I’ve been critical of the Browns’ off-season strategies this year. But the area that I most misunderstand is the imperative for a whole new defense. Putting a finer point on it, I think the Browns have needlessly junked a promising defensive scheme (with the best+deepest+youngest d-line rotation in league) and passed on quality FAs to improve the d-backfield while simultaneously and breathlessly hyping how smart they are for discovering this Attacking Aggressive Horton 3-4 Defense (AAH34D).
The corollary to the Browns stridency in their adoption of the AAH43D is that if you’re running a 4-3, you’re.. well you’re old-fashioned at best but really borderline dull.
Yet it turns out the seven out of the top ten defenses (points allowed) run a 4-3. (See right.)
The biggest issue with the AAH34D is this: we mainly don’t like to have our back pissed on and be told it’s raining. That’s been that pattern and it continued with Joe Banner’s interview with Terry Pluto over the weekend. Word search of Pluto’s piece reveals five ‘attacks’ and two ‘aggressives.’ Banner also made a point of
telling us obfuscating about spending $90m on free agency. It’s actually $22.7 this year when measuring by average salary:
- Kruger, 8.1m
- Bryant, 6.8
- Everyone else, 7.8 (Campbell, 1.9; Barnidge, 1.2; Groves, 1.1; Graham, 1.0; Hoyer, 1.0; Owens, 1.0; Nelson, 0.6).
So, of $22.7m in average salary in this year’s FA spend, 70.4% was on the defensive front. 4% on the defensive backfield. Implied message: we don’t need to worry about finding a cornerback or free safety because attacking defensive front five in an aggressive 3-4.
It didn’t escape my notice that the Bengals extended Carlos Dunlap last week. In addition to that, Michael Johnson got the franchise tag from the Bengals this year and there are some indicators that the Bengals are trying to keep him.* In addition to that, they drafted Margus Hunt in the second round. That’s a hell of investment in the conventional DE-DT-DT-DE front four.
The other part of the Browns defensive personnel strategy is, or seems to be, d-backs aren’t a worthy investment and, of course, height doesn’t matter.
Couldn’t help but notice that Tampa signed Dashon Goldson, traded their first rounder for Darrell Revis, and drafted Johnathan Banks in the second round. Those three will pair up with last year’s seventh overall, Mark Barron. That’s a hell of an investment in the secondary.
This morning I want to take a look at these two defenses and challenge the wisdom of the new Browns’ gutting of the old Browns’ defensive scheme.
The Bengals are building a beast front four in their 4-3.
We love a great front four on a 4-3 defense and the Bengals are building one. According to the latest depth chart:
- LDE, Carlos Dunlap, 6-6, 24, 2nd rd (54th) Florida. Avg. salary: 6.7m;
- NT, Domata Peko, 6-3, 28, 4th rd (123rd) MSU. Starter since 2007. 8.5m;
- RDT, Geno Atkins, 6-1, 25, 4th rd UGA (120th), first team all-pro in 2012. 0.8m;
- RDE, Michael Johnson, 6-7, 26, 3rd rd (70th), GaTech. 11.2m.
First thought is, damn… it was insinuated that 4th round picks don’t matter when the Browns were trading out of the fourth (and fifth) this year. I disagree. You’re supposed to get good players in the first/second rounds. Hitting homeruns after that is what makes good teams great, especially teams who are committed to ‘building through the draft.’
The second thought is that Mike Zimmer is up to something with the height of his DEs. Add in the drafting of 6-8 Margus Hunt and it looks like a strategic personnel direction. The Bengals are committed to a 4-3 with height on the edge. Why?
Here’s a guess: Pass Deflections.
Pass deflections have long been considered bonus. You don’t really plan to get them. They just happen and when they do, it’s great. JJ Watt is changing that. NFL’s defensive player of the year had 16 PDs last year. If you consider that for each PD there were probably two passes altered and that’s 48 passes affected by Watt.
Johnson and Dunlap were nowhere near Watt on deflections and NCAA doesn’t track PDs so I don’t have data on Hunt.** But it seems to me that the Bengals sourcing of huge wingspan guys to place in passing lanes is not coincidence. They’re looking to remove easy short passes from the QBs check-down progression. This makes it a lot easier for linebackers to cover zones as the zones are smaller. (Cincy’s league-slowest LB corps says Thank You.) Clogged passing lanes at LOS also helps the Bengals to pressure the QB without blitzing. And of course, pressure with a four man front is defensive nirvana because Manning/Brady/Rogers can’t exploit vacated zones if linebackers aren’t blitzing and thus zones aren’t vacated.
Bengals were the #6 defense last year in total yards. They’ve added James Harrison to their linebackers. Dre Kirkpatrick is bound to improve in his second year and it’s worth noting that the Bengals CBs are both first rounders. Mike Zimmer is one of the best DCs in the game. Marvin Lewis, head coach is an open question but Marvin Lewis, DC presided over a defense that won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at QB. Those two have a clue about running defenses. Bengals’ good defense could move up to great this year.
It’s also worth noting that their two significant recent additions to their d-backfield (Kirkpatrick and Taylor Mays) are north of 6′ 1″. This brings us to part two of staffing your defense differently from the Browns: check out what the Bucs did this off-season.
Technically, you CAN have too many pass-rushers.
The Bucs defense was not good last year: 29th in total yards, dead last in pass yards allowed.
Unlike the Browns (25th in pass yards allowed) who have tended to losing last year’s starting #2CB and FS with 3rd and 6th round draft picks and lots of money and draft investment in the d-front (Because why? Altogether everybody: YOU CANT HAVE TOO MANY PASS RUSHERS!)… the Bucs have gone a different route. Building from last year’s seventh overall draft pick (Mark Barron), the Bucs have added new personnel at the three other secondary positions.
- SS, Mark Barron, 6-1, 23, 7th overall Bama;
- CB, Johnthan Banks, 6-2, 23, 2nd rd (43rd) Missy St;
- FS, Dashon Goldson, 6-2, 28, 4th rd (126) Washington, 1st team all-pro, $8m average salary (5/41m);
- CB, Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 28, 14th overall Pitt, 3x first team all-pro, $16m average salary (6yr/96m).
Their focus is on building a Seahawks-quality secondary. And why not: Seattle had last year’s best defense and its strength was its beast secondary. Tampa invested in quality and in size (their height went from 71.2″ in 2012 to 72.2″ this year, the largest height increase in the league) of their d-backs.
Put another way:
- The Bucs have spent a two first rounders and a second in the last two years plus $140m in contract terms on their secondary. Their combined average salary at DB is 16.0 (Revis) + 8.3 (Goldson) + 3.6 (Barron) + 1.1 (Banks) = 29.0m.
- The Browns have released last year’s starting CB2 and FS. They passed or failed at signing a CB or FS in free-agency. Their shortest in the league secondary actually got shorter. Combined average salary: 8.5 (Haden) + 1.3 (Ward) + 0.6 (Skrine) + 0.5 (Gipson) = 10.9m.
Of course you can have too many pass-rushers, what would you do with 50 pass-rushers on your roster? But cutting Chud some slack for his stupid bromide, and let’s modify it to say that having pass-rush depth is very important… the other unsaid truism is: you can have too few talented defensive backs.
Bucs/Bengals will provide early litmus test on the Browns’ strategy.
I am fascinated to see how the Bucs’ and Bengals’ defenses produce this year. They provide two case studies on how to build a defense and both are completely different from the Browns. Here’s the three paths.
- Invest in a top-end front four that can pressure the QB without blitzes;
- Invest in talent and size to create a turnover producing and intimidating d-backfield;
- Throw your money at the an aggressive attacking 3-4 d-front and attack aggressively.
CANT WAIT to see how this unfolds.
* Although it’ll now have be post-season.
** I do have the data on Hunt’s 17 blocked kicks in his SMU career.