The Cleveland Browns utilized dime more against the Houston Texans than they did the entire 2020 season and due to injuries at the linebacker position, they may need it far more and far earlier than they initially planned.
When Joe Woods was hired to be the Browns defensive coordinator ahead of the 2020 season, his goal was to be able to eventually play a base dime defense with three safeties and three corners on the field. Injuries, including to then rookie Grant Delpit made it an impossibility for that season.
For 2021, the Browns acquired significant upgrades with their personnel to run it, including the signings of John Johnson III, Troy Hill as well as drafting Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Between those two rookies and then Delpit, who had yet to play his first game and missed a significant amount of training camp as he not only rehabbed his Achilles' injury but dealt with hamstring issues, Woods hedged a little bit on just how much dime the Browns might play.
Against the Texans, the Browns gave the first glimpse of what the Browns hope to be able to run consistently. It also provided the first look with Delpit and JOK on the field at the same time.
What immediately stands out is just how fast the group is. Both in terms of raw speed as well as instincts, JOK and Delpit often play faster than they time. They process information and react quickly. Both players were utilized in college at multiple positions, which is valuable for the Browns.
That has allowed them to disrupt plays in the backfield from different angles. Delpit, for example, attacked and helped blow up a play right up the middle. The biggest play of the game for him was blitzing off the edge to blow up an unsuspecting Davis Mills in the backfield, causing a fumble in the process.
The key to all of this working is the defensive line. They are a massive group with giant defensive ends who are incredibly difficult to reach and then a 317 pound Malik McDowell in the middle, who has been the biggest revelation on the team. Malik Jackson, who was a nice acquisition in his own right, has lost some of his luster simply because of the attention paid to players like McDowell and Jadeveon Clowney, but he's still a valuable player at defensive tackle.
The dime defense is best utilized when the Browns are playing with a lead. Against the Texans, the Browns were up two scores when they brought it out to finish out the game. However, against some teams like the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, the Browns may utilize it far more liberally to match their speed on the outside and try to limit damage done by athletic quarterbacks with their legs.
In that scenario, the defensive line becomes critical because they have to give the Browns an honest look at stopping the run. Two games into the season, they've been up to the task. The Browns are only allowing an average of 3 yards per carry, which is fourth in the league.
That's not just in the dime look, but against the Texans in particular, the Browns didn't exactly have great run defending linebackers in the game. So if the Browns can still stop the run while in dime, they have a significant advantage with their coverage options and speed on the field. Combining that with the ability to blitz with players like JOK or Delpit or Troy Hill, it gives the Browns and Woods a lot of options on how to play the opponent.
The best thing the Browns can do as a defense is dictate what the offense is able to do. If the Browns stop the run, the opponent is forced to throw into the teeth of their defense, which is the exact matchup they want. The team is still figuring itself out in terms of assignments, trust and showing how special they can be, but if these early trends continue, the Browns will be extremely well suited to take on the teams that are considered the favorites not only in the conference as well as the Super Bowl by the end of the season.
If the Browns find themselves in a game where they feel they must play bigger to stop the opposing running game, they will have a healthy Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki back in the next couple weeks, which will give them the ability to match in terms of size and physicality.
For now, whether it's the Chicago Bears potentially with Justin Fields as the quarterback, Justin Herbert and the San Diego Chargers or Kyler Murray leading the Arizona Cardinals wide open offense over the next month, the Browns may be playing a significant amount of time. The more comfortable they get, the more likely it could become their base look.