Cleveland Browns Film Room: So what does a Ray Horton defense look like?

“We’re going to look like an aggressive, forward attacking defense that has big men that can run and little men that can hit. I’ve seen that on tape and that’s the most important thing to me is what do we look like, not what we line up in. We may be a 3-4 on one snap. We may be a 4-3 on another snap. I guarantee we’ll be a 5-2 sometimes and we’ll be a 4-4 sometimes. We are a multi-front, attacking defense and that’s the most important thing, not what player lines up where, how he stands, what stance he’s in.” – New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton


If you watched the press conference yesterday introducing new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, you know one thing is certain.

We have new buzzwords.

No fewer than seven times coach Horton referred to his philosophy of “little men that can hit and big men that can run”. He is convinced that if you have those two things you can be quite flexible and adjust to whatever the offense likes to do and take that away.

It sounds much better than him saying “I run XYZ defense and we will have to find players to fit this system. It may take a while. It’s a process.”

“Going back, I use the word multiple front. Coach Rob uses hybrid. They’re the same term. They’re just different semantics of language. We are going to be a defense that gives offenses problems. Our guys can play a multitude of things. I don’t like to get pigeonholed into, ‘Well, he is this.’ Here’s what we’re going to be. We’re going to be a team that looks at the offense and tries to take away what they do best. Now, that may mean one snap being a 5-2. The next snap it may be a 4-4. It will be predicated by what the offense does and we have athletes that can stand up, that can put their hand in the ground and that can run. That’s why I go back to the multi-front defense. I can’t tell you what we’re going to be right now, it depends on who we line up game one against. What do they do? What do we need to take away? The thing I’m most excited about is I have a group of athletes that can run and hit and they’re not limited to just saying, ‘Coach, line me up in a specific front, number system and play.’ Just run and hit.”

So that sounds fantastic, but is that really what his defense in Arizona looked like? Well, at times yes. Here are a few things that I noticed in limited looks at the Arizona defense:

Cards Bills play presnap

One of the things that Horton said was that he didn’t care how many people were putting their hand on the ground as opposed to standing up to rush the passer. That certainly was true in the game against the Buffalo Bills. Here we see a first down play at midfield. The Bills have Spiller in the backfield and a TE lined up as a slot back off the left tackle. The Cardinals have just 2 down defensive linemen, and two linebacker/defensive ends on the outside lined up wide and on the line of scrimmage. This kind of looks like a 4-3, except with the DEs standing up. Except that isn’t a linebacker on the defense’s left side. Number 22 is a defensive back. And it appears his job is to shadow C.J. Spiller. So in truth this is kind of a nickel package. But it is certainly designed to stop the run as well.

Cards Bills play 1 snap

At the snap we see the DT on the right side occupy two offensive linemen. It appeared to me that the role of the DTs for the Bills game was to occupy the three interior linemen with just the two defensive tackles. You see the DB #22 watching Spiller all the way, and the DE/OLB crash down following the OT.

Cards Bills play 1 tackle

The play is stopped for a minimal gain by the outside rusher. Notice the gap integrity. Wherever there is a spot to run, there is an Arizona defender. Also, notice the Jabaal Sheard role. This looks like something Sheard can do.

Ok, let’s look at another play from the same game. This time it is third and long.

Cards Bills 3rd down blitz snap

Now here again there were only two down linemen. There were two DE/OLB standing up on the outside of the line, and four linebackers or defensive backs were within 5 yards of the line and all were showing blitz or had to be accounted for. At the snap the left DE drops into coverage, as does the DB behind him. The Cardinals bring five rushers on the play.

Cards Bills 3rd down blitz bring 5

What I like here is that the five rushers are overloaded on the right side. They are bringing more rushers than blockers over there, and the QB has to get rid of the ball quick. He decides to go to the WR at the bottom of the screen, and the pass sails out of bounds.

Let’s take a look at how Horton chose to attack another team.

Cards Pack play 1 presnap

This is the first play from scrimmage for the Packers against the Cardinals. After a great return the Packers have the ball on the 20 of Arizona. Not the way you want to start the game. The Packers go with a tight end right, shotgun formation with a RB on Rodgers’ right.

Cards pack play 1 snap

How’s this for attacking? Horton sends six, leaving man coverage on all three wide outs with a safety over the top.

cards pack play 1 sack

The gamble pays off, as Rodgers is unable to unload the ball before the pressure gets to him. Loss of ten on the play.
On second down the Packers complete a short pass for four yards, setting up a big third down.

Cards Pack 3rd down

Notice the defensive line? This time they are all four on their hands and the defensive ends are pinched in tighter, similar to what the Browns did with their defensive line under Jauron. The defensive backfield is in a complete zone this time. At the snap the four defensive linemen will all rush, and force Rodgers to step up and out of the pocket before throwing downfield incomplete. In fairness, the man he was throwing to did have a hole in the zone, but the ball was not on line.

The Cardinals forced a field goal attempt (which Green Bay missed for the record).

We’ll continue to look at film on Horton’s defense to get a feel for what he likes to do. From the limited game film I’ve watched, he isn’t telling stories. He does change up his defenses quite a bit. Perhaps that is something to be excited about.

  • MrCleaveland

    Nice job, again. Rick, I’m amazed that you (and others) can hold a job, raise a family, and still write pieces like this, which obviously take a lot of research. Slap a WFNY sticker upside your head.

  • mgbode

    Thanks Rick. love this stuff.

    one of the reasons I and others were excited about Horton (even before the hire) was that he is one of those coaches that is willing to do what is necessary to attack the opposing offense.

    the other reason is that his shifts actually work (as seen by his efficiency ranks). i’m not sure we have guys at all positions that are as interchangeable as he will need, but having him on staff is a good start.

  • I realize that it’s becoming a passing league but you chose games from 2 of the most wide open offenses in the NFL. I would like to see the alignment against Seattle or STL myself.

  • Josh

    Great stuff!! Wonder if Jabaal can drop into coverage though…And would Rubin fit in those packages where they only have 2 down-lineman? Would it be him and Phil Taylor?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    “i’m not sure we have guys at all positions that are as interchangeable as he will need,” more like you know they don’t and so does Horton. You have to love an aggressive, hard hitting, versatile defense the problem is the Browns are missing more of these players then they have which means unless the front office is aggressive, far more aggressive then their predecessors, this process could take awhile.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’ve heard Rubin’s name mentioned as trade bait to improve the LB group. Personally I’m greedy and would like to see Taylor, Rubin and Winn retained because you can never have enough depth particularly if your going to have a versatile defense. It will be interesting to see what is done personnel wise.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    AdvancedNFLStats had the Cards’ D ranked 6th this year, I think. Great point.

    I would say that Rubin/Taylor would both do great in this setup, as would Sheard and Winn. DQ would as well as some of the other LBs most likely.

    If anything, the biggest issue would be that we need another really good DB or two (which we needed at least one anyway). Great case for Milliner.

  • Agree. All of these offensive formations seem to have at least 3 WRs on the field. I’d like to see what variations there are against 22 and 21 personnel. There should be a lot of examples to look at in their 6 NFC West games.

    Then again, I understand 3+ WR sets are becoming quite common in this game. All of the other AFC North teams have shown it more in the past couple years. Thus, I’m not sure how much 3-4/4-3 matters when you’re in Nickel and Dime packages so much. At least we have examples here of variations in those packages.

  • Harv 21

    Tired of complimenting you on these, Rick, so let me just say “the usual.”

    My concern is not that it’s a pure 3-4 so much as that I’m not sure our current personnel matches what he’s doing in your samples. We are deep in interior linemen; his schemes need fewer. We have few competent LBs in any scheme; his schemes require LBs who better be able to do a lot, especially blitz.

    All the blitzing puts TJ in man coverage against a 4 receiver set? Yikes, summer camp better be devoted to blitz techniques, because that’s an exploding cigar waiting to happen. Maybe young guys like JMJ and Craig Robertson will really respond to Horton’s teaching. Maybe they’ll recoup a second rounder and make sure they get a few defensive guys they’ll obviously need (no way can they take a QB early with these defensive-side needs). Most likely this scheme is another 2-3 year project and we better prepare for a step back before it goes forward. Horton’s happy talk notwithstanding, I don’t see the personnel to do this yet.

  • JacobWFNY

    Love these posts Rick. And I was a huge fan of the ’12 Cardinals defense — especially in the first half of this season. They were one of the best in the league for a while there. That might also probably be another angle about their success in the various parts of last season.

    First 8 games avg: 17.75 pts, 312.75 yards; four highest scores: 24, 21, 21, 19
    Last 8 games avg: 26.88 pts, 362.88 yards; four highest scores: 58, 31, 31, 28

    So they didn’t allow more than 24 points in the first half, and that was only one game. Yet in the second half, there were five games of 27+ points.

  • mgbode

    the impressive part of his defense was that the efficiency (per play not per game) didn’t go down much in the 2nd half. the offense was truly dreadful with TOs and constantly giving up field position.

  • mgbode

    yep, football outsiders had them ranked #2 vs. Pass and #17 vs. Run. it’ll be interesting to see how Horton uses our guys and I’m all aboard the Milliner or Moore train for the draft.

  • mgbode

    Winn/Rubin/Taylor can all play multiple positions on the DL. DQ, Gocong can play multiple LBer positions (but it’s not as fluid).

    the problem is that we really, really need edge guys. i’m sure that Horton/Banner and even Lombardi can see that too. interested to see how Sheard can handle it but I’d feel much more confident with some pickups there.

  • JacobWFNY

    Good point mgbode. Here’s another breakdown:

    First 8 games avg: 17.25 1st downs, 6.22 yards per pass, 4.13 yards per rush, 1.88 TOs per game
    Last 8 games avg: 18.75 1st downs, 6.71 yards per pass, 4.50 yards per rush, 2.25 TOs per game

    Yards per play and 1st downs went up slightly, but they actually forced a little bit more turnovers per game in the second half.

  • TSR3000

    Great stuff.

  • mgbode

    yes, exactly. i’m pretty surprised the Bidwell’s didn’t keep him on as HC after getting that defense to keep going despite everything swirling around near the end of the year. ah well, their loss, our gain.

  • bee cee

    no one seems to want to say this out loud, but it seems to me that we’ve basically gone back to the mangini approach to defense.

  • mgbode

    well, it is a 3-4, but it’s a Pitt-style 3-4 instead of a Parcells/Belichick 3-4. there are different assignments and responsibilities. different types of players at the positions, etc.