Friday evening, we all finally received our first taste of competitive football in the lead-up to the 2017 NFL season with the Orange and Brown scrimmage. The excitement was palpable as we simultaneously yearned for dynamic QB play, and for that same QB to be destroyed by Myles Garrett.
The Orange and Browns scrimmage, while we self-indulgently engorge in every moment of Browns football offered - almost like binge eating after a fast - is impossible to win. Whichever groups succeed, they are doing so at the expense of their opposing unit. If the defense is good, then the offense is bad. If the first team wins, it’s because they went against the second team. If the second team wins, it’s because the first team is garbage. Positive notes based on reflections from this matchup nearly always result in a symmetrical criticism elsewhere.
This being said, the scrimmage does serve as a tangible marker as the Browns depart the “camp” phase and embark on a more regular routine in preparation for their upcoming preseason fixtures. We will take this opportunity now to review some of the interesting storylines as the preseason rapidly approaches.
On Team Identity
In 2016, Isaiah Crowell finished 7th in the league in yards per carry, but was the only top 20 rusher in the league with under 200 carries. June of this year, Hue Jackson reacted in the following way:
I beat myself up about that
We all recognize where we were in games last year, and trying to play from behind is hard, and understanding what our team was last year, feeling that you had to get off to a fast start to get ahead of a team because you knew how some things would unfold
The guy had almost 1,000 yards a year ago when I didn’t hand him the ball. What can he have if I do hand him the ball?
This quotation, if taken sincerely, really brings light to the off-season moves and how the Browns are attempting to shape a team identity. First, it shows that Jackson feels that he has the foundation for a solid running game, which should have been capitalized on more. Secondly, it shows how he felt trapped into passing based off of defensive performance. So if the Browns are going to go all in to capitalize on their comparative advantage in rushing, they needed to shore up the blocking front (ie offensive line) as well as build a defense that allowed the rushing strategy the time to become effective. The additions of Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter in free agency, and the emphasis in adding athleticism to the defense now make sense as targeted acquisitions in developing a core identity for the Cleveland Browns.
While watching Friday’s scrimmage, it is clear that the investment in the defense paid off. The defense generally dominated the offense - leading to only 15 points scored across 12 drives. In fact, they were even more effective than the numbers indicate because in several instances, Hue Jackson opted to ignore a defensive play to allow offensive progression. The additions of Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers in the off-season, while re-signing Jamie Collins, provides an immense upgrade in talent over Cleveland’s roster this time last year. Garrett has been particularly impressive this preseason notching a sack in nearly every practice, and an unofficial four in the Orange and Brown scrimmage - on 6 drives. Coupled with the installment of Gregg Williams’ scheme, the Browns defense has a different look and feel that should help develop a nasty, aggressive defensive personality. Ideally, this will be the perfect unit to provide space for the offense to establish a running mentality.
On the other side, it’s difficult to determine the state of the offense. Most media attention focuses on Quarterback performance (or lack thereof) and flashy touchdown catches in practice, however in a run-first scheme these anecdotes are not really enlightening as to the Browns progress in their core modality of scoring. Having little data to go on, it was encouraging to see Crowell unleash a 37 yard run on the third drive. We also have very limited observations of the entire first team offensive line playing intact, as Joe Thomas and others are often the beneficiaries of managed off days.
On Trevon Coley, Duke Johnson, and Danny Vitale
Each preseason, a few players emerge in unexpected roles. For me, Trevon Coley, Duke Johnson, and Danny Vitale are those players this year.
Trevon Coley was an Undrafted Free Agent last year, and was signed to the Browns practice squad in December. His NFL.com draft profile listed him as a 4.9 rating (less than a 50/50 chance to make a roster) and his scouted weaknesses were listed:
Short, puffed up frame. Came in as a 235 linebacker and has stacked weight onto his frame. Doesn't have the length or frame to hold up when game comes downhill at him. Must live in the gaps or big offensive linemen can overtake him. Needs to win early in pass rush or his momentum fizzles out.
This is interesting because the hiring of Gregg Williams may have been the most fortunate thing for his NFL career. Williams’s scheme encourages interior defensive linemen to knife through their gaps and press upfield, which plays directly towards Coley’s strengths. When Bryant was out in training camp, Coley would practice with the first team and he has been singled out for praise by Hue Jackson. Coley should be a favorite to make final 53-man roster and be a rotational contributor to the DL.
While it’s not a surprise to see Duke Johnson contributing to the Browns, and a favorite to make the final 53-man roster, it is surprising to see how he has been utilized. Previously, Duke has been used as a 3rd down change of pace back that could act as a sort of utility man in the backfield. Throughout training camp and the Orange and Brown scrimmage, Duke has been used primarily as a slot receiver. Though he still gets snaps behind the QB from time to time, there is a clear effort by Hue Jackson to optimize the weapons that he does possess. Duke and Crowell are clearly two of the best offensive weapons the Browns have, and if they are both traditional RBs then their ability to be on the field at the same time is limited. If Duke can play slot while Crowell lines up in the backfield, it is more threatening for the opposing defense.
Ever since the loss of Lawrence Vickers, Browns fans have been pining for that bruising fullback who destroyed would-be tacklers in defense of the tailback. Danny Vitale was a late pickup in 2016 - he played some, but his on field impact was limited. This led me to project earlier this month that he would not make the final roster. Now, after watching Friday’s scrimmage, I feel that I need to reverse that prognostication. Remembering Hue’s core strategy of establishing a run game, a solid FB can be vital. Vitale was used Friday frequently to lead block for Crowell, and empirically speaking, Hue values his contributions.
It also should be shown that Vitale is an athletic beast - labeled a top performer for the 2016 combine in bench (30 reps)/vertical (38.5 in)/20 yd shuttle (4.12 s)/60 yd shuttle (11.36 s), he is an incredibly talented athlete who should be able to provide versatility beyond blocking.
For Coley and Vitale, they are earning a place on the roster because of their unique abilities to contribute into the core identity that Hue Jackson wants to build - with penetrating interior lineman and a power running game. It is best, then, to look forward to the upcoming preseason matchups with an eye for this strategy. Instead of fixating on the QB competition, sit back and look at the big picture - how are the Browns progressing towards their core strategy?