As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the Cleveland Browns’ defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
BROWNS’ RUN DEFENSE
The run defense has been strong despite facing a couple of decent rushing attacks to begin the year. They’re 8th in the NFL allowing just 3.8 YPC and haven’t allowed many splash plays. They remain a 4-3 front with some questions along the interior defensive line. Their defensive end depth is also questionable with injuries to Jadeveon Clowney and Chase Winovich, both out of this game. They’ll rely on rookies like third-rounder Alex Wright, a big body who played the run well at UAB, and seventh-rounder Isaiah Thomas, a bendy pass rusher battling a broken finger.
They’re a quick-trigger defense led by linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, one of the most explosive and athletic linebackers in the game, a true sideline-to-sideline player who’s hard to find. He leads the team with 14 total tackles, 11 solo, while the secondary has been quite active, sort of like the Bengals’ secondaries of past years. Combined, they have 24 tackles and four of the team’s top five tacklers come from the secondary. Their linebackers and interior line are quick and fast so it’s hard to pull because guys can beat them to the frontside or knife in from the backside of that space created by the puller. It’d be asking a lot for the center to back block and cut that off is JOK is flying in.
One area of weakness is they are prone to jet and perimeter runs. In Week One, Panthers’ WR D.J. Moore had a seven-yard carry while last week, WR Braxton Berrios had two rushes for 22 yards, including a 19-yard run. Matt Canada has been leaning on the receiver run game this year with a fair level of success and the Browns’ linebackers tend to key the back and not flow with the motion to protect themselves against the actual handoff.
They’ve allowed 24 and 31 points in Weeks 1 and 2 respectively, 26th in the league. They’ve struggled in situation football, 23rd in the league on third down at 46.2% against and 22nd in the red zone, 71.4%.
Browns Pass Defense
The bigger issue of the two. But we’ll first focus on their pass rush. Their defense has six sacks over the first two games with Myles Garrett responsible for half that total. Clowney has 1.5 and two safeties, John Johnson III and Ronnie Harrison, have a half-sack each. They’ve been a ball-search kind of defense with three forced fumbles already, one from Garrett, Clowney, and JOK. However, they’ve only picked off one pass this year, done so by Grant Delpit. Their pass rush has waned, especially in the second half last week, and their pressure rate is only 20%, 23rd in the league. It’s identical to their blitz rate, also at 20%, 22nd this year.
On tape, I didn’t see a lot of clear blitzes and their base is relying on their front four. They move Myles Garrett around a fair bit, especially on third down, shifting him over three tech to get matchups on guards.
They also run a fair amount of twists and games with their defensive tackles so the interior offensive line has to communicate well in this game. Something to watch.
Coverage-wise, they’ve generally been a zone-based team. It’s a mix of every base coverage, C2, C3, C4, and some C6, which we don’t talk about a ton on here. So let me show an example of that against this 3×1 look with the CB playing cloud/flat coverage.
They did play 1 Lurk once from a two-high look, rotating down on the snap, but they don’t rotate their safeties much. They should make coverages easier to identify for Mitch Trubisky because they’re not hiding a lot. One potential reason is they’re also blowing coverages and allowing huge plays. Four plays of 40+ yards against them and at least two of those are thanks to blown coverages, a 75-yarder to Carolina’s Robby Anderson in Week One and a 66-yarder to Corey Davis in Week Two that allowed both teams to get back into the game. Here’s how they look.
So hopefully Pittsburgh can make it three weeks in a row, but that’s largely out of their control. That’d go a long way to getting back in the win column.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a heartbreaker Sunday against the New England Patriots, failing to get the offense moving efficiently for a second consecutive week as Mitch Trubisky threw his first INT since he arrived in Pittsburgh. The key stat going into the game was that the Patriots were 0-8 in the post-Brady era when the defense failing to get a turnover and Pittsburgh gifted them one which helped them secure victory.
Pittsburgh will have to regroup fast as they prepare to take on the Cleveland Browns on a short week as the team travels to Cleveland for Thursday Night Football. When looking at the Browns’ defense, they have more notable stars than the previous teams they played, bringing more splash play ability to wreak games for the Steelers offense than what they have faced the last two weeks. Still, after surrendering 24 points to the Panthers Week 1 and 31 points to the Jets Week 2, this is a unit that can cede points to suspect offensives.
Cleveland’s crown jewel on defense is All-Pro DE #95 Myles Garrett. The former #1 overall pick back in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett has lived up to the billing as a dominant force on the edge as a pass rusher. He is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time first team All Pro, having recording 61.5 sacks, 63 TFLs, and 12 forced fumbles thus far in his NFL career. He is an explosive athlete, having the speed and burst to win off the line as well as the strength to man handle OTs that try to get hands on him quickly.
He possesses a fair amount of bend around the arc, using the dip/rip move well as well as being able to knock down blockers’ hands. He will see a lot of Dan Moore Jr. on Thursday night; a matchup he should look to exploit like he did at times last season.
On the opposite side DE #90 Jadeveon Clowney also is a freak of nature in his own right, having also been the #1 overall pick back in 2014. He possesses impressive burst and strength, profiling as a stout run defender that plays on the edge, but also can kick inside at take advantage of guards. He hasn’t surpassed ten sacks in his career but is more than a capable running mate opposite of Garrett, being disruptive as a pass rusher. He left the game early against the Jets with an ankle injury and was spotted in a walking boot, making is possible that he would miss Thursday Night’s matchup on a short week which would benefit Pittsburgh greatly.
Behind Garrett and Clowney, the Browns have #69 Chase Winovich who came over in a trade with the Patriots for LB Mack Wilson. Along with him are rookies #94 Alex Wright and #58 Isaiah Thomas who have filled in on several snaps at DE but are more depth pieces that are still developing in their respective roles.
At defensive tackle, the Browns have been rolling with #96 Jordan Elliott and #99 Taven Bryan as their starters in the middle. Bryan is a former first-round pick of the Jaguars that flamed out and just signed with Cleveland this offseason, profiling more as a run stopper than pass rusher. Elliott was a rotational player last season, but now steps into a starting role as also more or a run-stopping presence than as an accomplished pass rusher. Behind those two #93 Tommy Togiai and rookie #97 Perrion Winfrey are depth pieces. Togiai is a true undersized run stuffer whereas Winfrey brings more pass rush upside, but still needs seasoning with his technique and recently had been deactivated by HC Kevin Stefanski for character concerns.
At the linebacker position, the Browns boast a player many believed would become a Steeler in #28 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The 6’2, 221lb LB fell in the draft due to size concerns as well as a medical issue to Cleveland in the second round when many believed he would be a first-round pick. The selection has proven to be a steal thus far as the athletic defender has made quite the impact in all facets of the game. He plays with relentless pursuit as a run defender, looking to drop his opponent on contact. He also is a fluid bender as a blitzer playing like Gumby out there by avoiding blocks and making tackles in space. He has great instincts and is player offenses must account for.
#5 Anthony Walker Jr. starts next to JOK at the second level of the defense and is a tackling machine, having gone over the 100-tackle mark three times in his career since 2017. He is a physical downhill presence but also represents himself well in zone coverage when he can play the ball in front of him. Behind those two are #44 Sione Takitaki and #50 Jacob Phillips who are both mid-round drafted players that are adequate at stopping the run with Takitaki being more sound of the two while Phillips having the higher athletic upside.
The main man in the secondary who just got the bag this season in CB #21 Denzel Ward. Drafted fourth overall in 2018, Ward is one of the league’s best cover corners, having the speed to run with burners down the field as well as the athleticism and competitiveness to battle bigger receivers in jump ball situations. Despite being only 5’11, 190lb, Ward packs a heck of a punch as a tackler, coming downhill with violent intentions as a defender that puts everything he has in his tackle attempts.
He is as well-rounded of a CB you will see and likely will be tasked with covering Diontae Johnson for most of the contest. While a sticky cover corner, Ward does bite on double moves a fair amount, something Johnson could use to his advantage to get separation.
After Ward, the Browns also field #20 Greg Newsome who is as flid of an athlete as you will find at the position. He hips are like butter in his transitions, and he can stay in-phase with the best of them in coverage. Rookie #23 Martin Emerson Jr. has taken the place of Greedy Williams who landed on the IR and has done well the first two games after having a strong showing in preseason action. #38 A.J. Green provides depth on the boundary as an outside corner and #31 Thomas Graham Jr. profiles more as a backup nickel defender that can see some snaps in the slot.
The Browns spent big in free agency last offseason to bring in S #43 John Johnson from the Los Angeles Rams. Johnson is best known for his ability to man down the backend of the secondary, having the range and instincts to cover sideline-to-sideline and prevent anything from getting overtop of him. He has the ball skills to make plays, having recorded 11 INTs prior to this season. He also doesn’t shy away from being a tackler, having two 100-tackle seasons under his belt as a defensive back that is more than willing to stick his face in the fan. Cleveland has been more open to moving him with added depth at safety, allowing him into the box and to occasionally blitz.
Alongside Johnson in the secondary is #22 Grant Delpit. Delpit was a highly touted prospect coming out of LSU but had some major issues as a tackler that caused him to fall in drafts. He blew out his Achilles as a rookie, costing him his first season in the league. Since then. Delpit has been a fixture in the secondary, becoming a full-time starter this season, being more of a strong safety presence to complement Johnson. He had nine missed tackles last season but doesn’t have any so far in 2022 and profiles as a guy that can cover backs and TEs, but fares better in zone coverage than man.
#33 Ronnie Harrison Jr. also often starts for the Browns as a safety/linebacker hybrid, having the size (6’3, 214lb) to be a capable strong safety/sub package linebacker. He does well as a run defender in run-and-chase situations and has the size to be a capable cover man on opposing TEs. #39 Richard LeCounte also sees some time as a backup free safety along with #37 D’Anthony Bell who is primarily a special teams contributor.