Cleveland Browns: Building in the mold of the Atlanta Falcons

Aug 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) runs the ball as Cleveland Browns defensive back Jamar Taylor (27) defends during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) runs the ball as Cleveland Browns defensive back Jamar Taylor (27) defends during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /
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NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons /

The Cleveland Browns may currently be the joke of the NFL, but they can contend sooner than many realize by following the path of the NFC title bound Atlanta Falcons.

While many Cleveland Browns fans will pay little to no attention to the NFC title game on Sunday, all football fans should check out the emerging Atlanta Falcons. Watching Atlanta closely, Cleveland fans will see many similarities between their young 1-15 team and the champions of the NFC South.

When examining the Falcons, fans will realize that the Browns could be closer to contention than anyone would ever imagine.

Atlanta wins by scoring 33.9 points per game, the most in football. They ranked third in passing yards during the regular season despite not having Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees at quarterback. They also ranked fifth in rushing, despite not having a household name at running back.

So how does Atlanta score so many points, and how is Cleveland ever going to duplicate this?

A combination of factors has led to the rise of the Falcons and this offense. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver like Julio Jones, who has four career 1,000-yard seasons, including this year in which he put up 1,409 yards.

But without another sizable threat in the passing game, Atlanta mostly relies on the speed of Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, and former Brown, Taylor Gabriel. These weapons are utilized and maximized through the brilliant play-calling of an offensive coordinator Cleveland fans are familiar with, Kyle Shanahan.

The rushing attack is led by Devonta Freeman, a 24-year-old back who contributed 1,541 all-purpose yards during the regular season. Tevin Coleman is the offense’s second running back, an adequate but not flashy ball carrier.

For an offense lacking household names, collaboration is key. This, as well as an offensive line anchored by center Alex Mack, another former Brown, has allowed the Falcons to redefine themselves as an offensive juggernaut.

The line ranks sixth according to Pro Football Focus, with Mack as the second best lineman in football and the top run blocker. With an offensive line like Atlanta’s, there is no need for players who can make one-handed catches or run a 4.3 40-yard dash.

The Browns may be a long ways from acquiring the sorts of players which make them comparable to the Falcons, but it could be argued that they already have the bare bones in place.

Terrelle Pryor, most notably, had one of the top seasons of all NFL receivers, and may get even better. His size, hands, and route-running ability is similar to that of Jones.

Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson will never be considered as the league’s top running backs, but they are similar in build and skill set to Freeman and Coleman, respectively. Behind the right offensive line, Crowell could be an extremely productive back.

Besides Jones, Atlanta’s other wide receivers don’t stand out any more than Cleveland’s. Sanu is much like first-round draft pick Corey Coleman, while Gabriel and Hardy can be compared to Andrew Hawkins and either Ricardo Louis or Rashard Higgins.

Most of all, red zone efficiency is what makes the Falcons so successful offensively. Ranked 10th in football inside the 20-yard-line, the Falcons score touchdowns on 61 percent of their trips.

Similarly, the Browns have the potential to be the same sort of offense in this respect as well. Tight end Gary Barnidge is a lethal weapon the Browns have in the red zone, as 14 of his 178 career receptions have been touchdowns. Plus, with Pryor’s size and nose for the ball, the red zone could be a strength for the Browns in the future, much like it is currently for Jones and the Falcons.

But play-calling is what makes this all possible. Offensive genius Kyle Shanahan certainly deserves a great degree of credit. And while Browns fans didn’t always like the play sequences called on multiple occasions this past season, head coach Hue Jackson is an established and well-respected offensive mind.

For Cleveland to continue following in Atlanta’s footsteps, they need to trust that coach Jackson can use his experience in play-calling from his time in Cincinnati to gain a step on the rest of the NFL’s offenses. This is how Atlanta has made their potent offense work, and it is how the Browns can do the same.