Get used to hearing the phrase "year two in the system" as the Cleveland Browns defense prepares for the 2015 season. In the lead up to the draft, an easily overlooked article was published on clevelandbrowns.com about one seemingly minor change to look for in "year two". Essentially, the defensive backs are going to become more interchangeable.
Last season, undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams solely lined up as the nickel back covering slot receivers, while first round draft pick Justin Gilbert exclusively was an outside cornerback.
Both will be learning the opposite roles this spring."
This change might sound insignificant or even surprisingly simple, but it isn’t.
There is an eternal game of cat and mouse between offense and defenses in the NFL. Defenses want to disguise coverages, confuse quarterbacks, and create more time between when the QB receives the snap and when he can find an open receiver. Offenses want to do everything in their power to understand who is going to be open and when, and they want to get that information as early as possible.
This is why Rob Ryan and Eric Mangini taught their defensive backs to line up and show techniques other than what they might play. "If you ain’t lyin’, you ain’t tryin’." This is why Peyton Manning so frequently sets a "dummy count" and tries to get the defense to move before he yells "Omaha!" to begin the real count. The offense wants to know the coverage, the defense wants to keep it a surprise.
In this back and forth, one of the tools at the offense’s disposal is pre-snap motion. Putting players in motion—especially moving them across the formation—can help an offense identify the coverage before the ball is snapped. Let’s look at a Cleveland Browns example:
Motion vs. Zone
Last year, in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns defense is lined up in what could be 2-deep, man under coverage.
With the safeties in a neutral 2-deep alignment, one of them could easily rotate down at the snap, giving the quarterback a huge difference between his pre-snap and post-snap reads (disguise). If the quarterback takes any time at all to react to this, the defense has won a small battle and is closer to a sack or a throwaway. At this point the defense could be playing man, zone, 2-deep or 1-deep.
Another advantage the defense has before the motion is that they have 4 linebackers to match up with 3 players within the box. 3 of those players are in man coverage while the fourth is a pass rusher or can drop into a zone. But the offense doesn’t know who is doing what.
However, when the Bengals send WR AJ Green across the formation, Joe Haden doesn’t follow him, which is a dead giveaway that the Browns are playing zone coverage.
With one movement, the Bengals have diagnosed the Browns’ coverage and moved their best offensive weapon away from an all-pro corner. They get the added benefit of knowing that Mingo isn't rushing the passer when he moves out away from the formation. And they have done all of it prior to the heat of the pass rush.
Motion vs. Man
In a game against the pittsburgh steelers, we see the opposite response. Now in nickel personnel, Joe Haden and Buster Skrine are lined up as the outside corners. K’Waun Williams is lined up as the slot corner, over the slot WR.
As pittsburgh sends their slot receiver in motion, Williams follows. This is normally a dead giveaway for man coverage. With one safety already cheating down, the only thing left for the steelers to diagnose is who is rushing and who has to cover.
Sure enough, after the snap the Browns are in cover-1 (man) and the pass rush doesn’t have enough time to get to the quarterback.
If Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil are able to implement their plan, the Browns will be better able to disguise both the coverage and the pass rush next year. We will be able to follow receivers and play zone, pass receivers off and play man, and keep our potential pass rushers hidden. This is easier said than done, as every defensive back (and ideally every linebacker) would have to know one another’s assignments. But the payoff could be enormous in year two in the system.