As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
First up, the Cleveland Browns.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Browns’ Run Game
The run game is generally unchanged from last season. Isaiah Crowell is the early-down back while Duke Johnson comes in one third downs. Johnson is one of the best pass catchers from the position, hauling in 114 passes over the last two years. Both guys are explosive and Johnson is great at making defenders miss in space.
The offensive line has been overhauled, adding Kevin Zeitler at RG and getting Joel Bitonio back at left guard. J.C. Tretter is a solid center while Joe Thomas remains his ever-steady presence on the left side. The only weak spot is at right tackle, where Shon Coleman will start after the team traded Cam Erving.
Scheme-wise, there’s a good mix. You’ll get more Counter Trey in the past with the backside tight end or fullback and backside guard pulling.
They have a fullback, Dan Vitale, added mid-way through last year. And he’s a big part of the rushing attack but is a competent receiver who can be an asset on boots or checkdowns.
Hue Jackson is my favorite playcaller in the league and throws the sink at you. You’ll get every personnel grouping; 11, 12, 21, and 13, all mixed throughout a drive. The tough part about his offense is how difficult it is to match up with him pre-snap. Tons of motions, shifts, and trades.
Familiarity helps to prepare but playing Browns Week 1 is rough. Hue Jackson most creative OC pre-snap. pic.twitter.com/3dXryvxiyy
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 6, 2017
I know the Steelers know the team well but in Week One, with a new QB – a much more mobile one – and Jackson having all the time to scheme up new concepts, it’s a challenge.
They use false keys in the run game to fool linebackers. Twice against the New York Giants, they faked a QB sweep and handed the ball off to the right side. Get the defense flowing one way and put pressure on the backside OLB and Buck linebacker to read their keys and close. Successful play both times they ran it.
Of course, with so much chaos, if your rookie QB breaks the huddle late, you're in trouble. Delay of game. pic.twitter.com/qHbJybFyqQ
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 6, 2017
They’ve also run read options combined with an arc block from the tight end to serve as a lead blocker if the QB keeps it. You might not see it a lot but enough to need to worry about it.
Browns’ Passing Game
It is tougher to see concepts in the preseason without the All-22 film. But where Deshone Kizer, the team’s second round pick, shined the most was on throws outside the numbers. Over the middle, he got into trouble.
He seemed to show good chemistry with Corey Coleman, who, now healthy, is showing the talent that got him drafted in the first round. Able to sell speed to win comeback routes and has great body control. Josh will talk about him more in-depth below.
They love 3×1 bunch sets. Spacing routes to the frontside and getting Coleman isolated on the backside. Either you choose to bracket him or play solo (man) coverage, allowing him to take advantage of the cornerbacks’ leverage and win.
Kizer does have the freedom to throw hot routes against off coverage. And Jackson has given him a couple RPOs, too.
Like the run game, they’ll use false keys in the pass too. Pull the guard to convince the linebackers it’s a run – which is doubly influential because of the trap runs the Browns actually use – and run playaction off it. Steelers do this a ton too, looking to hit the TE down the seam.
The onus will be on the LOLB – Bud Dupree – to make a play. The RT blocks down to sell the run and the pulling guard is forced to pick the edge rusher up. If he can’t reach him in time, it’s a good chance for a sack.
This is a vertical attack that will take a lot of shots, even out of heavy personnel like 3 TE sets. Their offense thrives on the big play.
If I’m Keith Butler, I’m playing a lot of Cover 2. Funnel everything to the middle of the field and have the corners sink to take away those pesky comeback routes/hole shots.
Josh’s Individual Report
The start of the regular season is finally here for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it’s Cleveland Browns week to open the season.
Since returning to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have been at the bottom of the league more often than not, and have struggled to find a franchise quarterback. After an endless carousel at general manager, head coach and quarterback, the Browns have seemingly found their men as Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson have settled on rookie second-round pick DeShone Kizer as the starting quarterback.
Sure, we’ve heard this same song and dance before, but this seems to be very different.
Kizer looks tremendous in the pocket with his awareness and poise under pressure, and adding a big, strong arm to that package with his height and athleticism is a cherry on top.
Granted, he looked great against backups in wins over the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants before looking mostly average against the starting defense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his start in the third preseason game, but there’s plenty to get excited about with Kizer, and there’s plenty to work with from Jackson’s perspective.
Against the Saints, Kizer balled out, leading the Browns to a comeback win thanks to two great deep shots in the fourth quarter to Richard Mullaney, who is no longer with the Browns.
The best deep throw from Kizer in that game was the first one, thanks to his movement in the pocket and his poise in the face of pressure.
I love the way the rookie moves in the pocket, sets his base back up and uncorks a bomb down the field to a waiting Mullaney.
One play later, the Browns scored and you really started to see the excitement building around Kizer.
Pressure really doesn’t seem to faze him. Yes, he’ll take some poor sacks, but that’s expected from a rookie quarterback. But he shows great feel for the pocket and shifts around with ease to buy a bit more time.
His arm talent is really impressive too. He’s accurate, can drive throws to the boundary and puts his receivers in the best possible position to make catches down the field.
On the move here against the Buccaneers in a driving rainstorm, Kizer has no problem throwing off balance, rifling this ball into a tough throwing window for a big pickup.
That’s a throw that made me jump out of my seat, and it’s something he can do consistently with his arm strength.
While the Browns seem to have found their quarterback of the future, the rest of the offense looks loaded, at least on paper.
At running back, Isaiah Crowell returns to bring the physicality at the running back position, having run for 952 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a big, strong back that has some sneaky speed to his game.
Just 24 years old, he’s a valuable back for the Browns, having added 40 receptions last season for Cleveland. With an improved offensive line in front of him, Crowell could have a monster season, and that starts Sunday against the Steelers. Last season against the Steelers, Crowell rushed for just 10 yards on eight carries in the first matchup before rushing for 152 yards on 19 carries in the season finale.
I’m betting he’ll fall somewhere in the middle on Sunday.
Behind Crowell, Duke Johnson might be the best running back on the roster, but he’s working in more of a scat-back role, bringing some matchup issues as a receiver, where the Browns will turn to him on third down.
In the preseason, Johnson looked dangerous in the third-down role, giving defenses issues guarding him because of his versatility on the ground and through the air.
Don’t be surprised to see Johnson get a bunch of touches lined up all over the field on Sunday.
One guy to watch who could surprise this season is rookie running back Matthew Dayes, who was a seventh-round pick out of North Carolina State and really impressed in the preseason. When it’s all said and done this year, Dayes might be the best running back on the roster; he’s that impressive.
Where the Browns made the biggest improvements this off-season was along the offensive line, where Cleveland signed guard Kevin Zeitler away from the Cincinnati Bengals, and center J.C. Tretter away from the Green Bay Packers.
Zeitler and Tretter join an offensive line that features future first-ballot Hall of Famer in left tackle Joe Thomas and guard Joel Bitonio. Second-year tackle Shon Coleman will hold down the right tackle spot this season for the Browns.
After having a rough time protecting anyone last season in Cleveland, this offensive line group should be dominant right away and could work its way into the conversation of top 5 offensive lines in the NFL this year.
At receiver, Corey Coleman returns for a second year after a tough rookie season that saw him miss a handful of games due to a broken hand. If the preseason is any indication of Coleman’s abilities and prospects of this season, the former Baylor receiver should be in line for a monster year.
The Browns looked to get him the ball as much as possible in the preseason, whether that was on swing passes out of the backfield, deep shots, curls, out-routes and crossing routes, where the speedster can use his calling card.
Along with Coleman, veteran Kenny Britt joins the fold coming off of a good year with the Los Angeles Rams despite not having much to work with at quarterback.
The Browns will move Britt around a lot to look for matchup advantages, but it will likely always come down to his size and strength advantages over defensive backs.
Recently, the Browns and Steelers swapped draft picks, while the Steelers also sent Sammie Coates to Cleveland in the deal. Personally, I think the Steelers gave up on Coates way too earlier, so I like what the Browns did.
He’ll get a chance to play a lot as the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver, giving the Browns added depth at receiver. While it might take him a bit to learn the playbook, expect Coates to be the deep threat for Cleveland in hopes of opening up things underneath for Coleman, Britt and slot receiver Ricardo Louis, who showed an ability to make defenders miss in the middle of the field while getting to the first-down marker consistently.
One guy who could make a big impact on just one or two plays on Sunday outside of Coates is Kasen Williams, who had a tremendous preseason for the Seattle Seahawks before being claimed by the Browns following the cut-down process.
He has a knack for getting behind defenses. Stay tuned there.
At tight end, Cleveland has a solid trio in Seth DeValve, David Njoku and Randall Telfer. Telfer is currently listed as the Browns’ No. 1 TE, but DeValve and Njoku will get much more work in the passing game.
Former Brown Gary Barnidge usually had success in the middle of the field against the Steelers, so DeValve and Njoku might be able to do the same on Sunday.
Outside of an offense that could be really good this season, the Browns have a solid special teams unit to work with as well, starting with punt returner Jabrill Peppers.
Peppers, a first-round pick out of Michigan, is a lethal weapon with the ball in his hands. When not playing safety for Cleveland, Peppers will get the chance to flip the field on punt returns.
On a few returns in the preseason, Peppers was electrifying.
Yes, he doesn’t make anyone “miss” in a sense, but Peppers shows off his speed, vision and explosiveness on the return. He’s going to be a dangerous return man for Cleveland, so it wouldn’t surprise me if teams start to just kick the ball out of bounds to avoid giving him a chance to bust a game wide open.
In the kicking game, rookie Zane Gonzalez was the best kicker in college last season at Arizona State, and he was solid in the preseason, missing just one field goal while booming kick-offs out of the end zone on a consistent basis.
At punter, Britton Colquitt returns for another season in Cleveland. The veteran punter averaged 45.3 yards per punt on 83 kicks last season. Fortunately for him (or unfortunately, depending on how he looks at it), the number of punts should decline for him this season thanks to a much better offense.
Overall, this is a Browns attack that should be much improved in both phases of the game, and added scoring/explosiveness from special teams should be able to keep them in a lot more games this season, which could lead to more wins.
I strongly believe Cleveland won’t be much of a pushover this season on the shores of Lake Erie.