X's & O's: Stopping the Cleveland Browns' League-Leading Ground Attack

Entering last Sunday's match-up against the New England Patriots with the NFL's leading rushing attack, the Cleveland Browns knew head coach Bill Belichick would attempt to game plan away the team's strength. Join The Orange and Brown Report in the Tap Room as we dissect how the New England defense stymied the Browns' running game via scheme, concept, and technique.

Patriot's' head coach Bill Belichick's defensive philosophy is no secret.

Identify what you do best and take it away at all costs using superior scheme, concepts, and individual technique.

The legendary coach and Pats' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia put on a coaching clinic Sunday, holding the Browns' vaunted rushing attack to 27 yards on 22 carries for a paltry 1.23 YPC average. Entering the game with an NFL-leading 142 rushing yard per game and 5.7 yards per attempt, the offensive unit put up an afternoon to forgot as the team's only discernable strength quickly turned into a liability. 

Quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Charlie Whitehurst were continuously placed in clear passing down and distances due to the nonexistent run game, greatly limiting what the offense could do. The Pats' defense responded by teeing off on the rookie and journeyman quarterbacks, eventually knocking both out of the game.   

How did the New England defensive staff snuff out the NFL's leading ground attack with such apparent ease?

(Before reading further I reccomend you familiarize yourself with run fits and the defense line numbering system using the chart below).

Image courtesy of idpguru.com

Extra Run Defenders in the Box

The simplest way to stop the run is to rebalance the numbers in the box. Put more defenders than the offense can block at the point of attack to create 'free hitters' on the ball. While the philosophy sounds simple in theory, it requires good cornerbacks that can survive with minimal help and above-average safeties that excel at making quick, accurate key reads.

The Patriots have two such safeties in Patrick Chung and Devon McCourty, allowing the defense to maintain scheme flexibility as both excel at deep coverage and near the line of scrimmage.

Our first play comes from the Browns' very first drive of the game, with the offense running the one-back 'Iso Strong' concept.

The play concept is designed to hit the B-gap between the left guard and center, and while the play rarely leads to explosive gains of +20 yards it has been a consistent 4-5 yard gain in all of Hue Jackson's offenses.

The key blocks here are the double team on the 5-technique (#97) and the base block on the 2-gap, 2-technique (#74). If both can be widened Crowell should be able to press the B-gap and gain yards after contact at the second level. Again, this play is not designed or called to go for long yards; it is dialed-up to keep the offense on schedule by putting them in a second or third-and-manageable.

The Patriots make their intention to stop the run crystal clear by walking safety Patrick Chung (#23) up to linebacker depth before the snap. By walking the safety up, the box numbers are now 9-verse-8 in favor of the defense (the left cornerback is just outside the screen).

To stack the deck further, the Pats' take advantage of personnel strengths by 2-gapping the strongside 2-technique, allowing linebacker Dont'a Hightower (#54) to come downhill and fill off his post-snap movement. Hightower's job is to 'make him right' by fitting into the gap opposite the lineman's movement, an underrated skill for linebackers playing in a defense that utilizes two-gap principles.

The defense appears to expect the B-gap Iso as the 5-technique attacks the Wing at the snap, forcing the right tackle to step outside in order to secure his double team. By forcing the tackle outside, the defense has accomplished two important things:

  1. The right tackle must now travel further when he climbs to the second level to pick up a linebacker. This extra tick is often all a speedy linebacker needs to avoid the block.
  2. The B-gap run lane has been widened to make room for the filling Chung and Hightower. Knowing that the edges are secure, both can aggressively come downhill to create a pile up at the point of attack.

Notice how Hightower reads the 2-techniques steps and leverage after the snap and immediately fits to the opposite side. Great example of both key reads and execution.

The offense is able to get a wide receiver on Chung (not ideal) and the tackle to Hightower, but both are at the line of scrimmage by the time the blocks get there. Because the edges are secure due to the unblocked defense back (back to the numbers advantage), both can hit the hole at full speed knowing that the play cannot be bounced outside. The pile up leaves little space for Crowell to work in, ultimately resulting in a 2-yard gain on first down.

Run Blitzes

Another mark of a well-coached, well-prepared defense is the use of strategic run blitzes to shoot gaps and prevent key double teams. 

During the third quarter, the Pats executed a beautifully-designed run blitz against the Browns-staple 'Power' concept, preventing a vital play-side double team on the 'loose' 3-technique.

As discussed in previous articles, the old-school Power concept utilizes double teams, down blocks, and a puller to create numbers at the point of attack. The double team is vital to the play's success as the tailback is giving an aiming point (usually the B or C-gap) that he must hit. If the defensive lineman playing that gap is not secured, the play will pile up at the line of scrimmage.

Furthermore, one of the two offensive linemen on the double team must eventually climb to the second level to pick up a scrapping backer' to maintain even box numbers.

Yet again, it appears that DC Matt Patricia anticipated the play call as he sends his left ILB on a run blitz that creates a five-man front, preventing a double team and allowing the right ILB to scrap freely to the ball.

The ILB uses an interesting defensive concept that is underutilized in the NFL, the 'cross key'.

 All defense rely on run/pass keys to speed up the recognition of pass/run, play direction, and play concept. Keys can be as simple as 'hi hat, lo hat' - Hi hat being a pass and lo hat being a run - on a tackle/tight end or involve several players like the 'backfield triangle' that integrates reads of the guard, quarterback, and tailback. Oftentimes teams will key the tailback 'flow'.

When facing teams that use misdirection in the running game like the Counter Trey jab step or altering the tailback's path to the mesh point on zone plays, teams will integrate cross keys.

The cross key will prevent the defender from being influenced by the tailback's initial flow, an important but underlooked key to defending Jackson's ground game as he often subtly alters the backs path to pull second-level defenders away from the play.

We can see how quickly the right ILB is able to read, recognize, and react to the guard's block as he takes off so quickly that the left tackle has no chance of blocking him at the second level. With a safety creeping into the box and an unblocked backer', the defense has created a free hitter at the point of attack even after the pulling guard arrives.

In order to ensure that the ball carrier is surrounded on both sides, the safety will fit off the scrapping linebacker's leverage. Notice how he pulls up to stay outside the guard. This is another example of fundamentally-sound team defense.

Run Slants

The England defense did a phenomenal job identifying play call and direction tendencies to run a series of run slants that disrupted blocking schemes and created havoc along the line of scrimmage.

We see a great example of formation, play, and directional tendency identification on a first down carry by Duke Johnson Jr.

The offense is running Split Zone left towards the three-receiver bunch created by the motioned pass catcher.

Jackson has shown this Split Zone out of this exact personnel group and formation several times this season (particularly in the pre-season), allowing the Pats to design and rep and effective counter to the play design.

The play is relativley straight forward.

The offensive line will take zone steps toward the play's direction and look to 'reach block' the defenders by getting hands on their play-side numbers. From there, the blockers want to turn the defender's shoulders and move them horizontally the create cutback lanes for the tailback. Although it is up for debate, it appears the offense wants to hit this play in the B or C-gap.

While tailback Isaiah Crowell's path to the mesh point is wide for a traditional Inside Zone play, smart offensive coaches will often alter the tailback's path to false key the defense to play direction and design (many defenders will read the tailbacks path and 'flow' for run direction keys).

Because head coach Hue Jackson elects to reach block the right defensive end (#95) the offense likely wanted to widen him out of the C-gap, as opposed to sealing him inside with a double team like standard Outside Zone. Expecting a tackle - even of Joe Thomas' caliber - to reach and pin a defensive lineman one gap over is a tall order.

The  edge defender away from the play will remain unblocked at the snap as a receiver from the bunch will cross the formation to execute an 'arc block', providing a seal should the tailback cut the play to the backside.

The defense's response to a likely zone concept is very common at the high school, college, and NFL ranks. The key is in dialing it up at the right time and execution.

The defense will slant the defensive line and linebacker's towards the wide receiver stack, expecting one of three receivers to execute the aforementioned arc block. Because the Browns' offense runs the ball away from the arc block, the slanting defenders should immediately fill the gaps at the line of scrimmage while preventing a double team on the play-side interior defensive lineman (#90).

Let's see how it plays out:

We can see a defensive back following the motioned receiver across the formation. Notice that after the snap he follows the receiver's block back across the formation to account for the extra gap, while also protecting against a play action concept like the 'Swap Boot', that will attempt to slip the motion man into the flat.

Next, focus on the run fits (coaching speak for gap responsibilities). Star linebacker Jamie Collins will shoot the weakside A-gap at the snap, looking to disrupt the play before it gets started. His counterpart, linebacker Dont'a Hightower (#54) will cut back against the slant to take the opposite A-gap, creating more confusion as the center wants to 'check-climb' from the tight 3-technique to the linebacker. Notice how the center's wide zone step creates a rush lane for Collins to shoot, allowing him to enter the backfield virtually untouched.

While the inside linebacker does not make the tackle, he does force the tailback to cut the ball back inside to the pursuit where defensive tackle Alan Branch (#97) cleans up the play for a one-yard loss.

The Patriots' defense has snuck a defender through the line of scrimmage using a well-timed run slant concepts while playing fundamentally solid run defense using clearly defined run fits.Few offenses successfully execute against these play calls.

Accounting for Terrelle Pryor as a Run Threat

As a team that leaves no stone unturned, the Patriots likely repped Inside Zone with a quarterback boot several times leading up to the game.

The defensive coaching staff clearly made the decision to force Pryor to keep the ball, betting they could keep him from getting outside and hitting him in the open field.

The quarterback's give/keep key when running Inside Zone is generally the EMLOS (End Man on Line Of Scrimmage), although some teams will read the backside linebacker instead.

During the previous two games, the offense read the EMLOS, leading New England to expect the same. Using this foreknowledge of what the offense was likely to do here, the unit designed a trap to force the ball into Pryor's hands.

When Pryor aligned in the shotgun with a single back, the EMLOS across from the back was likely instructed to squeeze inside in order to "show" the keep key. From there, the alley invert will play the quarterback bootleg from outside-to-in, forcing the ball back inside to the pursuit for an easy tackle.

Pryor does pull the ball (as he is coached to do here), but the invert loses outside contain by letting Pryor cross his face. Fortunately for the QB defender, the alley safety is there to provide back up, fitting off the invert's leverage to ensure that Pryor has a would-be tackler on both sides at all times.

Let's look at it from a different angle:

This view gives us a better angle of the invert as he underestimates Pryor's speed to the edge. At the same time, we see the safety maintain outside leverage on the speedy receiver as soon as he breaks contain. 

Pryor did leave yards on the field here. He could have cut up between the invert and squeezing defensive end for a positive gain, but he has a tendency to run for the sideline. After putting this play on tape Jackson will need to develop an RPO (run-pass option) that allows Pryor to throw the ball to the wide receiver on his side when the invert commits to the boot as teams will copycat this technique. We'll see how Jackson adjusts.

While the Browns' poor showing was certainly disappointing, Bill Belichick has made a habit of stonewalling opposing teams' strengths for over a decade. The concepts and techniques seen here require very precise attention to detail, countless practice reps, and the right personnel to make the parts fit together.

While teams will certainly use the game tape as a template to stymie the Dawgs' running game, it remains to be seen if they have the personnel flexibility and mastery of technique to pull it off

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