The Cleveland Browns seemingly raised the white flag on the 2013 season when they shipped Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts a couple of weeks ago following an 0-2 start. Most observers, myself included, believed the rest of this year could be a lost cause for Cleveland, with the team looking forward to the 2014 NFL Draft, when it would select a top quarterback to build around.
However, the Browns have surprised the football world by reeling off two victories and suddenly becoming contenders in the AFC North. While Brian Hoyer has received much of the credit, winning both of the games he's started since replacing injured quarterback Brandon Weeden, I believe the emergence of a dominant defense is the foundation of Cleveland's sudden success -- and the key to the Browns, who host the Buffalo Bills on NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football," potentially making a serious run in a balanced division.
After taking some time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film, I offer up four reasons why Cleveland's defense could make this team a surprising playoff contender:
1) Ray Horton has given the defense a nastier edge.
The Browns have a storied tradition of playing hard-nosed, physical football, particularly on defense. The unit traditionally embodies the spirit of the Dawg Pound, representing the grit, determination and toughness associated with the city of Cleveland.
In his first year as the Browns' defensive coordinator, Horton immediately has put together a menacing unit that fits the mold and overwhelms opponents with speed, strength and power. The Browns are one of the few NFL teams with a lineup that features big guys who can run and little guys who can hit and cover. When playing in unison, Cleveland is capable of forcing opponents into a one-dimensional game plan that is difficult to sustain against a defense that is stout at the point of attack and explosive on the edges. Consequently, the Browns rank third in the NFL in total defense and eighth in points allowed.
Horton has installed a hybrid 3-4 scheme that uses a variety of fronts, coverage and blitzes to suffocate the run and create consistent pressure on the passer. Additionally, he maximizes his personnel's talent by employing a number of exotic looks to put his best defenders in positions to make plays. By opting to build around his players' strengths rather than forcing them to fit into his system, Horton has been able to get his charges, particularly the young ones, to make immediate contributions.
Horton stresses the importance of eliminating big plays and forcing opponents to settle for field goals in the red zone. While most defensive coordinators emphasize those key points, Horton does it while employing an aggressive approach that challenges opponents at every turn. He isn't afraid to bring five-, six- and seven-man pressures on any down, and he will trick up his zone-blitz packages to keep quarterbacks guessing in the pocket. Additionally, he likes to use a few simplistic coverages and demand that his secondary defenders keep the ball from flying over their heads.
I've been impressed with the various looks Horton's defense has displayed in the first four games. His unit seamlessly transitioned from odd to even fronts and also jumped into exotic nickel packages to provide optimal opportunities for QB-hungry pass rushers in key situations.
Let's check out a couple of screengrabs highlighting the different looks Horton has used this season.
The Browns' conventional 3-4 defense features three defensive linemen (highlighted in red) and four linebackers (highlighted in yellow):
The Browns also incorporate a 2-4-5 nickel package with two down linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backers. As you can see in the following screengrab, taken from Sunday's 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the front is set in an "even" alignment, with both defensive tackles positioned as three-techniques and each edge rusher aligned on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle:
Horton has deployed a variety of outside linebackers (Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, Quentin Groves and Paul Kruger) as rushers to wear down opponents off the edges. And with Horton only incorporating about 50 percent of his defensive playbook at this point, it is easy to imagine the Browns' defensive domination continuing over the course of the season.
2) They're stout down the middle of the field.
Top NFL defenses boast blue-chip players at defensive tackle, middle/inside linebacker and safety; this allows a team to stuff the run between the tackles and force opponents to the edges, into the waiting arms of swift perimeter defenders. The Browns have emerging, Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers at each of those positions.
Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant give the Browns an imposing pair of run-stuffing defensive linemen with pass-rush skills. Both players possess the size that defensive coordinators covet -- Taylor is listed at 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds, and Bryant measures in at 6-6, 310 -- yet they are athletic enough to run and chase from sideline to sideline.
Taylor, the 21st overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, is the bedrock in the middle of the front seven. He owns opposing centers at the point of attack, creating an up-the-gut push that disrupts the run and pass. Although Cleveland doesn't particularly count on Taylor to provide much as a pass rusher from his nose tackle spot, he quickly has become a highly capable interior rusher, using his strength and quickness to collapse the pocket, as evidenced in the video clip just above.
Bryant was one of the best-kept secrets on last offseason's free-agent market, even after posting an impressive 2012 campaign in Oakland. He is a versatile interior defender capable of playing as a three-technique (aligned on the outside shade of the offensive guard) or five-technique (positioned in front of the offensive tackle). Bryant's positional flexibility allows him to stay on the field in every situation, including obvious passing downs with a nickel package on the field.
In the following screengrab, the Browns are in the 2-4-5 defense, with Bryant aligned as a three-technique inside of Kruger:
On the snap, Bryant executes a powerful rush maneuver to overwhelm the offensive guard and collapse the pocket:
This results in one of Bryant's team-high 3.5 sacks.
Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has been one of the NFL's leading tacklers for the past few seasons. He is an instinctive defender with terrific anticipation and awareness, flying to the ball with reckless abandon. Jackson's uncanny knack for slipping blocks and filling the alley routinely leads to big hits on unsuspecting runners in the hole. He thumps runners and creates turnovers at the point of attack.
Safety T.J. Ward, the 38th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, gives the Browns a menacing middle-of-the-field presence. He was regarded as one of the top tackling safeties when he entered the league out of Oregon, and he hasn't disappointed in that regard. Additionally, he has made significant strides as a pass defender, which is critical in today's air-oriented NFL. In the Browns' new scheme, Ward drops down in the box as an eighth defender, and he also spends time in the deep middle, roaming as a center fielder.
3) Joe Haden/Buster Skrine feels like Frank Minnifield/Hanford Dixon.
The value of quality cornerbacks can't be underestimated. Quarterbacks are throwing more than ever, and teams without quality cover men on the perimeter can't stop balls from flying over the top of their defense.
Haden and Skrine give Cleveland its best cornerback tandem since Minnifield and Dixon manned the perimeter in the 1980s. Now, I know this is lofty praise, considering that tenacious tandem's legacy, but Haden and Skrine have put an airtight blanket on opposing receivers this season. Although they have abstained from using their memorable predecessors' mugging tactics, Haden and Skrine have been ultra-aggressive in coverage, putting opposing quarterbacks on notice. With two capable defenders on the outside, the Browns have been able to condense the field and keep opponents from sustaining drives.
Haden is fast becoming one of the NFL's top cover corners. As a polished technician with outstanding movement skills and quickness, Haden is capable of thriving in press or off coverage. Additionally, he is a gritty competitor who embraces the challenge of taking on the opponent's top receiver.
Skrine has shown dramatic improvement as a cover corner in his third pro season. He is crafty with technique and really has developed nice ball skills on the perimeter. Skrine constantly gets his hands on the ball -- seven pass breakups in just four games -- and has a knack for undercutting routes at the break point. Moreover, he displays the awareness to snatch tipped passes and overthrows in his area. Given the importance of turnovers on the outcome of games, Skrine's evolution as a ballhawk has made opponents think twice about attacking the perceived weak link in the secondary.
4) Speed and talent off the edge overwhelm opposing quarterbacks.
The most effective way to affect the passing game is to repeatedly knock down the quarterback. The Browns have assembled a young stable of pass rushers who excel at hunting quarterbacks from the edges. From Mingo and Sheard racing past offensive tackles with explosive speed and quickness to Groves and Kruger using savvy techniques to get home, the Browns trot out a number of productive rushers to disrupt opposing passing games' timing and potency.
I'm impressed with Mingo's rapid development and maturation. The sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft has been a force, despite lacking the ideal size (6-4, 240 pounds) to set the edge on the perimeter. Mingo has learned how to take advantage of his superior first-step quickness and explosive athleticism to blow past edge blockers. Moreover, he has developed an effective series of dip-and-rip maneuvers to knock down the quarterback.
I've pulled two video clips from Mingo's early play to showcase his explosiveness off the edge. In the clip just above, taken from the Browns' Week 2 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Mingo blows past Bryant McKinnie on a speed rush/dip-and-rip move that illustrates the rookie's first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation. A veteran offensive tackle likely would be expecting a young player to use his athleticism as a rusher; still, Mingo simply is too quick to keep away from the quarterback on this play.
In the clip to the right, from the Browns' Week 3 win over the Minnesota Vikings, Mingo shows off his extraordinary mix of speed, balance and body control on the way to sacking Christian Ponder. Mingo flies off the ball after the snap, absorbs a cut block and still pulls down Ponder for a 1-yard loss. What's most impressive about this sack is Mingo's relentlessness. There simply is no defense for shutting out an explosive athlete with an insatiable desire to get to the quarterback.
Not to be outdone, Sheard can wreak havoc on opponents, too. He has tallied 17.5 sacks in his brief career, using speed and quickness to get home. While he is still very raw in terms of hand skills and overall rush moves, there is no disputing his motor. With will deemed more important than skill for a pass rusher, Sheard will continue to feast on opponents concerned with the emerging terror on the opposite side (Mingo).
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.