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A Look Ahead to the 2016 Cleveland Browns Offense

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Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the tease that is preseason football. Though nothing was at stake in the first preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, I think we learned or confirmed several things about the 2016 Cleveland Browns. Here is one thing I saw:

Hue Jackson's offense will be "gimmicky", and that's a great sign.

In 2015, Jackson helped Andy Dalton secure career highs in a bevy of rate stats before Dalton injured his finger and was lost for the season (Dalton had career highs in TD%, INT%, completion%, yards per completion, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, QB rating, and the Trent-Dilfer-assigning-points-to-"winners"-behind-closed-doors number that is ESPN QBR). Jackson did this in part by introducing "gimmicky" wrinkles into the Bengals' offense: adding eligible linemen onto the field, motioning linemen wide, and running "swinging gate" plays.

Many of these "gimmicky" plays were indeed intended to catch the defense off guard, but they also functioned in the least gimmicky way possible: by forcing the defense to defend two legitimate threats at once, and then "going where they're not." These plays often featured three sub-plays that Dalton could choose from; a handoff up the middle, a screen behind the split lineman, and quick passing concept to the opposite side of the formation. If the defense lined up wrong, they got burned. If Dalton read the defense correctly, they got burned.

These "packaged plays" can be explosive on their own, but by utilizing a fast tempo on offense and adding in many weird wrinkles like split or eligible linemen, Jackson increased the potential that the defense wouldn't align themselves properly. Simply, he gave the defense a lot to sort out in a small amount of time. I don't think that we'll see these concepts run full-time, but they will be there on film to force defenses to spend time discussing how to line up. Much like the Oregon swinging gate PAT attempts, these "gimmicks" will be easy for us to run and hard for opponents to prepare for. The more time the defense has to spend practicing where to stand, the less time they have to practice how to play.

Rounding out the trifecta of reasons to run these plays is the idea that Jackson's quarterbacks played in "inferior" college systems that forced them to be "system" quarterbacks. These terms are often used from a position of arrogance and ignorance as analysts or NFL personnel chide college offenses for making life easier on their quarterbacks (how dare they). Arguments over offensive systems aside, Dalton's TCU teams did potentially invent/ressurect a new type of spread option, and RG3 did succeed in Washington in a system that brought the Pistol formation to the NFL and utilized option football. By running these types of plays, Jackson can cater to his QB's strengths.

These are great reasons to run a "gimmicky" offense: it forces opponents to prepare, it keeps the defense reacting instead of correctly predicting what will happen, and it caters to our quarterback's strengths. But just like every other offense in the world, defenses will catch up if we let them. Do we ever actually throw to the eligible lineman? Do we always run the same 2-3 plays when Spencer Drango enters the game as a 6th lineman? Is Isaiah Crowell going to run anything other than a slant? Can Barnidge actually block from the FB position? If the defense can know what is coming before the snap it won't matter what we run.

A Preview

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.

The last shift featured OL Spencer Drango checked in as an eligible receiver. He started lined up as a TE, with actual TE Gary Barnidge line up as a fullback:

In a formation shift Drango switched sides, as did Pryor who ended up as the slot WR to the right. Barnidge moved out wide left, and RG3 transitioned to a shotgun formation:

We didn't see any packaged plays after these shifts, but Coach Jackson would likely hide that type of play until the regular season. But with all of these shifts happening with the first team offense still on the field, I'd expect a heavy dose of them all season long.