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Cleveland Browns X's & O's: Setting the Edge of the Run Defense

The Ezekiel Elliot-led Cowboys running game gashed the Browns' defense in another shellacking from which few positives could be pulled. How did the Cowboys continuously find easy yards running at the edges of the front seven? Join The Orange and Brown Report in the film room as we break down the concept of edge containment and look at several examples where it broke down last Sunday, leading to chunk gains and touchdowns.

At this point in the season, even the most casual fan has noticed the inability of the Browns' defense to prevent the ball from hitting outside the defense ends. During this past weekend's 35-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the defense was victimized by a lack of control along the edge of the defense several times, including two instances that resulted in rushing touchdowns. 

How are ball carriers getting outside so easily? Why is does the concept of containment continue to be a week in, week out issue? Can anything be done to turn around what is quickly becoming a fundamental flaw in an already porous defense?

The OBR has gone to the film room and identified the four major reasons ball carriers continue to find success attacking the edges of the Cleveland defense.

Block Recognition and Technique

From Eleven Warriors:

"Because a football field is 53.3 yards wide, it is impossible to chase the ball carrier the entire width of the field. To narrow the distance the defense must cover, the critical 'force player' acts as the fulcrum to force the ball back inside to the spill players, who will make the tackle. The ubiquitous terms setting the edge, playing contain, or forcing the ball inside all refer to this concept.

The defense will always assign two force players (one on each side of the field), with the players being formation-dependent. A defensive end, linebacker, cornerback, and/or safety can be responsible for setting the edge based on the defense’s specific gap assignments and the offense’s formation. When identifying the force players a good rule of thumb is to look for defenders aligned just outside the core of the offense’s formation.

Coaches teach  a variety of techniques to force the ball back inside, but most spill philosophies are based on three fundamental principles:

  1.  Read the run key

  2.  Attack the gap/squeeze

  3.  Do not let the ball carrier get outside 


Force players are taught to read the offensive player's block type and react using a variety of different techniques. This is not a complex concept that only the best NFL defenses will run. A good high school team will have at least 2-3 'reactionary techniques' to down blocks, reach blocks, and jump throughs. 

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton's defense is not the complex jumble of parts we saw from former DC Jim O'Neil, but it does require basic block recognition. Thus far, the Browns' defense has been bad and reading and reacting with the appropriate technique due to a combination of inexperience, lack of awareness, and poor technique.

Early in the second quarter with the Cowboys up 7-3, we see an example of a force player letting the ball outside due to slow recognition and poor technique on a standard Split Zone concept

Split Zone is a variation of Inside Zone in which the offensive line attempts to reach block the play side shoulder of the defenders while creating vertical displacement up field. The offense will bring a blocker - usually a tight end or fullback - across the formation away from the play direction to create a cutback lane for the tailback. 

Let's see how linebacker Cam Johnson plays (and ultimately loses contain) on the backside of Split Zone.

Focus on #57, playing as a standup edge rusher on the 2nd and 5 graphic.

As soon as the tight end down blocks the defense tackle, Johnson should immediately recognize the concept and expect a blocker to come his way. The offense would not release him for no reason. He has to know a puller or arc block from the offset Y (#82) will block him to seal the backside of the formation.

Instead, Johnson only has eyes for quarterback Dak Prescott. In fact, he gets so far upfield that the arc block is able to bypass him and move up to a safety.

Once the linebacker reads the down block on the interior defensive lineman, his technique is to:

  1. Get hands on the down blocker to slow him up. A good two-handed punch will give the interior defensive lineman time to anchor his body against the double team and prevent either blocker from 'jumping thru' to the linebackers.
  2. Squeeze inside to narrow the gap in order to constrict the space in which the tailback can turn upfield. This is often referred to as "replacing the blocker's hips" or the "block down, step down" rule. The defender MUST NOT chase upfield! His feet should be close to parallel with the line of scrimmage.
  3. Attack the arc blocker/puller's outside shoulder with his inside shoulder. In this case, he should be attacking the "8" on the arc blocker's jersey. This contact will force the ball carrier to cut back inside to the pursuit.

That's it.

If he makes the tackle great, if not, he has forced the ball back inside to the pursuit players. His job is done. Go through the list and see if any of the coaching points happened here. This is why the Browns lost the edge.

When watching live, look for the force player to make contact with the down blocker, squeeze the gap near the line of scrimmage, and attack the puller (sometimes the defender will force the ball inside; other times he will use a 'wrong arm' technique in which they spill the ball outside to a linebacker).

Edge Player Losing Individual Match-Ups

Even when defenders do display quick, accurate block recognition and technique, all too often the defender will not win his match up.

We are going to take a different approach to this issue by showing what happens when a run defender does win his 1v1 battle.

On this particular play, the Cowboys appear to be running another Inside Zone concept (on Outside Zone the tailback's path to the hand off mesh point would be less downhill).

Newly acquired linebacker Jaime Collins is aligned as a stand-up rusher on the right side of the formation. He has force responsibility on any zone and most gap-blocked plays from this formation.

The left tackle wants to 'reach' block Collins by getting hands on the outside number and running him wherever he wants to go. Outside and upfield is ideal, but the lineman will take him where ever he wants to go as the tailback is coached to read the block.

Watch how quickly Collins uses his hands and feet to shed a decent block will maintaining his outside position. By the time the tailback receives the ball, Collins has already disengaged from the block, leaving the tailback nowhere to go. Linebacker Joe Schobert (#53) does a great job chasing the play down from the backside after diagnosing the handoff (he was probably responsible for Prescott on any quarterback bootleg).

Many coaches refer to these situations as 'big bank takes little bank' plays. As constructed, the Browns roster does not have enough 'big bank' players to win at the line of scrimmage with any consistency.

Switching Force Responsibilities

At times, the force player will change due to formation shifts, multiple pullers, crack blocks, etc.

Again, the change happens quickly and any hesitation will lead to missed tackles and loss of the edge.

Elliot's second rushing touchdown of the day came off another basic zone play that utilized a wide receiver crack block on the force player to get him to the outside.

The technique utilized by most defenses in this situation is known as the 'crack-replace'. The cornerback will alert the force player to the crack block, then shoot outside to replace the defender as the new force player. Like the first point made above about reactionary block responses, crack replace is standard across the NFL, college, and high school ranks (the author's junior varsity cornerbacks can correctly execute the technique).

At the snap, free safety Tracy Howard (#41) has force as the offense motioned a tight end just outside defensive end Carl Nassib.

As soon as cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun recognizes the wide receiver's block he does come downhill, however his angle is poor as he should be tracking the outside hip of the ball carrier in order to force the ball back inside to a safety, linebacker, or defensive linemen. Zeke easily gets outside the force player due to his poor angle of approach, although there were no tacklers to make a play on the ball even if it did cut back inside. Watch Howard get rag dolled back into the safety and linebacker.

When executed correctly Boddy-Calhoun attacks the outside hip of the ball carrier, forcing him back inside to the safety who will fit off Howard's position.

This brings us to the last major issue....

Poor Safety Run Fits

Like the play above, Howard has force responsibility against an Inside Zone concept.

Squeeze, attack any puller, and do not let the ball get outside at all costs.

The rookie's run/pass key read is very slow. He should attack the line of scrimmage as soon as he sees the tight end (#82) downblock the defensive end. Instead, he stays in place like a deer in headlights, allowing the wide receiver to run the cornerback right into him. The play is over at this point.

The middle of the field safety is tasked with providing perimeter run support when the ball leaks outside, but he can do little here because Boody-Calhoun and Howard both end up inside, where he should insert himself.

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