The Cleveland Browns have had second round pick Joel Bitonio play both guard spots but the early indication is they want him to be the team’s left guard. Considering the personnel they have and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s past and preference for style, there are some conclusions that can be drawn as to what the offense wants to do as the season goes along. The Browns have made a real effort to improve their running game and they specifically want to force opponents to have to pay extra attention running left. If defenses are forced to overplay the run to the left, it opens up the rollout to the right off of playaction, which has been where Shanahan’s offenses have made a lot of their plays, especially when it comes to attacking down the field.
So much of what Shanahan did with Robert Griffin III when it came to playaction passing was going with a long, reach type play where he was able to use his athleticism to get outside of the pocket and have options. If one of his primary reads was open, he could obviously make a pass and take the profit, which could be a terrific area for Jordan Cameron or Andrew Hawkins to get production. If not, he could simply keep the ball and continue running against what is ideally a relatively few defenders, getting out of bounds or sliding before taking unnecessary contact.
Obviously, this is ultimately designed with Johnny Manziel in mind because of his quickness and mobility, which is where Shanahan’s comparisons to Griffin come into play, but Brian Hoyer is perfectly capable of doing the job as well. Hoyer is far less likely to run than Manziel between the two, especially given Hoyer’s recent surgery. Nevertheless, while Hoyer is not the athlete Manziel is, he has shown he can execute the type of offense Shanahan wants to run.
And by virtue of the fact they are able to get outside going to the right, it forces the left end to stay honest and stay home to try to make a play on the quarterback if they do try to get outside. This potentially helps to create running lanes up the middle as well as running left, especially in a one cut type scheme where the running back can trust their vision and find a hole. Manziel’s remarkable quickness makes it so that he can potentially have a defensive end stay home and try to stop him, but simply make him miss anyway.
This makes the acquisition of Bitonio extremely important and the left side of the line featuring Bitonio, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. They all have the athletic ability and functional strength to get outside and get a nice push in the running game. The stable of running backs that they have brought in starting with Ben Tate, but with additions including rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, the Browns hope they have the necessary size and speed to force opponents to lean to that side to stop them.
If the Browns find success with this setup, it comes from the left side of the offensive line and running game forcing the defense to put more resources on that side of the field, giving the Browns a numbers advantage to the right. If they are unable to force the defense to shift over, the defense can stay balanced or blitz off of the right side and potentially drill the quarterback in the backfield for a significant loss and possibly a fumble. It is important to remember that often times, Shanahan calls for naked bootlegs, so if a defender is able to get through and attack, the quarterback is not always going to be able to see it coming. The great equalizer could be Manziel’s ability to improve out of this type of situation.
Where Hoyer has the advantage is if Shanahan empowers the quarterback to make the playcall at the line based on what the defense is showing them. For example, if they do not have the numbers on the left side, checking to a run that way and if they are weak on the backside, going with playaction and taking advantage. That seems simple enough on its face, but Hoyer should be better equipped when it comes to diagnosing disguises in coverage and blitzes. So, at least early in the process, Hoyer could look far more comfortable and the offense look smoother while Manziel can obviously provide the more exciting, electric play. In either case, the Browns have assembled a group of quarterbacks that can execute this type of offense, including Connor Shaw, the undrafted free agent from South Carolina.
The right guard spot is still an issue to find, though the early favorite for that spot is likely Jon Greco. They also have Jason Pinkston and the guy they may really like for the long term if he can develop technically in Garrett Gilkey, who is the prototypical guard in terms of size, strength and athleticism. The whole scheme should make it easier for Mitchell Schwartz to operate at right tackle, but he does need to get better from last year.
The left side of the offensive line is going to be the key to make this offense go. The Browns have Thomas and Mack in the fold and if Bitonio can deliver on his talent, they have a nasty group that can really shove opponents around and make the running game go and the passing game work off of it. This could really prove to be a problem for defenses in the division, especially the Ravens and Steelers who may have a little more issue with athleticism on the line and be sealed effectively. It remains to be seen if the Browns can execute it, but this could be a glimpse as to what to expect from the Browns offense once they get going in training camp, the preseason and ultimately the regular season, regardless of which quarterback is under center. That stretch left, roll out right could be a huge key for the offense this season and going forward.