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Scouting Report: Browns Defense With Questionable Front Seven, Underrated Secondary

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 the scheme, Jonathan on the players.

Continuing things with the Cleveland Browns’ defense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT

BROWNS RUN DEFENSE

Certainly not the strength of this defense this year. With a weak interior defensive line, the Browns are allowing 4.8 yards per carry, tied for 25th in the NFL. They’ve also allowed 20 touchdown runs this year, tied for 27th overall. They’ve allowed a whopping 63 runs of 10+ yards this year, 28th most so the metrics across the board here are pretty poor.

They’ve suffered some injuries to the middle of their defense. Their starting linebackers last week were Reggie Ragland, Jermaine Carter, and Tony Fields. Ragland and Carter don’t even have photos uploaded on the Browns’ website which tells you how new those guys are.

On the year, they also haven’t been a terribly good tackling team with 73 misses, the 20th-worst in football. Overall, their run defense has been poor. A 4-3 front, their leading tacklers are DBs, an indicator of how much they’ve struggled up front. Safety Grant Delpit leads the squad with 103 tackles, tied 9th-most of any DB in football. John Johnson is second on the team with 94 tackles. They give me Vonn Bell/Jessie Bates vibes from the Bengals prior to this year, the safeties making all the tackles along the defense.

One notable element of their defense is they one-gap up front. They slant their defensive lineman and scrape their linebackers over the top. All one-gap principles, a risk-reward system. Here’s an example.

Though Pittsburgh doesn’t often pull their guards, the Browns often wrong arm and spill the back outside with the linebacker scraping over and containing the edge. An example.

On my eye watch, the Browns are still a physical unit with some hitters. Their linebackers are new but they can lay the wood. So don’t take them for granted. Some other defensive stats. On the year, they rank 18th in points per game allowed with 22.1 per. Things have been better lately. They haven’t allowed more than 23 points in their last six games and held teams to no more than 17 in five of those six.

They do have the tenth-best third down defense at 38% and are average defending in the red zone, 16th overall at 55.6%. They’ve forced 19 takeaways this year, slightly below average.

BROWNS PASS DEFENSE

A better unit here that’s gotten better after early-year breakdowns and miscommunications. Opposing QBs are completing only 61.6% of their passes, 5th-best in the league, with a top ten 6.8 YPA against and only 19 passing touchdowns, tied 7th-best.

They’re doing it without a great pass rush. Only 33 defensive sacks this year, tied for 24th and the same number as Pittsburgh. Myles Garrett remains one of the most talented pass rushers in the game leading the Browns with 16 tackles for loss, 24 QB hits, and 15 sacks. That makes up a whopping 24.2% of the team’s tackles for loss, 37.5% of the QB hits, and 45.5% of the sacks. So they’re very reliant on him to get home. No other Brown has more than three sacks and the production behind Garrett has been weak.

Grant Delpit leads the team with four interceptions. He’s on a hot streak with three picks over the last two games including a pair against Carson Wentz on Sunday. Denzel Ward has three and his play has picked up, working well opposite Martin Emerson, a big and long rookie having a good first year.

As a defense, the Browns have allowed 45 completions of 20+ yards, tied for 12th in the league.

Schematically, they’re primarily a zone-based defense. A mix of the family of coverages, Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4. You get more Cover 3/Cover 6 on third and medium/short and Cover 2 on third and long. Examples of the latter.

Some interesting wrinkles up front to try and generate pressure. They will fan out their DTs on third down and have two three techs as opposed to the more “traditional” one tech and three tech. An example.

With all the attention Garrett gets, they move him around, too. Some work as a three tech as the DT and even some standup linebacker-looking work over the A gaps. Photos of that.

Those looks are a heavy stunt/twist clue that the Browns are going to run games to get pressure. So the Steelers’ line must recognize and communicate.

Jonathan’s Individual Report

The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves knocking on the door of the postseason in a wild turn of events in an incredible second half of the 2022 season. They walk into Week 18 at .500 and a chance to clinch another winning season with an outside shot of making the playoffs should the Bills beat the Patriots and the Jets beat the Dolphins. However, the Steelers must take care of business first by beating their division rivals: the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns currently sit at 7-9 after yet another disappointing season for the franchise. The Deshaun Watson trade failed to pay dividends as he was suspended the first 11 games of the year and looked objectively worse than Jacoby Brissett who was called to play in his place to start the season. Defensively, The Browns have gotten beat up, especially at linebacker with multiple players on IR. They have been a top 10 unit in 2022 against the pass, but have struggled against the opposing run game, ranking 25th in the league in yards allowed and 27th in rushing TDs.

Defensive Line

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 put together another Pro Bowl season in 2022, posting 53 total tackles, 16 TFLs, 15 sacks, four PBUs, and two forced fumbles. He is an explosive athlete, having the speed and burst to win off the line as well as the strength to manhandle 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. Steelers LT Dan Moore Jr. has been playing better as of late compared to the beginning of the season, but he will face a difficult task of keeping Kenny Pickett clean against a defender that has gotten the best of him in the past.

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 to take advantage of guards. He hasn’t surpassed 10 sacks in his career, but is more than a capable running mate opposite of Garrett, being disruptive as a pass rusher. He only has two sacks thus far in 2022 but is known for being a disruptive run defender while generating pressure as a pass rusher.

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. Wright has great length and has batted five passes this year while Thomas has seen little time, having a sack and two PBUs.

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 and currently sits at three sacks as a power rusher. Elliott was a rotational player last season but stepped into a starting role as also more of a run-stopping presence than as a pass rusher, having two sacks on the year.

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.

Linebackers

As mentioned above, the Browns have been ravaged by injury at the linebacker position with #28 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, #5 Anthony Walker Jr, #44 Sione Takitaki, #50 Jacob Phillips, and #51 Jordan Kunaszyk all on IR. The Browns did trade for Falcons LB Deion Jones prior to the trade deadline and started the season on IR with a shoulder injury. He has played in 10 games for Cleveland, starting five. The athletic defender currently has 39 total stops (20 solo), five TFLs, 2.5 sacks, three PBUs, and an INT. He is starting to show some of his impressive playmaking skills as a run-and-chase linebacker as well as a coverage defender, having a knack for taking the ball away.

Starting beside Jones is #19 Reggie Ragland who was brought in a few weeks ago after Cleveland sustained all their injuries at the position. Ragland has always profiled as more of a run-stuffing linebacker (6’2″, 252lb) that tends to struggle in space and playing in coverage. #56 Tae Davis has also been brought in a little over a month ago but has yet to log a defensive snap. #40 Jermaine Carter has seen action the last three weeks like Ragland but is more of a sub-package player due to his size (6’1″, 225lb).

Cornerbacks

The main man in the secondary who just got the bag this offseason is 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 into his tackle attempts.

He is as well-rounded of a CB as you will see and likely will be tasked with covering Diontae Johnson for most of the contest while seeing some of George Pickens. He currently has 14 PBUs on the season and three picks, but also has two fumble recoveries, both of which were returned for TDs.

After Ward, the Browns also field #20 Greg Newsome who is as fluid of an athlete as you will find at the position. His 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 and has done well thus far in 2022, starting alongside Ward and Newsome in sub packages as a long, physical defender on the outside. #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. #26 Greedy Williams has returned from IR but hasn’t seen much playing time.

Safeties

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 over top of him. He has the ball skills to make plays, having recorded 12 INTs in his career to date. He also doesn’t shy away from being a tackler, having two 100-tackle seasons under his belt and is six away from accomplishing that feat this season. 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. Delpit has become a fixture in the secondary for Cleveland this season, becoming a full-time starter and has racked up 103 total tackles (71 solo), four TFLs, ten PBUs, and four INTs.

#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. #37 D’Anthony Bell is primarily a special teams contributor, but saw some action on defense last week against Washington.

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