Originally posted on Cleveland Frowns  |  Last updated 9/19/12

Welcome to the 2012 regular season debut of Xs and Os with the Bros by Xs and Os editor @rodofdisaster. This feature represents a basic attempt to dive deeper into the game of football, learn something about the X’s and O’s that make it go, and better appreciate the games within the game. It’s called Xs and Os with the Bros because you don’t have to be a player, coach, or rocket surgeon to get something out of taking a closer look at a football play, so please enjoy the post and the discussion in the comments.

This week Rod focuses on Brandon Weeden’s touchdown pass to Greg Little that pulled the Browns within a touchdown in the fourth quarter last Sunday in Cincinnati.


Situation: 4th quarter, 7:18 left;
Score: 31-17 Bengals
Down & Distance: 1st & 10, Cincinnati 24

Presnap Read:

The Browns come out in “11 personnel” (1RB, 1TE, 3WR). The initial formation is a pistol* with Richardson to Weeden’s right. The formation has a bunch to the right. Ben Watson (Y) shifts to a fullback position. Little is in the slot. MoMass is the Z. The X on the other side of the formation is Gordon.

The Bengals counter with nickel personnel. There are two deep safeties. They could be playing any one of a number of coverages here but at this point, the middle of the field (between the safeties) looks to be open. The Bengals are trying to disguise their defense by aligning on each eligible receiver as if to be playing soft man but the corner at the bottom of the screen is showing zone (butt to sideline).

This scenario illustrates some of the chess match that goes on every Sunday. The Browns start in a bunch in an attempt to get the defense to declare their strength. If the defense is playing man-to-man they have to at least get in position to do so since the offense is unbalanced. If they don’t realign, then there is a numbers advantage favoring the Browns. The Browns then shift Watson into the formation which does two things. First, it creates at least the threat of a run with him as a blocker. Secondly, if this is man-to-man coverage then a defender should follow which will give Weeden a little more information. No one moved with Watson here (although he didn’t move that far) so that might suggest zone. The more information the quarterback can get presnap, the better.

*The difference between the pistol and the shotgun is depth of the QB. In the shotgun, he is 5-7 yards behind the center. In the pistol, he is about 3-4 yards. The pistol allows for easier run plays without sacrificing the quick ability to throw as in the shotgun.

The Pocket:

Here we see a decent pocket forming. Weeden is not under immediate pressure. Watson and Richardson are going up the middle and holding the two linebackers from dropping off into deeper zones. I would point out that Schwartz is doing much better than I would have expected St. Clair or Pashos to have done. Lauvao looks to have a nice block at the start but is eventually pushed all the way back into Weeden. This ends up being important because it didn’t allow Weeden a full follow through and the QB is lucky he didn’t bust his hand on Lauvao’s helmet.

The Break:

In the top panel, we see the pass patterns as they’ve developed. The defense is in a 2 deep zone which means two safeties are covering ½ of the field deep and five defenders have the shallow zones. Pointing out a couple of things:

1. Watson and TRich have held the linebackers in the shallow middle of the field.

2. Massaquoi has run a fade route (deep). The CB has “sunk” to the deep part of the field and the safety has come over. This has opened up a huge space behind the linebackers and over the deep middle. The safety on this side, Reggie Nelson, can’t cover both Little over the middle and help on MoMass down the sideline. Forced to choose by the “horizontal stretch” created by the pattern, he’s overcommitted to Massaquoi here. Had he stayed more honest, the throw would be either to MoMass or a checkdown to Richardson running open in the flat (similar to his receiving TD).

3. In the lower panel you see Little get past the underneath defender and has his head turned ready for the ball on his break. The upper panel shows us that the ball is ALREADY in the air. That’s key. The play doesn’t work if the ball isn’t out on time. Lastly, I’ll point out that the weakside safety (Jeromy Miles) is looking for the ball and cheating back over.

The Catch:

First, while Little has a lot of room to work with here, the safety Miles does have an angle on him and the ball.

But as Little makes the catch on the right hash and we see that Miles took himself out of the play in bizarre fashion having run behind Little. He neither played the ball nor the man properly. The square shows the strongside safety (Nelson) trying to recover as that was his zone that was compromised. The arrow shows the back judge who is the only one remotely in position to tackle Little. Touchdown!


This was a well designed play that created both horizontal and vertical stretch and was likely to work one way or another, either with a deep open man, or a checkdown to Richardson with room. Though if I were a Bengals fan, I would be worried because it’s clear that the communication and execution in the secondary is very poor. Nelson was the one in best position to make that play but he was nowhere near where he needed to be. When faced with the choice, it would have made more sense to give up the more difficult throw to MoMass; not the easy one to Little. And Miles either needs his depth perception tested or is just woefully inept at playing the ball. He showed no sign that he knew that Little was streaking towards him.

I was a little surprised by this play in the sense that the Bengals had been playing mostly man-to-man up until this point of the drive. Perhaps they were switching it up because they’d been gashed or maybe it’s just what they do inside their own 30.

Last year, we talked about Cover-2 man, and this play is a good illustration the differences between that and cover-2 zone. The zone version is good for run support and for the shallow passing game. The weaknesses are in the deep middle and in the seams between the shallow and deep outer zones.

The Browns also employed a type of “bunch” formation where they grouped three receivers together (before Watson shifted). This is to help bring numbers to the point of attack and to force the defense to commit to a coverage. It’s good against man and zone defenses although the problems it poses for each are a little different. (More info here).

The bunch formation provides several advantages for the offense. First, it quickly deploys multiple receivers into a given area of the defense. Flooding a zone quickly can cause confusion for the secondary. Second, it creates mismatches if defenses switch assignments. Also, by using compressed formations like bunch, the offense expands the field and thus creates additional space for the defense to cover. Perhaps the most well known advantage of the bunch set is the natural rubs or picks that are created.

Defending the bunch is challenging. In man coverage, typically you’ll have one defender jam the lead man in the bunch to disrupt him. Other defenders should be off of the line to avoid being “picked”. In zone coverage, the defense is vulnerable to “flooding” the zone. More strategy can be found in a nice short segment here.

In sum, even the most pessimistic Browns fan should be encouraged by a play like this, as much as the Bengals could have played it better (and as wearisome as it gets to keep trying to find the positives in yet another loss). Plays like this simply show an improved offense. Brandon Weeden made an NFL caliber throw and Greg Little caught a meaningful pass when the Browns needed it, on a well designed play that tied the defense in knots. We can at least hope that some of the pieces are coming together here. Could MoMass is coming into his own as an NFL receiver? Could Richardson and Schwartz be making things easier on the QB? It’s been pointed out before that this team could show improvement in 2012 yet not win as many games. Then again, winning games you’re not supposed to is how this sort of thing gets started.


The full “Xs and Os with the Bros” archive is available here.

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