To say the last two seasons were a disappointment on the defensive side of the ball would be an understatement. Former head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil oversaw a run defense that finished dead last in the NFL in 2014, allowing 141.6 yard per game, before improving to 30th at 128.4 yards per game in 2015. Poor technique, out-of-position players, and miscommunication were the hallmark of a flawed scheme that tested the patience of even the most diehard Dawg Pound fans.
The 2015 campaign was a season of history repeating itself: Opposing offenses ran at will on the Browns’ defense. The team was consistently gashed on the outside and inside by both the power and zone-running game. A lack of scheme and concept adjustment exaggerated the issue, allowing opponents to out scheme the defense on a week-to-week basis.
Defenders constantly made the same errors in technique and miscommunication about responsibilities only increased as the season moved on. Rumblings from the locker room indicated a defense that did not believe in the technical soundness of the scheme that was run, anger about the lack of proper reps during game-week practices, and doubts about individual coaching. These issues eventually led to open questioning of coaches during defensive meetings and film sessions. Any trust that was built between the coaching staff and players was forever shattered, culminating with the firing of Mike Pettine and his staff.
All these issues take us to the $10,000 question: was the issue the scheme or the personnel running it?
Opinions vary widely on this question. There were certainly players that looked outmatched from a physical and technical perspective (looking at you Danny Shelton), but players were often put in bad positions in which success was difficult to attain due to scheme and technique.
Before getting into the game tape, let’s start by briefly covering four vital concepts used in team tackling:
Spill players turn the ball laterally to the outside and are generally defensive linemen and linebackers. They will ‘squeeze’ their assigned gap to force the ball carrier East-West. They are often known as ‘pursuit’ players as the will attack the ball from inside-to-out, scrapping overtop the line of scrimmage. Spill players must be kept ‘clean’ (unblocked) by the defensive line in most schemes.
Just like the name suggests force players push the ball back inside to the spill or pursuit players, attacking from outside-to-in. Force players can be defensive ends, linebackers, safeties, and/or cornerbacks dependent on the defensive front. The force player’s most important rule is to never let the ball carrier get outside his playside shoulder!
The alley fill will meet the ball in the area between the force and spill players. This role is usually fulfilled by a safety.
A contain players primary responsibility is to ensure that when the ball flows away, it is not allowed to cut back across the field. This role is generally filled by a backside (away from the play’s direction) defensive end, outside linebacker, and safety. Contain players must not chase the ball sideline-to-sideline, but midpoint in case the ball cuts back across the field.
If each defender executes his assignment correctly the ball has nowhere to go. The spill player squeezes the ball outside while the force player pushes the ball inside, with the alley fill meeting in the middle. Backside contain keeps the ball carrier from cutting all the way back across the field. The ball carrier is fitted from the left, right, and heads up. He has nowhere to go with the ball.
If just one part of this fulcrum breaks down the entire integrity of the defense’s run fits (gap responsibilities) can fall apart, leading to the chunk run yardage Browns’ fans have become numb to over the previous two seasons.
Understanding the defensive numbering system will aid in understanding defensive line alignment, run fits, and grading run-game tape. The commonly-used defensive line numbering system’s creation is attributed to Bear Bryant and Bum Phillips, and will serve as a visual aid for our film study.
Let’s breakdown some game tape.
The single most glaring technique issue with the 2015 Cleveland Browns’ run defense was the inability of the Nose Tackle to defeat double team blocks and keep the inside linebackers ‘clean’ (unblocked) to flow (scrape) to the ball.
We’ll start our X’s and O’s with a look at the opening game of the 2015 season, a demoralizing 31-10 loss to the New York Jets.
During the first drive of the second quarter the Jets come out in 11 personnel, with a tight end flexed outside the right tackle before motioning across the backfield. They show twin receivers to the right side (out of the image) and a single receiver to the left side (out of the picture). The offense is running a simple gap concept, the Iso lead (a Hue Jackson favorite).
The offense wants to man-block the edge defenders and 3-technique, while double teaming the nose tackle and fitting the MIKE with the tight end in the backfield.
The Browns counter with what plays out as a 4-3 Over look, with the 3 and 5-technique aligned to the strongside (the right) of the offense’s formation. Notice that with only six box defenders the offense must account for seven gaps when the tight end is included. This likely means (although it is impossible to say without the specific play call) that the 1-technique nose tackle is 2-gapping, or playing both A-gaps. This is a TOUGH task from a 1-technique as the nose tackle must cross the center’s face on anything run to his left side, a major schematic weakness. Generally a 2-gap nose tackle will play a 0-technique, aligning heads up over the center to give him freedom of movement to either A-gap.
There are two cardinal sins interior defensive linemen can make in Pettine’s defense:
- Allowing a ‘jump through’ or ‘scoop’ block, in which the guard immediately climbs to the second level to block a linebacker.
- Being 'reached’, or allowing the blocker to get his hands on the defender’s outside shoulder and turning his hips away from the play and out of his gap.
They key to this play’s success or failure is the left guard and center’s double team on the 1-tecnique, Danny Shelton (#71). If the Oregon product can hold the double team and prevent the jump through, the ILB will have a free go at the ball.
The guard/center combination has no issues securing Shelton and climbing to the WILL (Craig Robertson), leaving no linebacker to scrape to the ball. Donte diving attempt fails to bring down the running back, leading to a 10-yard touchdown.
We can deconstruct Shelton's technique further to pinpoint what went wrong here. When facing a double team, the nose tackle is taught to:
- · Read the near defender’s hip for play direction key
- · Punch inside and up with violent hands
- · Explode of the line, taking two quick steps to the play’s direction while maintaining a low pad level. These steps should be lateral without any crossover from the feet. If executed correctly they will give the defender a power base from which to push. The first player to get his second step down generally wins the fight at the line of scrimmage.
- · Attack the post-man (the blocker in front of the defender) while swinging the hips into the drive man (the blocker coming from the side). Swinging the hips into the drive man will not only block him from scooping to the linebackers, but help keep the nose tackle in his gap. Many coaches teach the defender to pull the outside shoulder and push the inside shoulder of post-man, as this will naturally turn the defender’s hips into his gap.
- · Fight the double team and drop the inside leg if necessary to create a pile.
Let’s slow down the tape to see what went wrong:
Two errors in technique stand out here. First, the nose tackle does not show quick inside hands to get a violent punch on the center. The right hand drifts outside before the punch, eliminating any possibility of a violent blow. Next move to the first round draft pick's feet and count his steps. Notice how easily his hip is pushed outside his gap. The left guard is on him before the second step gets down, dening him a power base from which to fight the double team and allowing an easy scoop to what should be a scrapping linebacker.
This effortless climb to the WILL prevents him from scrapping to the A-gap to make a play on the ball carrier. The MIKE (Karlos Dansby) has done his job by attacking the tight end’s outside shoulder, forcing the ball back inside to where the WILL should be.
If the 1-technique had prevented the jump through, the WILL could have scrapped overtop to meet the running back at the line of scrimmage. if executed properly the play would look like this:
The nose tackle, MIKE, and WILL, along with the force players, funnel the ball inside to a free hitter greatly increasing the chance of a minimal gain on first-and-goal from the ten yard line.
Later in the season we see another example of the nose tackle losing the double team battle, allowing another jump through to the linebacker.
The Bengals are in 11 personnel, using a single tailback and an inline tight end. The Browns’ defense counters with an Odd front, aligning a 0-technique over the center and a 4-technique over the guard. When teams align with two or more players in an even technique (0/2/4/6) they are frequently two-gapping or slanting into a single gap. On this call the nose tackle and closed end (defensive end aligned to the tight end's side) are slanting to the field across their defender’s face, betting that the offense will call a run play to the defense's right.
The offense dials up a gap/zone play known as a ‘Tackle Wrap’. The play is very similar to the popular ‘Power’, but rather than pulling a guard the offense will pull a tackle to set up better angles for the down blocks.
They two key blocks are the double team and climb to the ILB on the 0-technique (Shelton) and the right tackle’s pull to fit the other ILB (Dansby) in the hole. If both these blocks hit, the offense will have a "hat on a hat" at the point of attack.
Based on run/pass and directional keys, each defender will execute a certain technique to defeat his man. If executed correctly, the individual techniques will fit together like pieces in a puzzle to trap the ball carrier.
We’ll start with Desmond Bryant (#92), the playside edge defender,. When he sees the turn out block coming his way he will attack the blocker’s outside shoulder, ensuring that he is not reached as he is a force player. His goal is to push the blocker backwards, constricting the width of the B-gap the play is aiming for. This squeeze serves two purposes: it compresses the space in which the tailback can move and shortens the distance the scrapping linebackers must cover to make the tackle.
When the playside ILB (Dansby) sees the down block from the guard (his run direction key) he should know he has a puller coming his way. His assingment is to violently meet the puller in the hole, attacking the outside shoulder of the blocker to force the ball back inside.
The final piece of the puzzle is the backside ILB, Christian Kirksey (#58). When he sees the guard pull (his run direction key) he will scrap HARD across the formation as the edge defender and playside linebacker will force the ball carrier back inside to him. This is his play to make BUT Sheltone must defeat the double team to prevent him from being scooped.
Again, the inability of the nose tackle to hold the double team breaks down the integrity of the run defense. Watch how quickly he is moved off the line of scrimmage, allowing the center (#61) to pick up the scrapping Kirksey. The offense has a "hat on a hat" at the point of attack and safety Tasaun Gipson is forced to come downhill to make the play.
Another look at the double team shows fundamental errors in technique:
· We see:
- Poor leverage and get-off at the snap. The defender is too high to establish any power.
- Bad use of hands. No violent punch at the post man and the right arm appears to flash outside the right guards left shoulder. The hands need to be inside
- The defender’s second step is slow, he stops his feet, and stands with a wide base when the double team comes, preventing him from swinging his hips into the A-gap to block the scoop.
These errors lead to Shelton being pushed 5-6 yards off the line of scrimmage, although in his defense the run slant created a great blocking angle for the center. Because the defender was slanting away from the center, it does not take much push to continue moving him in that direction as his momentum will take him there; however the task would be more difficult if we see a fire off with proper leverage. Teh diving attempt at the tailback is mere fluff; the battle was lost before it started.
Our third play shows an example of a contain player chasing the ball down the line of scrimmage and preventing the cutback when the ball comes back his way.
The Bengal’s again show 11 personnel with Twin receivers to the offense’s right (out of the image) and a single receiver to the left (out of the image). The Browns show an Over front with the 1 and 5-technique aligned away from the strength of the formation.
The 5 and 9-technique are force men here, pushing the ball back inside to the pursuit should the offense attack the edges of the formation. If the ball flows away from either they will play backside contain, following their BCR rule.
BCR is a simple rule force players use when the ball moves away from them. The acronym designates their responsibility in order of importance.
- Bootleg from quarterback
- Cut back to prevent the ball carrier from coming back across the field
Basic BCR technique is to shuffle laterally down the line of scrimmage towards the play without gaining depth into the backfield. The BCR player will track the ball carrier’s backside hip and MUST NOT pursue the ball too far down the line of scrimmage (coaching points vary here). His job is to ‘shut the gate’ on the cutback, not chase the play down from behind to make the tackle.
The Bengals are running a Wide Receiver Reverse, with the running back taking the hand off and pitching to the slot receiver.
Jackson adds a clever twist to the play by pulling the left guard away from the plays ultimate direction. The ILB (Robertson) to this side is keying the guard for play direction, so the false key should eliminate one defender out the gate. The BRC man, rookie Xavier Cooper (#94) is highlighted on the right side of the image. He cannot aggressively chase the ball down the line of scrimmage if the ball flows away from him.
The pulling guard takes Dansby and Robertston away from the play (not their fault; they are coached to scrap to the ball when the key pulls). We can see Cooper began to chase the ball down the line of scrimmage before the hand off to the wide receiver occurs.
Moving along further into the play:
The gifs speak for themselves.
Cooper ends up several yards down the line of scrimmage, a major error for a BCR player, eliminating another defender for a unit that was short at the point of attack. The play hits VERY fast and the defense was already out-leveraged, but if the Cooper had held his ground he might have forced the ball back inside to limit the gain.
In addition to poor technical fundamentals we often saw errors in role and responsibility due to communication and misunderstanding.
An early-season 28-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans provided a great example of errors in responsibility when strong safety Donte Whitner and OLB Armonty Bryant both attacked the same gap, leading to a 44-yard run by Titans’ running back Dexter McCluster.
The Titans are in 12 personnel with the strength of the formation set to the field (wide-side). The play call is outside zone with an ‘arc’ block by the wing on teh SAM, Paul Kruger #99). The offense wants to seal the left edge of the defensive front by ‘reaching’ Whitner and Bryant, controlling their outside shouldesr and turning them away from the play. McCluster will make a set of pre-determined reads to determine where to cut the ball up at.
The defense breaks down immediately as both Whitner and Bryant attack the D-gap, leaving the C-gap wide open. Watch the right tackle (#73) looking for a defender that should be there.
What makes the play even more frustrating is that nose tackle Jamie Meder (#98) has stifled the center’s scoop, using leverage to get under his pads and take him off balance. The guard can’t navigate through the pile, creating a two-for-one trade off, a victory for the defense. Most importantly Meder has kept ILB Craig Robertson clean so he can pursue the ball.
After the left tackle finds no defender in the C-gap he does a great job getting his head around and ‘looking for work’. Get your head on a swivel, find a defender, and block him. As we will see momentarily, his awareness springs the play.
The tackle gets his eyes back to the inside in time to pick up a scrapping Robertson, sealing the C-gap for McCluster on the way to a 44-yard scamper.
If Bryant or Whitner (it’s impossible to say with certainty who made the mistake here without the play call) had fit the C-gap as designed Robertson would have become a free hitter on the ball carrier, likely stuffing the play for a minimal gain. However, because Bryan/ Whitner blew their run fit, their assigned blocker is able to peel back and pick up the scrapping linebacker.
Was this fundamental mistake caused by confusion or miscommunication? We’ll likely never know, but the important take away is we witnessed similar blunders throughout the season.
Our final example examines both schematic weakness and the information overload Browns' defenders complained about throughout the season.
The Bengals utilize 11 personnel with an inline tight end and twin receivers to the right-side. The Browns’ set the strength of their defense to the tight end, utilizing a 1, 5, and 9-technique. The entire front is 1-gapping, as ILB Craig Robertson will run blitz his left A-gap at the snap. To his side the 3-technique will play the B-gap and the 5-technique will play the C to cover all openings.
The offense elects to run a Jackson-favorite, the Pin-and-Pull:
The center, right guard, and right tackle will block the backside of the play like outside zone, attempting to reach block the defender to their left. The left side of the line gets more interesting.
The frontside of the Pin-and-Pull creates favorable blocking angles by:
- Using a down block by the tight end on the 5-technique
- Pulling the tackle to pick up the stand-up 9-technique (Barkevious Mingo)
- Pulling the guard to attack the first threat to cross his face from the inside
This blocking scheme is very effective against the Browns' alignments because it keeps the tight end and left tackle from having to reach block the 5-technique and OLB, a difficult task.
Here’s where the schematic weakness and overthinking comes into play. Focus on Mingo in the tape below:
Most viewers probably screamed at their screens, wondering why Mingo shot inside and blocked Dansby from scrapping to the ball when the play was clearly coming towards him. The reality is Mingo is coached to take this inside step (It’s okay if you didn’t know; we’re here to learn!).
Edge defenders in Pettine’s run scheme are taught several different techniques to beat ‘reactionary blocks’. The techniques change for a reach block, down block, bim, turnout, flow away, etc. The defender must identify the block type he is facing then react using the correct technique. This is where much of the talk about disenchanted players being forced to “think” too much came from, as the defender must identify the block and mentally run through 7-8 different techniques in a split second. If he is just a hair slow, the probability of executing the correct technique plummets. It’s paralysis by analysis.
When Mingo reads the down block by the tight end, he is coached to use the ‘block down, step down’, or BDSD rule. He will attempt to get hands on the tight end to disrupt his block, then follow his hands inside and replace the tight end’s hips at the line of scrimmage, squeezing the gap.
As Mingo squeezes the gap, he will take himself right into the puller coming his way to kick him out. From here he will use a ‘wrong-arm’ technique in which he initiates contact with his outside shoulder into the blocker’s upfield shoulder, followed with a rip through the armpit of the blocker. By attacking the puller’s upfield shoulder the ball should be spilled outside, where a scrapping linebacker exchanges gaps with Mingo to become the force man (keep everything inside).
A great wrong-arm will trade two blockers for one defender. At the very least, the wrong-armer must create a train wreak in the backfield:
As we can see the wrong-arm does not have to be pretty to be effective. If the defender can create a pile up and force the ball wide (most gap plays are trying to win the C or B-gap) he has executed his assignment.
Mingo follows his coaching by stepping down, but because the offense is pulling linemen from the frontside of the play he has no chance to execute his wrong-arm before the pullers are past him.
Dansby does a good job reading his key for play direction and gets a decent jump on the ball as he must replace Mingo in the D-gap, but the reality is he has too much distance to cover with the frontside pull. The left-side of the defense is outleveraged.
Pettine and the defensive coaching stuff could do several things to clean up this schematic weakness. The easiest adjustment is to simply move Mingo out a step or two (however much extra room he needs), giving him time and space to execute his wrong-arm on a same-side puller. Dansby can scrape at full speed to attack the second puller if Mingo doesn’t trade two-for-one. Assume Robertson does not run blitz (which didn’t happen very often) and you have your free-hitter (although Robertson or whoever plays his position in this spot must FLY to the ball).
Another adjustment is to simply slide the playside 5-technique overtop the left tackle (now a 4-technique) and 2-gap the B and C-gaps. If the 4-technique can hold the tight end/tackle double-team and Mingo wrong-arms the guard, Dansby and Robertson (he’s not run blitzing here) have a free run to the ball. Even if the tight end/tackle are able to scoop Robertson, Dansby is still unblocked and now has force on the ball.
Finally, instead of using a spill technique Mingo could play force and attack the first puller’s outside shoulder with his inside shoulder forcing the second puller and the ball back inside. Dansby attacks the guard's outside shoulder, pushing the ball further inside to a scrapping, unblocked Robertson.
There are fixes to these issues, but it requires flexibility and a willingness to take a long hard look at what is working and what is not.
Stopping the run has been a thorn in the side of Browns’ fans for years. With the addition of a new coaching staff, new scheme, and new techniques for the young front-seven players, is this the season the Brown’s regain a shred of respectability in the trenches? We’ll find out together, but this guy thinks the defense has a fighting chance.