Brian Hoyer doesn’t need to be great in order for the Browns’ offense to hum. He just needs to be efficient and not make mistakes.
He was the epitome of efficiency in Sunday’s big victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. A quick look at the statistics reveals the Cleveland quarterback threw just 17 passes in the 31-10 victory.
With a running game that pounded out 158 yards against a defense that prides itself on stopping the run, Hoyer now has a weapon that enables him to manage the game and still be productive. He doesn’t need to put the ball up that often. He just needs to complement the ground game.
He completed only eight of those 17 passes, but totaled 217 yards in the process, an average of 27.125 a completion. He connected on passes of 42, 51, 31, 31, 24, 17, 12 and nine yards, a remarkable display of long-distance accuracy.
A majority of those completions came off a play fake or some sort or misdirection rollout action away from the flow. He struggled to find open targets in straight dropbacks, but flourished otherwise.
There is no question the strong Cleveland running game allows Hoyer to be more effective with his play fakes and overall ball-handling. Opposing teams are buying those fakes, opening up passing lanes in which the Cleveland quarterback can better operate.
The infantry portion of the Cleveland offense has gained 146½ yards a game this season, reinforcing Kyle Shanahan’s goal to revive that aspect of the offense. The offensive coordinator has worked a minor miracle thus far.
To give you an idea on just how much the ground game has improved, rookie running back Isaiah Crowell has scored four touchdowns already. The Browns scored four touchdowns in the entire 2013 season.
Last season, the Browns rushed for 1,383 yards. This season, they are on track to pile up 2,342 yards. Shanahan can take a deep bow. He introduced the zone-blocking scheme (ZBS) to the offensive line, which took to it quickly and has thrived.
Even when center Alex Mack went down midway through the second quarter Sunday with what appears to be a season-ending broken leg, the line did not miss a beat when John Greco moved to center and Paul McQuistan replaced him at right guard.
There is no question the Browns will miss the leadership of Mack, arguably their best offensive lineman. The only damage is to the depth at the position.
Now that Ben Tate seems to be back at 100% and Crowell appears to have gained the confidence of the coaching staff despite a slight case of the fumbles, there is absolutely no concern with the ground game.
The beneficiary of all this largesse has been Hoyer, who balances that delicate equation with smart decisions. Like his mentor in New England, he keeps his mistakes to a minimum.
He doesn’t have the greatest talent with which to work in the passing game, but he is maximizing that talent. And there is not much more the coaching staff can ask of him.
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A new wrinkle to the ground game seems to be paying off. Several times in the Pittsburgh victory, instead of a direct handoff, Hoyer tossed the ball to a breaking running back.
Rather than finding a hole straight ahead on a direct handoff, the toss enables the running back to catch the ball while moving, mostly toward the edges of the offense, then pick a hole against a moving defense.
The ZBS also allows the running back to look for cutback lanes on the backside against teams that have a tendency to overpursue. The Steelers, at least on Sunday, were easily influenced by zone blocking flows and overran plays.
Tate and Crowell used those cutback lanes on the backside to pick up significant yardage. Quality blocking by wide receivers on the weak side also seals off defenders who stay home.
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The Browns appeared to have caught a break on Buster Skrine’s interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle John Hughes late in the third quarter.
It was ruled an interception on the field, but the replay appeared to show the ball barely skimming the ground before it settled in between the Cleveland cornerback’s arms.
Because it was a change of possession, the play was automatically subject to review. Referee Tony Corrente, after communicating with the replay crew in New York, announced the play, as called on the field, stood.
It might have been one of those rare situations where video replay was not conclusive enough to overturn the call. Had the call been no interception, that, too, would have stood.
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In one of the great turnarounds in the venerable Browns-Steelers series (this was the 126th meeting), the Cleveland offense absolutely dominated in the final six quarters of this year’s two games. The Steelers raced out to a 27-3 lead at the half of the season-opening game in Pittsburgh. Since then, the Browns have outscored their rivals, 55-13. And that last Pittsburgh TD was a gimme.
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From the department of what were they thinking: With the ball at the Pittsburgh 44 midway through the second quarter and the Steelers trailing, 14-3, Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on a third-and-1. With a running game that was gouging the Cleveland defense, why throw the ball?
The long throw down the left sideline for wide receiver Markus Wheaton fell incomplete. Has to make one wonder just what was going through the mind of Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The Browns drove 85 yards for a touchdown on the next series.
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Nice to see Jordan Cameron back in Hoyer’s crosshairs. The big tight end, when healthy, can be a nightmare to opposing linebackers and safeties. If he can stay reasonably healthy, it opens up numerous possibilities for Hoyer.
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Of some concern to defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has to be the tackling in the first quarter. Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount could have been stopped for small gains, but managed to break numerous tackles and pile up plenty of yardage after contact. Fortunately, the Browns’ offense built up enough of a lead where Roethlisberger was forced to go to the air.
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Notebook: The Browns ran only 56 plays to pile up their 31 points. The Steelers ran 76 for their 10 points. . . . Use of the no-huddle intermittently worked beautifully against the Steelers, who had problems handling it. Crowell’s touchdown following the first Hoyer-Cameron connection in the second quarter was a prime example of the effectiveness of up-tempo. . . . An unusual sight on the sideline was Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III. Must like basking in the winning atmosphere. . . . Spencer Lanning averaged 40.7 yards on six punts. Not good enough. . . . Long snapper Christian Yount was perfect for the second week in a row. He can relax now. But not too much. . . . Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was shut out for the first time this season. He was targeted only twice. . . . With significant injuries to Mack, Armonty Bryant (knee) and K’Waun Williams (concussion) and a growing list of the injured and unavailable, Cleveland General Manager Ray Farmer will earn his keep this week.