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Browns new offense has tackle Joe Thomas rediscovering the joys of running the ball

Jul 29, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 


The Morning Kickoff …

On second thought: It was near the middle of the season last year, with the Browns at 4-5 and poised to make a run at the playoffs, when Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas made a startling statement.

Pressed about the Browns’ paltry running game, Thomas said, “I’m not sure it’s going to be that important (to run the ball anymore). I feel the league has changed. You have to be a throwing team to be successful in the NFL now.”

Seven losses in a row to end that season and another coaching change later … the Browns are constructing another new offense from the ground up.

“There’s definitely going to be a big emphasis on the running game,” Thomas told me on Monday. “The offense that (coordinator) Kyle Shanahan brings here has traditionally always been kind of a run-first offense, going back to when they were in Denver and (then) was being run in Houston. It’s not like it’s going to be 80-20 run-pass, but it’s going to be closer to 50-50 run-pass than we’ve ever seen since I’ve been here, I think.”

Last year the Browns led the NFL in pass attempts and had a counter-productive run-pass ratio of 33-67 – one of the worst imbalances in the league. So merely getting close to 50-50 will seem like a drastic change.

The hallmark of Shanahan’s running game is the wide zone – or stretch – blocking scheme. This method, honed by his father Mike when he was head coach of the Denver Broncos in the 1990s, stretches the defense laterally with the offensive line operating in unison like a moving fence. The back makes one cut to the inside lane and goes upfield.

“There’s only two of 32 teams running this,” said Thomas, referring to Baltimore, now coordinated by Shanahan’s former boss in Houston, Gary Kubiak. “This is, in my opinion, one of the only schemes that you can run the ball consistently because of the way you make those defensive linemen run sideline to sideline.

"In that scheme, everything really does kind of stem from the running game because it relies heavily on play action passes to get guys open for big plays downfield, so you need to be able to run those wide zones, even if they get one yard or no yards, to keep the safeties up."

The foundation: Coach Mike Pettine has talked about building the offense around the line. It’s fairly evident that the starting unit will consist of Thomas at left tackle, rookie Joel Bitonio at left guard, Alex Mack at center, John Greco at right guard and Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle. Garrett Gilkey could also be in the mix, as he is making strides while filling in at right guard for Greco, who has not yet been cleared to practice.

The coaches believe that Bitonio and Mack, for two examples, will excel in the wide zone blocking scheme. Thomas said the scheme will bring out the best in the entire unit.

“I think it actually fits the personality and the abilities of our line really well, probably better than any other scheme,” Thomas said. “It’s just that this is the first year we’ve been in it. You look across the board, myself and Alex and Joel and Gilkey and Greco, and all the guys we have are really fast, athletic type linemen, and this is just really the first time I think we’re going to be in a system that really uses our attributes physically as well as possible.”

One of the benefits of Shanahan’s scheme is that it naturally reduces pass pressure. Much of the passing system is based on quarterback bootlegs and other throws outside the pocket.

“It really makes it hard on a defense to tee off and get home on sacks because maybe only one in six plays is the quarterback dropping back, where they have a chance to rush the quarterback in the traditional method,” Thomas said.

Other quirks: On Monday, Shanahan re-introduced the zone-read option into the Browns’ practice routine. The team first was exposed to it in minicamp.

Operated mostly out of the pistol formation – with the quarterback about four yards behind center – the zone-read gives the quarterback the option of handing or pitching to the back, or keeping the ball and running himself based on the read of the defensive end. It is a change-up, intended to supplement a more traditional running attack.

Shanahan made the Redskins the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL by exploiting the zone-read option with quarterback Robert Griffin 3 and running back Alfred Morris as rookies two years ago.

Pettine has said it’s more likely to employ the zone-read with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. But Brian Hoyer did run one play at Monday’s practice. Just the possibility of a zone-read play enhances its effectiveness.

“It’s great,” Thomas said. “It can give you huge gashes. It confuses the defense. It gives them something that they have to work on during the week. Even if you use it only a couple times, they’ll have to spend 15 or 20 minutes during practice to try to prepare for it.

“We’ve watched a lot of cut-ups from when they ran it in Washington and they had some tremendous gashes and really just had the defense confused. It kind of adds a different element to an offense that a lot of teams don’t have.

“That being said, sometimes it’s hard on us (linemen) because we don’t know where the ball is. So sometimes the biggest plays are ones where we don’t block anybody or there’s a bust or somebody’s running through free. That’s the great part of the offense. You don’t need to put a hat on every player in order to get the running back through to the second level to get a good play. A lot of times, there’s guys running free, but because of the misdirection it’s a big hit and the line may not block anybody.”

Everything considered, Thomas said the Shanahan offensive system is “drastically different” from any he has experienced in his seven years in Cleveland.

That’s saying something. It proves that despite playing in offenses coordinated by Rob Chudzinski, Brian Daboll, Pat Shurmur and Norv Turner, Thomas has yet to see it all. It even has him re-thinking the merits of running the ball.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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