Xs & Os: Getting Over the Hump

Doug Farrar breaks down the play that cost the Browns on Sunday

After the New York Jets' 26-20 overtime win over the Browns, Jets head coach Rex Ryan referred to the defenders covering Santonio Holmes on the deciding play as "Nameless, faceless, objects."

That was probably more a motivational ploy for his own players than any kind of specific shot at the Browns' secondary, but there are two obvious issues that will bedevil this Cleveland team as it moves steadily past respectability to actual contention: Tackling form and pass coverage. We saw the tackling issues on several plays in which Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez managed to slip out of potential sacks and make plays downfield.

One of the reasons that Ben Roethlisberger is able to evade potential sacks better than any other quarterback is the tendency on the part of the defenses he's facing to go for the kill shot and take the ball away as opposed to wrapping up and insuring that a sack will take place. Those rushes caused Sanchez to step up the pocket and occasionally throw incompletions from hurried passes, but just as often, he'd make the throw.

Coverage has been an issue for this team through the season, and never more so in the Jets game than on the play that decided the game – the 37-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 24 seconds left in overtime.

Against the Jets' shotgun set, the Browns went with their most frequently-used formation in this game; a man-under look with a four-man front and moving linebackers. At the snap, cornerback Eric Wright took a six-yard drop as Holmes (10) ran a five-yard in route. It was a simple up-and-option concept – turn in to take advantage of the cornerback's drop – and the result should have been a quick completion and first down for the Jets somewhere around the Cleveland 27-yard line.

However, this is where the breakdowns in tackling hurt the Browns in a major way. First, Wright let Holmes slip through his grasp, then linebacker Eric Barton (50) whiffed as well. Not to be outdone, safety T.J. Ward (43) fell victim to a quick juke by Holmes, who was then off to the races. Barton was actually late to the play; his first focus of coverage was halfback LaDanian Tomlinson, and he broke to Holmes after the fact. The only thing his effort did was to box Wright from going after Holmes after missing first contact. Ward was simply too aggressive on the play, making him an easy mark for Holmes' great move. And his half-arm tackle was an embarrassment for a guy who wants to be known as a physical player.

These things happen to young defenses when they're trying to establish new schematic principles and learning to play together. It's clear that the Browns are on the right track with Rob Ryan coaching their defense, but it's just as clear that until the entire team a(especially the secondary) embraces a sharper focus on fundamentals, this is a team that will continue to look up at the NFL's elite.


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