Off Day Tuesday – Ray Horton Defense Review
Perhaps the most exciting development of what has been an extraordinarily newsworthy Browns' offseason has been the prospect of Ray Horton bringing an aggressive style of defense to Cleveland. By now, we've all heard the buzz phrases associated with Horton's brand of defense – "multi-front", "attacking", "pressure", "blitzing", "big guys who run fast" and so on. Or, if you're stuck in 1988 like these folks, then surely you've at least heard the 3-4 is back in town.
Anyway, Horton's defense is intriguing simply because it's pretty far removed from the standard 3-4 and 4-3 defenses various Browns' coaches have installed over the years. For most of 2012, Horton's Cardinals defenses were aggressive, fast and created turnovers – despite the burden of trying to support a sluggish offense. While not every game was a stellar effort, Horton's defense continually created problems for opposing offenses.
Today, we'll look at one of the better efforts – a 27-6 Week Three victory over the Eagles.
The Eagles were a bit of a mess heading into this game, yet they sported a very fortunate 2-0 record. Injuries and a lack of overall depth hurt the Eagles' offensive line and consequently, Michael Vick. Horton clearly zoned in on the Eagles' weaknesses here by attacking Vick under a layer of second level containment.
1st Quarter – Cardinals up 10-0
Here's one of the few early big gainers for the Eagles. The double tight end set used here was seen throughout the game – often as a necessity for the Eagles' blocking woes. The Cardinals run a basic 3-4, with inside linebacker Paris Lenon moved out wide in tight end coverage, with Daryl Washington playing zone over the deep middle. This is also one of the few plays in which Vick is given a sizable pocket to throw from and/or actually settles his feet to make a clean downfield throw.
After the snap, Lenon stunts inside and takes on the Eagles' center. All three interior lineman plus outside linebacker Sam Acho rush Vick. Washington drifts back – eyes on Vick – which allows Brent Celek to work free underneath. Late nickel coverage gives Celek room to make the catch and turn upfield for extra yards.
Of course this play is a small sample, but given that the Bengals possess two pass catching tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert (Baltimore also features a nice tight end combo), Horton will be challenged to make some necessary adjustments come September.
2nd Quarter – Cardinals up 17-0
Next up is a simple, but incredibly effective inside linebacker blitz. Again, the Cardinals line up with a three man front, but this time pile up extra pass defenders behind them. Washington makes a quick hitch, then blasts through the Eagles' line. McCoy is stuck on the opposite side and the extra flinch second is all that Washington needs to chase Vick out of the pocket before eventually sacking him for a big third down loss.
Projecting ahead to this fall, it's easy to imagine Phil Taylor pushing open a free lane for the likes of D'Qwell Jackson, James Michael Johnson or Craig Robertson to run through. Of course, none of these three linebackers are in Washington's class – at least in terms of 2012 playmaking. However, scheme and play call wise, similar opportunities should present themselves.
3rd Quarter – Cardinals up 24-3
This next play is classic interior line pressure – which at least based on the Browns' current defensive personnel – could be a highlight in 2013. On this obvious passing down, the Cardinals rush four and drop both inside linebackers into coverage. Williams beats his man to the outside and collapses Vick's pocket. Vick steps up in the pocket and is chased down by former Cardinal and current Brown Quentin Groves.
Nothing exotic here, as a nose tackle beat his blocker and put the quarterback on the move. Throughout this particular game, Horton's defense thrived on front three and four pressure – particularly when D-Linemen could take advantage of single blocking. In Arizona's case, Williams and Calais Campbell continually were able to create pressure – which allowed the linebackers to take advantage of secondary blocking assignments. In the Browns' respective cases, they don't have a lineman the caliber of Campbell, but do possess what could be a very good end duo in Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant.
3rd Quarter – Cardinals up 24-6
Here, the Cardinals come out in a 3-3-5 look, with Lenon, Acho and William Gay rushing from the outside. The Cardinals are overloaded with Lenon, Darnell Dockett and Gay on the left side. At the snap, the Cardinals charge into the Eagles' backfield, then are turned around as McCoy shifts direction. A sizable hole opens on the Cardinals' right side as Washington and Acho are picked off by Eagle blockers. McCoy takes off into the second level for a first down gain.
Two things that are immediately noticeable about Horton's 2012 defense – at least from a personnel standpoint – are size and speed. The Cardinals' front three is impressive in terms of moving and gaining leverage on opposing blockers. However, like most NFL teams – when opposing blockers can gain momentum against linebackers, the defense struggles. In this case, Washington and Acho (226 and 262 lbs.) could easily resemble Jackson and Paul Kruger or even Barkevious Mingo and Robertson.
4th Quarter – Cardinals up 24-6
We'll end with a great pass rush. Late in the game, the Cardinals line up in a 2-4-5 look. Here, the front six rushes and again, the linemen get pressure – this time, Calais Campbell. Campbell chases Vick to his left, where pressure comes from Acho. Acho strings the play out wider and corner support comes. The play becomes a total bust for Vick, who heaves the ball out of bounds before getting sacked.
Based on the moves to land Kruger, Groves and Mingo, most of the talk has centered on the Browns' new outside pass rushers. Certainly, these three players – along with Jabaal Sheard – will be determining factors for the success of Horton's defense. However, the impact that the Browns' front three and four defensive linemen – presumably Rubin, Taylor, Bryant, John Hughes and Billy Winn – could launch Horton's defense into another level this fall.
At least based on the evidence from this game – one of the Cardinals' best 2012 efforts – the play of Williams and Campbell allowed several other defenders to have an impact. When the front line could get a push, it created opportunities for Washington, Acho and Groves. Additionally – and while it wasn't covered in detail here – this pressure eased the burden on the Cardinals' secondary. This last point is significant for the Browns moving forward, at least given the team's relative lack of 2013 depth.
Overall, Horton's defense wasn't the exotic, blitz-happy creation it has been advertised as – at least not based on this particular game. However, what was shown was a smart and timely assortment of continual pressure – something that hopefully translates to Cleveland this fall.