Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Browns Defense

by Derrik Klassen

The Cleveland Browns last had a winning record in 2014, when they got off to a 7-4 start with Brian Hoyer at quarterback. Unfortunately, they lost each of their final five games that year and missed out on the playoffs once again. In the three following seasons, the Browns amassed a whopping 4-44 record which included a winless season in 2017. With a win this weekend, the Browns could free themselves from that cloud of loss and misery by climbing above .500 for the first time in four years.

As will always be the case, Cleveland's quarterback has received a bulk of the praise for the team finally looking competitive again. Rookie Baker Mayfield is as sharp and well-equipped as young quarterbacks come, and he has delivered early on the promise general manager John Dorsey saw in him when he selected the signal-caller with the first overall pick in April's draft. Cleveland's offense is still far from a top-notch unit, but Mayfield's three performances have produced better results than what the team was getting out of Tyrod Taylor. Mayfield has made the offense look competent, and as sad as it may be, that is a notable step up for the Browns.

Without taking away from Mayfield's impact, however, it is the Browns' defense that has been the primary catalyst for their success. I know, I know, a Gregg Williams defense being the reason a team is winning is a mind-boggling concept, but that has been the case for Cleveland in 2018. Through five games this year, Cleveland's defense ranks second in the league per DVOA, edging out the likes of Jacksonville and Baltimore. Their defensive prowess is not the result of playing a breeze of a schedule, either. Cleveland's schedule ranks eighth in difficulty, making for a much larger task than Chicago's 24th-ranked schedule or Baltimore's 30th-ranked schedule.

Pass defense is the crucial difference between this year's defense and last year's. Cleveland boasted a monstrous fourth-ranked run defense in 2017, but their 26th-ranked pass defense negated any efforts made by the front seven. The team tried to scrape by with veteran cast-offs such as Jamar Taylor and Jason McCourty at cornerback, but the low-cost experiment failed and led to drastic, necessary changes in the offseason.

Cleveland brought in a slew of new defensive backs to be key contributors in 2018, but we'll focus here on thre of them: T.J. Carrie via free agency, Damarious Randall via a trade with the Green Bay Packers, and Denzel Ward out of Ohio State with the fourth overall selection in the draft. Carrie and Randall have both enjoyed varying degrees of success in Williams' defense and are a step up from what the team fielded a year ago. Ward, to the surprise of few, already looks like a bona fide star and has elevated the performance of the entire defense.

In addition to being a pro-ready technician out of college, Ward is a video game-like athlete. Though his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame is on the smaller side, Ward's 4.32-second 40-yard dash (97th percentile) and 136-inch broad jump (98th percentile) make for an explosive athletic profile. Ward has the speed to run stride-for-stride with the NFL's best deep threats as well as to fire downhill to defend slant routes and handle the flat area.

One particular series versus Baltimore showcased the breadth of Ward's skill set.

via Gfycat

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Ward is matched up over John Brown in the slot on this play. Brown has been a dominant deep threat this season with seven catches of at least 20 yards, tied with DeSean Jackson for most in the NFL. Whereas most cornerbacks have struggled to match Brown down the field this year, Ward finds no issue in turning with Brown, latching onto his hip, and keeping up with each step. Joe Flacco's throw sailed a few yards over Brown anyway, but had the ball been in Brown's vicinity, Ward was in position to contest the catch point.

The following play, Ward was asked to cover Michael Crabtree on the outside on a third-and-7. Crabtree, a big-bodied receiver with excellent yards-after-catch ability, normally has the advantage in that scenario, but Ward put the clamps on him like he had done to Brown the play before.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Due to an off-coverage alignment, Ward ends up conceding a clean catch point, but that is typical of third-and-medium or -long situations. So long as a cornerback can rally to the receiver and stop him before he turns up the field toward the first-down marker, the reception itself does not matter. Ward does just that by instantly closing the gap between himself and Crabtree as the ball is in the air. Ward is able to corral Crabtree to the ground before Crabtree can gather himself and pick up the first down. In fact, though Ward never directly attacked the catch point, Ward's tackle leads to Crabtree failing to complete the process of the catch, resulting in an incomplete pass. Incomplete or not, Ward's explosion and effort to come downhill and hit Crabtree before he had a chance to get past the first-down marker is a noteworthy skill of Ward's and something that regularly pops up on film.

These two plays are excellent on their own, but they also highlight how Ward can move around the formation to attack the offense's best threat on a given play. In previous seasons, the Browns have not had a cornerback who could reliably move around to match different types of receivers from different alignments. Ward providing the defense with that type of shutdown presence eases some pressure off of the rest of the secondary.

Ward's early impact, as well as solid efforts from a number of veteran additions, have propelled the Browns' defense to a No. 2 rank in pass defense DVOA. In a passing league, a revived secondary has gone a long way toward making the Browns a good team.

The Browns also remain stout up front due to the star power they acquired in last year's draft. Defensive end Myles Garrett has rapidly ascended into the pantheon of elite NFL pass rushers. Garrett has racked up five sacks in five games so far, good for fifth in the league and only one sack behind league-leaders Geno Atkins and the Watt brothers. With his blend of power and bend around the corner, Garrett should only continue to punish opposing quarterbacks as the season goes on.

Cleveland's other, lesser-known star on the defensive line is defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi posted a good rookie season in 2017, but has blossomed into a special run defender and a semi-truck of a pass rusher. Ogunjobi's skill set is a perfect match for Garrett's explosive, sometimes reckless style on the edge.

via Gfycat

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Ogunjobi is particularly effective against zone concepts, and he puts that on display here. Ogunjobi is lined up over the Jets' center before the snap for this play. As the ball is snapped, the play unfolds as an outside zone to the left, leaving Ogunjobi between the center and the right guard. If executed by the offensive line correctly, the center will knock Ogunjobi into the right guard so that the guard can make his way over and earn the leverage on Ogunjobi. The center's attempt to stave off Ogunjobi is futile, however, and Ogunjobi pushes through the block so as to never allow the right guard to get a proper angle on him. Ogunjobi splitting the two linemen means that the running back can not cut the play back, forcing him to run straight into linebacker Jamie Collins. It is not the flashy 8-yard tackle for loss you might see from Aaron Donald, but it is a damn good football play.

Ogunjobi can provide those splash plays from time to time, though, especially in the pass game. As of now, Ogunjobi is Cleveland's leader in pass rush pressures with 12 (subscription required). Ogunjobi has converted three of those opportunities into sacks, which does not include a sack that was taken away from him due to a defensive holding penalty during the New Orleans Saints game. While Garrett works around the edge and forces quarterbacks to scoot up, Ogunjobi blows up opposing centers and guards to collapse the pocket in front of the quarterback.

Like his teammate Ward, Ogunjobi is a fantastic athlete at his position, posting a handful of 75th percentile or better marks at the NFL combine in 2017. His 116-inch broad jump (96th percentile) was the highlight of his performance. When Ogunjobi gets clean opportunities to rush the passer, his explosion and closing speed often show up.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

All it took for Ogunjobi to win this rep was a club to the center's left arm. In doing so, Ogunjobi was able to leverage himself to the outside of the center while also halting the blocker's attempt to slide in front of Ogunjobi. The sliver of space Ogunjobi created for himself was all he needed to burst past the center and bring down Drew Brees before the quarterback had a real chance to survey the field. Plays like this are why Ogunjobi leads the team in pressures and trails only Garrett in sacks.

The rest of Cleveland's front is filled out by young, quality starters and a strong two-deep. Players such as defensive tackle Trevon Coley and outside linebacker Genard Avery are not premier names, but both serve important roles on the team. Coley is a stable run-defending presence alongside Ogunjobi, while Avery serves as a promising young pass rusher and versatile piece for Cleveland's aggressive front. Second-year defensive back Jabrill Peppers has also come into his own as a box player, showing off the aggression and short-area range that made him a star at Michigan.

What the Browns have going for them now is a healthy blend of stability and young, growing talent. Stars such as Garrett, Ward, and Ogunjobi are clear centerpieces for the defense, but no one position group is lacking in talent. There is functional NFL caliber play across the board, even if Williams still sometimes fails to put them in proper position to succeed.

Hosting the Los Angeles Chargers this week, Cleveland has a chance to prove they have a legitimate defense and a competitive franchise. The Chargers enter this game with the third-ranked offense in DVOA, buoyed by their third-ranked passing offense. To this point, Cleveland has faced a couple of quality passing offenses, including the Saints, but Philip Rivers' Chargers attack is among the most lethal in the league right now.

Slowing down Rivers' race back to the top of the AFC West would be monumental for this developing Browns team. It was the Chargers who gave the Browns their only win during the previous two seasons, so it would only be fitting for them to be the team which allows the Browns to achieve a winning record for the first time in four years.


2 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2018, 8:18pm

2 Re: Film Room: Browns Defense

I recall Theo, whose takes I've always respected, said in that week's thread he wasn't that impressed by Myles from the Jets game, on the grounds that Team Green only had to send TEs or fullbacks to block him frequently. What is your take on that, Derrick?