Cleveland Browns: Deep safeties a smart defensive scheme
By Joel W. Cade
The Cleveland Browns have been questioned over playing their safeties so deep, but the defensive scheme is actually a smart play by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The Cleveland Browns have ruffled the feathers of many sports reporters and analysts during the first two weeks of the season by playing their safeties 20 yards off the ball.
But it is actually a brilliant plan.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is no stranger to controversy as he was embroiled in one of the most bizarre controversies in NFL history in Bountygate. But his latest “controversy” has less to do with players hitting people, and more to do with players not being in position to hit people at all.
Yes, we are talking about the Browns deep safeties.
Let’s be clear of something at first: Williams has always been playing his safeties this deep. He does not do it all the time, but he did it when he was with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams and with the New Orleans Saints, a team that won Super Bowl XLIV, whenever the defense was facing teams who like to throw the ball deep.
The past two weeks the Browns have faced two quarterbacks who like to throw the deep ball. The Pittsburg Steelers and Baltimore Ravens specialize in running the ball and throwing it deep, so Williams schemed to stop both.
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On Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, Williams’ defense will face another team that likes to run the ball and throw it deep. Except this week the quarterback play will not be up to the level this defense has faced in weeks past as the Colts are starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Expect to see the deep safety formation against the Colts, but maybe not as much.
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Tom Withers of the Associated Press wrote an excellent article detailing the issues with playing a deep safety formation. He argues that while the deep safeties prevent the long passing game, it also exposes the middle and short underneath routes. This, he claims, contributed to the two Browns loses this season.
But a closer look at the All-22 film tells a different story.
Withers is correct that the deep safety alignment prevents the deep pass. This is why Williams employed the scheme. But the middle underneath is not exposed. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown’s catches were plays made by an All-Pro. They were remarkable because he was draped by two or three Browns defenders on each catch. Hats off to Brown, as he was simply the better player in Week one.
The Browns have struggled underneath against tight ends, but Withers wrongly places the blame for that on the deep safety. Another quick look at the All-22 reveals that the Browns play a lot of Cover 1 man. In that scheme, there is usually a linebacker covering the tight end. It is an area that needs corrected based off the results of the first two games, and it will be interesting to see how the Browns address it. But laying the blame at the feet of the deep safety is wrong thinking.
After having dispelled the myths, let us turn to the brilliance of the scheme.
It is easy to pick holes in schemes that one does not understand. But there are people who understand exactly what Williams is accomplishing. The first is head coach Hue Jackson.
Jackson never addresses Williams’ scheme directly. But if one reads between the lines, one can divine the Browns’ strategy.
"“Well, I think in this league to score points you have to have explosive plays, unless you can just methodically move the ball down the field with 12-play drives, 13-play drives. That doesn’t happen a lot against these defenses. Some of these defenses are really good. So when you have a chance to have an explosive play, you want to get it. That being said, we have done some things that way. But turnovers don’t let us do some of the other things we want to do, like throwing the quicker passing game and doing those things. We have a variety of things that we like to do that we just haven’t been able to do yet. We are working through that and I think we will start to see more phases of our offense as we move through this season.”"
Jackson’s offense this season has thrown the ball downfield more than any other team. He is clearly committed to the deep pass and creating explosive plays. The emphasis on deep passing has been to soften the defense to the running game. Unfortunately, breaking in a rookie quarterback sometimes means the Browns will be playing from behind.
Another reason Jackson throws the deep ball so much is that he recognizes the difficultly of putting together a 13-14 play sustained drive in the NFL. Asking a team to play perfect football over 14 plays is a tall task in the NFL. Williams knows this and has clearly gone all in with the “bend but don’t break” mentality of making the offense play perfect football.
If the way to score points is explosive plays, then it would stand to reason that the opposite is true. The way to prevent points is to take away the explosive plays. Playing a deep safety takes away explosive plays in two ways.
First, the deep safety is there to prevent the deep pass. But that is already known.
What is little known is that deep safety help allows corners in man coverage to play the ball aggressively. Knowing there is help over the top allows corners to undercut routes. It also allows corners to play a little looser in coverage. All of this adds up to aggressive corners who have the green light to go for the interception or big hit. Big hits and turnovers are momentum swinging and even game changing. The deep high safety allows for more potential big plays in the secondary.
Second, the deep safety allows the defense to stack the box against the run. With deep help, Williams can bring the second safety up into the box as a hybrid linebacker/nickel corner/safety role. It was this role that people envisioned Jabrill Peppers playing. Stacking the box against the run effectively stops the running game.
Withers unwittingly makes this point when discussing Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano’s thoughts on the Browns defense:
"Colts coach Chuck Pagano has been impressed with Cleveland’s defense, “to me, it looks like there are 15 guys on the field.” Pagano said Cleveland’s deeper-than-deep safety alignment reminds him of how Baltimore used perennial Pro Bowler Ed Reed."
The deep safety alignment allows the 10 other players on the field to attack without fear, knowing they will not give up the big play. They can run to the football with radical abandon which opens the possibility of big plays. Pagano is correct, the Browns are playing so fast, it looks like there are more players on the field than there actually are. It is a sign of a good scheme and good defense.
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Here comes the brilliance of the scheme. By stopping the running game and the deep passing game, Williams is forcing teams to beat the Browns with the underneath passing game. But while executing the underneath passing game, opponents are facing a secondary that is aggressively playing the football for big plays. If the Browns could add a significant pass rush (please come back Myles Garrett!) this defense could be downright scary.