With the quarterback situation receiving most of the attention in Cleveland last season, the performance of the Browns’ defense flew somewhat under the radar. They finished 9th in the league in points allowed and kept the offense in just about every game. With the quarterback situation currently no better than it was last season (and possibly worse), the defense will once again have to pave the way for the Browns in 2015.
Maybe the best thing about Mike Pettine’s defense last season was the amount of disguise he used in coverage. The Browns liked to use movement before and after the snap. They threw a lot at offenses, rotating the safeties often, using inverted cover-2’s, traps, blitzes, and dropping defensive linemen out into passing lanes among many other deceptive concepts.
The below play was one of our favorites of the entire 2014 NFL season. On it, the Browns were able to fool one of the league’s most cerebral quarterbacks, Andrew Luck.
Initially the Browns showed one deep safety, aligned on the left hash 19 yards directly over the center. This meant the coverage would likely be either man-free or cover-3.
The Browns ended up bringing a blitz. The deep safety began moving to his left towards the 3-receiver side of the field.
It appeared as though the Browns were playing man coverage behind the blitz.
Because the idea of the blitz and coverage was to bring defenders from unexpected places, the Browns were left with a linebacker covering wide receiver Reggie Wayne in the slot.
Teams will occasionally risk 1-on-1 matchups like this, expecting their outmatched defender not to have to cover for too long because the blitz can force a quick throw from the quarterback. They also sometimes do this to throw off the quarterback, hoping that he won’t be able to get a beat on if it’s man or zone coverage. Here, though, they WANTED Luck to spot his wide receiver on a linebacker. And that’s exactly what he did. Luck figured he had Wayne in an advantageous matchup on an easy out-route with no one in the flat to undercut the route.
He thought this because the cornerback to that side, Justin Gilbert, appeared to be in 1-on-1 coverage earlier in the play just like the rest of the underneath defenders. With his outside receiver running a go route to that side, Luck figured Gilbert would run with him, creating an opening for the out route from the slot. He didn’t account for Gilbert as a result. He also took his eye off the safety, who was sprinting over top of Gilbert.
It turned out that this wasn’t man-free or any other single-high coverage. This was a trap coverage. Justin Gilbert was able to sit, knowing he had his safety help over the top. As soon as Luck threw the ball, Gilbert jumped in front of Wayne to intercept the pass.
Gilbert returned it for a touchdown.
This type of disguise didn’t result in any other interceptions last season, but it did lead to plenty of incompletions, near interceptions, and lots of indecision by quarterbacks. In fact, the Browns finished 2014 with arguably the best pass defense in the NFL, holding opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 74.1 passer rating.
The Browns also finished 2nd in the NFL with 21 interceptions, and it could have been a lot more. A large part of this was due to the ball-hawking style of the defense. The Browns had a very good overall secondary. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson were great at reading quarterbacks’ eyes and breaking on the ball. They also baited a lot of throws.
Joe Haden, Cleveland’s best cover corner, continued to show why he is one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. Not only did he show off his great ball skills, but he also often ran routes for the receivers he was covering. When he wasn’t in man press, he did a good job of reading the quarterback and breaking on balls quickly. His aggressive style did make him susceptible to some double moves, but overall he played like the top-5 corner that he is. With cornerback Tramon Williams joining the secondary this offseason, the Browns should continue to be one of the better coverage teams in the league in 2015.
Where the Browns failed last year on defense was up front. They lacked the ability to get to the quarterback consistently, finishing 27th in the NFL with just 31 sacks (The lack of a decent pass rush just adds to how impressive the secondary was). A large part of this was because they didn’t have any great pure pass rushers. Paul Kruger had a career year with 11.0 sacks and is a good overall player, but he doesn’t strike fear in the heart of opposing offenses. The Browns also needed someone on their front-3 who could create more interior pressure. This is why they brought in Randy Starks from the Dolphins. They’re hoping he will pair up well with Desmond Bryant this season. Still, the Browns are in need of a dynamic edge-rusher.
This brings us to Cleveland’s run defense. Last year, it was flat out bad. In just about every metric, the Browns were near the bottom of the league, allowing yards consistently and in big chunks. They allowed 141.6 rushing yards per game, which was the most in the NFL. They allowed at least 4 yards on 47.4% of all rushing plays, which was 4th-worst in the NFL. They also allowed 56 runs of 10 yards or more (T-5th most in the NFL) and 16 runs of 20 yards or more (T-3rd most in the NFL).
Much of this was due to the interior defensive line getting driven off the ball. In a 3-4, think of the front-3 as the linebackers’ protectors. Their job is to eat up double-teams and occupy offensive linemen so the linebackers are free to attack the line of scrimmage and hunt down the ball carrier unimpeded. Too often last year, though, Ahtyba Rubin (now on Seattle), Phil Taylor (In his 5 games before going on the IR), Billy Winn and just about everyone else in the Browns’ D-line rotation were driven back into their inside linebackers’ laps, making their attempts to stop the run much more difficult. This is still an area that the Browns haven’t improved enough this offseason.
If the Browns can get better up front, they have the players behind them to defend the ground game. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson were very impressive coming up against the run last season. However, when you see safeties making so many plays in the running game, you start to get concerned because it means no one in front of them is stopping the ball carrier first.
The Browns Offense might seem like more of a mess than their top-10 scoring defense. They still need help at wide receiver and tight end, and their quarterback situation is obviously an uncertain one. But the Browns absolutely still need to use this year’s draft to shore up the weak spots of their defense.