Being both a fan of Notre Dame and any quarterback prospect anywhere (more good quarterbacks is a good thing), I was quite interested when Brady Quinn opened last weekend's game with impressive drives that ended in long touchdown passes. The big question here, as it always is when playing the Lions, was how much of the performance was related to Quinn and his teammates playing solid football and how much of it was the Lions' defense failing to do so.
The first touchdown drive consisted of just one play. On that play, Cleveland initially lines up with one receiver wide to the right and two men wide to the left standing very close to each other. Those men are Mohamed Massaquoi and Robert Royal. Royal motions from the left to the tight end spot on the right side of the line (his normal position). In addition the fullback, Lawrence Vickers, starts out offset to the left but motions to the same position on the right after Royal. All of this movement pre-snap indicates pretty heavily that a running play is coming. They just changed from kind of a passing formation with the strong side being on the left. Now, it's a run formation with a fullback and tight end both on the right, all done just before the snap to prevent the defense from being prepared for the run. This play, however, is not a run, all the motion was to set up the play-action. The Lions do try to adjust to the run before the snap, or at least they have players going in motion. I think it's to adjust now that the strong side has changed. One safety who was playing deep comes into the box while the safety who was in the box drops very deep.
This is a very ballsy route combination. The tight end and both backs stay in to block, leaving just the two receivers running patterns. The receiver on the right, Brian Robiske, runs 15 yards deep before cutting across to the opposite sideline. On the left, Massaquoi just runs straight down the field. With the single safety deep, it suggests the Lions are in Cover-3, with both corners supposed to be dropping deep to combine with the deep safety, each of them covering 1/3 of the field. That guess is supported by the way the safety and right cornerback play. However, the corner to Massaquoi's side, Philip Buchanon, drops a little, but then sets to get a jam on Massaquoi. He misses with the jam, then turns Massaquoi over to the safety. However, with the Cover-3, the safety is assigned to the middle of the field, and he is held there by Robiske cutting in front of him. There is no safety there, and Quinn hits Massaquoi deep without a defender within five yards.
It's an accurate pass for the distance it's going (a little short, but it doesn't really matter in this case), and surely you should applaud the protection, but the person most responsible for this play is Buchanon. He doesn't seem to know the play, and he executes poorly on what he thinks is his assignment. Had Buchanon not screwed up here and had no one bit on the play-fake, this play probably doesn't work. With only two receivers out on pass patterns and both of those going deep, this is either a long pass or an incompletion. So it's hit or miss, but betting on the Lions to screw up is a pretty reasonable bet.
To start their next possession, the Browns are in the 12 package with a tight end to either side and Jamal Lewis as the single back. It's a run up the middle. On the side where Quinn has turned to make the handoff, the left tackle and tight end double-team the defensive end to that side. On the other side, the tight end takes on the defensive end by himself. The left guard pulls around to the other side of the center, and Lewis follows behind him. The center and right tackle each take on a defensive tackle, the right guard is free, along with the pulling left guard, to block linebackers. The right guard gets out in front of the run and as they're both trying to tackle Lewis, he slows down two of the linebackers. He can't hold them both, but he does a good job of slowing them down long enough for Lewis to gain five yards before one of them gets by him to make a tackle.
The second play of the drive is from the shotgun. Josh Cribbs is standing up at receiver in the right slot, in addidition to a tight end with his hand down on that right side. Then there are receivers wide to either side with Jamal Lewis standing to Quinn's left. The play is a screen. Cribbs turns back to Quinn from his spot, but he's just a decoy and no linemen go with him. The screen is to Lewis on the left. The corner to that side is blitzing. That forces everyone to hurry the setup, and Quinn is feeling pressure with the throw, but he makes an accurate pass with the blitzer bearing down on him. The left guard, Eric Steinbach, and the center have both gotten into position to block for Lewis.
Middle linebacker Larry Foote senses the screen and waits for it. Steinbach sees him and goes to block him, but Steinbach can't hold the block long at all. Foote gets by him and makes the tackle for a six-yard loss. This is really pretty embarrassing. Steinbach's supposed to be a top-notch guard, and he gets beat by a linebacker. You won't have a successful screen if the blockers can't make use of a 50-pound advantage.
The loss creates a 3rd and 11, the most adversity the Browns face on these two drives. Cleveland again goes to the shotgun. Three receivers are spread to the right with one to the left. Lewis is again to Quinn's left. This looks pretty similar in result to the first play of the Colts' drive from last week. All the receivers are running deep. From the angles on television, I couldn't really tell what they were doing more than "going deep," but they all had routes that took them 10+ yards downfield. The linebackers in the middle of the field see that Lewis first appears to be pass blocking. Backs pass block a lot on third down, so they make the fairly reasonable assumption it's okay to chase the receivers downfield. In this case, however, Lewis burns them on it by sneaking out of the backfield. He's got no one around him.
Lewis must be the slowest skill position player in football, but he did make the first man miss with a nice little sidestep, then fell forward for the first down. I liked Quinn's decision here, not to press for the first down but just to see space underneath and go there.
The Browns go back under center with a fullback (Jamal Lewis, in a little wrinkle) offset to the left. If that doesn't say run, they add in two tight ends, leaving one receiver to the left. The open side of the field is to the right, so this is an odd formation to me, with most of the players clustered to the right. Recall back to the previous one-play drive where a run-heavy formation was actually a max-protect pass. The play is an outside run, and it catches the Lions in a blitz. Now, it's pretty odd to blitz against a run-first formation like that, and this play proves why. But the Browns opened the door for this bad decision with the success they had passing from a run formation earlier in the game. It's still not a very good idea, though. Steinbach pulls around the tight end, and Lewis blocks outside. The line as a whole don't get much of a push, but they do keep things contained. There's no penetration from the defense, and the line holds the blocks long enough to let backup running back Chris Jennings get around the edge. Once around the edge, the blitzing linebackers come into play: the blitzers are all caught up along the line of scrimmage. To compensate for the blitzers, the strong safety comes up. He zeroes in on the run pretty well and makes a move to dive through the block of the fullback. It's not a bad idea, but he times it too early. He ends up watching Jennings going by from the ground. Jennings goes for 16 yards before a cornerback forces him out.
The next play is their interpretation of the wildcat. Josh Cribbs is in the shotgun with Jennings standing to his left. Chansi Stuckey is in the slot to the left with Quinn outside of him. The original innovators of the wildcat advocated using an unbalanced line, but Cleveland do not do that here. In fact they have a super-balanced line with a tight end on either side.
Stuckey motions across the formation to fake the sweep, but he goes behind Cribbs. Cribbs then fakes to Jennings before taking it himself through the middle of the line. Based on the fake to Jennings, you'd kind of think it was a zone-read sort of play, but I'm not sure that's the case. In the zone-read and stuff like that, the offense doesn't block one of the defensive lineman, and the ball carrier reads that defender to determine whether to keep or hand off the ball. There is no unblocked defensive lineman here, though. The defense keeps a cornerback to the left despite no wide receiver to that side, and both safeties play shallow but out of the box, so with the two tight ends, it's seven blocking seven. The left guard and tackle, however, double-team the defensive end, so the Browns are expecting at least one of the Lions' defensive players to take themselves out of the play. Larry Foote does just that, over-pursuing Cribbs when he has the chance to make the tackle. The safety Louis Delmas diagnoses the play quickly and shows really nice speed to close and make the tackle after six yards.
The Browns goes back to the 22 package with two tight ends both to the right and the fullback offset, also to the right. The run is then behind the tackle to the left. It's a nice idea, but the line doesn't really open up any holes, forcing Jennings to the outside. By the time he gets there, the defensive line has gotten penetration. He makes a nifty move and looks as if he has a gain of two or three yards, but replay ruled that he was down for a loss of a yard. It looks like there might have been some yards if Jennings had cut back to that side with all the blockers, but it's not that clear. I don't know. I'm just a caveman.
The loss leaves Cleveland in 3rd and 6. They respond with a five-receiver formation. Quinn is in the shotgun. The tight end, Royal, is standing up but is just off the offensive line. Then there's two receivers to each side. The Lions' response is again a little puzzling. They put seven men right up on the lien of scrimmage, leaving four defensive backs, each matched up over a receiver about 6 yards off the line. Thanks to this, there is no safety. Royal stays in to block, so this leaves four receivers one-on-one. One of the men along the line drops back to defend the middle of the field, but there is zero help deep. Stuckey is to the far right. He's running a 'Go.' About five yards in, Stuckey takes a little quick step inside as Quinn pump-fakes in his direction. That gets the corner, who is watching the backfield, taking two or three steps inside, plus Stuckey is just much faster than the corner. Stuckey goes right past him, and with no deep help, it's six points.
Quinn's throw is pretty awesome. The line does an adequate job slowing the pass rush, blocking them one-on-one. No one comes untouched, and with the drop being what it is (Quinn takes the snap in shotgun, does the pump-fake, then takes three steps back), everything works.
Considering how impressive the results of these drives were (8 plays, 135 yards), I did not think these plays are a clear indicator of lasting success. The offense went backwards on two of the eight plays against one of the worst defenses in the league, and on the two plays that netted them the majority of the yardage, defensive mistakes in both scheme and execution directly contributed (though I feel like this was less true of the second long pass. That play was designed to trick the corner, so you shouldn't penalize it for working. A better defensive play design would have had help over the top, but even then, it's probably still a first down.) I would have liked to see the Browns do more gaining steady yardage on every play. It looked like their offensive line's inability to move around defenders and consistently open up lanes would be a real detriment to that goal. Finally, you have to consider just how bad a defense they were playing. Brady Quinn's 308 yards passing are only the sixth-best of 10 quarterback performances against the Lions.
All those caveats out of the way, Quinn made good, safe passes to open receivers. Just identifying and exploiting the mistakes made by defenses can be enough to garner a big passing day some weeks, and he did that excellently here. His deep throws were big-league, and he had the touch to complete the shorter passes to Lewis, even with blitzers in his face. In contrast to his performance against the Ravens and indeed the performance of all Cleveland quarterbacks all year, he looked like a professional running a capable offense. He might go back to sub-.500 completion percentage and ugly TD-to-INT ratios when he isn't facing a JV defense like this one, but there was nothing in this week that would lead you to think that such a regression is coming. The other nine games the Browns have played suggest Quinn will not be throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns too many more times this year, but based on this, I think he'll exceed some of the low expectations and generally look like an NFL quarterback from here on out.