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Four Downs: Browns offense making teams pay with variety of options


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. Browns offense making teams pay with variety of options

The praise for Josh McCown is essential after a game like Sunday's.

No one in Browns franchise history has thrown for more yards in a single game than McCown did against one of the team's top rivals in a hostile environment. The Browns needed a win badly, and McCown is one of the main reasons why there was a Victory Monday in Berea.

It's why McCown is up for multiple, weekly awards and why he's the odds-on favorite to collect even more honors from the league, which will announce its winners Wednesday.

Still, as Mike Pettine laid out Monday on a conference call, it was a banner day for the entire Browns offense. He mentioned John DeFilippo's play-calling, the blocking from the offensive line -- which has been some of the NFL's best on pass plays -- and the play of those who caught McCown's 36 completions.

Our focus for this particular segment is the latter.

"We caught the ball," Pettine said bluntly.

And what made that so valuable Sunday was how many players were doing just that.

Nine different Browns caught passes against the Ravens. That's an above-average number, but it's not the most impressive aspect of what happened Sunday.

What made Sunday's game so significant was that six of those nine players had a reception of 20 yards or longer and four players finished with six receptions or more. An offense that admittedly is heavy on short, quick passes to players in space had six different players pick up yards in chunks and put the Ravens defense on its heels. That's the variety and diversity DeFilippo covets in his scheme, and Sunday served as his finest effort yet in this young season.

A dive into the numbers shows the Browns have been spreading the wealth like this since the start of the season.

Three Browns -- Gary Barnidge, Travis Benjamin and Duke Johnson Jr. -- already have 20 or more receptions. Five players have at least 20 or more targets and Brian Hartline, who missed most of the San Diego game and was used sparingly against the Ravens because of a rib/thigh injury, has 18. Benjamin leads the team in targets with 39, but there isn't a significant gap between him and the No. 2 guy, Barnidge (31).

A big key to this diversity has been the emergence of running backs Johnson and Isaiah Crowell as pass-catchers. Johnson is third on the team with 21 receptions, 15 of which have come in the past two games. Crowell caught his first career touchdown pass in Sunday's fourth quarter and already has more receiving yards (113) than he had all last season.

The consistency of Cleveland's wide receivers, though, can't be overlooked. Sunday, in particular, was a big day for Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel, who each had season highs in receptions and yards. Both players showed an ability to make an impact on short passes that are essentially running plays as well as deep down the field. Gabriel caught a 53-yard pass
and Hawkins had a 22-yarder. He also had a 25-yarder negated by an illegal formation penalty.

Simply put, McCown has been everything the Browns wanted at quarterback over the past three weeks, and he's getting by with a little help from a lot of his friends.

2. Nate Orchard makes biggest impact yet, especially on two key plays

Second-round rookie Nate Orchard logged 43 snaps Sunday, the second-most of any Browns linebacker behind Karlos Dansby, who played all of them. The reasoning, Pettine said, centered on how the staff paired its outside linebackers in different packages. That meant more snaps for Orchard and Armonty Bryant and less for Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo.

"When we make a personnel call, certain guys are assigned to it and they go on the field," Pettine said. "Nate was certainly a guy we felt like we wanted to get out there some more."

Orchard's impact was significant late in the game, as he came up big on two key plays. On Baltimore's two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, he helped disrupt running back Justin Forsett's route, which ultimately derailed the play. When the Ravens faced third-and-goal and had a chance to take a lead with less than a minute to play, Orchard provided heavy pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw a bad pass off his back foot.

More plays like this out of the Browns rookie would certainly help a defense that is still looking for answers five weeks into the season.

3. Snap count rundown

Some highlights from Sunday's snap counts…

-- Orchard wasn't the only linebacker to see a spike in playing time. Tank Carder, who was used minimally against San Diego, was on the field for 42 plays against the Ravens. He also led the team with 29 special teams snaps.

-- Even though Desmond Bryant was back, rookie Xavier Cooper was still a fixture on the defensive line. He got 23 snaps.

-- Travis Benjamin (78) and Gary Barnidge (80) were on the field for the vast majority of offensive snaps.

-- Johnson saw a season-high 54 snaps. Crowell had 34.

4. Stat of the week

This comes courtesy of Jon Zimmer, the NFL's AFC Director of Communications

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