Kyle Shanahan ready to amp the play calling up a notch


Storylines for Sunday's Browns-Steelers game are chalked full aplenty.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer leads the way, followed closely by Mike Pettine's NFL head coaching debut. Cleveland's refurbished secondary will gather some noise. So will the chance of Johnny Manziel entering the game in a package.

Quietly, the most essential component for the Browns to walk away with a victory could very well be offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his play calling.

While sorting through the quarterback competition, the offense undeniably went through some rough patches in the preseason. It took the Browns nearly seven full quarters to get the ball in the end zone.

The thing to remember: outside of offensive linemen Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Mitch Schwartz and tight end Jordan Cameron, there are seven new starters on offense. No matter how much studying the Browns do and no matter how well they practice, adding seven new members and expecting to gel right away is nearly impossible.

"Any time you look at all the people who've been together somewhere for a while, the continuity, playing with the same players…I think football is the main sport out of all of them where it takes all 11 guys to be successful," said Shanahan. "You can't just depend on one player. You can't depend on two players. It takes only one weak link to mess up a play."

Preseason struggles or not, Browns head coach Mike Pettine remains enthusiastic about Cleveland's potential with Shanahan manning the controls. What has blown Pettine away is not his coordinator's grasp for offense; it's his wealth of knowledge on the intricacies of NFL defenses.

The two often have late night discussions analyzing how Pittsburgh's defense (or other opponents) will react to a series of Browns play calls. Pettine has faith Shanahan can expose the weak points and put up points on the scoreboard.

"His level of organization, attention to detail, his adaptability," said Pettine about what stands out about Shanahan. "I think just kind of watching him formulate a game plan, to go from that large volume of inventory to be able to pick out, 'We're going to do this and here's why.'"

Throwing the football deep down the field was a fragment of Shanahan's offense was missing during the preseason. Was this on purpose? It's hard to tell.

Shanahan helped spur the Redskins' 2012 playoff run by stretching all aspects of the field. Four of Robert Griffin III's touchdown passes were 60 yards or longer. When Shanahan offenses have launched the ball deep down the field, even if they weren't successful, it forced safeties to play deeper, hence opening up the running game.

Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins has emerged as a target Shanahan could get creative with, especially for deep routes. He knows his number 16 jersey may get called a bunch at Heinz Field.

"Any time you have a deep threat it opens a lot of things up," said Hawkins. "Showing that you are able to take shots [helps the offense]."

The Browns currently list Hawkins as the starter on the outside, even though the receiver primarily played in the slot with the Bengals. Shanahan said he's comfortable playing Hawkins anywhere on the field.

"You need a lot of speed to play outside," said Shanahan. "He's got the speed. You've got to have quickness to play inside. He's got the quickness."

Shanahan knows his famed running system can't work unless the Browns are consistently completing passes. The Steelers will likely begin the game stacking the box with eight defenders to try and force Cleveland to pass. It'll be the Browns' play caller's job to keep Pittsburgh even.

"You can't just go out and run, run, pass every play," said Shanahan. "I don't think you're going to do well. The key to this league is keeping defenses off balance. If you're one dimensional – I don't care how good you are in that dimension – defenses will find a way to stop you. The players are too good. The coaches are too good. You have to do everything."

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