Finding the Fit: Tyrod Taylor and Todd Haley
Change is abundant in Cleveland once again. Early in the offseason, the team fired Executive Vice President of Football Operations Sashi Brown and replaced him with former Kansas City Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey. Changes trickled down the ladder in Cleveland following the hiring of Dorsey. After not staffing an offensive coordinator last season, head coach Hue Jackson was asked to bring one in. He recruited former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The overhaul did not stop with management positions. Just one season into DeShone Kizer’s career, the coaching staff decided to move on from the 22-year-old, trading him to the Green Bay Packers in exchange for cornerback Damarious Randall. Mere hours before trading Kizer, however, the Browns acquired their starting quarterback for the 2018 season, Tyrod Taylor.
Taylor was traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Browns for a third-round pick (65th overall). With constant contract negotiations and a temporary benching while in Buffalo, it was clear Taylor needed a change of scenery and a new chance to prove himself. Haley’s offense is geared toward Taylor’s skill set and should allow Taylor to maximize his new opportunity.
Though not as acclaimed as Sean McVay or Doug Pederson, Todd Haley is at the forefront of progressive offense in the NFL. Haley’s offense has grown to rely on pre-snap run-pass options (RPOs). In theory, the beauty of RPOs is the defense is always wrong because the offense will typically pass versus heavy box counts and run versus light box counts. Defenses have to be especially disciplined, while the quarterback has to do little more than basic math.
These two clips are effectively the same play. The formations are slightly different, but in both plays, there is an inside zone run option and a smoke route pass option. Kansas City’s coverage scheme dictates the play on both occasions, and Ben Roethlisberger executes accordingly.
In the first clip, the wide receiver motioning across the formation is given a massive cushion by the cornerback, and one of Kansas City’s safeties is playing in the box. Pittsburgh does not have the run advantage, and there is no chance the cornerback can make a play on the ball if Roethlisberger throws immediately. With the cornerback’s alignment in mind, Roethlisberger wastes no time tossing a quick pass to Martavis Bryant on an island, enabling the receiver to pick up a handful of free yards.
The second play illustrates the exact opposite scenario. Rather than the loose one-high coverage from before, Kansas City turns to a two-high coverage with more aggressive cornerback alignments on the outside. Pittsburgh now has a numbers advantage in the box because Kansas City has both safeties in deep techniques. Roethlisberger hands the ball off this time, and Le’Veon Bell trots deep into Kansas City’s secondary nearly untouched.
Tyrod Taylor adds another element to the run-pass option game. Whereas any quarterback can execute RPOs with a hand off and pass option, more athletic quarterbacks can be the run threat themselves. Deshaun Watson and Alex Smith, in addition to Taylor, come to mind as quality athletes who were used as run options in RPOs last season.
Taylor is the run threat on a quarterback draw option in this example. The motion from the running back to create an empty formation is designed to expose the defense’s intentions. If the linebacker vacates the box to follow the running back, the quarterback should have room to run. Conversely, if the linebacker stays put, the offense should have a numbers advantage on the perimeter, allowing the running back to pick up easy yards on a swing screen pass. On this particular play, Taylor gets the green light to gash the New Orleans defense by himself.
Empty Quick Game
Empty formations were common in Haley’s offense last season. With a quick-witted, veteran quarterback and loads of skill talent at his disposal, Haley emphasized spreading the defense and getting the ball out early.
Flat combinations are the simplest form of quick passing. A flat route is typically accompanied by a curl or slant route. The flat route is intended to clear out space for those other routes to be open. The quarterback reads the flat defender and chooses to throw the slant/curl or checkdown to the flat route if the flat defender doesn’t fast flow to the perimeter.
Pittsburgh is running a curl/flat combination to either side of the field. As the weak side safety creeps closer to the box, Roethlisberger recognizes the coverage is likely to be Cover 3 or Cover 1. Either way, the flat receiver to the left side of the formation should pull a defender his way. The space created should open up a curl or slant route. Roethlisberger reads the coverage correctly and throws the curl route once the flat defender is cleared out of the area.
In this example, Roethlisberger opts to target the flat receiver on a slant/flat combination. Unlike the previous play, there is no immediate defender in the flat. Roethlisberger zips a pass to the flat receiver and gives him the best chance to win a 1-vs-1 scenario.
Quick passing such as this was Taylor’s specialty while in Buffalo. Taylor was fantastic when working the short area of the field, allowing him to keep the offense on schedule. With Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, and Duke Johnson in the fold in Cleveland, both Haley and Taylor should be able to recreate their respective successes in the quick game.
The collection of talent in Pittsburgh over the last few seasons was geared toward vertical stress. Roethlisberger is a fantastic deep passer, helping maximize the value of Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant as vertical threats. To accommodate the talent, Haley formed his vertical concepts around multiple deep receivers. Haley wants to give the quarterback options, rather than use the isolation approach of someone like Sean McVay.
Haley utilizes three vertical options on this play, asking each to attack a third of the field. The Patriots are in a two-high formation with all their cornerbacks in press coverage. The alignment of the defensive backs is indicating man coverage with two deep safeties as extra support. As the two deep safeties fan out toward the sideline, the middle of the field is exposed. Pittsburgh’s tight end is able to gain separation against his defender in man coverage and present Roethlisberger with an open window in the deep middle third of the field.
Deep passing was a core part of Taylor’s arsenal in Buffalo. He does not possess the same caliber of arm as Roethlisberger, but what Taylor lacks in raw talent, he makes up for with timing and touch. In the play above, Taylor displays careful ball placement by keeping the ball out of arm’s reach of the cornerback, but wide enough so as to not give the deep safety a chance at the ball.
Taylor’s downfield success will unlock Haley’s offense. In addition to deep passing, Haley’s offense is predicated on checkdowns and shorter routes underneath deep concepts. Pittsburgh had excellent yards-after-catch talent under Haley, and Cleveland made it a priority this offseason to add Jarvis Landry to ensure Haley still has that element in his offense. Given Taylor’s affinity for making the safe play, threatening checkdown options underneath vertical concepts is a perfect blend for Cleveland’s new duo of quarterback and offensive coordinator.
What To Expect
The Browns are hoping for the iteration of Tyrod Taylor who first arrived in Buffalo. Taylor signed a cheap contract with the Bills to provide competition in camp, but Taylor quickly seized the starting job. In 13 games as the starting quarterback, Taylor threw 20 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Taylor also threw at a pace of 8.3 AY/A (adjusted yards per attempt), placing him fourth in the league in that category.
Part of Taylor’s success was rooted in the chemistry he developed with wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins was Taylor’s go-to vertical weapon and was the key factor in unlocking the rest of the offense. Though Watkins will not be reuniting with his former quarterback, Taylor will work with a comparable player in Josh Gordon. Gordon, like Watkins, is a somewhat linear vertical player with excellent speed and physicality. If Gordon can return to his peak form, he could be an upgraded version of Watkins in Buffalo.
Taylor being the 2015 version of himself is all Cleveland needs right now as they presumably prepare to groom a new franchise quarterback via the draft. A safe, stable presence at quarterback will allow Cleveland’s bevy of talented playmakers to give defenses trouble. Taylor, aided by Haley, does not immediately turn Cleveland into a winning organization, but Taylor is far too functional a quarterback to keep up the losing pace Cleveland has experienced under Hue Jackson.