Breaking down a blowout loss in a standalone playoff game is pretty easy. An almost complete and utter failure by the Cleveland Browns versus the Houston Texans. Giving out winners and losers from the game is tough because it has a lot of negatives and digging for positives.
We’ve already started our move-on process with our first Browns mock draft following the season.
That doesn’t mean we are done looking back at the playoff loss. In fact, the loss will help direct the offseason coverage in many ways starting with “getting injured players back will be helpful.”
With such a huge defeat, blame is easy to go around. DC Jim Schwartz’s unit is just one of those places blame falls but a pretty big one.
Throughout most of the season, Cleveland fans loved Schwartz’s aggressive, man defense. In general, those two concepts feel like the “football we grew up loving.” Unfortunately, smart and fast offenses took advantage of those two things.
These three plays clearly show the Browns defense aggressively attacking any movement and being out of position for the misdirection. First, the entire front seven pursues the motion and play fake to the offense’s left allowing WR Nico Collins to sneak out to the right where his speed helps him outrace the defenders who were focused on everything going left:
Football is simple— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 14, 2024
Find you a 6-foot-4, 220 lbs WR who moves like this
Just eating up ground. Nico Collins is awesome. Slowik in his bag with misdirection vs Cleveland's aggressive defense. pic.twitter.com/wy2I2cHxbN
Here, we see Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Sione Takitaki take off toward the play fake while Myles Garrett and Jordan Elliott are allowed a free release toward the quarterback but don’t read it as a screen:
A thing of beauty from Bobby Slowik— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 14, 2024
Look at how the speed motion of Brevin Jordan totally pulls JOK out of the play. 44 goes with the toes.
And then the athleticism from Laremy Tunsil. One step and cut upfield.
To be fair, Laremy Tunsil’s ability to get out and block Martin Emerson is key to the play but the rest of the Cleveland defense was already out of the play.
Finally, this play takes advantage of similar aggression on the backend of the defense where a traditional flood concept seems to be being run. Juan Thornhill comes downhill to try to cut off the ball to Collins over the middle while Ronnie Hickman stays on the right side where the traditional concept has three pass catchers. Houston takes advantage by running Dalton Schultz on a corner post to the left instead:
Dalton Schultz TD— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 14, 2024
Defenses will often face plays like this post-snap that end in a flood concept with 3 levels of routes to the right side
But Slowik throws in the corner post to Schultz to attack the void that 1 & 0 vacate to cover Collins
Easy TD pic.twitter.com/zpwmWPpDXO
While Greg Newsome ends up the nearest defender, Thornhill leaves his area and Hickman can’t recover quickly enough to the Texans adjustment to the flood concepts.
All in all, Schwartz gave Stroud the type of defensive alignment he’s shredded all year long:
In the regular season, the Browns played single-high coverage — either Cover-1 or Cover-3 on 64% of their snaps, the NFL’s highest rate.
But C.J. Stroud against Cover-1 and Cover-3 in the regular season? Try 141 of 228 for 2,054 yards, 1,335 air yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 105.4.
So with Stroud loving to play against Cover-1 and 3 and a lot of film of Cleveland’s defense in those alignments, Schwartz did exactly what Houston knew he would do, no adjustments:
Stroud faced single-high coverage on 16 of his 21 passing attempts in the game, and at no time did Stroud have to deal with any kind of wrinkle pre-snap to post-snap to muddy the picture and delay his reads and throws.
In the NFL, especially in the modern age, it isn’t just about how good your players are or even just how good your scheme is. It is about how you can vary what you are doing, adjust throughout the game and surprise the opposing team (on either side of the ball).
Perhaps Schwartz was limited because of injuries in the secondary. Perhaps the team didn’t believe their defenders would be successful in other coverages. Perhaps the coaches were concerned that communication wasn’t good enough to be more creative.
Schwartz doesn’t deserve the blame alone but he gets his share after Saturday.
Are you surprised at how little Schwartz did to make things difficult for Stroud?