Cleveland Browns: Can the defense put some bite in Ray Horton’s bark?
By Thomas Moore
The Cleveland Browns have gone all in on the defense in an attempt to help defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s bite match his bark.
Cleveland Browns fans far and wide are intimately familiar with Ray Horton and his defensive bromides.
He famously wants “big men who can run and little men who can hit” to lead his defense. In addition, he has a hunger for opposing quarterbacks.
“He likes hitting the quarterback when they’re getting off the bus if he could,” head coach Hue Jackson has said. “He understands we like quarterbacks that stand in one place — and (if you do that) in pro football — you’re going to get exposed.”
It all sounds really exciting, and certainly would make a great slogan on a T-shirt. The only problem is that the numbers don’t always back those statements up.
“This is a tough, big-man division. You better be ready to play football on Sunday or you’re going to be embarrassed.” – Defensive coordinator Ray Horton
Over the past three seasons – in Cleveland in 2013 and in Tennessee in 2014 and 2015 – Horton’s defenses were just middle of the road when it came to sacking the quarterback, averaging 39.3 sacks per season.
Now sacks are not necessarily the best indicator of a defense’s prowess as hitting the quarterback on a regular basis can make just as much of an impact.
But there is one stat that doesn’t lie and it the most important one of all – even more important than a poor red zone defense, an inability to get off the field on third down, and repeatedly coming up short in the fourth quarter. And that’s keeping the opponent out of the end zone, which is one area where Horton’s defenses have come up short in recent years, giving up an average of 26.4 points per game from 2013 through 2015.
The argument has been made that those problems shouldn’t be placed at Horton’s feet because his defenses have been lacking in talent. Of course, it could also be that Horton simply makes his defense too complicated, resulting in players not knowing what they are supposed to do on any given play.
It might be a little bit of both, something that Horton himself said in a somewhat indirect way during his time in Tennessee.
“It’s not the scheme,” Horton said late in the 2014 season. “It’s not the 3-4 or 4-3 — and I would never sell the players out. We would change the scheme if it didn’t work. We have to make plays, and that is what this business is about. The head coach preaches, it, I preach it. That’s how you get paid, by making plays.”
If the personnel moves made by the Browns in free agency and the draft are any indication, they agree with Horton.
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Cleveland signed linebackers Demario Davis and Justin Tuggle, and safety Rahim Moore, as free agents. In the draft they selected defensive lineman Carl Nassib; linebackers Emmanuel Ogbah, Joe Schobert and Scooby Wright; and defensive backs Derrick Kindred and Trey Caldwell. Once the draft was over, there were seven more defensive players signed as undrafted free agents.
Add it all up and it becomes clear that the Browns are trying to give Horton as many tools as possible in an attempt to reverse the recent on-field performances by his defenses.
“We really were pleased with what we were able to accomplish,” executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said following the draft. “The volume of talent but specifically addressing particular areas of the roster that we wanted to improve.”
The Browns better hope that all those additions to the defense combined with the returning players can figure out just what it is that Horton wants them to do in short order.
But if the last three years are any indication, then Jackson and assistant head coach-offense Pep Hamilton need to have the offense operating at full speed by Week 1 if the Browns have any hope of finding some success on the field this fall.