You know the story by now: after Tyrod Taylor’s concussion against the New York Jets, Baker Mayfield saw his first NFL regular season action and demonstrated why he was the first overall pick. He went 17-23 for 201 yards, and even caught a pass. And most importantly, he led the Browns from a 14 point deficit to their first win in 635 days.
As the Browns showcased a new franchise player on the field, they also showed a willingness to support him through offensive innovation. The NFL too often takes successful college quarterbacks and tries to fit them into Peyton Manning or Tom Brady prototypes, instead of putting them in position to be successful at what they have proven they can do.
I believe Baker can eventually demonstrate a Manningesque grasp of NFL schemes, but why not copy the blueprint of teams like the Eagles (Nick Foles), Rams (Jared Goff), and Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes) who have made their Air Raid quarterbacks comfortable by adopting college concepts and shredded defenses in the process?
On Thursday night, I was pleased to see a number of non-traditional offensive concepts on the field. These weren’t earth-shattering changes, and the Browns have at least flashed these concepts with Tyrod Taylor on the field. But it is easier to establish an identity when your offense is on the field for sustained drives, and I hope over time the Browns continue to shift in this direction.
Though it was to be expected in a 2-minute situation, Mayfield’s first drive was exclusively no-huddle offense with the exception of a stoppage after Joel Bitonio’s fumble recovery. All 5 plays were run from a shotgun formation.
The Air Raid cannon of coaches including Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma (and many non-Air Raid coaches at the college level) have adopted the use of spread formations and tempo on offense in order to press defenses to their breaking points, not just to score in the final 2 minutes. It seems the Browns are at least open to varying tempos and playing from the ‘Gun, which is a great sign.
With Baker in the game the Browns played either no-huddle offense or from a shotgun formation on 30 snaps while only taking 14 traditionally-paced snaps from under center. This meant 68.2% of their snaps came either from a shotgun formation or from the no-huddle (or both). And not only did the Browns shift into a more aggressive style, they were more successful when they did.
Defining success rate as 40% of the yards to-go on 1st down, 60% on 2nd down, or 100% on 3rd/4th downs (as Football Outsiders has done to evaluate running plays), the Browns were successful on 18 of 30 plays where they used a shotgun formation or the no-huddle, which is good for a 60% success rate. They were successful on only 3 of 14 plays from a traditional pace under center, which is good for only 35.7% success rate.
I don’t have data for no-huddle plays folded into this, but with Baker in the game the Browns are running more shotgun than they did with Tyrod through week 2 (58%) and they are near the league average (63%). They would still have a ways to go to out-shotgun Green Bay (95%!) and Philadelphia (82%), but they are having success on offense when spreading it out and/or going fast.
Another well-documented advancement in offensive strategy has come in the form of RPOs (run pass options). These are essentially called run plays that also have a pass option built in.
The Browns are introducing RPOs more this year than ever before. I’ll have a separate post detailing some of the specific plays, but most of the Browns running plays had some sort of pass option built into the play on Thursday night.
Outside of the red zone and the last drive where Mayfield and company were simply trying to kill the clock, the Browns ran 11 called running plays with Mayfield in the game. Of those 11, 8 incorporated some sort of pass option.
I wrote a little about the way Mayfield and Oklahoma used RPOs off of their Counter run play here. And while Baker’s college offense relied upon Counter as its go-to run play, they probably ran even more RPOs off of their zone runs. Regardless, Baker has proven very capable of running RPOs. And with NFL teams already running them successfully, it seems like a no-brainer to continue down this road.
Speaking of counter, we hadn’t seen a lot of it with Tyrod under center, but it made an appearance at least once in last Thursday’s game. Todd Haley has run Counter everywhere he has been, and it would be great to see him add in some of the wrinkles that Baker used at OU.
Counter is a gap-blocked run that features three things:
- Misdirection away from the play in some form
- Down blocks to the playside
- Two pulling blockers who wrap around the front side of the play. Usually the backside guard kicks out while another player (a TE,FB, or the backside tackle) wraps around through the hole.
The Browns ran Counter from a big set with 3 TEs and Carlos Hyde as the lone back. The pullers were LG Joel Bitonio and TE Orson Charles, who pull from the offense’s left (camera right). Bitonio’s job is to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage, while Charles will wrap up the field to block any flowing pursuit.
A number of things go wrong on this play that ultimately cause it to fail. The first is that pre-snap CB Morris Claibourne and OLB Jordan Jenkins switch places.
On the snap, Jenkins flies around the edge, making it hard for Bitonio to adjust. However, Bitonio is able to redirect just enough to make Jenkins have to go around him, and Jenkins flies past RB Carlos Hyde.
One of the nice parts about Counter is that the down blocks at the point of attack create double-teams on their way up to the second level. On this play RT Chris Hubbard and RG Kevin Zeitler double DE Henry Anderson on their way up to get LB Avery Williamson.
However, Hubbard leans too hard into his double-team and is late to come off onto the linebacker, which allows the linebacker to cross Hubbard’s face.
The final thing to go wrong on this play is that as Hyde evades Jenkins, he trips Charles.
Unfortunately, as Charles is stumbling he can’t see the play develop and he cannot redirect to where he needs to be. If Charles can pick up a block he has the potential to make all the other mistakes disappear:
It will be very interesting to see what adjustments the Browns make to their offense now that Mayfield has earned the starting job. The Browns have made an investment in Mayfield and should continue to support him in every way possible, including designing an offense around what he does well. Continuing to evolve the offense will be important as opposing defensive coordinators adjust to what the Browns are doing.
If last Thursday’s debut is any indication, there is some serious potential to update the playbook to go along with an updated depth chart.