Running game key to Manziel success

AP Photo/Bill Wippert

Johnny Manziel will get an opportunity to make things happen on Sunday.Here’s Johnny!

Ready or not, it’s Johnny Manziel’s time in Cleveland.

With Brian Hoyer throwing one touchdown and eight interceptions in his past five starts, the move to start Manziel shouldn't be too big of a shock.

The surprising part is despite his struggles, Hoyer, at 10-6, is the only Browns quarterback since 1999 to have a winning record.

Under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan -- in his first season with Cleveland after spending the prior four as the coordinator in Washington, two with Robert Griffin III -- the Browns could see an influx of the zone read.

Return of the zone read

After entering the game with a double-digit deficit in Week 13 against the Bills, Manziel was asked to throw on nearly every down. But the key to success for Manziel is his feet. His ability to break free outside the tackles could re-energize a ground game running on fumes.

Since the injury to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in Week 6, the Browns’ running game has not been the same. Cleveland averaged 4.4 yards per carry with Mack on the field this season, but 3.2 without him.

Enter Manziel and Shanahan’s zone-read scheme. This season, NFL quarterbacks have kept the ball on zone-read rushes 181 times, averaging 6.5 yards per carry on those plays. Hoyer has not kept the ball on a zone-read play this season.

In 2012, with a rookie RG III, Shanahan and Washington ran 118 zone-read plays, the second-most in the league that season. Griffin kept the ball on 43 of those plays and averaged 8.0 yards per carry.

And that does not take into account zone-read fakes on play-action passes. The Redskins threw 42 percent of their passes after play-action fakes in 2012, twice the NFL average that season.

Manziel’s new Mike Evans?

A big reason for Hoyer’s recent struggles has been his inability to connect with newly active Josh Gordon, especially downfield.

On Throws At Least 15 Yds Downfield
Josh Gordon: Past 2 Seasons

Hoyer targeted Gordon 14 times on deep passes (throws at least 15 yards downfield) and completed two of them. Manziel completed his lone deep attempt to Gordon in Week 13.

At Texas A&M, Manziel developed a dynamic downfield passing attack with Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, who leads all rookies in receiving yards this season. During their two seasons at Texas A&M, Manziel connected with Evans for 62 plays of at least 15 yards, the most of any quarterback-receiver duo in the Power 5 conferences during that span.

Gordon, who led the league last season in receiving yards on deep passes, could help form a new deep-ball duo with Manziel.

Scramble drill a rookie trend

Manziel’s first NFL drive culminated in a scramble for a touchdown.

Yearly Total QBR Leaders in FBS

With it, Manziel became the first Browns quarterback with a rushing touchdown since Week 9 of the 2010 season (Colt McCoy), breaking the longest active streak in the league for a team without a rushing touchdown by a quarterback.

Manziel would not be the first young, scramble-happy quarterback to find success. In 2012, he led the FBS in Total QBR. The previous three QBR leaders in FBS have won NFL playoff games.

Can Cleveland's defense help out?

The Browns will go against a familiar face as they welcome Andy Dalton and the Bengals.

Dalton was limited to 86 yards on 10-of-33 passing in the Browns' 24-3 win Nov. 6. Cleveland has held opposing quarterbacks to a 57 percent completion percentage this season, the lowest in the league.