Josh Gordon is likely the most controversial player on the Browns as he has the talent to be one of the team’s best players but is still learning how to be a professional football player and is on a short leash, unless he plans to call the organization and his teammates’ bluff. The preseason is largely vanilla in how teams run their schemes, but the game against the Lions demonstrated how important Gordon will be to this offense and how much he will be missed the first two weeks. Finding a way to work through Gordon’s issues and getting him on the right path, both for himself and the team, has to be of the highest priority for the team as he changes the entire complexion of the offense.
Against the Lions, Gordon played barely a quarter and had thrown passes thrown at him with three catches for 72 yards. Three of them were against base man coverage with a one on one matchup while the fourth was against zone. The one against zone was probably the only one that will be really relatable to when the regular season starts and teams play matchup football, unless opponents have the utmost confidence their corner can match up against Gordon one on one.
The first pass was against man coverage. The Browns came out in shotgun with two backs in the backfield, two receivers to the left and Gordon isolated on the right but almost lined up in the slot, giving him a lot of space to operate. Gordon went deep on a vertical route, taking advantage of the space to the outside, was able to get past the cornerback and Brandon Weeden tried to give him a pass he could go get. The pass was ultimately in a place where it was either going to be a catch by Gordon or no one, which is exactly what he is asked to do in that scenario. Gordon was only able to get one hand on the pass and could not bring it in, but it was a calculated risk to try to make a play on 2nd and 6 in an attempt to make a big play while still having a reasonable third down yardage to gain. That is the type of aggressive Chud preached when he came in and a play that fit the strengths of both Weeden and Gordon.
The second and the third passes to Gordon were interesting because of the way they lined up on offense. In both situations, the Browns lined up in empty with the running back (first with Trent Richardson, then with Dion Lewis) motioning to the outside of him (to the left) which put him as the middle receiver on the left side, albeit heavily slanted toward the sideline. The first time, Gordon ran a drag route which Weeden found him on underneath and he was able to make a defender miss by coming back toward the line of scrimmage before he was able to turn it up the field, get up to the sideline and get the first down. Because of his viability as a vertical threat, Gordon can pretty easily sell the deep route and work underneath, create space to make a play, while possessing the agility, acceleration, and speed to make plays after the catch. His size, strength, and speed are impressive and allow him to be a nice outside threat going down the field, but it is his quickness and body control that allow him to be a threat underneath as well and give him the ability to be a complete threat.
On the third pass, after Lewis motioned outside of Gordon, Gordon ran an outside leaning vertical route. He worked to get down the field, but had the space to use the space to the sideline to go outside and turn it up the field. He was easily able to get on top of the corner and Weeden dropped a pass over his shoulder that Gordon was able to bring in with one hand before securing it with the second. The defender was flagged for pass interference, but the Browns declined it as Gordon was able to bring it in and pick up an extra yard or few before going out of bounds. Gordon has flashed an impressive ability to focus on the football, track it down the field, and bring it in to make the catch, even off of deflections. The play would have yielded the yardage off of the pass interference call but the fact Gordon was able to bring it in is worthwhile. In the future, if a similar situation occurs and he brings it in but stays in bounds, he could pick up extra yardage and possibly score.
The last pass thrown at Gordon in his short night of work was the last play of the first quarter and likely the most realistic to what they could see in a regular season environment. The Browns had Weeden in shotgun with split backs, two receivers the right and Gordon split out to the left. The Lions showed a basic Cover-2 look. Gordon came off of the line, found a hole in the zone, planted his foot in the ground, and showed a good post/square in route where he was reading the defense and finding a hole in the defense. Weeden diagnosed the defense well and anticipated his route well, throwing a beautiful pass right on time that hit Gordon right in the hands, so he could catch the ball and continue running. Gordon picked up a few more yards before being brought down, which ended up being a 23 yard gain for the Browns, the last play of the quarter, and the last throw to Gordon of the night.
In a quarter of work, Gordon had four passes thrown his way with three catches totaling 72 of Weeden’s 117 yards passing. If a team does not have a corner capable of covering Gordon, they can allow him to keep making big plays and watch him continue to eat up big chunks of yardage or they will adjust their coverage and likely give the corner on Gordon help. It remains to be seen if the other teams in the AFC North have a corner that can match up with Gordon by themselves, but Baltimore will only have to figure it out once as Gordon will be suspended for the first matchup.
Whether teams opt to use box coverage with a linebacker to take away the inside or use a safety over the top, Gordon is likely going to demand the attention of two defenders in man coverage. Obviously, if defenses are using two defenders to try to contain Gordon, they will have one less defender to help elsewhere. As a result, players like Greg Little, Jordan Cameron, Davonne Bess, Travis Benjamin and most importantly, Trent Richardson benefit because they have less opposition to work against. And if Richardson is the player he should be, a breakout running back, then defenses are going to be strained trying to cover the rest of the offense.
The result should be that Weeden has a much easier time finding openings in defenses and players like Little and Cameron especially, should take advantage and have the best seasons of their career statistically. While some might try to label them as breakout players, they will be taking advantage of the stress Gordon and Richardson are putting on them. This is not to say either cannot breakout and truly evolve into a great player, but the opening two weeks could show just how much of an impact Gordon might have.
With Gordon suspended the first two weeks of the season, he will not be there to demand extra coverage from the Miami Dolphins or Baltimore Ravens. As a result, the rest of the offense will have to pick up the slack and show what they can do with a more balanced defensive approach. If they can thrive, they deserve a great deal of credit, but if they struggle, there could be a stark difference when Gordon is back in the lineup when the Browns visit the Minnesota Vikings and host the Cincinnati Bengals week three and four. While the offense is still a work in progress and not where it should be by December, how much teams respect and try to counter Gordon should be pretty clear the first month of the year.
Gordon is not a finished product and he still could get even better, which is a scary thought. He can still get better as a receiver, but his effort in blocking can also get much better. For all of the talent and upside Gordon has, the light still has not really gone on for him in terms of being a professional football player and becoming the player he can be. The Browns need to make sure they do everything in their power to make sure Gordon can become that player, because of just how much he can do for this offense. They did not pick him and they do not owe him anything, but he can transform this offense and really put them on the path back to the playoffs and potentially a championship. Gordon needs to totally buy in to the organization and his teammates as well and have a similar football epiphany as Little seems to have had last year. If he can, the sky is the limit for him as a player as well as the offense for the Browns. Gordon has the ability to be special and is already showing just how much he can do for Brandon Weeden and the rest of this offense.