The Peppers plan has a problem

The Cleveland Browns have taken Heisman finalists and winners in the NFL Draft before 2017. These players have even been first-round picks whose ability to play has sparked contentious debate that has echoed beyond even those who care about the Northcoast team. But, what if the most divided opinion on a rookie for the Browns had nothing to do with the quarterback position?

The arguments surrounding Peppers were constant throughout his time at the University of Michigan. Many who opposed him pointed to his lack of production creating turnovers as a damning statistic proving his poor instincts, play recognition, and possessed a lack of ability to read and range to routes on deep patterns. His size of 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds was utilized to demonstrate Peppers was too small to play the weakside linebacker position he often was placed at for the Wolverines. His 2015 year struggles to tackle in the open field cited as potentially returning in the faster-paced NFL.

Those advocating for Peppers pointed to his ridiculous athleticism with a rare blend of speed, quickness, and explosion. His other positive attributes included a love for the game of football, his improvement as a tackler, and his willingness to do whatever a coach might ask of him- even if it might hurt his financial future. Peppers was known to be a leader in the offseason, in the film rooms, the weight room, and on the field of play. The energy and dedication with which he plays the game of football being something every coach drools over the possibility of having on his team.


Even those who were positive on Peppers were not quite sure where he might play in the NFL. Would he play nickel linebacker? Would he be a pure strong safety? Should he be the next Tyronn Mathieu who was moved all over the field and told just to go create havoc? Some even thought he might be utilized best as a cornerback. Mike Mayock was a voice of reason during the process when he noted “Have a plan for this kid. When people say it’s a negative that they don’t know how to play him, I see it as a positive.”

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indeed had a plan for Jabrill Peppers though it was one most did not expect. With Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell both strong safeties and a linebacker corps expected to be able to succeed on their own,1 Peppers took up residence at the free safety position. He even matched his entire collegiate interception total in the preseason when he picked off a Jameis Winston pass.

With Myles Garrett expected to help reinvigorate the pass rush and the cornerbacks expected better in coverage after cutting an ex-Pro Bowl player with diminishing skills and physical limitations, the defense could be formidable. Eliminating those devastating big plays over the top was the one aspect without a safety net. The over-riding thought in Berea became that Peppers could best use his speed to range the entirety of the deep routes and eliminate any threat of big plays against the youthful defense. As Jackson noted “It is not about the corners or not having confidence in the corners. This is something we truly believe discourages teams from trying to throw the ball over our head. You have not seen a ball go over our head that way. I think that is a credit to the strategy that (defensive coordinator) Gregg (Williams) and the defensive staff have put together that way.”

The rather ridiculous aspect is the extreme measure the Browns have taken with this strategy. Peppers routinely has lined up more than 25 yards off the line of scrimmage, which puts him out of the play unless there happens to be a deep route. With NFL offenses switching to more underneath quick-timing routes, many plays see Peppers as more of a spectator than participant.

The other result has seen the Browns defense reduced to a modern era Martyball. The defenders allow receptions underneath with the need to eliminate yards after the catch. The idea being to set the offense up to stall with an incomplete or penalty on the long drive down the field. As Jackson noted, the defense has limited long passes as they have only allowed four plays of greater than 20 yards and one of more than 40- a Top 10 mark. However, the result has been allowing 22.5 points and 313.5 yards per game, which is a tick below average even accounting for the punt block in Week 1. Football Outsiders has the overall defensive efficiency ranked 25th in the NFL.

One reason the odd defensive alignment has not had the desired effects is the quick adjustments offensive coordinators have made in order to take advantage of the weaknesses it provides. With Peppers playing so deep, even intermediate routes (10-15 yard routes) are effectively playing 11-on-10 football.

The Pittsburgh Steelers still took seven shots downfield over 15 yards and three beyond 20. The 4-for-7 line though was bolstered by three receptions at the 15 yard marker. Anything deeper saw Roethlisberger go 1-for-4 with an interception. Those short and intermediate routes though are where the Steeler offense thrived all day long. Roethlisberger would up going 20-for-29 with two touchdowns in that space.

The Baltimore Ravens had the advantage of a week with the Steeler film before devising their gameplan. The result was a heavy dose of short routes to take advantage of the short-handed defense in that space despite having Mike Wallace who averaged 14.2 yards per reception in 2016 with a 62% catch ratio. The three times Flacco did test out passes beyond 15 yards, he went 2-for-3 with an interception. One of those passes was just beyond 15 yards where Peppers was of little use, the other a 20 yard pass to the sideline where, again, Peppers had little time to do anything other than limit yards after the catch. On the short routes, Flacco finished 23-for-31 with two touchdowns.

NFL NextGen Stats

As for Peppers, Pro Football Focus cannot figure out how to grade him. The individual scout assigned to grade the Browns has listed him as a Top 5 defender each of the first two weeks at a 78 score indicating he has been an above average starter. After review from the rest of their staff though, Peppers has precipitously dropped to 75th out of 78 safeties in the NFL as 40 points have been shaved from his average each week.

While such drops might or might not be unprecedented, they certainly are strange. How do you grade Peppers play though? If he is graded upon what he is asked to do, then he should grade rather well. He has only missed one tackle- though an egregious one- but he also is so far out of the play in normal circumstances that having him grade out high also seems odd. The biggest PFF negative adjustment to his score is to his run defense rating, again because he is so far away from the line of scrimmage he is a non-factor.

As always with Peppers though, there’s more to it.

On those same PFF rankings, Derrick Kindred has graded out as a Top 10 safety mostly due to his abilities run defense where only the Minnesota Vikings Harrison Smith has done better in their metrics. Kindred is a limited safety in that his only value to a defense is as a downfield run-stopper who will hopefully be good enough in underneath coverage to not be wholly exposed.

The Browns defense has ranked No. 10 against run. The defensive line has done a good job of setting the edges and the linebackers have been able to clean up any opened interior lanes. Run blitzes have also become a staple of the early Williams defense and even Peppers has gotten into the act as he crashed hard. Even though he was blocked by Ben Watson, he forced Javorius Allen to cut to the inside. If Emmanual Ogbah had stayed anywhere near his lane on the play, it would have resulted in no gain.

Playing so deep has also redirected the routes of receivers who do venture into that space. There are times where the quarterback will need to move off of those reads and others where they force something that isn’t available. On both interceptions the Browns have acquired this season, the wide receiver has changed their route as a direct result of Peppers positioning. On Sunday, Mike Wallace wanted to take a deep post, but Peppers had come to help McCourty on the middle of the field forcing a rounded route back to the outside. Flacco would up floating the ball beyond Wallace where Jason McCourty was able to secure it.

The other component of Peppers playing so deep is to help the Browns defense mask another glaring issue- the absence of No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. The 2016 Browns defense struggled to get to the quarterback, and Garrett was the only addition to that unit who should help in that regard. Without him, the Browns only touched Ben Roethlisberger on Carl Nassib’s sack. Williams adjusted the defense a bit in Week 2 as Flacco was hit four times, but only once by a defensive lineman- Larry Ogunjobi. The other three instances were on linebacker blitzes from Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, and James Burgess. The safety net of Peppers allows Williams to blitz more often with less of a threat of being burned by a big play.

That abject fear of quarterbacks throwing over the top though might be paralyzing the defensive schemes. As noted, offenses have adjusted to shorter route trees. The Browns rank just No. 25 against the pass as a result. With the NFL being a pass-first league, the low standing against the pass is reflected in the overall defensive standing. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are two of the better quarterbacks the Browns will face in the early portion of their season, but it is all the more reason not to gift them easy reads.

Blitzing a linebacker and allowing a tight end such as Ben Watson 20 yards of free room in the middle of the field because Peppers was lined up 25 yards off the line of scrimmage is ridiculous.

Peppers strength of utilizing his speed and quickness in small spaces is also being wasted. His ability to morph defenses into multiple looks without changing the personnel grouping has yet to be seen.

Instead, Williams has relied on the threat of Peppers as a deterrent. He has received limited chances to prove himself. In those limited instances, he has been a sure tackler though his one glaring mistake resulted in the Ravens getting points late in the half. Due to Peppers not having many opportunities, his poor route to Javarius Allen sticks in the mind even more. “I’ll take that one on the chin, bad angle,” Peppers told “I saw one of my guys closing in on my left, so I thought I was going to be able to come from outside in, but I guess we both took bad angles, my feet got stuck in the mud, I couldn’t get my feet under me, kind of was just awkward, couldn’t even attempt to dive, so it was just all bad. I told them that’s on me.”

Thus far, the coaching staff has been unapologetic about the positioning. Jackson has refused to acknowledge it has caused any issues in allowing underneath routes to be more open for the opposition. “I don’t feel that way.” Jackson noted. “I think we are able to rally. Now, sometimes they will get in a hole, you feel like a combination route and we may get off a guy a little bit sooner than we should underneath and it looks like, ‘Wow, if that guy was tighter, he would make the play sooner.’ I can see you guys saying that, but that is not why we feel that those things are happening.”

It is quite possible the defense is so young that what has been rolled out to this point is just Phase I of a master plan. The multiple fronts, blitzes, and coverages promised upon bringing Williams aboard as the defensive coordinator could be on the horizon. The limitations of the current sets being as much of a product of the offenses faced. With Jacoby Brissett and the Indianapolis Colts the next opponent, perhaps more experimentation will happen to confuse the young starter. With Myles Garrett returning sometime in the next few weeks, whole sections of the defensive playbook might reveal themselves.

Regardless, how about we start with the baby step of having Peppers play at a depth where he is capable of helping the defense.

  1. Despite what Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins looked like in Week 2, they are expected to be a fine unit also including the youthful potential of Joe Schobert and James Burgess. []