Strong safety T.J. Ward times his blitz perfectly, splits the offensive linemen and takes down the quarterback before he can complete his three-step drop.
Outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard explode off the line, blow past the tackles and meet at the quarterback for a sack.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson finds the soft spot in the middle of the pass protection, gets in the quarterback’s face and forces a throwaway.
New coordinator Ray Horton’s attacking, blitz-happy defense won’t be fully revealed until Sunday’s opener against Miami, but the plan is for the aforementioned examples to become standard operating procedure.
“It’s definitely going to be a different look for fans and something the Cleveland community hasn’t seen in a long time,” Jackson said. “What I mean by that is just the pressure. Coach Ray, he’s outspoken about it, he’s going to pressure quarterbacks.”
Browns fans shouldn’t have any trouble visualizing what it will look like. They’ve been terrorized repeatedly by similar systems from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Horton was coordinator in Arizona the last two years and implemented the 3-4 system Dick LeBeau has been running for years in Pittsburgh. Horton was an assistant to LeBeau for seven seasons before getting the promotion in the desert.
The Cardinals led the NFL in passer rating allowed (71.2) and interception percentage (4.4) in 2012 and ranked second in interceptions (22) and third-down efficiency (32.9 percent). Outside linebacker Quentin Groves had four sacks for the Cardinals, then followed Horton to Cleveland, where he’s helped teach the scheme.
“It’s been well-documented everywhere he’s been, we’re a blitzing team,” Groves said.
Has he ever seen Horton get gun-shy and back off the pressure?
“No, no. That’s not him,” Groves said. “That’s his mentality, that’s how he coaches the game and that’s how we play the game.”
That’s what CEO Joe Banner demanded when he went looking for coaches after firing Pat Shurmur following last season. He believes the way to build a championship organization is with an aggressive, attacking approach that starts with the front office and extends to both sides of the ball. He saw that personality trait in coach Rob Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and Horton.
With the rewards comes risk. A defense that blitzes a ton — Horton’s Cardinals ranked second last year by blitzing on 42 percent of the snaps — is susceptible to the big play.
More defenders rushing the quarterback means fewer for coverage. If the quarterback recognizes the pressure and his line protects him, long gains are possible.
“We don’t want big touchdown plays, we don’t want big plays, we don’t want scoring plays,” Horton said. “I’m going to try to eliminate that. I don’t want big plays. I’m sure everybody says that, who does? But we stress deep-to-shallow, technique, understanding what’s the opponent’s doing. The No. 1 goal is to stop them from scoring.”
Blitz or no blitz, defenses give up yards and touchdowns. The offenses are too talented and the rules too slanted. The key is limiting the numbers and not being sunk by a few bad plays.
“When you’re an attack-style defense, you’re going to give up some plays here and there,” Jackson said. “It’s if you can stop the bleeding.
“He’s not going to put us in a bad position. Every day you’re around him, you understand the way he thinks about calls and how he wants an offense to react to what he’s doing.”
“The thing is how you respond when those plays happen,” Groves said. “That’s the biggest thing we have to learn as a defense and as a group and as a team is that no matter what happens, if a big play happens, OK, come back, play the next play, maybe we get a turnover.”
After points allowed, turnovers forced is the most important stat to Horton. He wants to get off the field and give the ball back to Turner’s offense. The Cardinals ranked fourth with 33 takeaways last year.
The sacks, hurries and turnovers are created by confusing the offense. Horton doesn’t just bring extra guys on the rush. He brings different guys, in different combinations, from a variety of locations and angles.
“Our defense is going to be some of the most exotic that anybody sees,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “Pittsburgh, they have their patterns and they’ve run the same thing for a long time. I think Dick LeBeau is less likely to take a risk and give up a big play with a blitz or a pressure, and I think our coordinator, Ray Horton, he’s more willing to try to hit the quarterback, try to force an interception, force a turnover and give up a big play because there is risk-reward no matter what you do.
“We know we have a solid defense, fundamentally sound, but I see our team willing to bring the house.”
Horton limited the blitzes in the preseason, so no one outside the locker room knows exactly what the Browns will look like Sunday against Miami.
“It’ll be a surprise,” inside linebacker Craig Robertson said. “It’s exotic blitzes. I’m not going to give you exactly what they are, but they’re going to be exotic blitzes. We’re just going to get to the quarterback, make stuff happen, make plays and give our offense the ball.”
Scheme counts for a lot. Players matter more.
The Steelers and Ravens have had imaginative and sound systems for a decade, but they’ve also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed.
Horton needs Kruger, Sheard, Ward, Jackson and Phil Taylor to play like Pro Bowlers for his calls to have maximum effectiveness. Kruger played on Baltimore’s intimidating defense for four years and won a Super Bowl. He likes what the Browns have assembled.
“When I signed here I started looking through the roster and watching tape on the guys,” he said. “They were a good defense last year and I think with the additions and the new coaching staff, I just think the potential is kind of unlimited.”
Jackson agrees they have the talent, but doesn’t want anyone to get ahead of himself.
“Time will tell. I could say all day how good we’re going to be, but we still have to go out and play,” he said. “I tell all the guys, we’re not going to talk about how good we can be. The way to do it is we actually put on film and actually put our best foot forward and actually win games, actually dominate when we need to dominate.
“That’s going to tell our story. Let other people talk about how good we’re playing and how good we are when we do it.”