What does hiring Gregg Williams mean to the Browns defense?

John Kuntz, Northeast Ohio Media Group

Jimmy Haslam’s edict of continuity and stability did not include defensive coordinator Ray Horton Jr. or his staff. The Cleveland Browns decided to bring in Gregg Williams who,Β despite coaching some top defenses in Tennessee, Buffalo, Washington, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and St. Louis, is best-known for being the lead character in the Bountygate scandal.

But now that the shock from the pivot from Horton to Williams is subsiding, the time has come to figure out exactly what it means to be switching defensive coaching staffs again.

What defense does Gregg Williams employ?

If you read that Williams runs a specific defense, the author hasn’t done his homework. Williams likes to say that he “runs every front known to football” as one of his key strengths has been his ability to adapt to the defensive talent on hand. As such, he can be quite hard on his defensive players because they need to learn a ton of different formations. Adding to the complexity is that he often will allow the middle linebacker to call defensive audibles to switch in and out of formations and blitzes.

Williams cut his teeth running a defense under Jeff Fisher with the Tennessee Titans that culminated with coming a yard short of a Superbowl victory. At the time, he ran a base 46. Buddy Ryan’s aggressive, knock ’em down defense that prided itself on two things: Stopping the run and not giving quarterbacks enough time to complete passes. The basic premise of a 46 defense is bringing the strong safety up near the LOS to give a 4-4 look (though more like a 3-4 plus a safety) to the offense. From there, any number of exotic or straight blitz schemes would be employed with a big component of them being to help get 1-on-1 matchups with his great pass rushers at defensive end.

Williams wouldn’t always have guys like Jevon Kearse to get after the quarterback, however. In such cases, he would utilize a 4-3 Under defense. This defense subsists in almost a mirror image from the 46. A popular coverage – though not the only one to use with this defense – is the Tampa-2. The Tampa-2 allows short completions and runs, but, when run at its best, limits offenses to only those. Any penalty or mistake kills a drive. The Williams twist to this defense is that he was hyper-aggressive at creating turnovers (especially when utilizing in New Orleans). Any greedy quarterback trying to force a play is a turnover. On the defensive line, the 4-3 Under has the DL in the gaps with the defensive tackle to the weakside in a 3-technique while the tackle on the strong side is in a 1-technique. The result is a shift of the defense towards the weak side with the DT in the gaps (not head-up to the OL).

There were other teams, such as with the St. Louis Rams where Williams would have a base 4-3 Over set with plenty of blitzes. On the defensive line, the 4-3 Under has the DL in the gaps with the defensive tackle to the weakside in a 1-technique while the tackle on the strong side is in a 3-technique. The result is a shift of the defense towards the strong side with the DT in the gaps. One of the keys to this defense is having fast, versatile linebackers who can cover lots of ground both in the pass rush and falling back into coverage. Having a safety whose able to lay the wood over the middle is a hallmark as is a free safety with crazy speed for when the offense beats the blitz. It is best to have cornerbacks who are big and strong.

Williams has not been shy to try out his hand at throwing a hybrid 3-4 defense at times too. With the Browns, he might even shift to this defense more often due to that being the base defense under Ray Horton Jr. though it was not the only look he used.

Expect to see the defense mold and adapt to whatever is the best for the roster at hand for the opponent that week. Even expect many changes based on circumstances of an individual game. Early on, there might be some sloppiness as the defenders learn a vast array of coverage and assignments, but the end result should become a defense capable of matching up with any offense.

How about we break down the defense by roles rather than specific formations?

Regardless of what front the Browns show, there are a bunch of different roles that Williams will want to have specific players be capable of filling if he is allowed to be as aggressive as his best defenses have been. Let’s focus on who might be starting in each role.

Speed-rush guy: Maybe Emmanuel Ogbah could be his speed-rush guy, but he wouldn’t be best in this role. The Browns just don’t have such a player on their roster. The good news is that one of the best to come out in years is available in the 2017 NFL Draft and the Browns have the first pick. Williams will be pounding his fists, stomping his feet, and screaming for Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. The Browns should listen.

Pass rusher with a bit more power, polish: Ogbah will need to step up his game to fill this role. If Garrett is going to be able to get some 1-on-1 blocking, then the offense is going to have to worry about the other defensive end too. Ogbah continuing to develop pass rush moves and adding strength will crucial to this defense.

1- and 3-technique disruptors at defensive tackle: Enter Danny Shelton and Desmond Bryant as Williams will not want his defensive tackles just standing around. Since Bryant has struggled to stay healthy, the Browns might be best seeing if they can find another as Jamie Meder and Xavier Cooper might not provide the consistent push that will be needed from the starter.

Weak-side linebacker (Will): A heavy run blitzer who can rack up ridiculous tackle numbers. The player needs to be solid tackler, speedy, and ruthless, which is why Christian Kirksey might be perfect.

Middle linebacker (Mike): The defensive quarterback calls the blitzes by audible, gets in and out of formations, and still needs to be explosive tackler. This position is why it is imperative that the Browns re-sign Jamie Collins.

Strong-side linebacker (Sam): This backer still needs to be able to pass rush, but needs the ability to take on the TE and even OT more often during the run game. Shedding blocks will be key there and perhaps even setting the edge when in fronts that bring the Sam up to the LOS. A big difference than a standard Sam backer scheme though is that this player will need to be super athletic and be able to fall back into coverage, take the flats to remove the threat of screens and the circle route, as well as getting to the quarterback. Carl Nassib might make some sense in this role but he is not a perfect fit by any means. Demario Davis likely doesn’t have enough speed to play a prominent role on this team anymore.

Strong Safety: Needs someone in the middle who can lay a lick, so Derrick Kindred might work here. He, and the rest of the defense, will need to clean up the tackling though. Missed tackles will have less help behind them, so the team needs to change to become a sure-tackling team pretty quickly.

Free Safety: How do you cover up when an offense beats the blitz and throws it deep to 1-on-1 coverage? Well, having a safety who can sprint over large portions of the field and swat the ball away (or take it away himself) is what will be needed. There is no one on the Browns roster who even begins to fill this role. If the Browns are willing to wait on a quarterback though, then they might be able to draft Jamal Adams from LSU (unlikely, he is a Top 5 talent) or Malik Hooker from the Ohio State University at pick No. 12.

Cornerbacks: Williams likes his cornerbacks to be big, strong, physical guys with plenty of length capable of pushing around receivers at the line and swatting balls away in coverage. Corners cannot ever get caught looking into the backfield, so expect a renewed energy decrying those who have this bad habit (*cough* Joe Haden *cough*). It does not mean the end of all smaller corners either though as having a couple of guys who can better cover the growing contingent of quick slot receivers will still be desired.

Special consideration: Jabrill Peppers is a special talent who will need a defensive coordinator willing to move him around and use him in many, many roles to take full advantage of his versatility. The fact he can play multiple positions also could allow a defense to audible with more ease. So, while it was questionable if Horton would have used such a player, it is without question that Williams would use Peppers everywhere.

Last Word

The Browns are going to be a different defense. There will be more aggressiveness to take advantage of weak spots in offensive formations. The key to it working will be the front office continuing to find talented players to fill the gaps and for those players (and the ones we have now) to learn the huge defensive playbook that Williams has created over his many years in the NFL. If there is a specific defensive front that you prefer, then you’re in luck. You’ll get to see the Browns in it at some point.

  • RGB

    2016 Browns defensive rankings…
    PPG = 31st
    YPG = 30th

    I mean, TECHNICALLY things could get worse, buuut…

  • NankirPhelge

    Have we finally hired a guy who fits his scheme to the available talent rather than the idiotic other way around? God, I hope so.

  • Pat Leonard

    Great article Bode. I think our personal fits a 4-3 defense EXTREMELY well, especially if we add Myles Garrett to the mix. I’m thinking we may actually see Demario Davis as the Mike and Jamie Collins as the Sam… seems like it might fit their strengths better. And then when we go nickel, Davis will exit in favor of another DB.

  • tigersbrowns2

    with adding Williams , signing J.Collins , drafting Garrett & taking any other defensive player you really really like at #12 , there SHOULD be instant improvement & excitement.

    we already have the first pick , so signing Collins is huge … just freakin’ pay the guy … we have plenty of cap space.

    okay , RGB should be posting any second … wait for it …

  • mgbode

    he already posted that he expects things to get better above — a new recruit for #TeamSunnyside perhaps

  • tigersbrowns2

    i’m also seeing some pretty good defensive free-agents :

    CB a.j. bouye jax
    CB m. butler ne
    DT c.campbell ari
    OLB m. ingram
    S e. berry kc
    S t. jefferson ari
    OLB c. jones ari
    S church dal – from U of Toledo !!!

    is this the year we spend on free-agency … could you imagine bringing in a guy like Calais Campbell ??

  • Pat Leonard

    I’m very curious which free agents the Browns will add. Campbell is probably too old for this regime, but there are a number of mid-20s guys coming off of their first contracts. Would the Browns pay CB Trumaine Johnson? He just played for Gregg Williams and may want to continue doing that. Dre Kirkpatrick is another interesting free agent CB who may like the idea of playing for Hue Jackson from their time in Cincy. Ditto for guard Kevin Zeitler.

  • tigersbrowns2

    Campbell is only 30 years old & is still a dominating presence. i will be interested to see if we do any meaningful spending in free-agency this year.

  • Garry_Owen

    So, Step 2: Just get ALL OF THOSE GUYS. Easy.

  • jpftribe

    I’m sure it will be “appropriately” meaningful.

  • Pat Leonard

    I know, and he’s right in the middle of his prime for a team looking to compete this year or in the next couple years, but I’m just going off of what Sashi Brown said after the Browns brought in Demario Davis at 26 years old. That seemed to be the age range of the free agents they were targeting.

  • RGB

    GREGG: Hey Sashi, I see we have some serious cap room. I’ve compiled this list of awesome FAs we could sign.


  • mgbode

    This FA class is as deep as the draft class.

    I mean, if you consider how the Browns FO went about things, you almost could get the feeling they saw the deep FA class and saved $$$ for it. Then, saw the deep draft class and acquired picks for it.

  • mgbode

    Older guys would have to be at a pretty good discount unless they were special. Not sure if Campbell falls into the special category for us or not. Given what I think GW wants from his DE’s, I’d sort of slant towards him being more valuable on another team.

  • tigersbrowns2

    LMAO … right on cue.

  • woofersus

    Booo Demario Davis still getting lots of reps on this team!

    Seriously though, I think Collins versatility and football IQ make him a great fit at Mike. I think Sam and FS are the most logical FA targets on defense. They’ll need a FS with some experience to jump in and be effective at Williams’ defense.

  • woofersus

    I think we had a bunch of talent that didn’t fit our current scheme super well, and Williams’ base schemes should actually make for a better fit to the talent by default. (if we fill those couple of holes, although we needed a LB and FS anyway)

  • mgbode

    I came into the season thinking Demario Davis was better than what we had with Chris Gocong. I left the season not being so sure.

  • woofersus

    It’s possible he just wasn’t utilized as well as he could have been, but Davis just always seemed to be late to the play. He looked slow. Maybe it was something in the scheme hindering his reaction time? It’s one of the tougher positions to evaluate without knowing the defensive calls, since it’s not always obvious what the intent was vs. what he actually did. I’ll say this: Despite not being that impressed with him, I’ll be much more disappointed if they don’t shore up FS than if they roll with Demario Davis.

  • mgbode

    Just re-sign Collins and add 3 more good starters on defense. Easy, right?

  • Garry_Owen

    2 in the draft, 1 in FA? 1 in the draft, 2 in FA?

  • Pat Leonard

    And if I’m Campbell, I would probably want to play for a team that was built to win right now, rather than in the future. Dude is going to get paid regardless, he’s a big time free agent.

  • Pat Leonard

    It’s definitely a position in need of an upgrade, but I would also realize that he’s not going to be on the field all that much. The Browns will spend most of their time in nickel, dime, and sub-packages because that’s just how it is in the NFL these days, so this position isn’t as vital to address as, say, cornerback or safety.

  • Pat Leonard

    Exactly. It doesn’t HAVE to be a super long process to go from 1-15 to mediocre… just depends how much and where the HBT (and Haslams) are willing to spend.

  • humboldt

    A ‘bounty’ of draft picks, if you will πŸ˜‰

  • Harv

    Yesterday heard James Laurinaitis extolling his virtues. He says Williams emphasizes aggression and daily statistical production (including idiosyncratic hustle stats), even in practices. His big board stat chart sits prominently in the room and guys getting fewer snaps are just referred to the board. Laurinaitis said Williams gives no quarter for a guy’s draft pedigree; you play with vicious hustle and produce or you don’t.

    Would love to know that Williams can influence them to grab Garrett, because this is the guy to groom an explosive talent like that. To me, Garrett looks like Von Miller and even another guy I won’t mention for fear of castigation for exaggerating. Just see the speed, strength and variety of ways he dominates making this kid being as close to “can’t miss” as exists in the unpredictable draft. But, doubt they’ll be able to resist the trade down. You know it, I know it. They’re already whimpering in excitement over point systems, assets and value equivalents.

  • paulbip

    Most of this years picks will be gone after next year. I applied analytics to that.

  • Jaker

    A few thoughts…

    If we double up on defense in the first round, we can realistically fill 2 roles right away.

    #1- Garrett is a great upgrade no matter what kind of D you run. Adding him makes the most sense if we go Defense in round 1. Jonathan Allen makes our DTs one of the stronger duos in the NFL, but leaves our DEs bare.

    #12- Hooker (FS, speedy ballhawk roamer) & Peppers (versatile big hitting, great tackling LB-ish SS) is the perfect safety combo for a Gregg Williams D. Obviously we won’t be able to get both of them, but grabbing one seems very possible to go along with our DL pick at #1.

    Resigning Collins (we have the money and at least the Tag) shouldn’t be as hard for us as it sounds considering we have what he wants most…$

    If Ogbah is the power rusher, Shelton-Des-Meder-Cooper and company for the 1&3, we aren’t far off. A mid round pick on Derek Rivers out of YSU would be perfect for the SAM role. Guy is an athletic freak who can cover TEs as well as rush the passer. He’s also the type of guy who doesn’t miss tackles and still lays the lumber, which is sounding like what our D is supposed to become. Add in just 1 defensive starter via Free Agency and I think this defense has a high ceiling. Maybe not in year 1, but it would certainly be a great foundation, something we haven’t said in awhile.

    Now, if these picks don’t work, we still don’t have a franchise QB nor do we have an OLine that could protect him. Ignoring offense at the 1st and 12th overall picks will definitely sting, but it will be tolerable if the defense improves. If the picks bust we are crippled for years.

  • Garry_Owen

    Dying to know . . . LT?

  • Jaker

    This is also a great year to need CB. Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marlon Humphrey, Marshaun Lattimore, Adoree Jackson, Sidney Jones, Desmond King, Gareon Conley, Jourdan Lewis, Cordrea Tankersley and Tre’Davius White are all considered top 50 prospects and are thought to be day 1 starters in the NFL. If they go quickly, they push some elite prospects down the board to us. If they last, we could be looking at some great value at one of our second round picks. Also, it decreases our chances at reaching for a CB considering how deep it is this year.

  • Jaker

    If they double up on D in round 1, we easily can fill a safety spot in addition to Garrett/Allen. ReSign Collins and add just 1 FA and the starting 11 looks worlds better than it did in 2016

  • Garry_Owen

    Indeed. It looks pretty “professional.”

  • Harv

    A first round haul of Garrett and Hooker might be the greatest Browns draft since Ozzie Newsome/Clay Matthews. They need to evaluate rather than fabricate prospects, and those two (or Peppers instead of Hooker) seem safe bets to cornerstone the franchise for years. Just not sure Hooker or Peppers will still be there at #12, and the siren song of the Franchise QB cries loudest in the first round to the desperate, whether or not the QBs deserve it..

  • Jaker

    Agreed on all accounts. And there is a nice silver lining if Peppers and Hooker (and Adams, for that matter) are gone by 12. They are pushing someone else down to us at a different position. Having 3 safeties go that high would mean that Leonard Fournette or Cam Robinson or Rueben Foster will be available at 12. Or we have our pick of CBs, or even Mike Williams. What about Soloman Thomas to put at the 3 between Garrett and Shelton? Guys that are absolute studs and are the best player at their position in the whole draft. So maybe we want the 3 safeties gone by 12?

    It’s the one nice thing about having needs everywhere…BPA also fills a need!

  • Harv

    [mmmmaybe …]

  • Garry_Owen

    Ooh. I like the coyness of plausible deniability!

    I’m just going to go ahead and put it out there: Harv thinks Garrett is the next Lawrence Taylor!!!

    If this all comes back to bite you . . . blame the Russians. (It’s probably true.)

  • Harv

    [note to self: change name/avatar before training camp. Maybe “Dmitri” and a chessboard]

  • tsm

    Agree with both of you on this, but concerned that the drum beat to get a QB at 12 will be too difficult to pass up. I am counting on Bode to find the guy at 33 for our QB.

  • mgbode

    Mahomes at No. 33 is what I have been saying (assuming the other guys all get taken Round 1)