Film Room: Browns beat Steelers on Thursday night by utilizing empty looks
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September 26, 2022 3:00 pm ET
As we get ready to turn the page on Steelers’ week, we take one last look at just how the Cleveland Browns have been able to find success offensively. On an EPA per play basis, only the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens tout a higher success rate.
One reason for the success of the offense in Cleveland is due to the run game, which currently leads the league. However, the passing attack is just as efficient through three weeks with Jacoby Brissett under center. He is not just a quarterback sneak artist, even though he may be dynamite at them.
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Instead, we turn our attention to when Brissett puts the ball in the air, and specifically the success he and the Browns and head coach Kevin Stefanski have found when throwing out of empty looks (nobody in the backfield with the quarterback).
Why throwing out of empty is so efficient
Many groan when the Browns come out in empty looks, especially when the likes of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are split out wide. However, running empty with running backs split out wide is quite efficient and helps a quarterback discern what the opposing defense is sitting in right away.
The Browns used to run empty with former fullback Andy Janovich out wide, and for the same reasons they still throw backs out there with great success. A good place to start as to why this is so efficient is because it allows for Brissett to know if the opposing defense is in man or zone pre-snap with a high frequency.
Sure, opposing defenses could be running man coverage when they leave a cornerback out wide across from a running back, but this would be incredibly inefficient defense as someone inside would have their hands full with a gifted receiver. So most of the time when the Browns split out a running back, it is to see who aligns overtop of them.
If it is a cornerback, then it is more than likely zone coverage. If a linebacker or safety follows the back out, then it is more than likely man coverage. Another advantage to this is if Brissett sees a matchup he likes, as he did in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, with a running back across from a linebacker, he can take that mismatch. Against Carolina, he narrowly missed Hunt down the sideline as he dusted Panthers’ linebacker Shaq Thompson in coverage.
If the quarterback reads zone coverage out wide, then he knows he has the ability to pull the middle of the field horizontal as they try to pattern match and defend concepts, allowing for someone to find space inside. This is how David Njoku and Amari Cooper racked up yards on Thursday night against the Steelers.
Now diving into some tape, we will look at exact examples of the Browns pulling apart the Steelers by utilizing empty looks this past week.
Empty lets Jacoby Brissett speed up his trigger
Even after explaining why empty is such a great set to run, you still might hate the idea of not having Chubb or Hunt in the backfield. Regardless of those thoughts and feelings, the numbers back up Brissett’s success in these looks as he went an efficient 9-of-13 for 101 yards throwing out of empty.
Because Brissett is an intelligent quarterback and knows where to get his eyes pre-snap, empty gives him more than enough keys to frequently dish out the football on time to his initial read. Brissett was frequently on time and accurate with the football. Where he started to slow his roll is when he had to move his eyes off of his initial read.
This is why Njoku and Cooper saw so many targets on hitches over the middle of the field. Force the defense to spread out and punch them where they are exposed.
While he still was able to get his eyes where they needed to be, Brissett has historically struggled to throw with anticipation as he telegraphed a few looks. This was the case on the first quarter throw that was broken up on third down as he peeled his eyes from rookie David Bell and onto Donovan Peoples-Jones. The process was good, but slow. This allowed the sitting corner to break upfield and make a break on the football.
Overall, however, Brissett was able to identify where his eyes should be off the snap and had that look available to him.
Look: Top photos from the Browns win over the Steelers
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Browns have been able to isolate mismatches
When the Browns see man coverage out of empty, they and Brissett know where their playmakers are on the field. This was most apparent on the blaze out to Cooper where he was able to pick up an additional chunk of yardage after the catch.
Even though Brissett missed Cooper in the second half on an out route (on a seperate throw), they were able to get him lined up in the slot. This is a mismatch Brissett will get his eyes to every chance he gets. In fact, Cooper toasted a slot corner just last week against the Jets on a big play on a corner route in Week 2.
In the first quarter of this game, the Browns were able to isolate Njoku onto a cornerback on a clearout concept. Not only did Njoku outmuscle the Pittsburgh corner, but as one of the more athletic tight ends in the league, the defensive back was not able to hang stride-for-stride with him as he dragged across the field. This resulted in a nine yard gain and a first down on a third-and-nine.
Empty is quite a good look to get your best playmakers in the best position to make a play. And it is working quite well for the Browns.
The middle of the field is the domain of David Njoku
After getting a massive payday this offseason, the usage of Njoku had been a bit lacking up until Thursday night. Overall, Njoku went for 89 yards and a touchdown on nine catches on the night against the Steelers. To take it one step further, five of those catches and the majority of his yards came when he was targeted out of empty.
A year ago, the Browns had too many playmakers who could only win at the same level of the field. This was the case with Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, and Rashard Higgins all clouding the shallow middle of the field. Getting playmakers who can stretch the field a bit more, the middle of the field has turned into Njoku’s domain.
With Cooper’s ability to win at every level of the field, Peoples-Jones’ prowess along the boundary and down the field, and with Hunts’ ability to thrive in space, the passing attack of the Cleveland Browns has unmuddied the waters underneath. And this is where Njoku ran wild.
As their passing attack continues to grow, look for Njoku to continue to ravage the middle of the field as he did against the Steelers. Even key in to Njoku when the Browns come out in empty sets.
For the TL;DR crowd
The Cleveland Browns will continue to run a great deal of empty, regardless of how talented their running backs are. Besides, it is not like they are neglecting their league-leading rushing attack. Empty sets allow for Brissett and the Browns to get effective looks at defenses pre-snap in order to maximize their passing attack as well.
Right now, they are picking up first downs at an extraordinary rate on third and fourth downs, and they are doing so with a great balance of both run and pass. Much of this has to do with the efficiency that Brissett has been able to play with to start the season.
The Browns and Stefanski have been able to maximize the success of a journeyman backup quarterback mostly because they are putting him in position to succeed by giving him as much information as possible pre-snap. They have eight games left with Brissett under center, so do not expect too much to change in ways of the balance the Browns are playing with offensively.
And this is a good thing.https://brownswire.usatoday.com/lis...thursday-night-by-utilizing-empty-looks/