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Steelers vs. Browns Week 1: Studying the Cleveland Browns Defense

With the Steelers’ first regular-season game against the Browns on the horizon, we take a closer look at the what the Browns’ defense will look like.

NFL: Cleveland Browns-OTA Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cleveland Browns hired former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, their objective was to create defensive schemes as complex and creative as the man they hired. In the last few drafts, the Browns have collected an ensemble of young, athletic defensive players. What was missing prior to this point was having the right defensive coordinator to create schemes which allow them to exploit their strengths.

Williams had a well-earned reputation for creating aggressive 4-3 schemes predicated on getting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In the small sample size we’ve seen of the Browns’ defense this preseason, they accounted for 16 sacks, six takeaways and allowed an average of 20 points in the four games they played.

To put this into perspective, the Browns’ defense last preseason accounted for only seven sacks and one takeaway. Whether this improvement may be attributed to Williams or not, the Steelers likely will face a more complex Browns defense than they’ve seen in recent history.

Gregg Williams 4-3 package

Williams has a total of 18 different 4-3 alignment packages, but it all begins with understanding his basic alignment known as the "regular" package. Williams’ 4-3 package is comprised of the following elements:

  • 4 defensive linemen ( 2 defensive ends, 2 nose tackles)
  • 3 linebackers ( Strong side, inside, and wide side)
  • 4 defensive backs

The key feature in all of these package sets is the play of the defensive linemen. Depending on the situation, the four defensive linemen play different roles. The overall objective is to create schemes that will mask their weaknesses and utilize their strengths.

Gregg Williams number system

The number system Williams implements for his defense was originally created by the late Bum Phillips. This system is based on the alignment of defensive linemen in relation to the offensive linemen in front of them. For instance, if a defensive lineman is lined up directly in front of the center, this is noted as being in the zero position. Each offensive lineman is given a number according to where he’s positioned, as shown in the diagram below.

In Williams’ schemes, a defensive lineman can utilize three different types of alignments: a heads alignment, a shade alignment and a loose alignment. What’s important to note is that the alignment of the linemen is predicated on whether the offense is calling a run or pass play. The expectation is to allow the players to adapt and do more in those positions.

In a shade alignment, the outside of every offensive linemen is represented by an odd number.

The defensive linemen in Williams’ schemes are given the creative freedom to make their alignments looser or tighter, depending on the play they believe the offense is going to run.

The ‘Stunt’

To simplify this idea, this clip indicates that the defense is playing the run. With the stunt, the offense will see defensive linemen in their shaded alignment. But when the ball is snapped, the linemen generally will cross and stunt into other gaps. The objective with this scheme is to cover all gaps inside, while the weak side or strong side linebackers takes anything that comes outside. This is the type of scheme Williams used quite often when he was a coordinator with the Rams.

Assortment of Blitzes

William’s approaches all his defensive schemes with an attack mentality; this is his trademark. Much of the time, Williams will implement his blitzes in a ‘stunt’, as this allows him to disguise which gap a defensive lineman or linebacker will rush through. Williams is equally willing to implement different types of blitzes on passing downs, with a variety of different nickel fronts. In this clip, the Browns are showing a 4-2 nickle front, the strong side linebacker on the line of scrimmage. The key to this play is the Browns defensive end seen in a shade alignment on the guard ( position 3 ). When the ball is snapped, the defensive lineman rushes in the 3 gap which initiates a double team. The strong side linebacker sells the 5 gap rush; then stunts into the 1 gap where the guard is too late to pick him up, resulting in the sack. In Williams blitzing schemes, there is a variety of ‘stunt’ activity going both sides, making it confusing for offensive linemen.

What Should the Steelers Offense know?

Many of Williams’ defensive schemes are predicated principally on the alignment of the defensive linemen, so the defensive line largely dictates the success and failure of his defensive schemes. Despite this fact, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley shouldn’t assume he knows what the Browns defense is going to run, based solely on the defensive alignment. Williams is very good at disguising the play he wants to run.

One way to counteract the defensive pressure from these schemes is by implementing quick passes. The one area of weakness is that the defensive linemen have the tendency to overcommit to the rush, leaving gaps open in the middle. In this case, someone like receiver Eli Rogers would be effective running slant routes across the middle.

Williams is a coordinator with a gambler mentality who lives by the blitz; however the consequence of blitzing too much is that you risk leaving your defensive backs with little to no help. If the Steelers are able to pick up the Browns blitz consistently, they have a chance of doing damage downfield with receivers like Martavis Bryant or Antonio Brown.

In general, the Browns might not be a playoff-bound team this year, but neither will they be the pushover they’ve been in years past on defense. With new personnel including elite-level defensive youngsters like Myles Garrett and Nate Orchard, plus a creative, ambitious defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, the Browns defense certainly isn’t one to be underestimated.