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Is Cleveland Browns DC Ray Horton Part of the Solution or Problem?

As the Browns continue on a record setting pace for defensive ineptitude, one has to wonder if Ray Horton will draw the ire of fans, media and Jimmy Haslam.

When Hue Jackson announced Ray Horton would be re-joining the Cleveland Browns as his defensive coordinator, the initial reaction from fans and media members alike seemed to be positive. After giving many a glimpse at what could be (No. 9 in yards allowed and No. 8 against the pass) in 2013, Horton was jettisoned along with the 2013 staff after just one year. 

The return of Horton had many—including myself—feeling like it was a chance at “unfinished business” for the 56-year old coordinator. Leaving the Cardinals for a lateral move in 2013 as the Browns defensive coordinator, many thought it would only be a matter of time before Horton got his shot as a head coach. Instead, his defenses never built off the 2012 run with the Cardinals or 2013 with the Browns. 

In fact, after his first year with the Titans which showed off career lows across the board for a Horton coached defensive unit, Tennessee decided to bring in long-time Steelers DC Dick LeBeau to co-run the defense with Horton in 2015. That situation did not last very long, as Horton was granted his release to leave the Titans for Cleveland in 2016. 

So, after five-plus years of Horton being a defensive coordinator in the NFL and with the Browns defense—albeit devoid of talent at many key positions—being on a record pace for ineptitude, I am beginning to wonder if Horton is part of the solution or the problem here in Cleveland. 

Before we jump to any conclusions though, let’s introduce some data into the equation. 

In his first year with the Cardinals back in 2011, Horton’s defense ranked No. 18 in the league in yards given up per game at 355.1. That broke down to No. 17 against the pass (231 yards per game), No. 21 against the run (124.1 yards per game) and No. 17 in points given up per game at 21.8. 

Year two for Horton would feature a mature Patrick Peterson and a breakout from linebacker Daryl Washington, who finished the year with nine sacks to lead the defense. The Cardinals defense would improve to No. 12 in total yards (337.8) and No. 5 against the pass (200.8), but fall to No. 28 against the run (137) and maintain their No. 17 ranking in points given up at 22.3 points per game. 

However, after going from 8-8 in 2011 to 5-11 in 2012 the Cardinals decided to move on from head coach Ken Whisenhunt, which meant his staff would be up for grabs. This is when Horton—who many thought was a prime candidate for the Cardinals head coaching job—would leave to join Rob Chudzinski’s staff in Cleveland after Arizona selected Bruce Arians. 

Horton would get the most out of the Browns defensive group in 2013, getting big contributions from Joe Haden, T.J. Ward and former undrafted free agent Tashuan Gipson in the secondary. On top of that, rookie Barkevious Mingo would notch five sacks in primarily a pass rusher role (played only 57.8 percent of the snaps). Another undrafted rookie, Craig Robertson, would also carve out a role under Horton—accumulating 57 tackles and three sacks on the year. 

However, Horton would not have a chance to build on that performance, as he was let go by owner Jimmy Haslam with the Chudzinski firing. 

As always, Horton would land on his feet in Tennessee, where his defense would rank No. 27 in total yards per game (373), No. 15 against the pass (235.8), No. 31 against the run (137.2) and No. 29 in points given up at 27.4 per game. In 2015, the Titans added the aforementioned LeBeau to the mix, and their numbers improved to No. 12 in total yards per game (342.2), No. 7 against the pass (229.9), No. 18 against the rush (112.3) and No. 27 in total points given up at 26.4 per game. 

So here we are, in the midst of an 0-9 record (possibly 1-9 or 0-10 if you are reading this after the game on Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens). How is Horton stacking up this year compared to the past?

The Browns are currently No. 31 in total yards per game (421.7), No. 23 against the pass (275.2), No. 31 against the run (146.4) and No. 31 in points given up at 30.3 per game. 

Maybe Horton is the “hard-luck loser” who always ends up trying to re-build defenses with very little talent, but what scares me is that over his five-plus seasons as a defensive coordinator his teams are averaging 25.6 points given up per game. Granted that number was as low as 21.8 and 22.3 his two years in Arizona, but even those numbers were only good for No. 17 in the league.

To put it simply, one has to wonder if the scheme Horton has installed now with three separate teams needs an overhaul. Obviously being the defensive coordinator on poor teams is going to make it difficult to keep the other team from scoring points, but even when his defenses were among the best in yards given up per game and passing yards given up (2012 and 2013), the problem with allowing more points than the league average was still there. 

Is this a call to fire Horton after the season? At this point, I am not sure. 

What I do know is Horton’s scheme has a five-plus year sample size of being unable to stop opposing offenses from putting points on the board, no matter the talent level he was coaching. And if I am Browns head coach Hue Jackson, when the Haslam fires start to burn as the season goes on—Horton’s historical inability to stop teams from putting up big point totals could end up being the first place the organization looks in an attempt to make a change. 

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