The roster upgrades that the Cleveland Browns were able to make in the offseason might be felt most by opposing quarterbacks. The Browns signed free agent outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who recorded a team-high 9 sacks with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. Cleveland also spent the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft on pass-rushing defensive end Barkevious Mingo. It’s no coincidence that newly deputized defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s defense will look to create opportunities by getting pressure on the quarterback, in an attempt to build on a solid pass rush from last season.
Much like the offense, the defense is also going through a transitional phase. Cleveland will be going from Dick Jauron’s 4-3 defense to what will more closely resemble the 3-4 defense under Horton, although he has said he isn’t married to the 3-4. Here’s how it looked with Horton’s Arizona Cardinals defense last season:
The defense will often line up with only three down linemen but five on the line of scrimmage, with two rushers showing blitz on the edges. These hybrid defensive ends or outside linebackers will either rush or drop into pass coverage.
Here, both rush from the edge and the pocket collapses, forcing Colin Kaepernick to step up and look to run.
Kaepernick is contained and sacked for a loss.
This defense thrives on disguising blitz packages and getting pressure from the edges. New additions to the Browns, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo, could be excellent options to line up on the edges in this hybrid spot. It’s tough to beat this alignment moving east and west, but it conversely becomes susceptible to the traditional run game. The Browns are banking on getting more out of big run-stoppers like Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin than Arizona got from their line last season, where they finished an alarming 28th in run defense with this system. The Browns also added a defensive end with a 6’6” frame and a silly mugshot in Desmond Bryant to help eat up space on the defensive line.
Horton’s defense also requires versatile linebackers who can provide good pass coverage. Often, the outside linebackers will show blitz at the line of scrimmage and be asked to turn and run with a slot receiver or tight end. This was a problem the last time the Browns ran the 3-4 and the defensive unit has managed to consistently be beaten through the air in recent years. But under Horton, the Cardinals managed a very respectable 12th in total defense and, possibly more importantly, fifth in pass defense last season. Arizona also forced 22 interceptions, good for second most league-wide. Suring up the pass defense was likely a major contributing factor in the Browns selecting Horton and his system.
While the offense focuses on becoming more vertical this season, the defense is becoming less vertical, in a way. Look for more defenders at the line than in previous versions of Cleveland defenses. Ray Horton has said that he will run whatever defense fits the personnel packages at his disposal. Regardless of how the front seven line up, the secondary must do a better job, as the Browns ranked 25th in pass defense last season.