So it goes with the Cleveland Browns’ new defensive system, a chicken or egg question if ever there was one.
Did the Browns adopt the new system because they hired coaches who believe in it, or did they choose the coaches because they believe in the Browns preferred system?
CEO Joe Banner had a plain answer last week when he met the Cleveland media at the NFL Scouting Combine. He said every move made this offseason sprung from a focus on aggression, a focus that will guide the team in the Jimmy Haslam-Banner era.
“It may be right, it may be wrong, and we still have to prove it, but everything will come from a philosophy, from a plan,” Banner said. “There will be no whims, no flying by the seat of our pants.
“The players that we bring in will be aggressive, attacking, competitive, mad-as-hell-when-we lose type of people. That we’ll have an offensive and defensive coordinator who are going to call a game with that kind of aggressiveness. That we want our opponents to be on the defense; we never want to be on the defensive.
“That we’re willing to take chances, which by the way will occasionally blow up in our faces. But overall we think over time will prove to be successful.”
The Browns started their search to replace Pat Shumur with the philosophy that the best teams defensively are ones that disrupt the quarterback. How that is done can vary, but winning depends on pressuring the opposing quarterback and protecting your quarterback, Banner said.
“Every team that gets to the Super Bowl is high in sacks,” Banner said.
This season, Baltimore ranked tied for 15th in sacks, San Francisco 11th. The year before, the Giants ranked third, the Patriots 14th. In 2010 the Super Bowl had the top two sack teams in the league — Pittsburgh and Green Bay. Carry it forward two more years and the teams ranked 13 (New Orleans), 16 (Indianapolis), 8 (Pittsburgh) and 20 (Arizona).
So of the last 10 Super Bowl teams, nine were in the top half of the league in sacks and three were in the top three.
Banner’s thinking also probably evolved a bit from his years in Philadelphia, where the Eagles for years have played a very aggressive, attacking system.
Former defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson was known for his exotic blitzes and pressures, and it helped the Eagles get to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl.
Banner also has seen the Steelers consistently lead or be near the lead in defense every season with an attacking zone-blitz scheme led by Dick LeBeau. Of course that scheme also has been at or near the top of the league every season in run defense as well. But the point is clear.
Banner and new owner Jimmy Haslam decided they needed an aggressive, attacking defensive approach with the Browns, so when they interviewed coaches they asked their defensive thinking — which is also interesting because one of the first guys they spent the most time with was Chip Kelly, who is known for his offense. But then so is Rob Chudzinski, and when he talked about liking an aggressive defense, the interest from the Browns grew.
“It was the philosophy that contributed to us wanting to hire him,” Banner said.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton seemed to fall in their lap. When the Cardinals hired Bruce Arians, he wanted Todd Bowles as his defensive coordinator. That made Horton available, and Horton had run LeBeau’s system in Arizona. Horton denied it in Cleveland, but on a Phoenix radio station he said the Browns and Steelers defenses would be mirror images. The fit was near perfect.
“We wanted to hire a coach,” Banner said, “who would understand philosophically how important it was to get pressure on the quarterback. Then add a coordinator who felt the same way.”
Carrying out this philosophy mandates an upgrade in the defensive front, both at linebacker and on the line. But Banner said that upgrade was needed even had the Browns kept the four-three.
“I think we felt like the defense wasn’t good enough, just to be very direct about it,” Banner said of the unit that ranked 23rd overall, 19th against the run. “If you went into some of the more sophisticated breakdowns of the defense this year, some of these systems that eliminate plays, that truly measure success at crucial times in crucial situations and so on and so forth, we were ranked 20 or lower in most of those categories.
“I think that combined with the belief that we wanted to have a more aggressive, attacking defense because we wanted to bring in more aggressive players. We want to be risk-takers, we want to be attacking, we want the other team to be on the defensive.
“It doesn’t mean it was wrong (last year), but it wasn’t the type of scheme we were running. So this felt like it fit more the type of player we want to bring in, the type of mindset we want to create, the way we want our opponents to perceive us. We want them to be worried about where we’re coming from, what we’re going to do next.”
The approach did not mandate a switch to the three-four. Banner said he and Haslam were only slightly biased toward the three-four when they started interviewing. But many of the coaches interviewed echoed what Chudzinski said when he admitted the attacking three-four was the defense that gave him the biggest challenges as a play-caller.
“Because of the reasons that they show multiple looks that you have to prepare for,” Chudzinski said. “They create confusion in your blocking schemes and then also in the pass game as well. … They really attack the offense and are in position to attack the offense.”
Yes … it seems that “attack” will replace “battle” as the Browns catch-word.
“That will be the mentality of the organization,” Banner said. “We’re hiring people that will fit that culture, whether they be players, marketing people or coaches.”