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Cup of Joe: Browns' buy-in to wide-zone scheme is clear, and the success has followed

In his weekly column, Joe Thomas explains why the Browns’ run game is thriving

Catch Joe Thomas TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. when he co-hosts "Browns Live" powered by FirstEnergy with Nathan Zegura. The 100 percent fan-focused show, which will stream on all of the Browns social platforms, will feature multiple segments with Coach Kevin Stefanski, interviews with players, film breakdowns and more.

Each game week, Joe will share his insights, memories and more in this weekly column, "Cup of Joe."

When we implemented the wide-zone blocking scheme in 2014, it took all of training camp, all of preseason and halfway through the first game of the season to be able to get everybody on the same page. It takes time for everyone to understand and buy in exactly their one-11th of the play, start having success and then see that success happen on Sundays.

Simply put, this scheme doesn't work if one player screws up. That's the reason why a lot of offensive coordinators and head coaches can't stomach it. If you get one guy that messes up, it's not a zero-yard run or a 1-yard run — it's a minus 4-yard run. If things aren't going well, you might be backing up, and a minus 4-yard run on first down makes it really hard to convert.

We haven't seen many of those with the Browns through the first four weeks of the season, and that's one of the things that has surprised me most. Even with a normal offseason, this system can be difficult to get rolling the way the Browns have so early in the year.

One thing that has stood out while the team has racked up more than 200 rushing yards per game and kept Baker Mayfield off the ground: It seems like the guys have really bought in. In 2014, it was new for everybody, and you had, myself included, wondering if it was going to work. During training camp, it wasn't really successful. It wasn't until the second half of that Steelers game in the opener when all of a sudden it just started working magnificently, where we all realized, "Wow. If we all do what we're supposed to do, this thing is going to be special, we're going to really churn up some big-time yardage on people."

The buy-in is a credit to offensive line coach Bill Callahan and what the players accomplished during all of those virtual meetings. It should also go to Joel Bitonio because of his experience in the past with this system. He can impart his wisdom, knowledge and understanding of this scheme from a first-hand perspective on the guys.

In the end, you still need to get guys on the field practicing and doing the drills so they can get proficient at the skills, but it can help letting those guys watch the film of the success of the scheme. It gets them to buy in, and when they are able to get out on the field to understand why you're doing those drills, it makes even more sense. Why are we being asked to step exactly at the same time in the same manner with our shoulders on the same angle? Why is it important that the running back has the same angle of shoulders as the offensive line? Why is it important for the quarterback to carry out his fake? Understanding the why is really important in this scheme, and that leads to great buy-in.

Let me be clear: It's not hard individually to do what you're asked in this scheme. What's hard is to get everybody to buy in at the same time to do their one-11th. But once you get everybody to buy in, it's like watching a ballet. It's beautiful because everybody is doing the same thing, and everybody is doing it at the same speed, and that's what puts pressure on the defense. This is the ultimate team scheme, where you have to sacrifice for the success of the team by being disciplined to the details. Everybody has to have exactly the same footwork, the same angle of departure from the line of scrimmage with your shoulders and exactly the same speed and quickness off the line of scrimmage.

Whenever you have the great success that the Browns have had, specifically in the last three weeks, it's always a combination of factors. I think it's important to consider that, yes, they have played three bad run defenses, so that certainly has played into it a little bit. However, I also believe that this is a really good offensive line that's played really well together.

When you look at the run scheme, the runs all look the same and they fit together, they all have nice counters off of each other. A defense is never able to really hone in on a formation and a tendency. It kind of keeps the defense off-balance with the way Kevin Stefanski has been calling the plays and setting up the run schemes. We always said if we can get the running back back to the line of scrimmage without being touched, we're going to have a positive plus 4-yard run. When there's no penetration to the front side and the running back is able to stretch, it opens up a cut because the running back is facing the goal line. He's leaning, running and forward and all the tacklers are tackling contact at the line of scrimmage. That's why you're seeing such productive runs.

Nick Chubb takes this scheme from an A to an A-plus because of his ability to cut, his ability to see holes and his ability to break tackles. Losing Chubb for a while hurts, but this can still be an A system without him. If you look back at the history of this scheme, it has made unheralded running backs who maybe didn't cut it in other systems into All-Pros. If you're able to strictly discipline yourself to where your eyes go when you cut as a running back, the offensive line and the scheme does almost everything for you.

It's not a scheme where you can just have a line coach teach the offensive line. You really have to have that buy-in from receivers, tight ends, running backs, offensive line, and quarterback in order to make it work, and the Browns are doing just that.

The Browns' revamped group of blockers overcame multiple injuries to deliver a performance that featured more than 200 rushing yards from Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and zero sacks on Baker Mayfield, who had plenty of time to throw throughout Cleveland's 35-30 victory.