta) are cracking inside, while LT Joe Thomas (blue) and TE Gary Barnidge (red) are swinging to the outside on this pitch play to RB Isaiah Crowell.

The execution is poor. Thomas can’t get to his guy and Barnidge is basically blown up too, which allows the Patriots to drop Crowell for a loss of six yards. Cleveland had their worst rushing game of the season by far, and it all starts with blocking.

Conclusion: It truly felt like men against boys on both sides of the ball this past Sunday. Fortunately, this Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans should be more-in-line with what we saw in Weeks 2-4, where it looks like our team belongs on the field.