Inside the Tape on Josh Gordon's Breakout Season

Matt Bowen NFL National Lead WriterDecember 4, 2013

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Wide receiver Josh Gordon #12 of the Cleveland Browns runs for a gain during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Steelers defeated the Browns 27-11. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon continued his trend of lighting up NFL secondaries this past Sunday versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he posted over 200-plus yards for the second week in a row.

Despite missing the first two games of the season due to suspension, the Baylor product only trails Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in total receiving yards this season.  

Today, let’s go to the tape, take a look at the skill set of the second-year pro and break down some of the top route concepts in the Browns playbook that allow Gordon to produce on a consistent basis.


Size, Speed at the Wide Receiver Position

Gordon is a true size/speed player. He ran in the low 4.5s at his pro day before coming out of Baylor in the supplemental draft, but I see a receiver who plays at 4.4 speed on tape.

Gordon can push a cornerback down the field versus off-man coverage to run the curl/comeback and separate off the 9 (fade) route when the ball is in the air, as well as win underneath by working away from a defender’s leverage.

But it’s his size and ball skills at the point of attack that really stand out. Gordon is listed at 6'3", 225 pounds, and that shows up when he runs the deep dig versus Cover 2 with a safety driving downhill or when he is matched up against a corner in press-man coverage. 

He is strong at the line of scrimmage and on the finish, plus he can climb the ladder to high-point the ball, showcase his body control to finish down the field and produce after the catch. 


Development as a Pro

The key with Gordon is that the arrow is pointing up and he is producing huge numbers in Cleveland.

But we have to remember that Gordon is only in his second year as a pro, and he has also worked with three different quarterbacks this season in Cleveland. 

His overall technique has to improve. That includes his route-running ability. He needs to focus on his footwork, hips and angle at the top of the stem to create even more separation back to the football when he matches up against the elite cornerbacks in the NFL.

That’s pretty standard for young players at the position. It takes time to develop those skills outside of the numbers to combine that raw talent with technique.

I’m talking about the consistent ability to win within the route stem, by forcing cornerbacks to widen in their pedal or using multiple breaking routes that can turn a defensive back around.

Gordon’s talent is legit—there is no question about that—but he can get to a level that allows him to be dominant in running the entire route tree.


Breaking Down Gordon on the Tape

Let’s take a look a some of the route concepts that showcase Gordon’s ability.


Intermediate Curl

NFL Game Rewind

I wanted to show the basic curl because of Gordon’s ability to eat up the cushion of the cornerback. Here, he stems up the field versus the Steelers, pushes the cornerback vertically and forces him to open the hips. That allows Gordon to sell the 9 route, break between a depth of 12 to 15 yards (depth of every route break outside of the three-step game) and come back downhill to the ball.


Deep Dig Route (Square-In)

NFL Game Rewind

Gordon beat up the Jaguars by running the dig route versus Cover 2. Win at the line against a rolled-up cornerback, stem up the field and break inside in front of the deep-half safety. He'll take that all day.

NFL Game Rewind

Brandon Weeden sails this pass a little bit, but Gordon still goes up to attack the ball and secures the catch on the hit. When the Jaguars safeties got tired of Gordon winning on the dig route, they tried to jump it. The result? A 95-yard touchdown.


Shallow Drive Route

NFL Game Rewind

The Browns are running Hi-Lo crossers with Gordon in a reduced (or nasty) split tight to the core of the formation as the backside X receiver. With the Steelers playing Cover 3, Gordon can work back across the formation versus the underneath zone defenders.

NFL Game Rewind

Check out Gordon’s speed after the catch. He eliminates the angle of the curl-flat defender to the closed (strong) side of the formation and takes a basic underneath crossing route up the field for an explosive gain.


9 (Fade) Route

NFL Game Rewind

The fade route versus Cover 1—a route we see every week from Gordon. With the cornerback playing from a press alignment and using a bail technique (open hips, sink at the snap), he is in a position to play to the inside hip down the field.

NFL Game Rewind

Gordon does gain separation down the field when the ball is in the air, but this is an underthrown pass from Weeden. Gordon adjusts and comes back to play the ball at the highest point for a 40-plus-yard gain.


Three-Step Slant

NFL Game Rewind

The ability to throw the three-step slant is crucial in third-down situations and versus pressure looks. With the Bengals showing weak-side zone pressure, Jason Campbell can target Gordon on the backside of a 3x1 formation (high slant alert in the NFL) against Adam Jones.

NFL Game Rewind

This is stealing for the Browns and Gordon. With Jones playing from an off-man position, Gordon can release off the ball, force Jones to open and stem inside to win on the slant.


Wheel Route/Slot Alignment

NFL Game Rewind

Let’s finish with the wheel route from an inside slot alignment on the “switch” concept (No. 1 on post, No. 2 on wheel). Occupy the free safety in the middle of the field on the post and target Gordon in a one-on-one matchup—with no help over the top.

NFL Game Rewind

Here’s that separation ability at the point of attack on a nice ball from Campbell. The Browns quarterback puts this throw on the upfield shoulder of Gordon. After that, speed takes over and Gordon outruns the safety’s angle on the way to six points.


Is Gordon the Next Brandon Marshall?

I have received plenty of thoughts on players who compare to Gordon on Twitter. From Andre Johnson to Demaryius Thomas, NFL fans gave me their opinions on how Gordon’s skill set matches up with some of the top receivers in the game.

When I watch the tape, I see a lot of similarities between Gordon and Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

Dec 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall (15) catches a pass against the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, Gordon has more top-end speed down the field on the deep ball. However, in terms of their size, strength and power to create separation/leverage at the point of attack, these two receivers are comparable in my perspective.

They are both physical players who can beat press coverage, work in the middle of the field and showcase their abilities after the catch to break tackles. Think of matchups here on third downs and scoring opportunities in the red zone.

Their quarterbacks can throw the slant, dig, seam and back-shoulder fade all day.

The idea here is to make opposing cornerbacks work extremely hard to maintain their leverage and play the ball. That’s what both of these receivers provide to the game plan.

Overall, I think Gordon is a star. He really is, and should continue to develop.

The next step for the Browns to aid in that development? Figure out the quarterback situation in Cleveland this offseason and give Gordon a consistent player under center.

That's the key to building a winner and allowing Gordon to join the discussion as one of the top wide receivers in the NFL. 


Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.