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.”
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