From a wins and loss perspective, things have not been looking well for the Cleveland Browns this season. And with another loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 4, the Browns find themselves in an all too familiar spot, sitting winless and looking for answers.
In the last 10 seasons, the Browns have started 0-4 four times. Three times in that same stretch they have started 1-3. Being all too familiar with the Browns falling behind in the standings so early, and given the fact that this is year two of the very noted “rebuild,” I do as I usually do after a loss by my beloved Browns and try to find something to be positive about. A coping mechanism for me, if you will.
Aside from watching the film and seeing the players grow on the field, which is nice to see and I truly do feel that I have seen growth from some players this season, the former accountant in me loves to see some numbers that you can point to. To show your friends at the water cooler that it really isn’t so bad and that things could get better.
This week, as I rummaged through boxscores, standings and season’s statistics, I found that stat. The number that I could point to say “see! Improvement!”. That statistic was the Browns’ rushing yards allowed per game; 87.3 yards per contest. According to pro-football-reference.com, it was good enough to tie the team for 8th best in the league with the Carolina Panthers who, I feel, have a pretty respectable defense. Considering that in 2016 they had the 31st best rushing defense (or second worst rushing defense, if you choose to be pessimistic) at 142.7 rushing yards per game, I would say this is a great improvement. I went about my day with a little bit more spring in my step.
Yet I kept thinking back to how this great improvement was achieved and what it cost the Browns to be so improved in the run defense. I had an inkling, but going back to the Colts tape in Week 3 gave me a little bit more insight.
This run play in the 1st quarter of that Week 3 contest against the Colts (sorry in advance for the choppiness), a game in which Frank Gore only managed 57 yards on 25 attempts, exemplifies this cost. It is 2nd and 3 from the Colts 37 yard line and the Colts come out in 21 personnel in an i-formation setup. The Cleveland Browns counter with their base 4-3 defense showing an under front with the nose tackle, Jamie Meder (#98), shaded slightly to the shoulder of the center to the strong side.
The play goes for a two yard gain to the left on a zone based run where Gore cuts up into the B gap between the left guard and the left tackle. Meder is able to make the tackle after initially stepping to his left and beating the guard as the center moves up to the second level to block LB Joe Schobert (#53). A lot of movement and blocking by the Colts offensive line, yet it didn’t seem to be enough. A look at the endzone view shows exactly why.
The Browns bring SS Derrick Kindred (#26) down by the linebackers to have 8 defenders in or near the box. Even with the tight end and the full back to help with the blocking, the Colts do not have enough blockers to counter the number of run defenders the Browns have, which leads to many one on one matchups, which Meder ultimately takes advantage of to bring Gore down for a short gain.
The Browns don’t load up the box just to protect themselves against the run, though, either. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams whose defensive philosophy is to get pressure on the QB quickly via the pass rush and have him make mistakes. With #1 overall pick Myles Garrett out for the first four weeks of the season with an ankle injury, Williams had to get creative with how that pressure has been applied to the QB, namely, stacking the box and bringing guys from different places.
In the second quarter, tied at 7, the Colts are facing a 2nd and 11 after a one yard loss on the previous play by Frank Gore (where he faced yet another 8 man box). The Colts break the huddle and set a singleback formation with 12 personnel (the two tight ends both set to the right of the formation). To counter, the Browns have their base 4-3 defense but not in the traditional 4-3 look. Cleveland brought SS Ibraheim Campbell (#24) up near the box, where they have him all the way to the line of scrimmage aligned about two yards to the right (from the offense’s perspective) of TE Jack Doyle (#84) at the end of the line. All three LBs by the snap of the ball are either on the line of scrimmage (LOS) or within a yard of it. The Browns also have their cornerbacks playing man coverage on the two receivers with one cornerback, Jamar Taylor (#21) playing about 10 yards off of WR T.Y. Hilton (#13) to the top of the screen. FS Jabrill Peppers (#22) is playing single high safety lined up about 24 yards off the LOS.
At the snap of the ball, the Browns bring all eight defenders in or near the box, fully selling out to get after QB Jacoby Brissett (#7). The Colts opt to mass protect and keep both TEs and the RB in to block the additional pass rushers. Brissett takes a three step drop before making a slight shoulder fake, then taking two additional drop steps untouched and firing a pass to Hilton who forced Taylor to turn and commit his hips to the sidelines with a subtle head fake to the outside. This led Taylor to spin all the way around before breaking back to the ball. By then it is too late and the catch is made by a wide-open Hilton who collects some nice yards after the catch (YAC) to finish the play for a 25 yard gain.
A 25 yard gain is bad enough, but fast forward to Week 4 against the Bengals to see an even worse exploitation of the Browns’ defensive aggressiveness. With about a minute left in the first half, the Bengals find themselves with a 14 point lead and 1st and 10 from their own 39 following back-to-back 11 yard gains on passes to TE Tyler Kroft. The Bengals spread out the Browns with their 11 personnel from a shotgun formation with RB Gio Bernard (#25) to the right of QB Andy Dalton (#14). The Browns have their nickel subpackage on the field, swapping out a LB for an extra CB. With the three CBs on the three WRs, the Browns still show an aggressive front, bringing SS Derrick Kindred up near the LOS with both LBs Christian Kirksey (#58) and Joe Schobert playing near the LOS as well, giving them seven men in or near the box with Jabrill Peppers playing deep, single-high safety. The Browns also show man coverage with their cornerbacks.
The Browns only rush six this time, with Kindred and the three CBs playing man coverage on the TE and three receivers. The receivers run out routes and take the four secondary players away from the play, which is a perfectly set up screen pass to the RB. With the six Browns defenders on the blitz, no one picks up on the screen until the ball is in Bernard’s hands. After a poor pursuit angle by Peppers, it’s off to the races for the 61 yard touchdown that all but killed any hopes of this matchup being a competitive contest.
Gregg Williams has his defense playing aggressively looking to both stop the run and get after the QB. He was known for that in his tenure with the Rams and he hasn’t shied away from that so far in Cleveland. It is how he is trying to accomplish the aggressiveness that has been the biggest difference. In St. Louis and then in L.A., he had a defensive front with the likes of Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, and Michael Brockers. Guys that are capable of getting to the QB and stuff the run on their own without additional blitzers needed. In Cleveland, he is working a much more inexperienced defensive front, which leads to a need to blitz more often. On top of that, Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus tweeted out this stat the other day:
The Browns are currently first in blitz rate (42.5% of dropbacks) and last in pressure rate (26.0%). That’s unbelievably bad
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) October 3, 2017
Even with the increased blitzing percentage, the Browns are still having issues getting pressure on the QB which leaves their cornerbacks in coverage longer. It can lead to big plays like the one by T.Y. Hilton, or in the worst case scenario, teams like the Bengals taking advantage of the Browns’ over-aggressiveness, breaking a screen pass to the RB for a long touchdown.
Circling back to our original, positive thought on the Browns, it is encouraging that the run defense has improved from last year and that should be appreciated, but a deeper look beyond the boxscores show that it is coming at cost. With the Browns current game plan of loading up the box to be able to bring more pressure from different places, they are able to squash out most run plays. With those loaded boxes, though, they hang their secondary out to dry leaving them more susceptible to allowing bigger plays when they are unable to get pressure on the QB.
But I can’t leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, can I? Of course not! Yes, we have identified the problem, but how do we solve the issue? Where can Browns fans find something positive? Look no further than the return of the aforementioned #1 overall pick, Myles Garrett. If you get the Myles Garrett you expect, it can cause a big ripple effect for the Browns defense.
Garrett should bring an ability to get to the QB regularly meaning less of a need for five and six man blitzes. This then leads to more defenders available to help in the pass coverage. It asks a lot of the rookie, and it may take time for him to be dominant, but his presence alone on the defensive line should help the Browns’ defense. So although the improved run defense, maybe the one shining spot of the Browns’ young season, may not seem so great afterall, there is hope for overall improvement moving forward with the expected return of Garrett in Week 5.
It has been a long time since Browns fans have had such a dominate defensive player to be excited about. Garrett just may make that wait worth it.