Ray Horton’s hire was a coup for the Cleveland Browns as he was looked at as a head coaching candidate and there were some who were hoping the Browns would make him their head man. Turning around and managing to get him to be the defensive coordinator along with Rob Chudzinski has been a big time hire and really helped turn a really talented group of players into an increasingly effective defensive unit. The execution of the defense has not always been there, but the unit appears to have taken a big step in the past two weeks and more than anything, Horton’s message has been extremely important.
When Horton was hired, there was a ton of unwarranted speculation about trading various players on the defense. It started with Jabaal Sheard who has been great in this defense. When the Browns signed Desmond Bryant, who has been outstanding, the speculation turned to trading Athyba Rubin who has been valuable as always.
Horton took players like Sheard, Rubin, Phil Taylor, Joe Haden T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson and put them in positions to succeed. He was able to be the one that was there for the fruition of Buster Skrine’s development, who has become an effective corner across from Haden. Tashaun Gipson’s and Craig Roberton’s strengths have been amplified in this scheme and weaknesses have been protected at times. They were also able to add players like Bryant, Paul Kruger, and Barkevious Mingo and they have all been able to make an impact.
The defense is far and away the closest unit to being ‘done’ in terms of adding talent and having needs that need to be addressed. The Browns could use more inside linebacker help or at least competition with Robertson, they could use competition at free safety to push or beat out Gipson and then the nickel corner spot is a problem that needs to be addressed. Beyond that, the Browns need depth at some spots like strong safety and teams can always use corners, but the Browns defense is pretty good. They just need to continue to gel, get better, and have a better understanding of what needs to happen within the scheme to allow it to work and work consistently.
The Browns came out with a bang against the Miami Dolphins and completely took apart their running game, only giving up 20 yards in the game. That defense carried over to the Baltimore Ravens, but they have had lapses. Buffalo’s running game gave them problems. The Packers were able to put up a quick 14 points on them. The Lions were able to exploit weaknesses. The Browns defense appeared to have rallied starting at halftime against the Kansas City Chiefs and then carrying over against the Ravens. They were able to have far more success getting to the quarterback with 11 sacks between the two games and giving the running games of those teams problems.
Horton’s defense relies on pressure. They want to be attacking, playing downhill and reducing the amount of time that opposing teams have to operate and make plays. The hope is that forcing them to speed up will miss open options, make misreads on the defense and make mistakes. The Browns have had issues making that pressure land consistently and when opponents have picked up blitzes, the secondary was stretched thin and were simply not designed to cover as long as they were asked to be. That is what ultimately allowed for teams to beat the Browns in the second halves of games. Protection schemes were able to adjust and pick up pressure giving quarterbacks time to pick the Browns apart.
If the last two games were any indication, the Browns have gotten better at winning individual matchups which allowed the pressure to get to the quarterback in addition to the times where the call just happened to be great for the situation. Those two things combined can make the Browns extremely dangerous. With the bye week here, the Browns can continue to work to improve in these situations as they get ready to take on the Cincinnati Bengals for the second time.
Horton and really the Browns in general have made a lot of mention about winning on third downs. This is really what he is talking about without actually saying it. The Browns had to execute more effectively and be better at beating blocks and winning individual matchups to make the pressure land in obvious passing situations. The Browns have done a good job of winning against the running game for the most part, so while there are times when they will give up a first down to the run, it is far more often with the pass. The better they execute, the quicker they can end drives, prevent points, and get the offense more opportunities and give themselves more opportunities to get rest and stay fresh.
Part of what not being able to land pressure at times has yielded a consistent problem for the Browns; scrambling quarterbacks. The defense is not designed to account for the quarterback as a runner and the Browns have been victimized a number of times by quarterbacks running with the football. Christian Ponder, Alex Smith and even Joe Flacco have been able to pick up first downs or even score touchdowns scrambling with the football.
They also need to cause more turnovers. The Browns have had a number of opportunities they were unable to capitalize on, but in addition to executing what they do, they need to cause more turnovers. Being able to give the offense the ball in good position as well as deflate the opposing offense is obviously huge and is the last remaining element that this defense needs to be able to capitalize on to be great. Part of the reason a pressure defense is effective is that it can cause turnovers, whether it be a quarterback making misreads in coverage because he is thinking about the pressure coming at him or the pressure is able to get to him and cause a fumble. When the quarterback is uncomfortable and thinking about what is going on around him as opposed to what is happening down the field, the defense is at a huge advantage, so as they continue to get better at getting pressure on the quarterback, hopefully the turnovers will come along with it.
The question with Horton going forward is just how long he is going to stay here. The players love what he has brought to the team and players at every stop he has been seem to really embrace him as a person and a coach. Horton is gunning for a head coaching job. This is no secret and obviously he interviewed for the Browns opening when it was there. D’Qwell Jackson has endorsed Horton as a head coaching candidate publicly. It is unclear when Horton will get hired to be a head coach, but it could be as soon as this coming season. Horton has been a great addition to the coaching staff and has really helped establish an attitude and identity on defense, but should he leave, they will either need to bring in someone else or promote from within the organization.
Obviously, that transition can be a little dicey as coordinators are huge in what teams can do. The Browns will have a lot of talent for whoever takes overs, but having a good coordinator can really make them that much better; think Dick LeBeau or Rex Ryan. That transition, whenever it happens, will be extremely important and critical to the success of the team going forward. In the meantime, the Browns need to get every ounce of Horton they can.
With the bye followed by the last seven weeks of the season, it is a big opportunity to see just how much of a turning point those last two games were. If they come out flat against the Bengals, it will make it look like a fluke rather than a breakthrough moment. However, if they can just keep building on what they did in those two games, they can really establish themselves as one of the best defenses in the NFL, especially since the schedule gets much easier as the season progresses.
Along with that, the Browns have a ton of young players. Those players are still developing, learning, and getting better and some of these young players can get much better as this season continues. Barkevious Mingo, Billy Winn, Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, and Buster Skrine are all players that could continue to improve and get much better with additional experience. The bye week affords players like Mingo and Winn especially to really take a moment, slow down and get back to working on their technique. With Winn and Sheard having missed as much time as they have, they will be able to get back to being healthy first and get back to their fundamentals and get better during the second half of the season. As talented as this defense is, there is a lot of youth and potential that can still improve significantly and some of that will take place in the offseason, but this two week period and the rest of this season could see some real improvement. And with Horton in the lead, the chances of that happening seem that much more likely.
There is so much to be excited about with this defense and the Browns win because of how effective that defense can be, even if there is some level of concern with when Horton will leave. The Browns need to work to cause more turnovers, but much of that will come in getting better at executing their scheme and winning individual matchups. When they execute, they can be downright dominant and if they can build upon what has happened in the first half of the season and improve, they could finish the season as one of the best defenses in the NFL and Horton and his staff will obviously be a big part of that improvement.