An offense is more than one person, but for the Cleveland Browns, no player has been more of a game-changer than rookie receiver Josh Gordon. In concert with fellow rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, the Browns have a much-improved offense from where they stood in 2011.
Though Cleveland ranks just 27th in total yards per game, it's a more offense-heavy NFL. The Browns have averaged 324 yards per game through seven weeks, as compared to their 29th-ranked 2011 offense, which averaged 288.9 yards per game. Further, with 21 points per game on average, the Browns are putting up 7.4 more points on a weekly basis than last week, giving them the ability to keep games close though they are 1-6 so far this season.
With Gordon scoring at least one touchdown in his last three games, despite an average of 2.6 catches during that time, it's clear he's making the most of his opportunities. Here's three ways he's made an impact for the Browns thus far.
Drawing Double Coverage
One of the issues the Browns receiving corps specifically and offense as a whole had prior to the emergence of Gordon was the lack of a true scoring threat receiver that draws opposing defenses' respect and thus double coverage.
That meant that Weeden (as well as his 2011 predecessors Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace) had to work that much harder to find an open receiver, make questionable throws and try to find of-the-moment playmakers rather than an every-game reliable target.
With Gordon—a now-proven big-play threat—defenses need to keep track of his every move and commit more than one defender to him to prevent the touchdown pass when the Browns are inching ever closer to the red zone.
We saw this on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. Though Gordon caught just two passes out of 10 targets, just having passes thrown his way made the Colts adjust. Here, Weeden overthrows Gordon, who is double covered. Though it would have been a risky pass if it was on-target, the money is on Gordon catching the ball and not allowing the interception.
Also of note, here is how Gordon can help mitigate one of Weeden's ongoing, rookie-year issues. Like all first-year passers, Weeden is struggling with pulling his eyes away from his intended receiver.
Weeden is clearly going to Gordon the minute he gets the ball, but even though the Colts defense might know this, it's much harder for them to stop the completion with a playmaker like Gordon being the target. With a wild card like Greg Little, or on a shorter throw, defenses have a better chance of making quick plays on the ball.
Though Gordon has been putting up points for the past three weeks, his low catch rate and his greenness as well as a yet-unchanged prevalent opinion that the Browns don't have a good offense allow him to take advantage of being underestimated.
Gordon is a scoring threat, yes, but he's yet to draw double-coverage play after play. When he's singled up, especially with defenders who are ill-suited to stop such a large, physical receiver, he cannot be beaten.
Here, Weeden again is locked onto throwing deep to Gordon, even though he has a tight end open midfield. He sees the single, off-man coverage and his eyes light up: Here's a chance to make a play. Gordon is well in front of his defender, who is still running horizontally once he catches the pass. It's not a touchdown, but it's a huge, 18-yard first-down completion on a 3rd-and-13.
Lulling them into Touchdowns
The reason that Gordon has an ever-improving reputation is for his touchdowns, of course. He added another six points to his season total against the Colts on a play-action pass that seemed singularly intended for him to score.
It started on a play-action play that succeeded in attracting the attention of the Colts linebackers. All are stopped in place even as Weeden points his eyes directly in Gordon's direction. This first down was the perfect time for Weeden to throw a deep strike—the previous plays had all been shorter, more conservative throws. The Colts defense had been lulled into thinking this would be a slow-developing, clock-killing drive rather than one punctuated with a successful deep strike.
As such, few defenders are deep. The play-action helps, as does that aforementioned false sense of security that Weeden won't take a shot. Gordon is in single coverage and is in front of and outside his man. He makes the grab and gets in for the touchdown as the defender dives and fails.
Gordon, despite his youth, despite just coming to the team after the supplemental draft and despite not playing college football at all last season, has already begun to show flashes of being an elite receiver. His presence on the field for the Browns has opened them up to being more creative and aggressive and has provided a good outlet for a big-armed rookie quarterback still learning the ropes of the professional game.