Know Your Enemy: Cleveland Browns Defense
After another disappointing showing in 2012 (5-11), the Cleveland Browns decided it was time to revamp their entire regime. HC Pat Shurmer, OC Brad Childress, and DC Dick Jauron were fired before new HC Rod Chudzinski, OC Norv Turner, and DC Ray Horton were hired. Much has been made about how QB Brandon Weeden will fit into Norv Turner’s downfield passing attack but the biggest change in the Browns philosophy came on the defensive side of the ball.
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I can’t imagine a realistic shift in coaching scheme more dramatic than the Jauron to Horton transformation. Jauron preached a bend-but-don’t-break Tampa-2 based defense that relied on the front four for its pass rush. This style shows up as amazingly vanilla on film as they rarely even mixed in blitzing linebackers.
Horton comes from the LeBeau lineage which uses a 2-gapping 3-4 scheme with disguised motion in the secondary that reveals unpredictable zone blitzing once the ball is snapped. The defensive scheme is based on confusion and often preys upon quarterbacks who have yet to grasp progression reading at the NFL level.
The personnel Horton uses isn’t perfect, but they have the majority of the pieces in place that can minimize opponent’ scoring enough to give their less-than-stellar offense a chance.
The Stout Front Seven
There is no question that the front seven is the strength of this Browns defense. The defensive line boasts the 2-gap, space-eating abilities of Billy Winn and Phil Taylor while adding the impressively forceful Desmond Bryant in free-agency. Jabaal Sheard is an underrated pass-rusher in his own right, but with the acquisition of Paul Kruger and Quinton Groves along with the drafting of Barkevious Mingo (OUT), this defense has the flexible stand-up OLBs it needs to execute this zone-blitz scheme.
Backing the D-Line and OLBs is ILBs D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson. Jackson is a gap-shooting thumper who moves incredibly well and tackles soundly in the open field. Robertson is a bit more of a finesse linebacker who will take on fullbacks but prefers to scrape over the top and make plays after the defense has spilled the ball-carrier toward him. Both of these ‘backers struggle a bit in pass coverage, particularly in man.
Ray Horton blitzes more than most defenses in this league. Week 1 was no exception as this Pie Chart via Dawgs by Nature shows:
To complement the depth and superior personnel upfront, Horton is a wizard at scheming blitz:
Pre-snap, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is showing blitz in the B-Gap. With LB Robertson tilted toward the nearest receiver (off-screen), the number of rushers can equal to five. DTs Desmond Bryant and Billy Winn will execute a T-T Stunt where Bryant will crash into the A-gap (between Guard and Center) and Winn will scoop into the far-side B-gap. This will cause confusion in the left side of the protection.
This rush is effectively an overload blitz once Winn scoops to the defense’s left and after Bryant occupies the center, the offense is left with a LT, LG, and RB to take on three very good rushers. The results weren’t pretty.
#90 Billy Winn is scooping from his 2-tech alignment while RB Lamar Miller attempts to stalemate D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson swims over Miller after minimal impediment. Lastly, CB Chris Owens (#21) has joined the rush to create even more pressure.
The race to the QB is on. RB Lamar Miller is chasing his assignment in the middle. Paul Kruger has bent the edge on the far left side and both Billy Winn AND Desmond Bryant are running unabated for Tannehill.
With all this pressure from the trenches, there must be a receiver wide-open right?
At the time of the throw, man-coverage was strong down the field. A rushed Tannehill was forced to throw early to the middle of the field for an incompletion.
Mission: Take Away Mike Wallace
This Ray Horton led defense rarely showed the same alignment or pressure twice. However, the main constant throughout their Week 1 loss to the Dolphins was scheming to minimize Miami’s biggest offensive threat, Mike Wallace. CB Joe Haden never left Mike Wallace throughout the game. Additionally, there were a number of wrinkles added that reduced the number of pure man-coverage snaps between Haden and Wallace.
Cleveland would often play Cover-6 where Haden remained in the low Curl/Flat zone (Cloud) while a Safety played over the top. When Haden played a deep zone they would buzz a linebacker or safety underneath of Wallace to take away shorts throws. On top of the scheme, Haden was successful in man-coverage (allowing one completion all game and dropping an interception). Haden’s strength is playing press-man and then mirroring the receiver down the sideline on vertical routes. This can be an issue for the Ravens as Haden will be glued to Torrey Smith during the game on Sunday. It is unlikely that Haden will be beaten over the top without a) an offensive playcall to entice a Safety away and/or b) superior route-running via angles and acceleration.
What can the Ravens do?
The good news for Ravens fans is that outside of Joe Haden, the remainder of the secondary is not particularly strong. Free Safety Tashaun Gipson has speed but doesn’t always take the best angles and he certainly doesn’t have the range of an elite single-high safety. T.J. Ward is more fit for the Strong Safety role but you wouldn’t think Horton knows or cares about this as Ward and Gipson play in interchangeable positions. Lastly, 2nd and 3rd CBs Buster Skrine and Chris Owens are undersized and can be baited into taking poor angles using average route execution.
Ray Horton must have endless faith in his secondary players as he often puts them in uncomfortable positions for the sake of pressuring the QB:
Pre-snap, this play looks like generic two-deep, man-under coverage (2-Man). But Horton brings all seven players in the box (circled in red) to pressure Tannehill.
This play boils down to man-coverage with FS Gipson having to cover WR Brandon Gibson (confusing, I know) after being aligned 14 yards away. This is an easy completion to the vacated middle.
Quick Notes on the Ravens Strategy
- Flacco will need to build rapport with slot receivers like Stokley and Dickson fast because their coverage assignments will often take advantage of their proximity to the formation and blitz. This will leave sight-adjustments open.
- The Ravens will not have much success on the ground versus this Front-Seven (The Browns allowed 20 yards(!) on 23 carries versus the Dolphins). Therefore Rice will need to be a big part of the pass game. Jackson will likely have the majority of man-coverage assignments and he can be beaten in space.
- When the Dolphins flexed a tight-end, LB Craig Robertson played him in the slot. On Sunday, the Ravens can flex or motion this tight-end relatively wide to remove a linebacker from the box to increase the running odds. Robertson can also be beaten in coverage with crossing routes over the middle. This will likely be a cat-and-mouse game all day as removing a tight-end from the formation leaves the O-line vulnerable to pass rush.
- LBs Jackson and Robertson like to “sugar” the A-gaps (i.e. feign blitz). The middle of the field will be left open a good deal of the time. In-breaking routes can create big gains and dissuade the Browns from blitzing.
- Haden will play Torrey Smith all game. I don’t expect more than 3 catches from Torrey unless he is brought into the slot. But if the Ravens use two receivers (Brown, Doss, Stokley) stacked on the opposite side of the field, they will get matchups with Skrine and Owens. These two corners habitually line up next to each other at the same depth from the LOS so man-beater routes that “pick” these defenders (e.g. “Dagger“, Slant/Flat) can be successful.
- The Browns safeties do not play with a lot of depth in 2-high looks (Cover/Tampa-2, Quarters) and T.J. Ward is aggressive downhill at his core. Deep plays that put pressure on these safeties (“Pin“, Double Post) may be successful.
- The over-aggressive Browns front-seven bring a lot of backside pressure on run plays. This over-pursuit can leave Flacco open for boot-action. The slip screens to Vonta Leach we know so well will likely be in the gameplan.
This Browns defense is a formidable foe. Flacco will get confused at times and the Offensive Line will be leaky due to enhanced pressure. Offensive scheme will be more important than ever. Play-action and targeting the linebackers in coverage will be key. I have little doubt that this will be a low scoring affair on Sunday.