Cleveland Browns: A rebuilt offensive line in 2016
By Joel W. Cade
Last season the Browns were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on offense. New hire John DeFilippo brought a vertical passing game complemented by a Power run scheme to the Browns. However, instead of implementing DeFilippo’s Power run scheme, Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer insisted on keeping the zone run scheme from the year before. Thus DeFilippo had the impossible task of combining a zone run concept with a vertical passing approach. Why is this impossible?
Alex Gibbs, the creator of the zone based offense, states, “As I put in the system [initially], I realized it does not work as a piece or part of an offense. It is a different concept. If you come in with that idea, you are going to get into trouble.” The Browns did not heed this advice and went full ahead with the zone run aspect of this offense with a vertical base passing attack. Like Gibbs predicted, the Browns got into trouble.
A zone based offense attacks the defense laterally. It pressures the defense by making them defend every square inch of the field from sideline to sideline.
In the run game, the zone based offense is designed to take advantage defensive pursuit. The point is to use that pursuit against the defense. Thus, at the snap the line will take a read step to allow the defense to begin their attack. After seeing the defense’s hand, the offense then executes its play based on what the defense is doing. In this system running backs have the freedom to choose where to cross the line of scrimmage based on defined reads after the snap. When working well, this offense is much like watching a beautiful dance of 11 people working in unison.
The zone based passing game feeds directly off the running game. For Gibbs, “One of the big problems of the wide zone play is the chaser from the backside. The easiest way to control the chaser is to run the quarterback on keeper plays out of the backside”. This basic strategy of controlling the backside chaser has manifested in two ways in the NFL. First, teams control the backside chaser with the read option. If the backside OLB chases, then the QB keeps the ball and runs. Second, the backside OLB is controlled by play-action rollout bootlegs and naked bootlegs. A backside chasing OLB leaves the QB completely free on a roll out bootleg pass. The read option and bootleg passes control the backside chaser by using his pursuit against him.
As where a zone offense attacks the defense laterally using its own NFL style of jujitsu, the vertical passing game aggressively attacks the defense.
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The vertical passing scheme was originally the brainchild of Sid Gillman whose coaching tree includes, among an overly impressive list, Al Davis. Davis took the vertically based scheme with him to Oakland developing it further. The vertical passing scheme employs deep and intermediate route combinations in order to make the defense defend every square inch of the field from the line of scrimmage to the length of the longest route.
For example, a streak or go route will force the defense expand vertically. By expanding vertically, the intermediate routes to short routes become harder to cover. By attacking a two leveled defense (linebackers and defensive backs) with three levels of receiver routes, the offense exploits the defenses inability to be everywhere at once.
However, the issue is one of compliment. Does a zone run scheme compliment a vertical passing scheme? The zone run scheme requires smaller more athletic linemen to be successful. The vertical passing scheme requires bigger and stronger linemen to hold their blocks longer for deeper routes to develop.
The insistence on keeping the zone run scheme put the Browns offensive line in an unfavorable position. It was asked to be smaller and quicker on one play, then become bigger and stronger the next. As where the Browns offensive line was successful under Kyle Shanahan’s zone offense, it was not successful with the vertical passing game.
Worse yet, the Janus-like nature of the offense made the Browns predictable on the basis of formation. Certain formations were employed only for zone concepts. Other formations were used strictly for vertical passing concepts. This further hurt the Browns offensive line play.
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