Joe Woods Defense

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Randolphkeys

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A major theme of game threads last year was scheme vs. talent on defense. Let's start a thread on the 2021 Browns defense. This article from Scott Patsko really did a great job of imagining the new possibilities Woods can feature.

Is the Browns defense versatile enough to have a ‘Death Lineup’?​

Updated May 20, 2021

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Cavaliers led the 2015 NBA Finals 2-1 when the Golden State Warriors decided to make a change. For Game 4 they replaced center Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup with small forward Andrew Iguodala.

The idea was to substitute size for versatility, which resulted in a quicker pace. The Warriors’ versatile group of mostly guards and small forwards were able to switch assignments on defense while creating mismatches on offense.

The Death Lineup was born.

It became a regular part of the Warriors’ scheme as they returned to the NBA Finals in each of the next four seasons. The Death Lineup nickname got attention, but what the Warriors did wasn’t new. They were simply adding to the trend of positionless basketball by taking small-ball to a new level.

It’s a philosophy not confined to basketball.

Positionless football has been part of the NFL conversation for some time now, but not put into practice as much as in the NBA. Still, every team wants to find that hybrid player able to handle multiple jobs and create -- or avoid -- mismatches.

This is especially true on defense.

Two years ago, the Chargers had seven defensive backs on the field for most of their playoff game against the Ravens. By putting more speed on the field to track Lamar Jackson and having more players able to drop in coverage, the Chargers won, 22-10.

Instead of linebackers, the Chargers put two safeties -- typically smaller and quicker players -- in linebacker roles. The Ravens gained only three first downs and 83 yards on offense through three quarters. Remember, this was the same offense that was second in the NFL in rushing yards.

In last season’s AFC championship, the Chiefs used six defensive backs on 75 percent of the snaps, including four safeties for most of the first three quarters. The Chiefs were able to clog Bills passing lanes while also guarding against the run.

As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, Buffalo QB Josh Allen’s average time to throw last season was 3.05 seconds. The Bills were 11-0 when he beat that time. They were 4-4 when he didn’t. Against the Chiefs, Allen’s time to throw was 3.30.

These game plans weren’t likely to work for the Browns last season. They led the league in games lost to injury by defensive backs. A lack of depth at cornerback and safety made it difficult to overcome those injuries. The Browns also lacked versatility at linebacker, where five players got more than 200 snaps as defensive coordinator Joe Woods went with a situational approach.

But that was last year. This year, the Browns have remade their defense. They’ve added speed and versatility at every level. Being able to deploy schemes like the Chargers used against the Ravens or the Chiefs against the Bills is certainly in play. But what about going a step beyond that?

Can the Browns have their own Death Lineup? Is there a position grouping that would make the most of the defense’s speed and versatility while not sacrificing coverage or run defense?

SAFETY

There’s an expectation that we will see John Johnson III, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison on the field together. They would be one of the highlights of a Browns Death Lineup.

Johnson and Harrison both have the ability to play as deep safeties, in the box, or in the slot. Delpit, meanwhile, brings speed and ability in coverage that the Browns were hoping to showcase last season.

With all three on the field, the Browns can fight off offenses trying to create mismatches in coverage with running backs or tight ends. Against the run, Johnson had the fourth-best Pro Football Focus grade among safeties last season.

CORNERBACK

Not much versatility is needed from this group, but having three on the field combined with three safeties can make a quarterback hold the ball longer than he wants. Since NFL teams have three receivers on the field an average of 60% of the time, the Browns figure to be in a nickel look a lot anyway.

Denzel Ward, Troy Hill, Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams are not the best run defenders in the league, but a Death Lineup would be more concerned with coverage first. The Browns finally have the potential for quality depth in that area.

LINEBACKER

This would be a key to a Death Lineup. Of course, the Browns could add another defensive back and skip linebacker altogether the way the Chargers did against the Ravens. But then you’re dipping a bit too far into your depth.

Instead, the ideal player to sit in the middle of such a lineup is Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. His ability to play well against the run and in coverage, both in the box and in the slot, are why the Browns drafted him. Like Johnson and Delpit, he’s a player who helps offset potential mismatches with tight ends, which has been a problem area in recent years.

JOK also has the speed and quickness to deal with receivers in the slot while giving the Browns much more against the run than the fourth cornerback or safety would.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The front four of a potential Death Lineup is where the Browns can get creative. Myles Garrett’s versatility would be at the center of it.

Garrett’s ability to rush from anywhere along the line could be used as a way to get both Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley on the field. Imagine Garrett slipping inside, something he did a handful of times last season, next to Malik Jackson. Or maybe it’s Clowney who moves inside, which is often his path to the quarterback anyway.

With so many players able to drop in coverage behind them, the quarterback would likely have to hold the ball longer (the way Josh Allen did against the Chiefs), allowing the Browns’ front four more time to create problems.

With their top three pass rushers on the field, the Browns wouldn’t necessarily need all that extra time.

BUT WHEN WOULD A DEATH LINEUP BE USED?

Much like the Warriors’ Death Lineup, a Browns version wouldn’t necessarily be a full-time thing.

An obvious situation would be late in a game when the Browns want to protect a lead and the opponent needs to throw. Or even on a key third-and-long, when the Browns want to clog passing lanes but also have the speed to deal with a screen pass.


But in a key game, some opponents – and some quarterbacks in particular – could be candidates to get the Death Lineup treatment as a part of the game plan. The Ravens probably top the list, especially after the Chargers had their success. A multi-threat quarterback such as Kyler Murray could be on the list.

The best team to get creative against could be the very first team the Browns face this season – the Chiefs.

Patrick Mahomes creates all sorts of problems, as does matchup nightmare Travis Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs’ speedy offense. Perhaps the Death Lineup is the antidote to all that.

Don’t expect Joe Woods to show all his cards in Week 1. But the lineup the Chiefs see should be much more versatile, talented and fast than what they saw in the playoffs.

No matter what you want to call it.
 

Vee-Rex

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I'm down. It all sounds damn good to me.

Of course, in practice, we'll see how effective it is. The Warriors "Death Lineup" wasn't effective just because there were more guards and forwards, it was effective because of the individual talent they had that was used to exploit opponents weaknesses. After everything was said and done, it only won a single championship (before KD joining practically gave them an olympic team) which was on the back of a Kyrie game 1 injury.

I'm high on this defense and its potential but I do want to temper expectations, especially early on in the season. This scheme will ask A LOT of its players and A LOT of its coaches. We don't know if Harrison will fit the bill if asked to do more. Same with Delpit who we know nothing about. And while I'm ready to buy my JOK jersey... objectively speaking, we can't write in ink that he will be successful. I think JJ3 will shine, however.

I'm also concerned about the application of this scheme. Will Woods use it effectively? Will he be able to make adjustments when teams use more wide zone concepts and screens to get offensive linemen down the field to wreck havoc against our DB-centric defense? The reason why teams like Pittsburgh tend to have strong defenses despite using traditional linebackers is because the coaching knows how to manufacture pressure and fool opposing quarterbacks to defend the pass, and have smart linebackers that can diagnose plays and are usually great at shedding blocks and making tackles to defend against the run.

Will Delpit and Harrison shed blocks and make those tackles against a team hell-bent on running down our throats? Will Joe Woods know when to adjust and make changes in-game? I look at how it went vs. Oakland and letting them run all over us until the 4th, vs. Cincinnati (2nd game) and not challenging Burrow to make deep passes (he was terrible at it last year - in fact, his numbers outside of both Browns games aren't as amazing as you'd think. Lots of potential there but I wouldn't be shocked if he has a 2nd year slump), vs. Pittsburgh and letting Rudolph torch our backup CBs without down the field without help for most of the game.

I'm nitpicking for sure - but I do have some concerns about Woods that probably won't be alleviated until I see that he is capable of making multiple adjustments. Not having talent is one thing and he can't be faulted with that, but watching multiple teams gash you for 3 quarters before making adjustments is not good. I realize there's a fine balance between sticking with the gameplan and adjusting, but it's crucial for the coach to be able to walk that line.

I love how the article you posted delves into how such a "Death Lineup" may still largely be situational. The plan, IMO, is sound - the execution will determine everything. I'm excited as hell to see this defense and hope Woods is the right guy to put it together.
 

Randolphkeys

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3. JOHN JOHNSON III, CLEVELAND BROWNS

Johnson has earned overall PFF and coverage grades of at least 80.0 in every healthy season he has played in the NFL, and now he gets the opportunity to show he can stay at that incredible level with a new team after his offseason move to Cleveland.

30. RONNIE HARRISON, CLEVELAND BROWNS

Harrison’s career wasn’t stellar in Jacksonville, but the second he was traded to Cleveland, he began to look like a different player, and that was within a secondary that wasn’t loaded with quality. In 2021, Harrison should be surrounded by a dramatically improved supporting cast and able to build on the overall PFF grade of 76.6 he posted in limited snaps last year.
 

Out of the Rafters at the Q

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I love the versatility we seem to have (assuming a little bit of health). But the Browns were 21st in points allowed per game. Let's get that down to around 10th and I'll be happy.
  1. Terrance Mitchell
  2. Andrew Sendejo
  3. BJ Goodson
  4. Olivier Vernon
  5. Sheldon Richardson
  6. Denzel Ward
  7. Myles Garrett
  8. Karl Joseph
  9. Larry Ogunjobi
  10. Kevin Johnson
  11. Malcolm Smith
  12. Sione Takitaki
  13. Adrian Clayborn
  14. Mack Wilson
  15. Porter Gustin
  16. Ronnie Harrison
  17. Jordan Elliott
  18. Sheldrick Redwine
  19. MJ Stewart
  20. Vincent Taylor
  21. Tavierre Thomas
That is the list of everyone who played more than 200 snaps for the Browns last year (listed in order of total snaps played).

Replacing those 919 Sendejo snaps should be enough to get you excited all by itself.

Most of these guys aren't even on the roster. The bolded are the only ones that we haven't upgraded from (for example, we've upgraded from Sione Takitaki because he shouldn't have to be in the top-12 for snaps played this coming year).

I don't think any talk about the performance of this defense in 2020 is relevant to the performance of this defense in 2021.
 

Randolphkeys

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  1. Terrance Mitchell
  2. Andrew Sendejo
  3. BJ Goodson
  4. Olivier Vernon
  5. Sheldon Richardson
  6. Denzel Ward
  7. Myles Garrett
  8. Karl Joseph
  9. Larry Ogunjobi
  10. Kevin Johnson
  11. Malcolm Smith
  12. Sione Takitaki
  13. Adrian Clayborn
  14. Mack Wilson
  15. Porter Gustin
  16. Ronnie Harrison
  17. Jordan Elliott
  18. Sheldrick Redwine
  19. MJ Stewart
  20. Vincent Taylor
  21. Tavierre Thomas
That is the list of everyone who played more than 200 snaps for the Browns last year (listed in order of total snaps played).

Replacing those 919 Sendejo snaps should be enough to get you excited all by itself.

Most of these guys aren't even on the roster. The bolded are the only ones that we haven't upgraded from (for example, we've upgraded from Sione Takitaki because he shouldn't have to be in the top-12 for snaps played this coming year).

I don't think any talk about the performance of this defense in 2020 is relevant to the performance of this defense in 2021.

I agree that in June, the team appears to have incredible depth. My concern is that I thought the Browns had solid depth in 2020, but by week 2 there were backups in the starting lineup. By week 6 there were players below replacement in major starting roles. The MJ Stewart and Robert Jackson starts are still too fresh on my mind.

I'm just in complete shock we had the audacity to REPLACE BJ Goodson.

This distinction between overall impact and impact compared to backups on the roster was extensively explained to you. So was the expectation that you would stop trolling.

@Sebastian
 

Lee

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I'm just in complete shock we had the audacity to REPLACE BJ Goodson.

His name was never fully appreciated, its like giving solid advice to your kid.


BJ Good ..... Son.

now we just need Pegging Badson on the team and we are set.
 

Out of the Rafters at the Q

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I agree that in June, the team appears to have incredible depth. My concern is that I thought the Browns had solid depth in 2020, but by week 2 there were backups in the starting lineup. By week 6 there were players below replacement in major starting roles. The MJ Stewart and Robert Jackson starts are still too fresh on my mind.



This distinction between overall impact and impact compared to backups on the roster was extensively explained to you. So was the expectation that you would stop trolling.

@Sebastian
I think it's undeniable that our depth this year is better than it was last year. Greedy as a luxury 4th corner instead of a necessary #2 is an enormous change. The safety changes are self-explanatory, as well as linebacker. I think DE is really the only spot where I question our depth, but as always, injuries can destroy a football team.

I look forward to the time when our backups regularly have at least a year in this organization under their belts, instead of the constant roster churn--ideally, coaching can mitigate injury impact as the "next man up" proves he's ready to take on the roles given to him. It's likely not a 2021 condition, but at some point I will be evaluating Woods and his staff based off the way backups with experience perform. I feel that is a great indicator of good coaching.
 

Lee

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I agree that in June, the team appears to have incredible depth. My concern is that I thought the Browns had solid depth in 2020, but by week 2 there were backups in the starting lineup. By week 6 there were players below replacement in major starting roles. The MJ Stewart and Robert Jackson starts are still too fresh on my mind.



This distinction between overall impact and impact compared to backups on the roster was extensively explained to you. So was the expectation that you would stop trolling.

@Sebastian

I never felt good about the 2020 defense. I was excited by Myles and Vernon, i was nervous about our LB's, felt our corners were good with no depth behind Ward and Greedy, and was excited for Delpit, thought he was a steal, but no Safety depth.

Our tackles were ok too...but the issue was no depth, LB's and only one safety and that was going into the season. Our offense was exciting, but nervous about Baker.

This year, our depth is much, much improved along with the overall talent.
 

Vee-Rex

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I never felt good about the 2020 defense. I was excited by Myles and Vernon, i was nervous about our LB's, felt our corners were good with no depth behind Ward and Greedy, and was excited for Delpit, thought he was a steal, but no Safety depth.

Our tackles were ok too...but the issue was no depth, LB's and only one safety and that was going into the season. Our offense was exciting, but nervous about Baker.

This year, our depth is much, much improved along with the overall talent.
I agree, though I will say that I didn't expect Sendejo to be as awful as he was. I knew he wasn't a good player but... wow. I think I expected more of Karl Joseph and obviously held out hope that guys like Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki would be decent players. Same with Kevin Johnson.

To Randolph's point... I thought the defense could've been decent last year and it turned out pretty badly. I feel so much better about the talent we have this year but I do want to have reasonable expectations, especially early on in the year.
 

Lee

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I agree, though I will say that I didn't expect Sendejo to be as awful as he was. I knew he wasn't a good player but... wow. I think I expected more of Karl Joseph and obviously held out hope that guys like Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki would be decent players. Same with Kevin Johnson.

To Randolph's point... I thought the defense could've been decent last year and it turned out pretty badly. I feel so much better about the talent we have this year but I do want to have reasonable expectations, especially early on in the year.

I didnt like Takitaki, but i thought Mack had a chance at being a good LB and could have been a steal.

Sendejo didnt excite me, I thought Joseph was a solid pick up.

The defense had me nervous going into the year, I thought we had many holes, but not as many holes as we ended up having.
 

Randolphkeys

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I never felt good about the 2020 defense. I was excited by Myles and Vernon, i was nervous about our LB's, felt our corners were good with no depth behind Ward and Greedy, and was excited for Delpit, thought he was a steal, but no Safety depth.

Our tackles were ok too...but the issue was no depth, LB's and only one safety and that was going into the season. Our offense was exciting, but nervous about Baker.

This year, our depth is much, much improved along with the overall talent.

Things that I was totally wrong about last June:

5. I thought Billings was going to get half the snaps at 1T, sharing snaps with Larry O. I also thought Jordan Elliott would work his way into the rotation and be a factor.

4. I thought Clayborn would be much better when subbing in as a pass rush specialist. He was also worse than I expected against the run. Porter ended up filling that role by the end.

3. I didn't think Greedy would miss the entire season with his vague injury, also thought Kevin Johnson would make a bigger impact in his snaps.

2. I actually believed in Sendejo as nickel linebacker/3rd safety. His advanced metrics as a sub-package zone coverage player was fantastic in 2019. However, he was no free safety.

1. The Browns front office played a numbers game at linebacker, and it barely avoided killing the season. The team needed one of the following to make the jump: TakiTaki, Mack Wilson, or Jacob Phillips. Unfortunately, none of the young guys pulled the bacon out of the fire. Crusty vet Malcolm Smith saved us.

I'm nervous about defensive tackle this season because the front office is trying the numbers game all over again with that group. Hopefully somebody young steps up.
 

SuperSurge

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  1. Terrance Mitchell
  2. Andrew Sendejo
  3. BJ Goodson
  4. Olivier Vernon
  5. Sheldon Richardson
  6. Denzel Ward
  7. Myles Garrett
  8. Karl Joseph
  9. Larry Ogunjobi
  10. Kevin Johnson
  11. Malcolm Smith
  12. Sione Takitaki
  13. Adrian Clayborn
  14. Mack Wilson
  15. Porter Gustin
  16. Ronnie Harrison
  17. Jordan Elliott
  18. Sheldrick Redwine
  19. MJ Stewart
  20. Vincent Taylor
  21. Tavierre Thomas
That is the list of everyone who played more than 200 snaps for the Browns last year (listed in order of total snaps played).

Replacing those 919 Sendejo snaps should be enough to get you excited all by itself.

Most of these guys aren't even on the roster. The bolded are the only ones that we haven't upgraded from (for example, we've upgraded from Sione Takitaki because he shouldn't have to be in the top-12 for snaps played this coming year).

I don't think any talk about the performance of this defense in 2020 is relevant to the performance of this defense in 2021.
Oh trust me I'm as excited as anyone about everything in your post. Obviously this defense shouldn't be anything like last year. I just pray we aren't relying on rookies and free agents again by the end of the year.

Health and scheme should be the only things that hold back this defense. Health is out of our control and as of now, Joe Woods is a TBD on his performance.
 

Out of the Rafters at the Q

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My unfounded concerns going into this year:
  1. Health. Delpit, Ward, Greedy, Myles.. I'm worried about our guys being healthy at the end of the year
  2. John Johnson--I'm worried that we're overrating him and that his high PFF grades are due to scheme rather than ability
  3. Linebacker--JOK should be limited and brought along slowly. Phillips is young. Walker is limited. The group doesn't project to be world beaters.
  4. Defensive Tackle--we have lots of bodies, but will any of them rise to the top? I'm worried that Sheldon Richardson is the best DT we had available to us.
  5. Coaching. If I were ranking in order of importance, this is number one. People continue to underrate coaching and overrate talent. Will Woods and his staff put it all together this year? The optimist in me says I hope so. The pessimist says I haven't seen anything yet to be optimistic about.
 
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