Browns Fans, Prepare for “The Pony”

The Cleveland Browns plan to turn the clock back roughly one year this Sunday as they head to Indianapolis to face the Colts. In doing so, there will be an emphasis on running the ball, something which was very prevalent over the past two seasons under the watch of Eric Mangini, and a facet of the game which helped the Orange and Brown stay in most of their contests until the bitter end. But rather than using the formations of old, the Browns plan on unleashing The Pony.

“We intend to make sure we run the football,” Shurmur said of the upcoming game plan. “I think we have to maintain some kind of balance there and when we run the football, we hand it to guys that are good football players.”

Those football players, who will hopefully total for more than 26 carries against the banged up Colts, are Hillis and his teammates Montario Hardesty and Owen Marecic. This past week, Hillis and Hardesty combined for 75 total yards on the ground through 22 carries. And while the days of the Wildcat and Cyclone are gone, the Browns will implement a formation which they have dubbed “The Pony,” wherein Hillis and Hardesty – two halfbacks – share the field at the same time rather then pairing one with the rookie fullback in Marecic.

Much to Ginuwine’s approval, Shurmur has stated that the team’s playbook has a “handful” of pages which include plays that can run out of said formation. And while the team felt Marecic did a fair job blocking for the backs in his NFL debut, increasing the number of potential weapons for McCoy on any given play would be seen as a plus. Along those lines, Hillis led the team in receptions this past Sunday, hauling in six passes for 30 yards, becoming the recipient of several check-downs as the Bengals defense limited the spacing of the Browns’ receivers.

By the time the Browns were able to string together a respectable drive this past Sunday, Pat Shurmur’s offense was already playing from behind. The ultimate result was play-calling that was heavily skewed in the favor of the air with quarterback Colt McCoy attempting 40 passes compared to 26 rushes – three of which were by McCoy. Stunted by penalties and long third-down situations, Peyton Hillis’ ground game was rendered moot.

The increased use of the air was expected; Shurmur, along with team president Mike Holmgren, have long been proponents of a style that stretches the field and aims to methodically move down the field through shorter, quicker routes. The ability to use running backs out of the backfield as well as the athletic pair of tight ends when matched up favorably was merely another weapon in Shurmur’s bat belt. But, as he has in the past, the Browns’ new head coach establishes a strong passing game with the run. Unfortunately, the plans were quickly altered and shifted from one extreme to the other as the scoreboard continued to countdown the minutes.

Whether or not The Pony gets put to good use remains to be seen, though it does appear to be an intriguing concept. Both halfbacks have plus abilities at catching the ball out of the backfield and would likely have to be accounted for by opposing linebackers and/or strong safeties. The ultimate goal will be to force the opposition to cheat up in man-coverage situations, allowing more space behind the second tier for the tight ends and wide receivers. Whereas The Wildcat was most certainly always a run play over the left side of the line, The Pony provides the Browns’ offense with legitimate options that are not rooted in a gimmick.

“[Having us both back there] is great,” said Hillis following Thursday’s practice. “Montario is a great back.  If you have bot of us there, you have to account for the both of us so it takes a lot of eyes off of just one person. It keeps the defense open-minded of what we can do.”

Related: Colts’ Gary Brackett Ruled Out Against Browns

Photo via Jon Cole/WFNY

  • Boomhauertjs

    It doesn’t matter what backfield formation they have if defenders are able to get in said backfield through the swinging door at RT.

  • Craig Lyndall

    The Colts are really good at the pass rush and I am sure Freeney watched all that tape from ATL last year when Abraham gave Joe Thomas fits. That being said, without their middle linebacker, the edge rushes should really open up the running game between the tackles if Alex Mack and the guards can do a good job of getting off the ball. If Hillis or Hardesty get loose on a couple of runs and draws it will change the game for the Browns and might even open up the passing game as Freeney and Mathis are forced to respect the edges due to running plays.

  • BAJ22

    There are very few backs in the NFL who can be effective without good blocking in front of them. Hillis and Hardesty are good, but they need the line to open some semblance of a hole in order to be effective. Or at least get a strong push.

    Last week the horrible and inconsistent play of the O-line ruined the offense… both the ground and passing attack.

    The question is whether their play will improve at all this week.

  • Right Side

    Vickers would open up so much more this Sunday…

  • mgbode

    @4 –

    I appreciate alot of the things Vickers did, but if he can’t crack the starting lineup in Houston (after they let their starting FB Vonta Leach leave for Baltimore), then perhaps he was a bit over-rated here.

  • Harv 21

    mgbode, how dare you, casting aspersions against Saint Lawrence on this website. Had they simply resigned Gluefingers to the multiyear he demanded we’d certainly be 1-0, Hillis would have rushed for 150 and the other issues rendered irrelevant.

    But for the nail, the shoe was lost …

  • mgbode

    @Harv – that is one of my favorite posts from you.

  • christopher

    “Bengals defense limited the spacing of the Browns’ receivers”………or in other words “our receievers are so bad they can’t get open against a Joseph-less Bengals secondary.

    And for anyone still unsure about the lack of WR talent on the team I present to you EXIBIT B: “Hillis led the team in receptions this past Sunday”

    and just for you mgbode i am seperating the TE’s from the WR’s :)

  • C-Bus Kevin

    That rundown on the Browns offense from last week says it all.

    26 runs
    40 passes

    Nine that with tons of offensive line slip ups and penaties and hillis leading he way in receptions, and you have a recipe for a Browns loss. The two-back could be just the trick against a “speed-rush” defensive line. Hopefully, the misdirection look slows Indy down.

    And count me in the group of fans that is NOT heartbroken at the loss of vickers. Yes, he was a great blocker, but Merecic will come along, and you just can’t overpay a fullback that can’t catch.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    *combine that with…

  • Shamrock

    Stack the d-line cover the Browns WRs one on one and just worry about the TE – easy opposition defensive scheme.

  • mgbode

    thanks christopher :)

    just for that, I’ll give you exhibitC in support of your argument as well:

    Daboll’s Miami Offense threw to WRs 16 times for 278yds against the Patriots (that is not counting TEs and RBs). So, his offense apparently may not ignore WRs if they get open.