How the Browns plan to counter a Justin Fields-led offense
On Wednesday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy announced that QB Justin Fields will get the start against the Cleveland Browns. This news comes after Bears starting QB Andy Dalton suffered a bruised knee in their win against the Cincinnati Bengals. His timetable is said to be week to week and Nagy continues with the narrative that once healthy, Dalton will return to his starting role.
The Browns are heading into this weeks’ matchup with some questioning their defensive ability. With new personnel at seven of the 11 starting spots, they have elected to play a very conservative style of defense in the first two weeks of the season.
Previously, against the Houston Texans, the defense got off to a slow start as they took a 14-14 tie into halftime. In the second half, Cleveland made obvious changes to their game plan as they began playing a three-safety set on almost all passing downs. This opened the door for more man coverage on the outside and a blitz scheme that successfully incorporated two of their safeties. Safeties Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit could penetrate the backfield and make things happen, Harrison with a tackle for loss and Delpit with a sack/fumble and a tackle for loss.
These types of changes to the defensive play-calling are exactly what the Browns have had in store all along. The versatility of their defensive backfield, now that they are all healthy, will come in handy against someone with the skillset of Justin Fields.
The keys to success for the Chicago Bears all come down to keeping it simple and executing. To keep their young QB comfortable, they will have to try and establish the run early on. You will see a lot of misdirection and zone-read or designed QB runs in an attempt to open up the defense. Against such a talented front four, with a weak offensive line, the only true way to keep Fields off the ground is to find some sort of success in the run game.
To accentuate the talents of Fields, and there are many talents, the Bears will try to move the pocket or get him outside the pocket to allow him more time to make decisions. Justin Fields is not just a one-read type of QB, so don’t let the “dink-and-dunk” passes in the first half fool you. They will want him to find a rhythm early and get comfortable throwing the ball, whether it be play-action screens or simple, designed check downs to the RB.
The Browns defense will have to look to keep fields inside the pocket if they are going to find success. His ability to scramble for big gains is something that could cause serious problems, but it’s his ability to get outside a collapsing pocket and give his receivers more time to work that could be the difference-maker. Justin Fields has the elite arm talent to go along with elite field vision AND elite athleticism. Luckily for Cleveland, they will have the very first crack at him and the lack of experience will work to their advantage whether he plays well or not. There will be disguised coverages and blitzes thrown at Fields that he has never seen before from a supremely fast and talented defense.
Expect to see a concerted effort to incorporate more press coverage and blitzes with a conservative approach from edge rushers. One of the issues in the first two weeks has been the front four getting to the QB. We have seen a lot of good movement in the interior against the run but we have also seen a lot of over-pursuit from our edge rushers against the pass. This has allowed QB’s to escape the pocket and put more pressure on our secondary. Off the edge, the Browns will want to make sure they keep outside contain. Keeping Fields in the pocket will allow for more pressure up the middle and give the chance for added pass rush from Ronnie Harrison, Grant Delpit, and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
One of the big strengths of the Cleveland Browns defense is the ability for all three of their corners (Ward, Newsome and Hill, mainly) to play high-level man-coverage. Aside from WR Allen Robinson III, the Chicago Bears don’t have much to threaten the Browns secondary, so they will run a lot of quick-hitting slants and out routes to get him as many touches as they can.
Cornerback Troy Hill was the top-rated slot-corner in the NFL in 2020, so the expectations coming into this season were that Cleveland would be using a lot of three-cornerback looks this year. Denzel Ward is a top-five single coverage corner in the NFL over the last three seasons and so far this season, Greg Newsome II has only allowed two receptions for six yards from the corner position. Having so many versatile defensive backs makes it tough to find a solid rotation in the passing game, but ultimately that is a very good problem to have.
Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski have shown that they can coach to the strengths available to them. Case in point, last season, Coach Woods lost an entire starting defensive backfield. He could use an assorted cast of less-than-talented backups to help the franchise get to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. We all saw how the defense looked last season, but Coach Woods could rally his team and scheme them into situations to make plays. Considering the linebacker core and secondary last season, Woods could coach them up to stay middle of the pack (15th) in Points Allowed Per Game, which, in turn, gave the high-powered offense the chance to outscore opponents.
We can all agree that play-calling has been extremely conservative on both sides of the ball. That can be frustrating to watch considering the high praise and expectations everyone has for Cleveland this year, but we have a defense loaded with talent and the second it clicks, the results will be immediate and spectacular. I am not claiming to be an expert at all and Joe Woods has forgotten more about football than I will ever know, but these are the things that the Cleveland Browns defense was built to do and I can’t wait to see it come together.
Put in a nutshell, the success of the Browns defense will come from the secondary playing lockdown single coverage; the edge rushers not breaking contain and Harrison, Delpit and J.O.K. each taking turns spying the QB and adding pressure. Being such a dynamic playmaker, Fields will want to hold on to the ball and try to make things happen. This is where the Browns can make life hard for him.
So show up and show out on Sunday no matter how you feel about the situation. But just remember that all good things take time. The Browns fanbase has been waiting 57 years for a championship and I think we can all give it more than two weeks for our defense to come around.
Let’s go Browns!
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