CB Joe Haden is still listed as questionable, but did practice on a limited basis Friday. As for pass rushers, Ahtyba Rubin was limited in practice Friday as well and is also listed as questionable. Fellow defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Billy Winn have been ruled out for the game Sunday. That leaves a defensive tackle group of Desmond Bryant, Armonty Bryant, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, and John Hughes, plus or minus Rubin. I expect to see Desmond, Kitchen, and Hughes start, but for us to feature a lot of two defensive tackle sub defense lineups both because that will keep these guys fresher and because the nickel defense with just Armonty and Desmond out there did a great job stopping the run last week.
Desmond Bryant at nose tackle and Armonty Bryant at under tackle, Sheard and Kruger at outside linebacker/end, and Dansby and Kirksey at inside linebacker make up this nickel front:
This play has Billy Winn as the nose and Armonty at under tackle, Kruger and Sheard with their hands in the dirt at end, Dansby and Kirksey at ILB, and two defensive backs up near the line of scrimmage on the outsides:
As far as where players have lined up and in what front or personnel grouping, Billy Winn has been our most versatile defensive tackle. In addition to his role in sub defenses, Winn has lined up in all three spots in the Browns base defense: strong side "heavy end" (SE below), weak side under tackle (WT), and strong side nose tackle (ST). He's seen the most action at the strong side end position and isn't technically a "starter", but he's pretty much been the primary backup at every defensive tackle position this season (unless you count starter Phil Taylor as the primary backup for Rubin at nose tackle). His ability to play all the spots at a high level is why the Browns were able to get by with having both John Hughes and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen inactive last week. With Winn out, Hughes will have to step into that role while Kitchen takes over for Taylor.
I apologize for the detour from our injury report topic, but I can't resist the temptation to point out an example of the creative stuff the Browns like to do with their nickel defense. Here, when the Titans are in the two-minute drill near the end of the game, Desmond is lined up over the right guard's inside shoulder and Armonty is on the left tackle. Kruger and Sheard are standing up at outside linebacker. Dansby is the only ILB lined up inside, Kirksey is split to the right with the tight end. K'Waun Williams is in the slot just off the screen to the left. With Dansby as the only non-lineman close to the line of scrimmage inside, the quarterback identifies him as the "Mike", the fifth man that the protection should account for in addition to the four defensive linemen.
Here's what it looks like from the zoomed out All 22 perspective:
Given the defensive alignment, the image below shows what Titans QB Charlie Whitehurst likely expects on the play. Bryant, Bryant, Sheard, and Kruger likely rush. Dansby either rushes, picks up the running back in man-to-man, or drops into underneath zone coverage in the middle. The corners lined up across from each receiver may have them in man coverage while Kirksey has the tight end. The strong safety looks to be in deep middle zone coverage and the free safety appears to be in an underneath "robber" zone coverage over the middle.
There are many other possibilities here (quarters, Cover 3, Cover 2 man, safeties providing double man coverage on the slot receiver and tight end, etc.), but the most important part is that the pre-snap defense looks unfavorable for what appears to be Whitehurst's primary read: the slot receiver to the left. The Titans are running a four verticals concept, with the two outside receivers and the tight end going vertical, the slot receiver running a post route, and the back serving as a checkdown over the middle. With the high likelihood that an inside linebacker and a safety could have underneath zone coverage in the middle -- making fitting the ball in there very difficult as well as dangerous -- Whitehurst changes his primary target from the slot receiver to the tight end.
As it turns out, the coverage and the rush package were both different than expected (see below). The strong safety was in deep middle zone coverage, Dansby was dropping into underneath zone coverage, and the outside corners and linebacker did have man coverage on the outside receivers and tight end, respectively. Charlie got all that right. A few things he didn't anticipate were Kruger dropping into zone coverage over the middle, slot corner K'Waun Williams coming on a blitz, and the free safety having man coverage on the slot receiver.
As a result, there was a huge open window over the middle to the slot receiver's post route...but Whitehurst never saw it because the pre-snap look made him think it wouldn't be there. On his new primary, the tight end, Kirskey had tight coverage, causing Whitehurst to hesitate:
Had Whitehurst questioned his pre-snap read and/or quickly identified how tight Kirksey's coverage was on the tight end, he may have continued his progression and discovered the wide open post over the middle. That could have put the Titans into field goal range. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this was a blown coverage. I'm saying that this was a calculated risk to attempt to disguise the defense, fool the quarterback, and apply tremendous pressure.
Oh yeah, what about the pressure part? So, the Browns have three men on the line rushing, Desmond, Armonty, and Jabaal Sheard, and they also bring K'Waun Williams off the slot:
This leaves very little pressure coming off the right side but an overload on the left. This not only threatens the left side with more rushers than they can handle, it also forces the quarterback to scramble to his right...away from the slot receiver that the defensive coordinator knows is likely to come open. This makes it less likely that he will notice this open receiver and also forces a tougher and riskier throw back across the middle if he does.
Armonty charges at the left guard and Sheard rushes wide. This creates a big gap between the guard and tackle for the blitzing corner. Sack! Clock runs down to 19 seconds. Titans take their final timeout with the ball on their own 37. The play of the game.
Next Man Up: Eric Martin
I talked about how the Browns can attempt to weather the storm of injuries at the defensive tackle position, but what if Paul Kruger can't suit up Sunday? Meet Eric Martin. He's an outside linebacker in his second year on the Browns. He was an undrafted free agent last year out of Nebraska. The Browns official website has him listed at 6'2" 250 pounds. NFL Draft Scout had him at 6 feet and 1/2 inches and weighing 237 pounds coming out.
Anyways, who is Eric Martin? He's quite different from the three guys ahead of him on the depth chart. He's short, stout, quick, and agile. Martin's shorter stature poses different leverage advantages and disadvantages. Athletic offensive tackles may be able to use their long arms to make first contact on him, lock him out, and end his play early. If he can manage to use misdirection and quickness to get inside the tackle's reach and up into his chest, he can win the leverage battle and drive back the blocker. This could be especially effective against poor athletes, so I see the matchup against Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert being much, much more favorable for Martin than facing LT Kelvin Beachum.
Other major differences between Martin and his teammates are his agility and his coordination while changing directions. He logged phenomenal pre-draft short shuttle and three-cone drill times of 3.97 and 6.69 seconds, respectively. Those would be really good times for a slot corner (Buster Skrine ran 3.90 and 6.44), let alone an outside linebacker. Below, I have a video of Martin in college, courtesy of Draft Breakdown. The most important thing I ask that you make note of is how effortlessly Martin changes direction. He rarely comes into the play out of control or off balance. He's able to turn and adjust his rush to the quarterback, even at full speed. Kruger, Sheard, and Mingo all have major problems in this area but Martin does not. I find that extremely intriguing, because we've left many plays on the field already this season due to this reason alone.
Martin (#52 this year, though he wore #56 last season) displays the quickness to get a step on RT Zach Strief around the edge and also the power to fight through the tackle's attempt to shove him off course. This is an example of how his shorter build helps him absorb contact, as Strief can only deliver a blow high to his chest, which glances off the rusher with little effect:
Here Martin gets better leverage than Michael Oher and rocks him back onto his heels. He then further wards him off with a hand to the face. There's a lot of gray area here, but he might want to avoid doing such a thing in a battle he's already won as it could result in an unfortunate penalty.
Martin fools Oher into thinking he's taking an outside path and counters inside. He catches Oher off balance and unset and easily pushes by him and to the quarterback:
2013 The Bad:
Martin was #56 in 2013. Here he sees the running back looking to assist the left tackle and hesitates to wait for the RB to commit to the B-gap. This gives the LT a head start and makes it much easier to stop his rush:
Martin tries to attack the right tackle inside again here. The right guard comes off Rubin and this double team easily stops Martin in his tracks:
Below, Eric Martin sets up the right tackle for what looks like an outside rush and strikes him to get inside. The RT staggers to recover inside and Martin attacks his outside shoulder to toss him aside. While he does defeat the blocker on this play, it's simply too slowly-developing to impact the quarterback. Focusing too much on winning the battle with a lineman is a fairly common problem with young pass rushers. He would be better off trying to charge through the "half a man" in the fourth frame here rather than trying to shove the tackle off balance again.
2013 The Good:
In this following case, Eric Martin is able to have success stringing together an inside fake, an outside move, and then an inside move because he cycles through them very quickly. FYI, his pressure on this play results in a high throw by Cutler that goes for a "Pick Six" by Tashaun Gipson.
Martin shows a beautiful spin move to beat the right tackle to the inside:
Here Martin beats limited athlete Will Svitek with a pure speed rush around the corner. Note how much he bends at the ankles to make a tight loop around the corner:
Here the right tackle meets Martin at the contact point but doesn't have enough bend or a strong enough base to overcome Martin's natural leverage advantage, allowing him to push through and into the backfield:
I don't know if Paul Kruger will miss action. I don't know how big Eric Martin's role will be if Kruger's out (or if he's not out, for that matter). What I do know is that the young Browns backup outside linebacker has demonstrated the talent to be an effective pass rusher in this league when given the opportunity. I wish Kruger the best and hope that he can recover quickly and contribute Sunday; however, if he cannot I feel confident that Eric Martin can step in and perform in his absence.
Just to put this all in perspective, the Steelers have their fair share of injuries to key players as well: