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, 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.
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.