The Cleveland Browns kept coming in waves at Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, blitzing him on nearly half of his dropbacks last Sunday and also harassing him when they rushed just four of their front seven. The Browns sacked him four times, hit him three additional times and hurried him on a handful of other plays.
It was just one game, but new Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s fingerprints were easy to identify.
Horton, who worked wonders with the Arizona Cardinals defense last season, came to Cleveland this past offseason after Arizona chose to hire Bruce Arians as its head coach over Horton, a favorite of Cardinals players. The hiring of Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator has been hailed as a fantastic move by new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, but bringing the attack-minded Horton into the fold may be just as significant.
Defensive players love playing for coaches with confidence and swagger. Browns outside linebacker Paul Kruger expressed his fondness for Horton and his schemes on Wednesday.
“Ray Horton is one of those guys who I was really quickly able to look up to and learn from. He’s been a tremendous coach, and I really like his style of defense,” said Kruger, who had nine sacks for the Ravens last season. “We run a similar defense [to the Ravens]. There’s always going to be little differences and tweaks here and there. This is an attack-style defense.”
Against the Dolphins, the Browns sent five or more pass rushers at Tannehill on 20 of his 43 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. To his credit, the second-year quarterback was quick to identify the rushers on those blitzes and fire the ball to his hot receivers. They had more success when they didn’t blitz, often generating a pass rush with their front four.
All four of Cleveland's sacks came when they didn't blitz. Kruger beat the right tackle for one of those sacks. Defensive end Desmond Bryant, another pricy offseason signing, had two sacks as an interior rusher. Outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard also got pressure on Tannehill on a few of his rushes.
Overall, Tannehill completed just three of his 10 attempts when under pressure for 37 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Their front seven is definitely a strength of their team,” left guard Kelechi Osemele said. “They’re young and they’re very talented. They can get pressure with four guys or they can get pressure with stunts, blitzes and linebacker crosses, things like that. I feel like they do a good job of executing so it’s going to be on us to neutralize the strength of their team.”
Before joining the Cardinals as defensive coordinator in 2011, Horton spent seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers as their secondary coach. He clearly learned a thing or two about creating pressure from zone blitz mastermind Dick LeBeau.
Despite having one of the NFL's most inept offenses in 2012, the Cardinals were competitive in many games due to their defense, which had 38 sacks and forced 33 turnovers. The highlight came in Week 2, when Horton’s defense flustered New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in an upset victory. Brady was sacked four times and intercepted once.
“It’s the Pittsburgh scheme,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of the Browns defense. “Ray Horton has been in that system. He ran it in Arizona, and we see the same systems here, but they’re applying it to the players that they’ve got.”
The Browns held the Dolphins to 275 total yards, limited them to just 20 yards on 23 carries and bailed out the offense after quarterback Brandon Weeden threw three first-half picks.
“It’s an extremely talented group,” Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “They held the Dolphins to really, really low numbers in terms of the running game. When you look at them up front, they’re extremely talented. Their front seven is outstanding. [Nose tackle Phil] Taylor in the middle of that and [defensive end Ahtyba] Rubin in the middle obviously do a great job just in terms of making certain they stop the run.”
The Ravens have beaten up on the Browns over the past five years, and they will get an opportunity Sunday to get their offense on track after an inconsistent performance against the Denver Broncos last Thursday. Ray Rice has had a lot of success against the Browns and their secondary can be exploited. But the Browns probably aren’t going to make it easy for them, not with their talent up front and Horton calling aggressive plays.