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Browns Defense Through 12 Games, Especially Third Down

Exploring the Cleveland Browns defense through 12 games with a particular focus on third down and against the passing game, broken down by coverage.

With so much focus on Joe Woods at the head of the Cleveland Browns defense and what he's doing in terms of calls, the bye week provided the opportunity to look into the performance of the unit, especially as it relates to their performance in pass coverage.

Previously, there was a look at the development of individual players and position groups.

The overall results on defense has been a wild ride, which has enabled the scrutiny of the man making the calls. For the season, the Browns are currently 12th in points allowed, surrendering 22.3 points per game, which is a solid average. In fact. they were tied for 10th until the week 13 games were played. 

The variance in performance by the Browns defense is a little stunning and when it has rained, it has poured.

In the four games where they faced off against the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots, the Browns have allowed a combined 162 points compared to 105 in the other eight contests. 13.1 points per game more than triples to 40.5, which is extraordinary.

The major reason why comes down to third down conversions. In those four games, opponents converted 60 percent of third down opportunities (30 of 50) compared to 35.2 percent (36 of 102) in the remaining eight games.

The difference is stark, but the problem for Woods and the Browns in general is that does not absolve them. Undoubtedly, that's a drastic improvement, but even just comparing that 35.2 figure against the rest of the league for the season thus far, it would still put them behind five other teams.

So even under the best circumstances, the Browns still have work to do, which is something to keep an eye on in their remaining five regular season games.

The one area where Woods hopes to maintain what the team has done to this point is within the division. After one matchup with each AFC North division foe, the Browns defense has given up a steady 15.6 points per game and yielded 35.9 percent of third down conversions while forcing seven turnovers (six interceptions, one fumble), none of which came against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 1-2 record doesn't do the defense any justice. 

The Browns come out of the bye with a rematch against the Ravens and face the Steelers and Bengals the last two weeks of the season. Should the defense be able to maintain that level of play or close to it, it would suggest the Browns are in good hands against the AFC North.

The most highly discussed aspect of the Browns defense under Woods this season has been his choice of coverages. Digging into the numbers, it's difficult to blame him for why he'd lean into certain coverages.

All of this data is provided courtesy of TruMedia and PFF.


Dropbacks: 83

Completions: 42 of 73 (57.5 percent)

Quarterback Rating: 100.4

Yards: 486

Yards per Attempt: 7.16

TD/INT Ratio: 7:2

Sacks: 8

There are a few interesting tidbits to point out within the data. Five of the passing touchdowns were surrendered in the red zone out of just nine attempts. Rub concepts are popular in this area of the field to create separation, which can help to explain some of it. 

The good news is the Browns are better on third down in man coverage. Opposing quarterbacks are 19 of 36 for 171 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions with a rating of 64.2 and five backs. Woods is a big proponent, especially in third and long, utilizing blitzes to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly enabling the defense to tackle them in front of the line to gain.

That approach completely backfired against the Cardinals when Kyler Murray was forced to get the ball out to DeAndre Hopkins basically at the line of scrimmage, but multiple defenders missed the tackle and he scored. The process was right even that particular result wasn't.


Dropbacks: 326

Completions: 195 of 296 (65.9 percent)

Quarterback Rating: 81.9

Yards: 1,986

Yards per Attempt: 7.14

TD/INT Ratio: 7:9

Sacks: 19

The Browns are undoubtedly a little more steady in zone overall. What stands out is how good they are on first down in zone and how troubling the results are on third down.

Against 70 dropbacks on third down in zone, opposing quarterbacks have completed 47 of 63 for 562 yards at 9.9 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and three interceptions. The opposing quarterback rating is 101.6. The Browns have produced seven sacks in these situations.

These third down numbers are terrifying. On some level, the concept of zone is keeping the opponent in front of you and tackling them short of the line to gain. Giving up just a hair under a first down per attempt is not remotely accomplishing it, which helps to explain why the Browns have been so bad this year on third down.

It also begs digging deeper, looking at the results in specific coverages.

The Browns run two main coverages in their defense. Cover-3 and Quarters. They also utilize Cover-1 and a pepper in some other things, but base for the Browns is either Cover-3 or Quarters.

It enables them to potentially disguise what they have their safeties are doing on any given play. The challenge is they are somewhat limited in what they can do currently because only one of them can really play the deep middle in John Johnson III.

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After the initial call and snap, it boils down to man coverage for the corners. Easy to tweak and adjust depending on matchups and situations, it's not complicated and allows the corners to be aggressive.

For the safeties, it depends largely on what the opponent does. Depending on where the play goes, quarters becomes man, but the opponent can manipulate matchups. In Cover-3, it depends on the call whether a safety is in man or zone.


Dropbacks: 173

Completions: 114 of 157 (72.6 percent)

Quarterback Rating: 74.3

Yards: 1,100

Yards per Attempt: 7.56

TD/INT Ratio: 2:5

Sacks: 9

Despite the fact this is zone in name, the corners are effectively playing man coverage. Once again, the opponent largely dictates the matchups, but it's still man even if it's off as opposed to press.

On third down, opposing quarterbacks are 30 of 40 for 310 yards. The Browns have not surrendered a touchdown and have caused two interceptions as well as six sacks. It's not the worst thing they do, but it's certainly not where they want it to be.

Cover-4 (Quarters)

Dropbacks: 125

Completions: 66 of 114 (57.9 percent)

Quarterback Rating: 74.3

Yards: 667

Yards per Attempt: 6.28

TD/INT Ratio: 3:3

Sacks: 7

Given how the Browns roster is set up, this coverage makes a ton of sense and it's one the team wants to continue to improve upon not only the rest of this season, but into the future.

Split high safeties that can come down and pick up opposing receiving threats in man coverage is a smart play for a team that has John Johnson III and hopefully will see Grant Delpit become a dynamic option next to him. Eye discipline and an innate understanding of what opponents are trying to do is critical.

The problem is once again on third down. Against 14 passing plays, the opponent has completed 10 for 104 yards and a touchdown.


Dropbacks: 68

Completions: 32 of 58 (55.2 percent)

Quarterback Rating: 82.4

Yards: 402

Yards per Attempt: 7.55

TD/INT Ratio: 3:2

Sacks: 8

The purest man coverage the Browns really call, the numbers on third down are  encouraging.

Opposing quarterbacks are 12 of 25 for 125 yards and two interceptions. They have also been sacked five times.

It certainly seems like something they should continue to run more the last five games of the season.

Cover-1 has also been where the Browns have been awful on second down. 17 of 27 for 252 yards and three touchdowns is a terrific stat line for a quarterback in a game, but a damning split for a defense. So while there are definitely positives to take from the Browns utilizing man coverage and doing it more often, it's hardly a panacea for the overall defensive woes.


Nothing the Browns are doing is performing terribly well on third down and there is no magic wand for it. Going exclusively to man coverage is not a panacea. In terms of getting stops, plenty of the peaks for the Browns are in man coverage but it also produces more than its share of valleys. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument the Browns should utilize man coverage more often on money downs, trusting their corners to win those matchups to get off the field.

It's difficult to argue against the use of Cover-3 and Cover-4 as the best way to maximize the talent on the Browns roster, being able to disguise the roles of their safeties to force opposing quarterbacks to be honest post snap. The scheme isn't the issue. It comes down to execution. 

Could there be a teaching component that is lacking? Definitely, but nothing suggests it's necessary to make major changes on that side of the ball, be it the coaching staff or personnel.

The last five games will afford the Browns a great opportunity for the defense to improve, especially on third down in pass coverage while attempting to avoid any further games that resemble their performances against the Chiefs, Chargers, Cardinals and Patriots.

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