Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Week #7 Cleveland Browns' X's & O's: What's Wrong with the Safeties?

In what has become a recurring theme, the Cleveland Browns' defense was gashed for big yards during last Sunday's 31-17 division loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Join The Orange and Brown Report in the film room as we break down an especially poor showing by the backend of the defense at the free and strong safety positions.

Entering the 2016 season, one thing the backend of the Cleveland Browns defense did not have to deal with was lofty expectations.

When the unit's major off-season free agent pickup (Rahim Moore) was released before the first game of the regular season, even the most optimistic fan should have expected a rough year from a young safety corps featuring Jordan Poyer, Ibraheim Campbell, and Derrick Kindred. With Poyer's indefinite loss to a lacerated kidney suffered against the Tennesse Titans, undrafted free agent cornerback Tracy Howard was thrust into a starting role  after playing a vast majority of his college snaps as a cornerback.

The Bengals exposed the units' lack of depth, experience, and talent to the tune of 559 total yards, including a 70-yard touchdown run and a first half-ending 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown to star receiver A.J. Green.

A look at the Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades for the season tell the story: On their best Sunday afternoon, the safeties are average at best.

For the season Campbell, Kindred, and Howard have rated a 70.7, 48.9, and 72.9 respectively (keep in mind that Howard's score is based on his play at the cornerback position).

While rookie Derrick Kindred graded out at a team-high 77.1 (still average on the PFF ranking scale), Tracy Howard scored a 72.3 (borderline below average) and second-year strong safety Ibraheim Campbell put up a miserable 39.7 last Sunday, as was evidenced by the numerous chunk plays that were a direct result of poor disguise, range, tackling, and technique.

The OBR graded every defensive snap from last Sunday's defeat and ranked four major components of safety play from first-to-worst (or bad to shockingly bad if you will). 

Without further adieu, let's head to the film room to see what went wrong.

Deep Coverage

A key function of the safety position is to provide deep help to the cornerbacks in man coverage or to guard an assigned area in zone.

Shockingly, the safeties did not provide any glaring examples of blown help. Unfortunately, that does not mean the unit grades out well in this category as the backend displays a collective lack of range, particularly in MOFC (Middle Of the Field Closed) coverages like Cover 1. Simply put, the cornerbacks cannot count on reliable deep help because the defense lacks a player with the COD, speed, awareness, and instincts to play number-to-number.

Midway through the first quarter we see the offense take a deep shot to A.J. Green on first down against a Cover 1 shell. Campbell is responsible for the deep middle of the field, with Howard in the box to guard the boundary tight end.

Notice the deep safety's depth, sitting at almost 20 yards. This excessive depth was a constant throughout the game as Horton attempted to help his safeties by eliminating the distance they had to turn and run when helping on vertical routes. This help comes with a trade-off, as the extra depth will slow the deep safety when playing the run and minimizes his ability to squeeze intermediate routes.

Dalton does bother manipulating Campbell with his eyes after the play action fake because he knows the TCU product does not have the range to make it to the numbers on a Go route. Campbell's jump isn't bad, but he simply does not have the fluid hips and straight-line speed necessary to effect the play. He is still six yards away from the ball when the cornerback makes a nice play to create a pass breakup.

Campbell needs to be more aware of the game situation as well. The offense has a first down on the 50-yard line, a spot where offense coordinators love to take shots. Who is the most likely target here?

Rather than aligning heads up over the center, Campbell should be over the right guard/tackle to reduce the distance he must cover to make a play on the ball (although this could be where he is coached to line up against this formation). Let the other wide receiver beat you deep. The help should be shaded towards A.J. Green, as this is where the ball is going 90% if the time. 

The Browns' safeties are generally a non-factor in this facet of the game.

Coverage Disguise

Another theme that seems to be a weekly occurrence is the lack of pre-snap disguise in coverage.

Rarely does one see the safeties show one coverage before rotating to another coverage just before, or at the snap. A lack of disguise makes the opposing quarterback's job that much easier by aiding him in accurately diagnosing the coverage. From here, the quarterback can check out of bad plays, check into good plays, and/or adjust his progression based on the coverage shell he sees. 

Let's start on the Bengals' second drive of the first quarter. This is a first and ten down and distance. What coverage is the defense in?

If you said Cover 1 pat yourself on the back.

The pressed defensive backs, in-the-box safety playing a '2X7' rule over the tight end, and deep safety 20 yards off the line of scrimmage leave little to the imagination.

Moving on to the very next play, a second and seven....

We now see two deep safeties playing 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. Keep in mind that there was minimal movement after the defense broke the huddle. This is exactly how both safeties aligned as the quarterback surveyed the defense. A quarterback with the ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage will immediately check to a run here as the box numbers are even (the offense is +1 if they elect to run a read play) and neither safety can effectively drop to act as an extra run defender.

Continuing the first quarter and going early into the second, we see the same lack of disguise. Remember, there is no rotation here. Both safeties broke the defensive huddle and aligned in their position long before the snap.

Pass Coverage

After being burned through the air countless times on second and third down, Browns' fans know linebacker and safety coverage is a major component (and vulnerability) of defensive coordinator Ray Horton's pass shells. Horton's aggressive blitz package demands versatile safeties that can play both man and zone coverage against wide receivers and tight ends. While the trio of Howard, Campbell, and Kindred did not give up any notable explosive plays on individual match-ups last Sunday, two plays from the Bengals' final scoring drive of the first half serve as an example of the poor technique displayed on a week-to-week basis by the unit.

With 0:49 seconds to go in the second quarter, the Bengals' offense is looking for a first-half kill shot after Cleveland gifted them the ball for one final drive after bungling a timeout.

In his first start as a pro, rookie Tracy Howard is tasked with covering Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert in man coverage knowing that quarterback Andy Dalton loves targeting his tight end in the middle of the field.

Eifert is 'flexed' (aligned as a wide receiver, rather than the tight end positions' traditional inline 3-point stance) as the #3 receiver in a 3X1 formation.

While Horton is asking ALOT of his rookie by putting him in this position, Howard does himself no favors by utilizing poor technique while executing a 'flat foot read' that ultimately leads to a completion.

Howard will 'read through the three-step game (slant, hitch, out) by keying the receiver's hips. When the hip drops, an athletic stance will allow him to make a downhill break on the pass. Once the receiver runs past the distance from which the three-step game can be thrown (7 yards), the defensive back sill open the hips, turn, and collision the route. From there, it is standard man technique.

The Miami-product starts the play at a depth of 13 yards, before walking up to nine at the snap. Stand depth for a flat foot read is 8-10 yards, so nothing wrong so far.

Howard's first mistake occurs just before the snap as he takes four nonchalant steps towards the line of scrimmage.

While the offense is in a clear passing situation, Howard needs to buzz his feet at the snap as he reads his run/pass key. If the offense were to run the ball or throw a screen pass, his body would not be in position to make a quick break on the line of scrimmage. In this situation the error is minor, but he needs to execute his technique CONSISTENTLY.

After settling at nine yards, we see several breakdowns in the stance:

  • Body should be in an athletic position
  • Sink the hips
  • Bend the knees
  • Eyes and nose over the toes
  • Weight rests on the balls of the feet
  • Feet no wider than shoulder-width
  • Inside foot up while maintaining a heel to toe relationship with the back foot

Instead we see high hips, a wide base, little knee bend, and flat feet with no stagger. Howard cannot execute an explosive break out of this position because his body weight and power are not properly distributed.

In spite of the poor stance, Howard does not get a bad jump on the ball. However, ff he had used his technique he had a shot at breaking up the pass rather than making the tackle after a nine-yard gain. 

The second significant breakdown could have been classified as a breakdown in deep coverage, but because multiple players had a shot at the ball I have elected to include it with individual matchups.

With less than ten second to go in the half, all-world wide receiver A.J. Green manages to big bank every safety on the field on a 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown.

The ideal deep safety will have an above-average leap, arm length, and ball skills. As currently constructed, the Browns' roster does not have a safety with any of the aforementioned traits.

While A.J. Green is a top-five receiver and big bank will take little bank at times (aka the cliche "big time players make big time plays"), this score is inexcusable.

Watch Green outleap the entire defense to tip the ball. After the ball is tipped, Green becomes a free target. If the ball is not directly in front of you, yank him away. Some of the blame lies with Tramon Williams (#22) as he should be closer to the play as the designated 'spiker' (trail the play  and spike the ball into the ground if it is tipped). If he cannot execute the spike than grab Green's arms. The ball has been tipped so there is no pass interference.

With that said, Howard and Campbell were two of the three defenders that jumped with Green. He made the difficult play; they couldn't make the easy one.

Run Support

Secondary run support from the safety position was a landslide winner during last week's ugly pageant.

The secondary kicked off the event bright and early, allowing Bengal tailback Jeremy Hill to rip off a 40-yard run on the home team's first possession of the game.

The run concept is a simple 'Iso Strong'. This is a play to dial up when you need three yards. Instead, the Browns' defense allows Hill to turn it into an explosive gain

Against an obvious two-high shell, run is the way to go here.

The defense appears to have anticipated the run as the left defensive end and MIKE execute a 'gap exchange' game to confuse the blocking scheme.,Rather than play his normal C-gap, the end squeezes inside to play the B-gap, while the linebacker scrapes outside to become the new C-gap defender.

This technique is commonly run against teams that utilize Inside Zone with a backside read (like the Bengals). The call is sound based on play-type tendencies, but for some reason Horton doesn't commit 100% by bringing a safety closer to the line of scrimmage.

So how does Hill break free?

The play-side safety's job is likely to make the force player (the linebacker here) 'right' in his run fit. If the force player gets pinned inside, fit outside the force play and push the ball back inside however you can.If the force player widens out too far, fit between the linebacker and end

If the force player widens out too far (like this play), fit between the linebacker and defensive end as there will likely be a large running lane.

Go back and check out the angle Campbell takes to the ball, knowing he is likely supposed to fit off the linebacker.

The first-year starter's angle is initially too flat and he fails to quickly recognize that the scrapping linebacker will be widened out of the play. By the time he does recognize the mistake, he is forced to take a sharp angle to the ball, creating a difficult tackle in open space.

The backside safety (Howard) has cutback responsibility on the play, He cannot let the ball come back across the field (like he did here) and must adjust his angle to the ball accordingly.

Howard should not have strayed so far inside the middle of the field. By taking the sharp angle, he created leverage for Hill to cut across his face away from his momentum. Without knowing the exact rules used to play backside contain/cutback I wouldn't want to see the rookie inside the left hash here. Again, without knowing the exact responsibility, fit, and technique that is coached here, it's hard to say exactly what he should have done.

The point stands that Howard's angle to the ball was too sharp. In the open field, any tackle is a good tackle. Get the ball carrier to the ground however you can. The Browns' safeties failed to do so.  

Our second example comes from Hill's third quarter 74-yard touchdown.

The Bengals run a 'Sweep' concept out of heavy personnel with a clever twist; the use of wide receiver motion to clear out the alley fill.

When an offensive player motions, the defense can respond in one of two ways:

  1. If in man coverage, follow the motion wherever it goes
  2. In man or zone coverage, rotate or 'spin' the coverage to the motion

Horton elects to spin the secondary on this play, likely trying to disguise the man coverage.

The key component of the spin is the exchange of responsibility between the safeties. Before the motion, Howard was tasked with playing the deep middle of the field with Campbell playing the box and covering the tight end. The cornerback was responsible for the wide receiver. In response to the motion, the safeties switch roles. 

Campbell is now responsible for the deep middle and Howard has the wide receiver in man coverage. The cornerback will bump his coverage inside, now guarding the tight end. In order to play their new responsibilities, both Howard and Campbell must readjust their alignment on the fly.

Go back and note Campbell's spin as he moves to the middle of the field while gaining depth. This is exactly what the offense wanted.

By moving away from both the line of scrimmage and the play direction, the safety's distance to the ball carrier has been dramatically increased. In addition, Campbell must now take a very sharp angle to the ball to fulfill his alley fill responsibility if the play hits outside.

Even after being burnt earlier in the game, the Browns' backend appears to still underestimate Hill's speed as the angle to the ball is not sharp enough. Campbell needed to adjust so he was running towards the sideline to account for the extra distance and space. He did not, leading to another missed tackle.

Our final clips look at a lack of physicality by the 5-10, 185-pound converted safety.

Over the course of the game, Howard's lack of physicality and tenacity at the point of attack became apparent

With the free safety job securely in Howard's hands due to lack of options, the undersized player needs to make a commitment to selling out his body quickly or the run defense will suffer.

On the defensive side of the ball, the lack of a consistent pass rusher is the obvious need, but the squad badly needs a versatile middle of the field safety. With the possibility of Jabril Peppers and Malik Hooker entering the 2017 draft, don't be surprised if the Browns address the position early. In today's game, a versatile player who excels in both coverage and tackling  is a requirement to play elite defense.


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