Monday, September 23, 2013

Can Ray Horton bring his brand of defense to the Cleveland Browns?

 Karl Kimbrough (pictured), Cleveland Urban News.Com Sportswriter (kimbrough@clevelandurbannews.com)

CLEVELAND, Ohio-After the announcement that Ray Horton was hired to be the new Cleveland Browns Defensive Coordinator there was excitement and optimism among Browns fans. Why, because so many remember so very well how Horton's Pittsburgh Steelers defenses dominated the Browns offenses so much since 1999 that they had to question if a rivalry still exists. That rivalry which was one of the NFL's bests before the former Browns became the Baltimore Ravens.

After the announcement that Ray Horton was hired to be the new Cleveland Browns Defensive Coordinator there was excitement and optimism among Browns fans. Why, because so many remember so very well how Horton's Pittsburgh Steelers defenses dominated the Browns offenses so much since 1999 that they had to question if a rivalry still exists. That rivalry which was one of the NFL's bests before the former Browns became the Baltimore Ravens.

Since then Browns fans have wondered when or if the physical brand of defense they were accustom to seeing in the 1980's would return to Cleveland's lake shore. Horton, who spent his last two years bring the knowledge he gained in Pittsburgh to the Arizona Cardinals had so much success that he is thought to be a NFL head coaching candidate. But first he will probably have to prove to General Managers that he can turn this group of Cleveland Brown defenders into one of the top units in the league.

Last year the Browns defenders were ranked 19th in the league and only 12 other teams gave up more points. In his first interview as the Browns Defensive Coordinator Horton said, “ I am looking for big guys who can run and little guys who can hit.” The NFL used to be a league that focused more on finding big guys who can hit and little guys that can run to keep up with fast receivers.

So what Horton is saying is he needs all of his defenders to do both. Obviously big defense linemen must be very physical at the point of attach because each play begins with them physically moving or disengaging with the player in front of them. In Horton's system after the defensive linemen disengage or get off their blockers they need to be able to run down the line of scrimmage and make plays, or tackles. Also, within Horton's schemes at times he will ask linemen to drop back in coverage on the second level of the defense.

This is an example of how Horton's defense is predicated on players being able to do different things. Do the Browns have the linemen, linebackers and defensive backs to play Horton's schemes? Horton's base defense is a three-four, which means that he will normally have three down linemen, four line backers and four defensive backs.
Much has been said about the Browns off season spending spree to bring in defenders Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant. Along with those moves they are shifting Jabaal Sheard to outstanding linebacker from defensive end. The change to three-four base set along with bring in Kruger who stared as a pass rushing outside linebackers for Baltimore in their Super Bowl run is due to the teams philosophy change. CEO Joe Banner and all the new Browns regime believe that getting to the quarterback or consistently putting pressure on him is paramount in their attempt to have a great defense.

Having great pass rushing from the outside linebacker position continued to be the teams most important additions when they drafted Barkevious Mingo. Mingo is now looked upon as the outside speed rusher that will compete and add depth to the line backing core. Each one of these additions give Coach Horton a big man that is physical and can run, on their defensive line. But if this defense is going to have the impact that Horton's Steelers teams had the portion of the front seven that is least spoken of will need to play the most important role.

The strength of every great defense is in its middle. From the nose tackle of the three-four to the free safety, the defense must be strong. When you mention the names, Casey Hampton or Brett Keisel of the dominating Steeler defenses over the last ten years most fans don't know who they are. However, they were the backbone that made the Steelers one of the top 10 defenses in the NFL seven out of the last last 10 years.

If Ray Horton is to build a very good defense this year Phil Taylor, Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen will have to be the big men who can run and make plays on this Cleveland defensive line. Can Taylor be the run stopper that Hampton was? Hampton did not have great statistics that showed what a great nose tackle he was. He averaged only 31 tackles a season over 12 years, but was a Pro Bowl tackle because he often engaged two blockers. This allowed inside linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrier, who averaged over 120 tackles a season in his career to be free to make tackles.

Can Taylor be that lineman to stuff the middle on the run or get off his block and make tackles and push the pocket back on pass attempts. He has shown flashes that he can, being extremely physical at times. That's Taylors issue though, he has not shown a high motor or consistency. Ahtyba Rubin has been stout in the middle and reliable. Desmond Bryant has demonstrated freakish athleticism, at 6' 6” 315 pounds, he is very fast for his size and is very strong, but has been out so far this season with back muscle spasms.

In the rotation, Winn and Kitchen will come in to relieve the starters. Both have demonstrated quickness and the physical ability to be great backups. If this rotation of down linemen play at the level of their ability consistently it will set up the opportunity for the inside and outside linebackers to flourish.

D'Qwell Jackson has been one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL in recent years and continues to be the leader of the defense. Young inside linebacker Craig Robertson is a smaller linebacker who can ran and hit. In fact he was second in tackles for the Browns last season. Robertson can run so well that he has also shown the ability to cover receivers on the second level of the defense.

The outside linebackers Sheard and Kruger are two of the better rush linebackers in the league. With the interior defense linemen giving offensive linemen a lot to handle Kruger and Sheard will at times be rushing against tight ends instead of offensive linemen and will be able to take advantage of them.

Look for safety T.J. Ward to have the role of Pittsburghs number 43 Troy Polamalu, who was give the freedom to move around in the secondary to confuse the quarterback. Ward will also be put in a position to bring more speed to the field by sometimes playing a linebacker position. Ward fits Horton's criteria of a little guy who can hit. He had 123 tackles in 2010.

The Browns defensive backs are considered to be the weak link of the defense. Joe Haden though, has been a solid cover corner and a little guy who can hit as well with 65 and 64 tackles in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
The other two defensive back positions will be handled by strong safety Tashaun Gipson and Christopher Owens who was a nickle back for Atlanta last year. Buster Skrine has been a questionable cover corner, but is expected to be much improved. Defensive backs usually come into their own in their third year. This is Skrine's third year so fans may be in for a surprise. Skrine has always been a good tackler as is rookie corner Leon McFadden. The Browns defensive coaches are counting on the defensive line and linebackers to control the line of scrimmage on running plays. It will put linebackers and defensive backs in position to be used effectively by Coach Horton in his zone blitzes.

The pressure will not only be on Browns defenders, but on Horton to put his players in position to make plays. Down and distance will likely determine the defense Horton plays and when he will blitz to rattle the quarterback. Yes, Horton does have the physical talent to bring a tough attacking defense fans have only seen from the opposition in recent years. Horton needs to show that he can use his players to dictate what the opposing offense does by attacking. Rather than allowing the opposing offensive to dictate to his defense. Horton also needs to keep his troops believing they are as good as they can be which will bring the Browns, Steelers rivalry back to where it should be.