Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Cleveland Browns, whose defense leads the league in takeaways and has recorded 15 sacks. Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams helped rising-star defensive end Myles Garrett get one of those sacks with a creative blitz that, in terms of total pass-rushers, wasn't even a blitz at all.
CLEVELAND BROWNS' SIGNATURE PLAY: THE BLITZ THAT'S NOT A BLITZ
The Cleveland Browns were winless last year after recording just one victory in 2016. Through the first third of the 2018 campaign, it's clear that the current squad is far more competitive. At 2-3-1, the Browns have already played five games that were decided by four points or less.
While 2018 first-overall pick Baker Mayfield is now at the helm of the offense, Cleveland's defense is being led by two other top-four picks who are already playing at a Pro Bowl level – defensive end Myles Garrett (first pick in the 2017 draft) and cornerback Denzel Ward (fourth pick in the 2018 draft). Garrett leads the Browns with 5.0 sacks while Ward has paced the team with three interceptions.
The Browns' defense has been under the direction of long-time NFL coach Gregg Williams since 2017. Williams has a well-deserved reputation for directing an aggressive defense known for applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks and bringing pass-rusher from any and all directions. The Browns have at least 10 different defensive personnel groupings they use in games, including one we'll be looking at here that some teams call a "33" alignment. That refers to the fact that the grouping includes three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. It's a modified nickel, with the extra defensive back replacing a down lineman instead of a linebacker.
The Browns' exotic blitz packages have helped the team perform extremely well on third downs and has also created a multitude of turnovers, as noted above. Cleveland ranks fourth in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage on defense, allowing a success rate of 33.1%.
The play we are going to examine today is a perfect example of that third-down aggressiveness, and it comes from the Browns' Week Three win over the New York Jets.
Cleveland started the season with a 21-21 tie at home against the Steelers, then took the high-powered Saints to an extra period in Week Two before falling, 21-18, in New Orleans. Four days after that second straight consecutive overtime game, the Browns welcomed the Jets to town for a nationally-televised Thursday night game.
Tyrod Taylor, the veteran quarterback the Browns had acquired from Buffalo in a trade, started those first three games but was injured just before halftime against the Jets. Mayfield came on with his team down, 14-0, and was able to rally his team to a four-point victory. Midway through the first quarter, however, the game was still scoreless.
The Jets gained a first down at their own 32 but Sam Darnold threw an incompletion on first down and running back Bilal Powell was stopped for no gain on second down. That led to third-and-10, which is when Williams dialed up the confusion level and Garrett took advantage with a fantastic individual effort.
From the sideline angle before the snap, we can see that the Jets are in "10" personnel, meaning they have one running back on the field and four wide receivers. Three are lined up to the right side of the formation, one to the left. Darnold (#14) is in the shotgun with Powell (#29) to his left.
The Browns have brought on the aforementioned "33" grouping, with a third safety, Derrick Kindred (#26) replacing a down lineman and joining starting safeties Jabrill Peppers (#22) and Damarious Randall (#23). Randall is playing a single-high safety and the other two are up at the line of scrimmage, flanking Garrett (#95), who is lined up to the outside shoulder of right tackle Brandon Shell (#72).
Larry Ogunjobi (#65) is in a four-point stance lined up across from the center, shaded to the center's right. Ogunjobi, who has 3.5 sacks of his own, is a very good pass-rusher, too, particularly for a 305-pound defensive tackle. Gennard Avery (#55), a rookie drafted in the fifth round, is listed as a linebacker but has been used almost exclusively as an edge rusher in the Browns' sub packages this season.
From the end zone view of this play pre-snap, you can see that Avery is standing up but apparently going to rush off the offense's left edge. James Burgess (#52) started the game as the weakside, or WILL, linebacker, but from the offense's point of view in this package he functions as the middle, or MIKE, linebacker. Joe Schobert (#53), who started the game as the MIKE in the Browns' base defense her is playing strongside, or SAM. Just off the screen to the left is Jamie Collins (#51), who is the WILL in this package.
From this shot you can see that Burgess and Schobert are both in position to either drop into coverage or try to blitz a gap. Given Williams' unpredictability, the offense can't be sure what they are getting. Collins is outside of Avery to the left of the offense, probably to play coverage, perhaps specifically on Powell if he exits the backfield.
To the right of this shot you can see that the Browns have overloaded that edge. Given that and the way that Ogunjobi is shading to the offense's right, the Browns are going to shift their protection to the right at the snap.
At the snap all three linebackers drop into coverage. Avery, the standup rusher on the left edge, takes one step forward as if he's rushing the passer, but then suddenly drops back into coverage. This is sometimes called "sugaring" the gap and it holds left tackle Kelvin Beachum (#68) for just a beat, so he doesn't immediately go to his right to help block Ogunjobi, who has slid to the offense's left at the snap. That requires left guard James Carpenter (#77) to slide left in order to take on Ogunjobi, though Beachum does quickly get back to help with this task.
On the far right edge, both Peppers and Kindred blitz the quarterback, with Peppers lining up outside Kindred but then stunting underneath him as Kindred goes straight upfield. The right-side duo of blockers, Shell and guard Brian Winters, actually do a very good job of picking up both of those safety blitzes, and Powell crosses in front of Darnold to help out with the protection on that side.
The problem for Darnold is what Garrett has done during all this confusion. With Winters and focusing on the blitzing safeties, Garrett has darted from his spot wide to the right of the offense to the point where he's taking on center Spencer Long (#61). This happens in a flash because Garrett has incredible speed and quickness. Garrett against Long is a matchup that Williams was trying to create with this creative pass-rush package.
This shot is from just a moment later. Garrett arrived at his confrontation with long with a head of steam from his burst from the outside to the middle of the line. He then pulls a club move on Long, getting his right hand on Long's shoulder and shoving him to the center's right. Here you can see that Garrett has already disengaged long and got him slightly off balance.
On the previous image, you can see that Carpenter, the left guard, has his head turned away from Long so he doesn't immediately realize that the center could use some help in this unfavorable matchup. Above, you can see that Carpenter has realized the situation belatedly and is trying to get to Garrett before he can shoot the resulting gap. He does not succeed. By the time Carpenter and Long are able to react and close the gap, Garrett is already between them.
By the time Garrett has executed his surge through the line, Darnold has drifted a bit to the quarterback's right, so it's no longer a straight shot for Garrett. That's no problem because the young end has one of the best "bends" in the NFL – he immediately curves his rush toward Darnold and is on the rookie in an instant.
From the above picture you can also see that the coverage downfield is excellent. This isn't really a "coverage sack" because Garrett got to Darnold so quickly that he didn't really have time go through his reads. Still, it's clear that the Browns have accomplished what they wanted here, getting quick pressure on the quarterback but not at the expense of creating holes in the coverage. There are only four Jet targets out on the field and all of them have a Browns defender nearby, with a corner (at the top) and a safety free and deep, ready to help if any of those four receivers breaks deep.
And that's why we say this is a blitz that isn't really a blitz, at least by the numbers. The Browns have only brought four pass-rushers because Avery dropped into coverage and there were only two down linemen to go along with the blitzing safeties. But because the play design worked so well, and because Garrett is such an incredible athlete, it worked to perfection and actually looked like the Browns were bringing extra blitzers.