Viewed through the lens of nearly fifteen years of inadequate defense, the offseason hiring of Ray Horton as defensive coordinator ranks among the highlights of Browns' expansion era hope.
In Horton, the Browns have landed an innovative and experienced coordinator and one who is clearly motivated to eventually land a head coaching job. Such a trio of credentials haven't surfaced in a Cleveland coordinator for a long while, which helps to explain the excitement surrounding Horton's arrival.
Of course, the most compelling aspect of Horton's hire is the potential for the Browns to feature a strong pass rush – something that hasn't occurred during the expansion era. Naturally, the current hype will need to be validated by an improved Browns' defense this fall. But in the interim, Browns' fans should be excited for a departure from the dated, sterile defenses of past years.
In an effort to better understand Horton's defense, I reviewed one of the better efforts his Arizona Cardinals produced in 2012. However, in the interests of fairness, I wanted to balance this analysis with a look at the worst effort the Cardinals gave a season ago.
In a Week 14 matchup, the Cardinals were routed in Seattle 58-0. The loss dropped the Cardinals to 5-9 and effectively ended their season. And while such a lopsided score would suggest a total team failure, it's worth noting that the Cardinals committed 8 turnovers and couldn't produce any sort of tangible offensive effort.
First Quarter – Seattle Leading 3-0
What follows is a great example of just how fast the NFL game has become. However, the greater lesson could be that speed can usually beat aggressiveness. As was standard in many of the Cardinals' poorer defensive performances a season ago, Horton's defenses are often guilty of being too aggressive.
On this play, the Cardinals line up in a 2-4-5 look – which is a common Horton alignment. After the snap, the Cardinals' defensive front follows the Seahawks' blockers to the strong side and flood the middle of the line. The Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch executes a beautiful burst to the outside and easily beats an over-committed Cardinals' defense for a 20-yard score.
Here, the idea of aggressiveness versus smart defense is presented. While Horton's defense presents a variety of looks and multiple ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks, all NFL defenses have to be based in simple contain and pursuit principles. On this given play, the Cardinals defense bit hard to the strong side and gave up a huge play.
Second Quarter – Seahawks Leading 31-0
By this point in the game, the Cardinals have completely melted down. Skelton and the Cardinals' special teams have produced multiple turnovers. Horton's defense has been repeatedly put into some bad situations, primarily through the Seahawks maintaining terrific field position.
On this play, the Seahawks simply spread the Cardinals' defense out and attack down the middle of the field. Paris Lenon – who like Daryl Washington – played a variety of roles in Horton's defense – is tasked with covering tight end Zach Miller down the middle of the field. Miller gives a quick fake a few yards into his route and easily gets positioning over Miller. Safety Rashad Johnson can't do much over the top, which costs the Cardinals an easy touchdown.
Much like what I found in my first review of Horton's defense, the majority of games are not decided by exotic blitzes or heavy pressure – but rather by simple matchups. On this particular play, a linebacker had to cover a tight end – while only four linemen could rush the quarterback.
In the Browns' projected case, these similar situations will occur – which means that the likes of Craig Robertson and D'Qwell Jackson will have to prevent over the top scores. Within the AFC North – particularly against Cincinnati – Horton will have to figure a way to contain some very talented tight ends.
Third Quarter – Cardinals Leading 38-0
While Horton's defense played at a disadvantage throughout this game – at least given the Cardinals' offensive and special teams ineptitude – his defense was routinely beaten at the line of scrimmage. On this play – another Lynch touchdown – the Cardinals again line up in a 4-2-5.
Pre-snap, the two linebackers crowd the line and the safeties drop about 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. A quick seal block on the right side of Seahawks' line opens up a gap for Lynch. Daryl Washington is isolated inside but can't get a clean hit on Lynch. Lynch escapes to the second level where Rashad Johnson misses and streaks into the end zone.
Again, while the score of this game was a bit misleading given all the Cardinal turnovers – Horton's defense turned in a sub-par effort. In terms of basic containment, tackling and coverage, the Seahawks easily exploited Horton's schemes – much of which arose from a 2-4-5 look.
Given the nature of the NFL's evolution into a passing league – and especially considering that the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers are three of the league's more pass happy teams – the Browns' defense will likely offer similar looks for much of the 2013 season. While most fans and media have zeroed in on exotic blitz packages, the reality is the Browns will often be forced to create pressure from ordinary four man fronts.
While Horton does offer a lot of creative looks and formations, much of his potential Cleveland success will be the result of getting his defenders into positive matchups and allowing them to make plays. Fortunately for Horton, he is inheriting some talented defenders. In particular, the Browns offer more depth at defensive line and likely feature better outside pass rushers.
However, regardless of coaching and scheme – the most successful NFL defenses are those that can control the line of scrimmage, take good angles, tackle and not lose most man coverage matchups.
In this sense, solid defensive football is kind of simple.