Know Your Enemy: T.J. Ward
By now, most people are waking up to the fact that the 2013 Cleveland defense is no joke. They’ve got skilled players at all three levels and an aggressive scheme being called by Ray Horton. I decided to dig a little deeper and take a look at Cleveland’s do-it-all Strong Safety, T.J. Ward. He reminds me of Polamalu in a lot of ways, which is a scary prospect for the Ravens offense. So how can Baltimore take advantage of this tough matchup?
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Vs. the Run
The Browns have a strong front seven, and their linebackers are solid tacklers, especially ILB D’Qwell Jackson. They often line up in their 3-4 “Okie” front that gives the defense maximum flexibility in playing pass coverage but also provides great perimeter run support. It’s a two-gap front that relies on the big bodies in the middle of Cleveland’s line, particularly Phil Taylor and Billy Winn.
The team also likes to use SS T.J. Ward in run defense, often moving him from a deep drop to the LOS just before the snap. Below, Ward is going to make an impressive tackle for minimal gain against the Chiefs’ outside zone.
In image 1, you see Ward cheating toward the line of scrimmage just before the snap (NOTE: click on any of the images below to enlarge them in a separate window). In image 2, TE Anthony Fasano appears to have good position against Ward. Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles is going to follow a block from RG Jon Asamoah. But in image 3, you see that Ward is able to fight off Fasano’s block with an athletic sidestep. At this point, Ward is the only player who can keep Charles from springing a big run. In image 4, you see Ward making the tackle, holding Charles to a two-yard gain.
Vs. the Pass
Cleveland hasn’t been particularly good defending the pass this season, but it has little to do with Ward. In fact, Ward, along with FS Tashaun Gipson, are the only players to even grade positively against the pass according to ProFootballFocus. But their defense is flexible and aggressive, and their scheme can generate confusion for the opposition. It will not be an easy day for Flacco under center.
Below is a perfect example of the flexible/changeable nature of Horton’s defense. In the first image, you see the Browns with the box completely stacked. They have eight defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and even FS Tashaun Gipson is hovering just 15 yards downfield. The Chiefs are in their 22 personnel, and Cleveland is clearly thinking run.
However, a running back goes in motion (in the second image, you see him on the left, facing perpendicular to the line of scrimmage). Ward recognizes something about this motion and starts frantically waving his arms, along with several other Cleveland defenders. They begin dropping into a Tampa-2 zone just as the ball is snapped, which will look like image 3. Ward drops all the way into a deep-third zone, having started just three yards off the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. In image 4, you see he’s dropped all the way to the goal line.
Finally, the rush begins to get to Smith, who forces a throw into a busy zone on the defensive left. The arrow in image 4 tracks the flight of the ball, and in the circle you see a Cleveland defender breaking on the pass. The result is incomplete, but this is nearly an int for Cleveland. The confusion clearly affected Alex Smith, who is normally extremely careful with the football.
To complete the hat trick, Cleveland also likes to cheat Ward up to the line of scrimmage and let him blitz the QB. His range and closing speed are such that he can start in a Cover-2 look and drop down to the LOS, plus beat his blocker and get to the ball carrier/quarterback. This flexibility is vital for the Browns’ defensive scheme. It lets them show Cover-2 on most plays but rotate into Cover-1, Cover-1 Robber, and Cover-3 pre-snap.
In the image below, the Browns are in 2-4-5 dime, with just two down linemen and three linebackers. Ward is playing the role of the fourth linebacker here. He moves down to the line of scrimmage (yellow line) prior to the snap and hovers over the center, showing blitz. Both DTs are going to pinch the A gap, hoping to occupy the center and both guards, creating a 2-on-3 mismatch in the defense’s favor. Ward, along with LBs Jackson and Mingo, are going to overload blitz the weakside of the formation.
Below, you can see the DTs crashing the A gap. Their plan to occupy three Kansas City linemen looks to be successful. Meanwhile, RB Jamaal Charles sees Jackson shooting the B gap, and Charles will decide to pick him up. The Chiefs’ LT has engaged LB Barkevious Mingo. Ward drops away from the LOS like he is in fact dropping into coverage, rather than blitzing.
But after a split-second delay, just long enough to let the KC linemen secure their blocks, Ward turns upfield and races toward Smith for an easy sack. There’s literally no one left to block him and he comes in untouched. The numbers game Ray Horton played worked perfectly here, and it’s an example of how difficult the Browns defense is to play against.
Cleveland is not afraid to blitz aggressively, and they do so more than almost any team in the league. With the help of their jack-of-all-trades SS, it’s easy for them to disguise both blitzes and coverages, confusing the offense and ultimately collecting sacks and turnovers.
Some notes about the Cleveland D:
- Tackling has occasionally been suspect in the secondary. Against GB, Finley scored a touchdown and forced at least four missed tackles on the reception
- #53 Craig Robertson is very good at scraping over the top of the defense and making tackles in run defense. Expect to see him around the ball a lot on Sunday
- Much like in Baltimore, Kruger is definitely earning his paycheck rushing the passer. He has rushed the passer on 80.3% of snaps. His success isn’t showing up in the sack numbers, but he’s got the second most QB hurries of any 3-4 outside linebacker so far
- Cleveland blitzes a LOT. They have six players who rush the passer on more than half of all of their snaps
- Baltimore needs to prepare for that. They must scheme to slow down the pass rush or else Horton is going to bring pressure all day. Screens, effective hot routes, and draw plays will help.
- The team also needs to let Flacco operate out of the shotgun. I don’t have a lot of faith in our pass blocking if Flacco is under center all day.