The numbers are what they are, so no data-minded analytical organization is going to tell you the Cleveland Browns are going to field a dominant pass rushing defense in 2018.
That’s why Pro Football Focus’ Gordon McGuiness has the Browns ranked all the way near the bottom, coming in at No. 28, heading into the season. McGuiness doesn’t see much room for improvement for a unit that will essentially be the same group—plus rookie Chad Thomas, and added experience for everyone else—that struggled to generate pressure without added help from additional blitzers last season.
Much is expected of the 2017 first overall draft pick Garrett, and after an impressive rookie season as a pass-rusher, he will need to carry the Browns pass-rush hopes as far as he can in Year 2. Opposite him is likely to be third-year man Ogbah, who has produced 10 sacks, 13 hits and 44 hurries through two seasons, but at this point it hasn’t come in more than flashes. On the interior, the top candidates to even make a small impact as pass-rushers are Ogunjobi and Brantley, but they combined for just two sacks, three hits and 13 hurries last year.
In case you forgot, the Browns blitzed a ton last season, especially on third-down passing plays.
The Browns were the only team in the NFL to blitz on more than 50 percent of passing plays on third down in 2017. See @PFF_Gordon's breakdown on blitz tendencies on passing plays per down here:https://t.co/GxGeTanF3d pic.twitter.com/NZQXOc7xzA— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 12, 2018
So it’s not surprising the majority of their sacks came from blitzing than from not sending any additional pressure.
Almost 70 percent of the sacks produced by the Browns in 2017 came on plays where they blitzed. pic.twitter.com/pUwJFw52qA— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 12, 2018
What about in general? Well, they blitzed a lot pretty much always, really, sending five or more pass rushers on 44.1 percent of defensive plays. That was tied with Carolina for the most in the NFL, with the New Orleans Saints coming in at a distant third with 38 percent.
Defensive Coordinators blitz for many reasons, like getting an offense out of rhythm or if they can't get pressure with 4 rushers.— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 26, 2017
Highest Blitz teams this season!#Browns #Panthers #Saints #Rams #Jets #Packers #Broncos #Texans #Titans #Cardinals #Redskins #Giants #Jaguars pic.twitter.com/GQl1Od9Mce
Despite those numbers, the Browns’ pass rush finished the 2017 season with just the 30th-best pressure percentage in the NFL, coming in at only 29.5 percent.
That is, well, something to say the least. Even with the added bonus of having additional pass rushers, the Browns just are not getting to the quarterback in Greg Williams’ scheme. And PFF and others have measured the numbers, so there’s no real debating that.
However, there is just one small factor that the analytical powerhouse is overlooking: there are 11 players on defense, not seven.
As ESPN’s Louis Riddick so eloquently surmised, a pass rush cannot and will not be effective without the support of all 11 players. And if you watched the Browns last season at all, you know their secondary was a porous dumpster fire for the better part of the year.
#Browns DC Gregg Williams’ explanation as to why he picked Ward over Chubb is exactly the thinking I alluded to during the live TV broadcast. Pass rush & coverage go together. Better/longer coverage will equate to more sacks.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) April 30, 2018
Here’s a look at a Matt Stafford touchdown last season, a play where the Browns sent heavy pressure—6 rushers—and left their defensive backs in Cover 1, with four defenders in man coverage underneath and one free safety playing the middle top zone. The result was shockingly bad, as tight end Eric Ebron burned safety Derrick Kindred. Kindred sold out on a double move, stumbled, and Stafford had an easy touchdown connection.
The pressure never got to Stafford. Maybe if Kindred didn’t fall and was locked into Ebron down the sideline, Stafford would have hesitated and the Browns may have gotten there.
Example of why Matthew Stafford has been a top-3 QB this year. Audibled to this play when he recognized #Browns blitz presnap, perfect throw to Ebron on double-move vs. S Kindred. #Lions pic.twitter.com/HWjpFX9UCP— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) November 17, 2017
This isn’t an indictment on Kindred, but it is a symptom of the heavy blitzing the Browns defense was called to execute. Would the outcome have been different if the they only sent four or five rushers? Maybe, but Stafford audibled to that play because he knew the Browns were bringing heat. He knew this because everyone in the building knew this, because that’s what the Browns repeatedly did last season. He knew this because they didn’t generate pressure without it, and their secondary didn’t hold long enough—even with added defenders—to give them a shot.
Luckily for Williams’ pass rush, the Browns’ secondary has help on the way. New general manager John Dorsey basically gutted the entire defensive backfield, bringing in multiple new faces who have found success in the NFL. Dorsey also drafted Denzel Ward with the No. 4 pick.
If the new additions can hold up for even one or two more seconds without giving up big plays, or at least making a quarterback second-guess his release for even a passing moment, the Browns’ pass rush should be able to dramatically improve its effective pressure percentage this season. That is, however, dependent on them improving and winning their individual battles more consistently.
Blitz more, or blitz less, everyone needs to do a better job winning against the guy in front of them, or none of this will matter and PFF’s projection will easily become reality.