Friday, July 26, 2013

You're going to like this defense

While it’s going to be a lot of fun watching the Browns on offense this season, it’s the defense that intrigues me more.

The most significant signings the Browns made this season were not players. It was convincing Norv Turner and Ray Horton to join Rob Chudzinski’s first coaching staff.

Turner’s reputation precedes him. While his head coaching record is spotty, there’s no denying he’s a much better offensive coordinator than he is head coach. The numbers don’t lie.

Horton, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to coordinating with just two seasons as the boss. And in those two seasons, he turned the Arizona Cardinals from one of the National Football League’s worst defenses into one of the – well, not best, but certainly one of the most improved.

Living out here in Arizona, I’ve taken an up close and very personal look at the Cardinals the last two seasons and have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly Horton turned the program around.

So if he was so good, how did he wind up in Cleveland? New Cardinals coach Bruce Arians wanted his own man heading the defense. That’s his prerogative. And Cleveland’s gain.

There are many questions surrounding what fans can expect from Horton’s up-tempo defense. We’ll attempt to answer many of them. One thing is certain, though: This defense will be unlike any other seen on the lakefront in a long, long time.

Let’s begin with the most obvious question.

In what ways will the Browns’ defense this season be different?

First off, it will be much more aggressive than in the past. The days of the read-and-react defense in Cleveland are gone. No more nonsense of allowing opposing offenses to dictate tempo.

Cleveland is a hard-working, blue-collar town where the timid approach is frowned on. Too many times in the past, the Browns lost close games because they played conservatively so as not to lose. That won’t happen this season.

Horton’s main goal is simple and very direct: Put as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as possible. Make them feel uncomfortable in the pocket. Force them into mistakes. Make them throw before they want.

The new coordinator’s defense is based on mystery. You know there’s going to be pressure on every play, but where is that pressure going to come from? And who will apply that pressure?

The goal is to confuse the opposition with different looks. Be unpredictable. Show one look and come with something entirely different. It’s the kind of philosophy that requires smart players who make smart plays.

It took nearly a half season for Horton’s schemes to click in Arizona, but when they did in the second half of the 2011 season, the Cardinals turned a 1-6 start into an 8-8 record, due mainly to the performance of the defense.

So what can we look forward to more specifically?

Blitzing at least 50% of the time from just about anywhere on the field. They might come from cornerbacks and safeties, stunts and twists designed to fluster opposing offensive lines.

Horton is quite adept at mixing piece and parts. On one play, you might see a 2-5-4 alignment. The next might show the opposition a 3-3-5 look with the pressure coming from who knows where.

There is no rhyme or reason for what Horton yanks out of his magical mystery tour box. His unpredictability is the only part of him that is predictable. His goal is to beat the offense on every play any way he can.

As he recently said, “We teach legal punishment of the quarterback. You have to get after him.” Gotta love the expression “legal punishment.”

In what way does the 3-4 base defense factor into Horton’s scheme?

It doesn’t. It’s merely a starting point from which it can – and often will – morph into something entirely different by the time the ball is snapped. Confusion plays a large part of what the defense is trying to accomplish.

One thing is certain, though. Opposing quarterbacks will get to intimately know just about every member of the front seven at one time or another during a game. Pressure will arrive from just about every angle on the field.

It’s going to make the opposition play a game similar to “Where’s Waldo.” But it’s a game they’ll never figure out because Waldo won’t be in the same place two plays in a row. That’s the beauty of a Horton defense. It’s a continuous guessing game.

Who will be the key players?

Just about everyone because it’s all about the scheme. The players are merely a part of it. There will be no individual stars on defense.

On one play, it might be outside linebacker Paul Kruger on a blitz. On another, it might be fellow outside backer Jabaal Sheard who intercepts a pass after faking a blitz and dropping off into coverage.

Defensive linemen, whose sole purpose is to get to the quarterback, will be interchangeable because the talent dropoff is negligible. In order to keep his men fresh, Horton might sit the first group down every third series or so and still not lose quality with the replacements.

How much of a factor will inside linebackers be in the Horton defense?

Keeping D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson (assuming he wins the job alongside Jackson) clean is one of Horton’s goals. It’s similar to what the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens do to make certain their inside backers lead the team in tackles.

The big difference this season, though, is the aggressive nature of the pass rush will gain enough penetration to allow Jackson and Robertson to come clean and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.

What role will Barkevious Mingo play?

A small, but vital role. The rookie will probably start off as a situational rusher in obvious passing situations. He’ll most likely also be part of a three-linebacker scheme with Kruger and Sheard with one side overloaded in an effort to bring maximum pressure.

It’s unlikely, however, that he’ll be asked to drop into coverage, something he rarely did in college. That part of his game will have to brought along slowly as he grows from a college defensive end into an NFL outside linebacker.

What can we expect from the secondary?

Much, much more press coverage and a drastic reduction in zone coverage. That, in and of itself, is a tremendous improvement. With the pressure being applied up front, the secondary’s job becomes somewhat easier.

Why? Because that pressure will serve to disrupt the timing of the quarterback to the point where he will have to either release the ball before he wants, run with the ball or take a sack.

Cornerbacks like Joe Haden and, presumably, rookie Leon McFadden won’t have to chase receivers all day if the front seven do their jobs. It’s a joint cooperative effort designed to lessen the load.

As for the safeties, look for strong safety T. J. Ward to play a lot closer to the line of scrimmage this season, much like Troy Polamalu does in Pittsburgh. The big question is whether Ward is athletic enough to be as successful as Polamalu.

The free safety job is wide open. The new coaching staff likes Johnson Bademosi, but he’ll have to unseat incumbent Tashaun Gipson. Rookie Jamoris Slaughter is now healthy enough to challenge.

Finally, what about special teams?

New punter, new placekicker, new return specialist. Only the long snapper, Christian Yount, returns. It’s a whole new look that will furnish answers only after playing the games that count.

Right now, it looks as though Spencer Lanning will succeed Reggie Hodges (a distinct improvement) and veteran kicker Shayne Graham takes Phil Dawson’s place in a sideways move.

Travis Benjamin replaces Joshua Cribbs on kickoff and punt returns, another improvement since Cribbs’ talent level in the return game fell substantially the last couple of seasons. Where Cribbs will be missed most is as a gunner on punts and kickoffs.


  1. From what I've seen, the key to Horton's defense was the defensive front 3 or 4. When those players were active, the linebackers were able to make plays behind them. However, when facing a quicker offensive line (Seattle for example), the front line struggled and the defense was gashed for big gains.

    Seems like Horton played a lot of 4-2-5 - especially when offenses went three and four wide receivers. When this happened, there wasn't much in the way of blitzing. While the "attacking" part of Horton's defense is desirable, there is still a lot of "read and react" and man on man matchups that tend to dictate the ultimate success.

    So if you're in Arizona - what's the read on losing Horton? Is this even a big deal?

  2. Hi Dave,

    True this attacking defense is more vulnerable to a team that executes quick-hitting and quick-developing plays. Spread the field. That's probably the best way to defeat it.

    But teams in the AFC North do not have those types of offenses. You're right about quicker, faster teams like Seattle, but you can throw out that 58-0 mess last season because the offense turned the ball over eight times in that game.

    The players out here loved Horton and were not thrilled with his release. It'll be interesting to see how they adapt to Todd Bowles, the new coordinator.

    Bowles took over as coordinator in Philadelphia the last half of last season, his first stint as the defensive boss. He coached with the Browns from 2001 to 2004.

    He brings a 4-3 mentality to the Cardinals, who were essentially a 3-4 base team under Horton. How they readjust to the 4-3 remains to be seen. Whether Bowles can match Horton's fiery personality is also in question.

  3. Won't seem to matter much if we can't stop the run (as usual). Any takes on that

  4. Elf,

    If the Browns' defensive linemen play with a two-gap responsibility, that's a problem against the run. If they play one gap, like the Steelers, they should be all right.

    Horton is a Dick LeBeau disciple. Here in Arizona the last two seasons, he played both. It'll be interesting to see how which direction he'll go with the Browns. It might depend on how he evaluates his defensive linemen.