BEREA, Ohio -- Growing up in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and later, playing at the University of Wisconsin, Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas is used to running the football, and the seven-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman likes what he sees so far from the running game.
With the addition of Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Pettine, the Browns have gone to a zone-blocking scheme that led the Denver Broncos to multiple appearances in the Super Bowl under Shanahan's father, Mike.
"There's definitely going to be a big emphasis on the running game," Thomas said. "The offense that Kyle Shanahan brings here has traditionally always been kind of a run-first offense, going way back to when they were in Denver, and it was being run in Houston. It's not like it's going to be 80/20 run-pass, but it's going to be closer to 50/50 run-pass mix than we've ever seen since I've been here, I think."
Although Thomas said the zone-blocking scheme is "totally different" than any other system he has played in since being selected by the Browns with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, he believes it is good for the offensive linemen.
"Every offense that I've been in really in the NFL has relied heavily on gap schemes where you're pulling guards, pulling tackles, downhill running, inside zones, ,and this is hardly any of that. It's almost all outside zones.
"I think it actually fits the personality and the abilities of our line really well, probably better than any other scheme. It's just that this is the first year we've done it. You look across the board -- myself and Alex (Mack) and Joel (Bitonio) and (Garrett) Gilkey and (John) Greco -- and all the guys that we have are really fast, athletic-type linemen, and this is just really the first time I think we're going to be able to be in a system that really uses our attributes physically as well as possible."
Along with the zone-blocking scheme, Shanahan has called some zone-read plays for rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel during the first few days of training camp. Thomas said "it's great" to have those plays in the playbook in order to keep a defense on its heels.
"It can give you huge gashes," Thomas said. "It confuses the defense. It gives them something that they have to work on during the week. Even if you only run it a couple times, they'll have to spend 15 or 20 minutes in practice every week to try to prepare for it.
"We've watched a lot of cut-ups from when they were running it in Washington, and they had some tremendous gashes and really, just had the defense confused. It kind of adds a different element to an offense that a lot of teams don't have. With that being said, it's hard on us because we don't know where the ball is.
"Sometimes, the biggest plays are ones where we don't block anybody or there's a bust. Somebody's running through free, but that's the great part of the offense. You don't need to put a hat on every player in order to get the running back through to the second level and to get a good play. A lot of times, there are guys running free, but because of the misdirection, it's a big hit and the line may not block anybody."
In seven previous seasons with the Browns, Thomas has blocked for multiple 1,000-yard rushers, including Jamal Lewis (2007, 2008) and Peyton Hillis (2010), but that individual success has not led to many victories, as he has been on only one winning team since the 2007 NFL Draft.
And while team success has alluded the Browns since Thomas came to Cleveland, he remains optimistic that 2014 will be a good season.
"My mentality is always going to be the same," Thomas said. "I'm always trying to do everything I can to get myself ready to be at my best during the season to help our team, obviously, do as well as we can from my little vantage point at left tackle.
"I think the optimism that is around this team right now, that the fans and the players and the coaches have is probably one of the bigger amounts of optimism that I've seen going into a season based on the talent that we're building on defense and offense and the drafts that (Browns general manager) Ray Farmer has put together. I think there's a sense that things are starting to click."