A Controversial Choice to Stay the Course
Mike Pettine has just walked the tightrope of making his biggest decision yet as a head coach, and according to multiple reports, he’s chosen the safer route, tabbing Brian Hoyer to be the Browns’ starting quarterback for Sunday’s game against the Colts.
Hoyer keeps his job even though he was pulled in favor of Johnny Manziel last Sunday. “Sometimes you just need change for the sake of change,” Pettine said after the game, comparing the move to pulling a hockey goalie who’s given up several goals. That change wasn’t a lasting one, most likely because Pettine knows there’s no turning back once Manziel takes over the starting job. The coach need only look at his former team, the Jets, to realize that moving a struggling young quarterback in and out of the lineup is the fastest way to disorient a franchise.
Is Pettine making the right move?
Last week’s film from Cleveland’s game at Buffalo says no. Manziel entered early in the fourth quarter and gave the Browns’ offense a noticeable jolt with his legs. And though he did not read the field with perfect aplomb, Manziel didn’t read it incorrectly the way Hoyer did on multiple plays. Hoyer predetermined some throws and forced balls into coverage. He also left a few open receivers on the field, which at times made the Bills’ pass rush a factor when it shouldn’t have been. Hoyer lacks the physical tools to overcome such deficiencies, which were also apparent two Sundays ago against the Falcons’ defense.
But there is some merit to Pettine’s decision. In Week 10, facing a stingy Bengals defense on the road and in a short week, Hoyer was phenomenal, particularly on play-action. And he’d been playing effectively before that. He is 10-5 as the Browns’ starter, a fact that shouldn’t be lost amid his current slump. In Week 11, Hoyer faced a Texans defense that had no respect for the Browns’ dismal rushing game. Houston played two high safeties and Hoyer had no rhythm, completing 20 of 50 passes.
The Bills also played two high safeties against the Browns, taking away downfield routes and handing Cleveland its second loss in three games. In recent contests, perhaps because of the two high safeties, the Browns drifted away from the rollouts and moving-pocket concepts that Hoyer had thrived on earlier in the season. It would be fair to reason that Hoyer’s recent struggles are simply being magnified by other problems with the offense.
After last week’s game, Pettine said something to ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio that he’ll likely one day reflect on and call a rookie coaching mistake. “The door is definitely open for a change at the quarterback position. It's not like we're just going to go back to Brian,” he said. “This has been a cumulative thing where discussions about a change at quarterback have been more and more lively. We'll evaluate both quarterbacks and have a decision soon.”
That decision has been made, but a possible quarterback controversy has also been sparked. If Hoyer had simply played better over the last three weeks, the discussion would have been delayed at least until the offseason, not when the 7-5 Browns are making a push for the playoffs. Hoyer remains the Browns’ starter, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Pettine reaches a different conclusion.
Though Peyton Manning gets the lion’s share of adoration, more and more credit for Denver’s offensive success is going to coordinator Adam Gase—and rightfully so. Besides a prosperous recommitment to the running game over the past two weeks, Gase is one of the league’s best passing game designers and play-callers. Most overlooked is his ability to handle what coaches often refer to as “receiver distribution and location.” In other words, which receivers are lining up where.
Last year, we highlighted the Broncos’ highly successful 3 x 1 sets. They’re still the best 3 x 1 team in football thanks to Demaryius Thomas’s and Emanuel Sanders’s ability to play inside or outside on the three-receiver side. But 3 x 1 sets are not Denver’s only dangerous formation:
Jumping Out On Film
A healthy Bobby Wagner and a healthy Kam Chancellor have made a world of difference for a Seahawks defense that is looking more and more like the dominant unit it was a year ago. Add a third name to this list: Byron Maxwell.
Since returning to action from a month-long calf injury four weeks ago, the fourth-year corner has reinstalled crushing physicality to both sides of Seattle’s secondary. That’s the best way to disrupt an offense’s timing, and it allows second- and third-level inside defenders to play faster.
Smart Watching for Week 14
Cincinnati’s Reggie Nelson and George Iloka form the most underappreciated safety tandem in football. Just ask the Bucs. With Nelson and Iloka playing over the top, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson had minor impacts last Sunday. This week, expect to see more two-deep looks from the Bengals when they face the Steelers.
Nelson has always been known for his edge blitzing, something he does with considerable expertise out of double A-gap looks. But with linebacker Vontaze Burfict out (he’s day to day after missing the last five games), defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has employed fewer of those A-gap looks. Nelson has thus become more of a cover guy; at this point in his career, he has an awareness that he lacked highly drafted first-rounder in Jacksonville.
• Also on The MMQB: Should the Bills stick with coach Doug Marrone? What's wrong with Colin Kaepernick? And are the Bengals a legitimate contender? That and more in Peter King’s Week 13 Twitter mailbag
Iloka is just three years removed from being a fifth-round pick, but he’s blossomed into one of the league’s premier cover safeties. At 6’ 4”, he’s lanky and rangy, allowing him to combat oversized deep threats, such as Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant, who is also 6’ 4”.
Iloka and Nelson will determine how Cincy’s defense performs against Pittsburgh. The Bengals beat up Tampa’s O-line last week, but it might be the league’s worst. Cincy doesn’t have a dynamic four-man rush this year, which means there will be opportunities for Ben Roethlisberger to extend plays. It’s on the safeties to prevent such extensions from becoming downfield completions.
We’ll finally have the discussion with Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes that we were hoping to have before the blizzard hit Buffalo two weeks ago. Plus, nine games this week carry playoff implications for both teams involved. We’ll break down all of them (plus all the rest, too).
10 film study quick-hitters
1) Darrelle Revis is back to being the best corner in football, and the entire Patriots secondary has been tremendous in man coverage lately. Just one problem: New England’s four-man pass rush is inconsistent. Look for Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins to keep blitzing more as the season progresses.
2) Here’s hoping the Packers keep using Randall Cobb in a litany of ways like they did against New England.
3) Fletcher Cox drew the spotlight last Thursday, but he’s not the only Eagles defensive lineman playing well this year. Nose tackle Bennie Logan has great lateral agility and defensive end Cedric Thornton has raw power and movement skills in confined areas.
4) Russell Wilson’s excellence on the move is obfuscating Seattle’s limitations on offense. Typically, that catches up to a team. But things could be different because nobody is able to catch up to Wilson.
5) The Bills have the perfect ingredients for Cover 2: a great four-man rush, linebackers who can move, cornerbacks who can jam and safeties who can read routes.
6) Denver’s improved rushing attack faces a stiff challenge this week. Buffalo’s defensive tackles, Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus, get off blocks well and rookie linebacker Preston Brown is playing much faster (mentally and physically) than he did earlier in the year.
7) Just something to keep in the back of your mind: when the Eagles took away the Cowboys’ running game last Thursday, Tony Romo didn’t throw with precision or consistency.
8) Quietly, the Ravens made important changes at safety over the last few weeks. Midseason pickup Will Hill now starts and 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam comes off the bench in certain sub-packages. Hill is the more talented and dynamic player.
9) Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers shut down Ravens wideout Steve Smith last week. Unfortunately, No. 2 corner Shareece Wright, often working against Torrey Smith, was a major liability.
10) The least surprising thing in football this year is that the Bears on Thanksgiving had trouble in zone coverage against the Lions’ in-breaking routes.
For film study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit
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