Browns Going Back To Old Defense To Get New Results
By Steven King
This isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s (or your former head coaches’ and defensive coordinators’) 3-4 Cleveland Browns defense.
When the Browns ran the 3-4 scheme for the first time under coach Sam Rutigliano and defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer from 1980-84 and again under coach Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Dave Adolph through 1988, one more time under coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker from 2005-08 and finally with coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from 2009-10, there was no attacking aspect to it at all.
Instead, it was based on a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, one in which the defense wouldn’t allow anything over its head and instead would force the opposition to move the ball up the field in small chunks with underneath passes. When things didn’t work well, fans felt like they were subjected to the Chinese water torture, dying a little bit with each drip, drip, drip.
But first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton has changed all that – dramatically so, in fact. The former Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys defensive back said he was going to change it when he was hired last January and he has kept to his word.
This is an attacking and aggressive defense, the likes of which Cleveland fans have never seen with their team’s 3-4. The only thing close to it – and it was very similar, in fact – was when coach Bud Carson ran the same kind of scheme with a 4-3 in 1989 and 1990. Just like Carson’s group, these current Browns want to get to the quarterback at all costs in order to either sack him or make him throw earlier than he should.
But unlike Carson’s scheme, where the pressure came almost entirely from the front four, Horton is having rushers go at the quarterback from all different angles.
In most cases, it will come from the outside linebackers, the players around whom every 3-4 is based. Other times, it might come from inside linebackers or blitzing cornerbacks and safeties. Horton wants to confuse foes and mess up their blocking schemes by being unpredictable with his decisions as to where to bring the pressure.
Horton spent seven seasons learning the defense – and the philosophy – while serving as the secondary coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and working under the best defensive coordinator in the business, Dick LeBeau. However, a team wins with players – not schemes – and the Steelers have had talent through the years, which make LeBeau’s calls look good. The Browns are still trying to get to that point. They’ve made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, but they’re not there yet.
They are strong at defensive line with the likes of DEs Ahtyba Rubin, newcomer Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn and John Hughes as well as NT Phil Taylor. They are strong at outside linebacker with former Baltimore Raven Paul Kruger (the prize of their free-agent class this year) rookie Barkevious Mingo (their first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft) Quentin Groves (who played for Horton with the Arizona Cardinals) and Jabaal Sheard (who has made a good conversion from a 4-3 end the past two seasons).
But Cleveland has question marks at inside linebacker next to veteran D’Qwell Jackson, at cornerback opposite Joe Haden and at safety alongside T.J. Ward.
The holes at inside linebacker are troubling since it raises questions as to whether this defense can stop the run effectively and consistently. And if the Browns struggle against the rush, then they’re going to struggle overall defensively. That’s the way it is with any defense, regardless of the scheme. But the secondary issues may be even more ominous, because when the Browns blitz, it often times leaves the people in the back end of the defense in single coverage. Do they have enough solid cover men? We’ll see. If not, then they’ll give up a lot of big pass plays that break the back of a defense.
Nonetheless, the defense will be more exciting to watch – and will be a refreshing change -- because of its attacking nature. It intends to dictate to opposing offenses, as opposed to the other way around, which began happening 33 years ago in the way-back-when days of the “Kardiac Kids”. It’s high risk and high reward. For every big play his guys give up, Horton expects them to make many more big plays and force turnovers.
Horton has insisted from the outset that his players will know the defense inside and out by the start of the regular season. While that may be true, it’s more likely there will at least something of a learning curve involved. Thus, the defense won’t be at its best from the start, but it should get better and become more effective as the season goes along.
In looking back, especially over the last decade or so, there’s one more point to consider.
Every time the Browns have played the Steelers, they’ve had to work overtime in practice preparing for all the elaborate blitz schemes. And even then, it’s been impossible to go over everything. LeBeau has always had a new trick up his sleeve. Realizing all that, why did it take Cleveland this long to go to an attacking 3-4 scheme of its own to make opposing offensive coordinators to jump through the same hoops? Indeed, this change should have happened years ago.
The trick will be for everyone on the defense – coaches and players alike – to pay close attention to what Horton is doing and why he is doing it. He will be probably stay in Cleveland for only one year before getting hired as a head coach somewhere. He’s an impressive man and nearly got a head coaching job this past offseason, In fact, the Browns strongly considered him before finally hiring Rob Chudzinski.
So when Horton departs, Cleveland will want to keep this expected defensive momentum going – literally and figuratively – under the new coordinator.