Browns HC explains Why the Browns defense had so much trouble with the Colts and a backup QB…

The Browns’ defensive performance in their recent clash with the Colts, where they conceded 38 points and 456 yards, has raised questions about the unit’s reputation as one of the league’s best this season.

While Myles Garrett’s exceptional play helped keep the Browns competitive, the defense as a whole found itself unable to contain the Colts’ offense, led by Gardner Minshew, who was coming off a dismal performance in a blowout loss to Jacksonville.

So, what caused the Browns’ defensive shift from stifling the league-leading 49ers’ offense to struggling against the Colts’ average offense led by a backup quarterback?

This season, the Browns’ defense has shown greater proficiency in man coverage than in zone coverage, according to data from Sports Info Solutions:

In Man coverage:

  • Allowed a 37.5% completion percentage (1st among NFL defenses)
  • Allowed 6.5 yards per play (8th)
  • -0.24 EPA/play allowed (5th)

In Zone coverage:

  • Allowed a 59.5% completion percentage (2nd)
  • Allowed 7.9 yards per play (21st)
  • -0.14 EPA/play allowed (7th)

(EPA, or Expected Points Added, factors in down, distance, and field position before and after a play to determine a play’s success in terms of points. It considers that a 4-yard gain on first-and-10 is different from a 4-yard gain on third-and-3. For offense, a positive EPA is better, while for defense, a negative EPA is better.)

Against the Colts, the Browns opted for zone coverage 64% of the time, marking the highest rate under Jim Schwartz, except for the game against Baltimore where they played zone 68%. Intriguingly, the two worst defensive showings of the season occurred against the Ravens and the Colts.

The Browns had to resort to zone coverage against the Ravens and Colts because both teams had quarterbacks who posed rushing threats. Defending mobile quarterbacks in man coverage is challenging since defenders are committed to covering their assigned receivers. In contrast, zone coverage allows defenders to face the line of scrimmage and monitor the quarterback’s movements, making it easier to prevent them from scrambling.

This circumstance led Schwartz to rely on zone coverage more than desired, revealing that the Browns are vulnerable when compelled to play this way. The Colts effectively pushed the Browns out of their man coverage by using “pick” plays that exploit man-to-man defense by running horizontally. The Colts particularly found success with their slant/flat concept:

Slant/flat concept:

  • Completed 3 of 5 passes for 91 yards and 1 TD
  • 0.92 EPA per play

Colts head coach Shane Steichen used these passing concepts to capitalize on the Browns’ tendency to play man coverage, pressuring them to shift towards zone coverage.

Once the Colts forced the Browns into zone defense, they targeted the middle of the field. This strategy proved to be highly effective:

Middle of the field passing:

  • Completed 6 of 9 passes for 117 yards and 1 TD
  • Explosive play rate of 33.3%

The Colts focused on the middle of the field because the Browns’ defensive strength primarily lies with their cornerbacks. The Colts chose not to challenge Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, and Martin Emerson Jr., instead targeting the linebackers in coverage.

The Colts’ approach provided a blueprint for defeating the Browns’ defense. By compelling them to play zone, whether due to a mobile quarterback or by running plays that exploit man coverage, opponents can exploit the defense’s susceptibility to surrendering significant gains.

In the upcoming weeks, the Browns are set to face Josh Dobbs and Lamar Jackson, both of whom are athletic quarterbacks known for breaking the pocket and scrambling effectively:

Josh Dobbs:

  • Averaging 31.6 yards per game (7th among starting QBs)
  • A broken tackle rate of 37% (5th)
  • 0.37 EPA per play (9th)

Lamar Jackson:

  • Averaging 53.1 yards per game (1st among starting QBs)
  • A broken tackle rate of 35.9% (6th)
  • 0.24 EPA per play (13th)

Success in the NFL hinges on adaptability. Throughout a season, opposing teams identify weaknesses to exploit. The Browns’ defense has now encountered its first significant challenge of the season and will face the Cardinals and Ravens, who are likely to adopt a game plan similar to the one employed by the Colts.



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