Back in the dark July days of the football calendar, few could have guessed that defense would have carried the Browns to a surprise 2-1 start. While most of the offseason hype centered on new coach Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense and/or the elevation of running back Peyton Hillis to mega-star status, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and a cast of unknowns have helped to vault the Browns into a share of first place in the AFC North.
In doing so, a long forgotten pass rush has been reintroduced to Browns Nation. Currently, the Browns rank second in the league in total sacks – which is quite the departure from the past dozen years of defensive futility.
A return to a more traditional 4-3 scheme, along with adding talented rookies in the form of Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor are the most noticeable signs of improvement shown during the team's first three games. By most accounts, Jauron has simplified the team's defense – at least compared to the exotic scheming previously used by Rob Ryan – and has relied on the more conservative, yet effective tactic of rushing four linemen.
Perhaps no better evidence of these re-focused defensive efforts could be found than during the Browns' final defensive stand on Sunday. Charged with protecting a one-point lead under less than desirable circumstances, Jauron simply allowed his defensive linemen to push ahead and his cornerbacks to cover.
The results were two quarterback pressures, four consecutive incompletions and fewer tears than usual shed throughout Northeast Ohio.
However, the Browns' final defensive stand was not exactly reflective of Jauron's overall schematic approach. Or in other words – the manic spirit of Rob Ryan still lingers around the Lakefront.
In all, Jauron called a dozen blitzes against Miami – with mixed results.
Late in the first quarter, the Dolphins held a 7-0 lead and were driving near midfield. Jauron's early task was simply finding a way to slow down Chad Henne, who was nearly perfect in the early portion of the game. On a 3rd and 10, T.J. Ward and Dmitri Patterson crept close to the line, faked into coverage, then rushed along with four linemen.
All of Jauron's defensive linemen were blocked on the play, along with Ward – who was picked up by the Dolphins' running back. Patterson was the only Browns' defender to reach Henne, but the Dolphin quarterback had unloaded a pass into the flat to Davone Bess. Bess slipped one tackler and ran through a depleted Browns' secondary for a first down.
Although the play resulted in a first down, Jauron flashed the same look a few more times throughout the remainder of the game. Both Patterson and Mike Adams crept close to the line from their slot coverage position, but then backed off into coverage.
Early in the second quarter, Jauron began to use his most effective blitzing package by sending linebacker Chris Gocong on inside rushes. Gocong was the defense's unsung hero as he exhibited a slashing, attacking style on several plays. The first of which saw both Gocong and Jackson shoot inside next to Taylor – who was beginning to demand double-team attention. Jackson was swallowed up, while Gocong bounded into Henne. Gocong's effort allowed defensive end Jayme Mitchell to collect the first of his two sacks.
Later in the half, a similar blitz followed, with Scott Fujita rushing beside Taylor. Both Henne and the Dolphins were better prepared, as Fujita and Mitchell were pushed wide – giving Henne a sizeable pocket. Jackson faked a blitz inside, before dropping into underneath coverage. Unlike the earlier Gocong blitz, Henne had time to complete a 31-yard sideline route to Brian Hartline.
Continuing on the same drive, the Dolphins faced a 3rd and 8 at midfield. Jauron dialed up what could be considered his most aggressive blitz of the afternoon, as all three down linemen, Fujita and slot cornerback Mike Adams rushed Henne. Adams took a running, pre-snap start and advanced cleanly, yet Henne threw a strike to Bess at pretty much the exact spot on the field Adams left from. The result was a big third-down gain that eventually led to a Dolphin field goal.
In the second half, the Browns' defensive front began to wear down the Dolphin offensive line on several plays. During a stretch where the Dolphins were pinned against their own end zone, Jauron rushed his four down linemen, along with Gocong. On a second down pass play, Ahtyba Rubin beat his blocker and forced Henne into linebacker D'Qwell Jackson for a sack. A play later, Sheard and Gocong nearly combined for a safety. On the play, Sheard beat Marc Columbo but was penalized for hitting Henne's helmet.
As the game wore on, Jauron grew more conservative in his play calling, while his players became more aggressive. Despite being on the "cleaning" end of two sacks, Mitchell was able to continually get a push on Miami Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long for most of the second half. Likewise, Sheard's burst off the line and rookie energy was too much for Columbo to contain. On many second half occasions, Columbo would get help from an additional blocker.
However, the unsung efforts of Gocong and another solid performance from both Taylor and Rubin proved to be a turning point for a Browns defense that is earning a quality reputation. Gocong was easily the most active of Browns' linebackers and his presence complicated Miami's blocking schemes. Of course, with the human wall of Taylor and Rubin inside, Gocong was able to pick his spots.
Throughout the game, Jauron's play calling enhanced – or perhaps allowed – some freedom by the Browns' secondary. Despite getting off to a rocky start, cornerback Joe Haden was able to play Dolphins' wide receiver Brandon Marshall physical – perhaps knowing that his coverage did not have to be airtight. Given that Henne was rushed several times, the Browns' corners did not have to become game changers.
In the end, the Browns' defense won simply based on adaptive play calling and energetic, physical play. What Jauron has done in Cleveland so far is nothing of a spectacular sort, but rather a return to basics. With a nice blend of bulk and athleticism across his defensive line, Jauron is relying mainly on individual matchups – while adding in a variety of extra blitzers when needed. As his defense continues to grow, the roles of players like Gocong will continue to grow – along with the trust needed to execute at opportune moments.
After all, when it came time to win the game, Jauron was at his conservative best.