The Cleveland Browns are being victimized. Over the past two weeks, their main weakness, defensively, has been exposed, and they have not been able to adjust. The Browns inside linebackers, D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson, are a liability in pass coverage, and the secret is out.
The inside linebackers are the ones mainly responsible for covering tight ends and running backs when they run passing routes. Over the past two weeks, the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers’ tight ends and running backs have combined for 233 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
The cupboard is dry behind the starters, too. The backups are Tank Carder, who has two years in the league and very little playing experience, and Brandon Magee, who is a rookie. In their combined careers, they have 13 total tackles and one pass defended.
Opposing quarterbacks are now targeting Jackson and Robertson. Let’s examine three key plays from the Browns' 31-13 loss to the Packers, Sunday, where Aaron Rodgers singled out the linebackers and made them pay.
Play 1: 2nd-and-7 on the Browns' 10-yard line with 12:29 left in the first quarter
This is the Packers' very first drive, and confusion has already struck the Browns’ linebackers. Just before this screenshot, both D’Qwell Jackson and safety Tashaun Gipson (circled) had to yell and motion to Robertson to shift out and cover Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.
Now Aaron Rodgers knows exactly where he is throwing the football. He took his time before this play and adjusted the routes on the top of the screenshot to allow Finley to be one-on-one with Robertson.
Despite isolating Robertson on the out route, he maintains good coverage and closes the gap on Finley quickly. His job is, obviously, to tackle Finley, but at the very least, he needs to hit and slow down the powerful tight end.
Even though Robertson did his job and hit Finley, Gipson will now miss a tackle and so will cornerback Buster Skrine. There was a total of three missed tackles on this touchdown pass.
Despite Rodgers identifying his mismatch (with the help of some yelling and pointing by Browns defenders), Craig Robertson still made a nice play. He did not make the initial tackle, but the rest of the defense has to pick him up. Three missed tackles, allowing a touchdown inside the red zone, is unacceptable.
Play 2: 3rd-and-6 on the Packers' 24-yard line with 15:00 left in the second quarter
On this play, the Packers are up, 14-0, but backed into their own territory and facing a tough third down. As you can see, they will run a complement of aggressive passing routes. The Browns defense will play man-to-man coverage on the top of the screenshot while dropping into a zone on the bottom.
All the receivers are covered in either man coverage or by zones. The only wide-open route is fullback John Kuhn who has leaked into the flat as a safety valve. Unfortunately, Jackson overruns his intended zone and allows wide receiver Jordy Nelson to sit in a wide-open area.
With no underneath route to the top of the field, Jackson’s sole responsibility on this play is Nelson over the middle.
When we flip to the end-zone camera, you can see just how far Jackson ran past Nelson. Rodgers, who felt pressure in the pocket, stepped up and made a perfect throw to the wide-open receiver. The space between Nelson and Jackson allowed him to run an additional three yards on the play.
Instead of flipping field position and allowing the Browns a shorter field on offense, the Packers picked up 13 yards and a first down. This is such a frustrating play because the zones were set up perfectly, and Jackson just moved a little outside of his area, allowing the catch and first down.
Play 3: 3rd-and-7 on the Packers' 33-yard line with 3:13 left in the third quarter
This is a pivotal point in the game because the Browns are only down 17-6 and have the Packers facing a long third down in their own territory. Rodgers has two deep routes to the bottom of the screenshot and an out route underneath them for Finley.
On this play, Rodgers cannot tell who will be covering Finley before the snap. It will either be Skrine or Robertson (circled).
The moment the ball is snapped, Skrine blitzes and Rodgers immediately knows he has a first down. His eyes never leave that side of the field, and as soon as the deep corners clear out of the way, he will throw the out route to Finley and move the chains.
Finley runs to the first-down marker and is wide-open. This couldn’t have been an easier third-down conversion.
Rodgers recognized that Robertson could be covering Finley one-on-one before the snap was even made. As soon as Skrine showed he was blitzing, the officiating crew might as well have started moving the sticks for a first down.
It would be the pinnacle of stupidity to not recognize the greatness of both Aaron Rodgers and Jermichael Finley. Most inside linebackers have a heck of a time covering Finley, and that’s why he has 2,785 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. However, this is now a trend.
The Browns inside linebackers have been shaky in coverage all season, but teams are finally starting to attack them more consistently. Since there are no better alternative players on the roster, defensive coordinator Ray Horton will have to adjust what he does defensively.
If he doesn’t make adjustments, then every opponent through the end of the season has a guide on how to pass on the Cleveland Browns.
Game-film screenshot is courtesy of NFL Game Rewind (subscription required).