The Cleveland Browns pincer based defense carried the team to its second victory in as many weeks, holding a pair of NFC North opponents to 13 points over two games. After they limited the Chicago Bears to a pair of field goals while holding to a historically low 47 total yards, the Minnesota Vikings were only able to score seven at home.
The Browns went from a defense with a significant amount of talent and promise but not much to show for it in their first two games to the most ferocious, dominant defense in the league the past two.
Beyond the fact they are keeping opponents off the scoreboard, they are brutalizing them in the process. They take away the perimeter, eliminate the run and then proceed to pound on the opposing quarterback.
The Browns did not get off to a great start in the twin cities, allowing a 75-yard touchdown drive. Their defense quickly found their footing and did not allow a score the rest of the game. Cousins, who came into the game as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL came out firing, completing 6 of his first 6 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. After that, he completed just 14 of his next 32 passes for 144 yards with an interception.
The Browns were able put a significant amount of heat on Cousins, sacking him twice and hitting him a total of ten times over the course of the game. Cousins basically never felt comfortable after the first drive and was forced to make a number of hurried throws throughout the game.
This occurred because the Browns took away the running game and forced the Vikings to be a one-dimensional offense, putting the game in Kirk Cousins' hands. Dalvin Cook had a 13-yard run the first drive of the game, but only had 21 more rushing yards on his other eight carries the rest of the game. Alexander Mattison rushed ten times for just 20 yards.
That was caused in large part because the Browns did such a good job dominating the edges for the second game in a row. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney have been giving the Browns everything they could possibly want, making it incredibly difficult for opponents to get outside of them, setting up the rest of the unit for success. When the running game can't get outside, it's just about impossible to utilize wide play-action concepts. So both the running game and the passing game have to take place almost exclusively between the tackles.
Because they were able to funnel the offense inside, the Browns were able to shut down the run of both the Vikings and the Bears and keep the quarterback in the pocket for basically the entire game.
Not unlike a python once it has found its prey, the Browns defense seeks to eliminate means of escape, then constricts around the opponent, taking away any space to move, air to breathe, until they are suffocated to death. That's exactly what the Browns did to its most recent two opponents.
Defending the running game with limited places to go is far easier because the Browns can commit numbers to stop them. The last eight quarters, the Browns defense has given up 111 yards on 36 carries for an average of just over 3 yards per carry.
Shutting down the running game while taking away the edges has enabled pass rushers to be focused on a target with little or no room to escape or operate. Since they know where the passer is going to be, they are simply planning on how to get there. Defensive backs know with relative certainty what angle passes will be coming. It's more difficult execute concepts like floods and changes which areas of the field the defense is more concerned in eliminating, which reduces the amount Joe Woods has to worry about stopping with his calls.
When the Browns have limited the quarterback to operate in the pocket and put them in obvious passing situations, Woods been able to make calls that attack the bottleneck.
Blitzes, whether off the edge or up the middle have a clear trajectory. Denzel Ward had half a sack and two quarterback hits against the Vikings a week after safety Ronnie Harrison notched a sack coming off the edge. John Johnson III came with a safety blitz that forced the Vikings to punt. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is an ever present threat because of his explosiveness.
The sheer amount of speed the Browns have at their disposal behind this defense line looks even faster when they don't have to cover the entire field.
One of the looks Woods has employed in obvious passing situations this season to generate pressure has had a defensive end lined up alone on one side against the tackle with three on the other, lining up over the center to the tackle, leaving one guard uncovered.
They then line up an inside linebacker over the uncovered guard. Most of the time, they are simply dropping that linebacker into coverage but the positioning still forces the guard he's over to treat him like he's blitzing, allowing every single defensive lineman to get isolated on an offensive lineman, making it four-on-four.
That guard can usually end up helping on the nose, but the other three defensive linemen are coming against a single blocker unless they kept help to try to slow down their edge rushers in the form of a tight end or running back. The running back isn't always helpful since the quarterback is already operating in tight quarters and the running back might exacerbate the problem. Nevertheless, the Browns are create the illusion of sending five while actually still keeping up to seven in coverage.
When the three players in one-on-one matchups include Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett on the same side isolated on a guard and tackle, that's a terrifying situation for the offense. Takkarist McKinley is the player often lined up across from the other tackle, who can bring a speed element as well as converting speed to power.
At the level the Browns defensive line is currently playing, they are going to get to the quarterback. It's simply a matter of how long it will take. This also allows the Browns to specifically target the weakest player on the offensive line and attack them.
The Browns are still lined up to take away the edges and maintain the bottleneck. Justin Fields tried use his mobility to escape but was unable while Cousins tried to get the ball out as quickly as possible. In third-and-long situations, that might not be enough time to make a good read on a pass beyond the sticks, only making it more likely the Browns can get off the field.
These past two games have introduced a very real fear factor into the quarterback's thought process. It's increasingly difficult to simply try to look for holes in the defense when the quarterback is worrying about fumbling or getting hit. The defense was finally able to capitalize on an opportunity created with that quick clock in the form of a Greedy Williams interception, something they hope to increase as the season progresses.
The Browns will go on the road to face the Los Angeles Chargers followed by a game at home against the Arizona Cardinals. Both teams feature athletic passers with a good amount of firepower. They will try to come up with ways to counter the Browns pincer attacking defense, but it's easier said than done with Garrett and Clowney on the edges. The Browns have not only restored the 'D' in Dawg Pound, but this pincer plan of attack has the potential put the clamps on some of the top offenses in the NFL.