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Four Downs: An unlikely playmaker emerges in Cleveland's offense


Welcome to Four Downs, a bi-weekly article that takes a deeper look at the storylines, matchups and anything else involving the Browns on their two days away from the field: Tuesday and Saturday.

1. An unlikely playmaker emerges in Cleveland's offense

John DeFilippo's eyes lit up at the sound of Gary Barnidge's name.

The Browns offensive coordinator loves to incorporate tight ends in his offensive scheme. Shortly after he arrived in Cleveland, he explained the two types of tight ends he utilizes in his offense, the "Y" and the "F." A player like Jim Dray, who is primarily on the field to block, fits in the "Y" spot while someone with the skill set of Rob Housler fits the "F" because he's capable of being moved around all over the field as a key member in the passing game. Barnidge, an eight-year veteran, had qualifications for both, and DeFilippo didn't leave a single stone unturned.

"I have been really impressed with Gary since the day I got here," DeFilippo said. "Gary was asked to be in the backfield. Gary was asked to be at the point of attack. Gary was asked to be at the wing. He was asked to be at a bunch of different spots in our offense and did well at all of them."

For those who watched Barnidge at training camp and throughout the preseason, his strong start to 2015 may not be much of a surprise. But the numbers he's posted, mostly stemming from his career day last week against the Raiders, are not your everyday increase for an established player like him.

From a yardage standpoint, Barnidge is already experiencing his third-most productive season in the NFL. With 160 yards, he could match his career high of 242, set all the way back in 2009, as soon as Sunday against the Chargers.

Barnidge, who exposed a Raiders defense that has proven to be vulnerable to pass-catching tight ends, is tied for the team lead with 10 receptions and is second with 160 yards. A popular interview subject throughout the week, Barnidge brushed off his seemingly unexpected production.

"It's a different week. It's different guys. It's not always going to be the same guy every week, and we don't gameplan for one guy to get all these catches or one guy to do all of this stuff," Barnidge said. "Everybody gameplans together and guys just get other guys open. That's all it is."

Barnidge has been in this position before. He laughed about the back-and-forth narrative that has hovered above him throughout his NFL career.

After catching 53 passes for 655 yards as a senior at Louisville, Barnidge entered the league with the reputation as a receiving threat first and a blocker second. As his career progressed with the Carolina Panthers, he took on the makeup as a blocker first, receiver second. During his first two seasons with the Browns, Barnidge had his pass-catching abilities overshadowed by Jordan Cameron, who caught 104 passes from 2013 and 2014.

So far in 2015, Barnidge has accounted for 10 of the 11 passes caught by Browns tight ends. If the Browns are winning and the offense is moving, Barnidge wouldn't mind at all if his focus shifted exclusively to blocking.

"Every year, it seems like I go from receiving to blocking, receiving to blocking," Barnidge said. "I want to be known as I can do both, not one or the other."

2. Tight end production booming across the league

The importance of tight ends in the passing game continues to grow across the NFL. Through three weeks, 30 different tight ends have accounted for 43 touchdown catches.

A few years ago, Barnidge's 100-yard game might have been one of the best of the year by any tight end. In Week 3, it was simply one of three from tight ends and ranked second behind Carolina's Greg Olsen, who had eight receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns.

Barnidge ranks sixth in the NFL in receiving yards among tight ends and is second in yards per catch among those with 10 or more receptions.

3. San Diego's O-line in a world of hurt

San Diego officially ruled out one starting offensive lineman, left guard Orlando Franklin, for Sunday's game. Left tackle King Dunlap and center Chris Watt are both doubtful. Right guard D.J. Fluker is questionable as he deals with injuries to his ankle and chest. Even tight end LaDarius Green, who has taken on the No. 1 role during Antonio Gates' four-game suspension, is questionable with a concussion.

There's just one major reason why Cleveland's defense, hungry to improve its standing as the league's lowest-ranked rush defense and bring more pressure to the quarterback after failing to hit Oakland's Derek Carr once last week, isn't banking on a major dropoff from San Diego's offense.

"Philip Rivers has been pretty (darn) good for a long time running the show and doing his thing back there so I don't see them changing too much," defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said. "The guys that they promoted are guys that they're either familiar with from other teams who know the system or guys that have been on their practice squad. It's not like they're just bringing in guys who have no idea what's going on with that offensive scheme off the street. It's guys that at least know it. They have a foundation in it."

4. Stat of the week

Six of last year's 12 playoff teams -- Cincinnati, New England, Denver, Carolina, Arizona and Green Bay -- are undefeated through three weeks. The other six -- Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Dallas, Seattle and Detroit -- are a combined 7-13.

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