Cleveland Browns: Time To Get Creative In The Passing Game
For anyone who has followed the Cleveland Browns these first three weeks, one thing that has stuck out is the inconsistency of the Browns' passing attack.
The offense of the Browns has shown signs of life with a running game ranked 11th in the league, but a lack of production at the wide receiver position has made it difficult to maintain a good balance.
Through three games, Cleveland's wide receivers have combined for a meager 257 yards receiving with more than half of that total coming from do-everything playmaker Joshua Cribbs.
Running back Peyton Hillis has provided a spark to the offense and leads the team in rushing yards and receptions. Also, the tight end duo of Ben Watson and Evan Moore have been very productive, but the overall passing attack has left a lot to be desired.
Cleveland has been competitive and has held a lead in the fourth quarter in each of the first three games of the season. Unfortunately, for three consecutive weeks, the Browns have lost that lead and the game.
The lack of receiving talent has shown itself at the end of games, making it virtually impossible for Cleveland to regain the lead before the final whistle.
Starting this week against the Cincinnati Bengals and moving forward, the Browns will have to find a way to increase the effectiveness of the passing offense.
Otherwise, the offense runs the risk of becoming one-dimensional and will continue to have difficulty moving the ball late in games.
The following is a look at some possible creative, if unorthodox, ways that Cleveland can squeeze more production from its 22nd-ranked passing offense.
Give Sam Aiken a Chance To Get Involved Early
Last week, the Browns signed wide receiver Sam Aiken, formerly of the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, in order to fill the roster spot vacated when LB D'Qwell Jackson was placed on injured reserve.
One of the biggest complaints this off-season has been aimed at GM Tom Heckert's refusal to add a veteran presence to Cleveland's young receiving corps.
Aiken may not be the biggest playmaker on the roster, but with seven seasons under his belt, he is easily the most experienced wideout the Browns currently have.
At 6'2" and 220 lbs, Aiken is a physical player who could be the possession receiver that the Browns have been lacking.
He at least deserves a chance to show what he can do, especially considering how ineffective receivers not named Cribbs have been thus far this season.
Let Cribbs Start
Joshua Cribbs has been simply impressive this season at wide receiver. Cribbs leads the team with 143 yards on 10 receptions, even though he is not listed as a starter on offense.
That needs to change.
Starting wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie have only 5 receptions and 73 yards between them and have not been able to stretch the field consistently.
Last week against Baltimore, Cribbs was given the start in place of an injured Robiskie and responded with five catches for 58 yards.
While those are not eye-popping numbers, Cribbs produced more yards in that game alone than any other Cleveland wide receiver has for the season.
The biggest drawback to giving Cribbs more time at receiver is that it may take away from his ability as a kick returner. However, unless one of the other receivers on the roster step up in a big way soon, the Browns may be left with no other option.
Split Evan Moore Out Wide
Browns tight end Evan Moore has quickly become a fan favorite since bursting on the scene with a six-catch, 80-yard performance against the San Diego Chargers in week 13 of the 2009 season.
Moore was a wide receiver in college who finished his career at Stanford with 1555 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns and an impressive 15.1 yards per reception average.
With his college experience as a wide receiver, perhaps the Browns should consider using Moore at the position. Moore possesses a rare combination of size and quickness and he seems to catch nearly every ball that comes his way.
Moving Moore out wide on occasion would allow him to get on the field at the same time as fellow tight end Ben Watson and would help spread out opponent's pass coverage.
At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Moore is a coverage mismatch for most linebackers and safeties and is a jump ball nightmare against cornerbacks.
Moore could be very effective moving between the tight end and slot positions, and it's not as if Chansi Stuckey is causing opposing defensive coordinators to lose sleep at night.
Utilize Jerome Harrison As a Receiver
After gashing the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense for 180 total yards, Peyton Hillis seems to be set to replace Jerome Harrison as the top running back in Cleveland.
Even if he has lost the starting job, Harrison is still a talented athlete with big-play ability and the coaching staff needs to find other ways to get him the football. Using him more as a receiver could benefit both Harrison and the Browns offense.
Harrison is vastly underrated as a receiving weapon. He finished the 2009 season tied with Mohamed Massaquoi for the team lead in receptions with 34.
Harrison can be effective on screens and short routes, allowing him to get into the open field where he can use his vision and agility to gain yards. For his career, Harrison has averaged 7.3 yards per catch.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll could also experiment with both Harrison and Hillis in the backfield.
Hillis is an above-average blocker, which would give the quarterback the option to motion Harrison out wide where he could use his speed and athleticism to create mismatches as a receiver.
Pass Out Of The Wildcat
We haven't seen a lot of Cleveland's versions of the wildcat in 2010, but they exist. The "Flash" package features Joshua Cribbs at quarterback, and the "Cyclone" has Cribbs in the backfield along with quarterback Seneca Wallace.
The beauty of the Flash and Cyclone packages is that the person taking the snap can run, hand the ball off or pass on any given play.
However, to date, almost every one of these plays has resulted in a run by Joshua Cribbs. In order to keep defenses guessing, the Browns need to pass more out of these formations.
By now, everyone knows that Cribbs was a quarterback in College, and an effective one. In four years at Kent State, Cribbs passed for over 7,000 yards and 45 touchdowns.
Given his ability and experience, Cribbs should be allowed to take a few shots downfield, keeping defenses from keying in on the run every time and adding a few passing yards to the stat sheet in the process.
Give Carlton Mitchell Some Playing Time
In the sixth round of the 2010 draft the Browns selected wide receiver Carlton Mitchell out of South Florida. At 6'3" and 215 pounds and boasting a 4.49 40 time, Mitchell possesses a rare combination of size and speed.
Mitchell is a gifted athlete but is very raw. He has struggled with route running, has been inconsistent catching the ball and has yet to see time in a regular season contest.
That said, it's not like Cleveland's other wide receivers are exactly lighting things up and it is possible that Mitchell can bring a new element to the receiving corps.
Even is Mitchell is only sent streaking on the occasional go route, defenders will have to respect his speed and downfield ability.
As a decoy, Mitchell can pull coverage away from other receivers and if he can get behind the safeties and manage to haul in a pass or two, he could provide a huge boost to Cleveland's vertical passing attack.
Continue To Do What Works
Even if offensive coordinator Brian Daboll wakes up and makes some changes, he needs to remember to stay with what has worked so far.
The wide receiving corps in Cleveland is far from elite, and the Browns need to continue to supplement the passing offense by throwing to the running backs and tight ends.
Peyton Hillis and Jerome Harrison have been effective catching the ball out of the backfield and throwing to the tight ends Ben Watson and Evan Moore has often been a reliable option for quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace.
Hillis has been an absolute beast at running back and even if he has started the season slowly, Harrison is going to have a big day or two at some point this season. No matter how much the passing game may improve, the Browns cannot afford to go pass heavy in lieu of the run.
Mixing a power running game with short passes has helped Cleveland sustain drives and wear down the defense.
If the Browns can continue that trend and improve the efficiency of the passing game in long yardage situations and late in games, Cleveland may start putting together some wins sooner rather than later.