Are NFL preseason games meaningless?
Beyond the return of football, and a building of excitement for the fall, I am not sure. As Browns fans should know all too well, winning preseason games doesn’t exactly mean your team is capable of winning a game when it counts.
While last Thursday’s win over the New York Giants is probably better than a loss, we should caution ourselves against buying into the HYPE™ too much. Similarly, when things don’t go well we shouldn’t get too low.
I think it is best to view preseason games as tools for coaches and general managers as opposed to previews of how a team will play during the regular season. For coaches, this typically means getting extra work in ways that they can’t or don’t want to during normal practice times. For general managers, this means analyzing what players are able to do at the NFL level and their team fit.
This is why I am trying not to get too excited about Tyrod Taylor’s second and final drive against the Giants. OC Todd Haley used the drive to work on the 2 minute offense (something that reportedly has been a work in progress throughout camp), and Taylor proceeded to go 3 of 3 on the drive for 63 yards and a touchdown. While I’d love to see the Browns run some no huddle offense outside of the 2 minute drill, I’m not getting my hopes up. Or trying not to, at least.
(As a side note: whether you liked that Haley stuck with the running game despite its ineffectiveness or hated it, we probably can’t learn much about his commitment to the run from this game. He was likely getting reps in while real defense was being played.)
Regardless, let’s take a deeper look at the drive.
One thing that jumps out is that Haley used the exact same formation for all 4 plays on the drive. Taylor set up in shotgun with RB Duke Johnson flanking him to the left. The receivers were aligned in a 2x2 formation with TE David Njoku split into the slot to the right, WR Jarvis Landry in the slot to the left, WR Rashard Higgins split wide right, and WR Antonio Calloway wide left.
The Browns operated at an uptempo pace with no huddle, with Taylor using one number to signal the next play. And in doing so, they caught the Giants with a set personnel grouping and a limited number of defenses at their disposal.
The Giants remained in a single-high safety look throughout the drive, playing some Cover 1 and what looked to be some Cover 3 zone (when the ball comes out so quick it can be hard to determine the coverage fully).
The Browns started the drive with Trap, a run play from this shotgun spread formation:
In this version of Trap, the RG and C look to double-team the nose up to the playside linebacker, while the LG pulls.
The idea is to make the DT believe he has penetrated unblocked into the backfield, only to blindside him with the puller. Between the double-team on the NT and this trap block, there should be a good gap for the RB:
The Giants defended the play well, reading run quickly and following the flow of the lone back as well as the pull. On the snap, not only did SS Landon Collins rotate down into the front, but LBs Alec Ogletree and B.J. Goodson also fast-flowed toward the playside of the run.
The fast flow of the LBs to the offense’s right killed RG Spencer Drango’s blocking angle and any potential double team on NT Damon Harrison, setting the play up for failure. Drango had to quickly hit the double team to the left, then redirect to the right for the LB. Without a sustained double team, C JC Tretter was unable to create a sizeable gap for the play. Credit DL B.J. Hill for not being fooled by the trap block as well, hugging tight to Drango to minimize any gap.
However, thanks to Duke Johnson’s decisive yet elusive running style, he was able to gain 3 yards here despite not a lot of daylight.
Like all good uptempo offenses should, the Browns were able to respond to a less than ideal play by simply moving on quickly. Before the dust even settled, you could see Tyrod Taylor holding up a number that signaled the next play.
One-word playcalls have been dubbed the future of offensive football as early as Bill Walsh’s days with the San Francisco 49ers, and if you haven’t noticed the almost endless amount of college teams using tempo (along with NFL teams like the Patriots, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Chiefs, Ravens, etc), it’s time to get up to speed. The future is here, and it is killing defenses.
On the second play of the drive, the Browns ran a version of the All Curl concept with Njoku, Higgins, and Landry on the curl routes, and Johnson on a checkdown route over the middle. An interesting wrinkle was Calloway running essentially a pick for Landry, as Landry ran a fake into the flat prior to his curl route.
Taylor had pretty much any receiver he wanted on this play, as the pick was effective for Landry, and all of the interior defenders carried with Njoku to leave Duke open underneath. But having seen the defensive shell from the Giants and off coverage from CB Eli Apple, Taylor hit Higgins for easy money on the outside.
Now facing a 3rd and 1, Taylor and Haley dialed up a 3 deep concept. It is hard to tell exactly what the concept was because the ball comes out so quickly. It could have been a version of the Choice concept from 2x2, it could have been a Shallow Cross concept, or something else. But Njoku and Johnson ran almost a miniature version of Mesh shallow over the middle, while Calloway, Landry, and Higgins stretched the field vertically.
Noticing that CB Eli Apple’s back was turned in press man coverage, Taylor immediately fired a back-shoulder pass to Higgins.
Higgins saw the ball, stopped, and caught it before Apple could find it.
Outside of any gameplan or larger strategic concept, Browns fans should take a step back and admire the skills on display with this pass. We finally have quarterbacks on the team who are able to get on the same page with their receivers and deliver on-time, on-target passes before a defense can react. We have receivers who can understand where an accurate ball will be and beat man coverage for receptions.
We haven’t seen this in at least a decade, and it is great to watch. May we all get HYPE™.
With a fresh set of downs inside the Giants’ 40 yard line, Taylor called for play “3” on the fourth play of the drive
I am not sure exactly how the Browns conceptualize this play. It’s either 4 verticals with Landry given the freedom to bend inside on his seam route, or it is 4 verticals to the right side of the field (i.e. 2 verticals) with Landry on a slant to the left (essentially a clearout for Landry to win in space).
Regardless, Collins comes free off the edge on a blitz, leaving Alec Ogletree matched up with Njoku. Because the FS is in the middle of the field, Njoku should be able to win over the top in the seam, which he did.
Of particular note is Taylor’s footwork and delivery on this play. Taylor throws this pass “in rhythm”, meaning he throws it immediately as his back foot hits the last step in his drop. With no hitch step or time to gather himself, this is not as easy or common as it might seem.
Taylor hits Njoku in stride, touchdown.
As beautiful as this drive was, I am not sure the tempo or the one-word playcalls will carry over into the season, as much as I’d love to see that happen. After all, this was likely just a live practice of the 2 minute offense for Haley and the first string.
On the flip side, I am more optimistic that the skill we saw on display will carry forward into the season. The decisiveness of the quarterbacks’ reads, their ball placement, the chemistry the receivers were able to showcase with the QBs, and the amount of separation the receivers (and the offense) generated were truly sights for sore eyes.
Here’s hoping that this year some areas of success in the preseason carry over to when the games count.