The Cleveland Browns finally made adjustments on defense Sunday, and it led to them nearly beating the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Despite what he has said recently, defensive coordinator Ray Horton changed his game plan at halftime and stopped the Chiefs offense dead in its tracks.
The Browns have the second-worst defense in the NFL when it comes to opponents third-down conversion percentage. They allow their opponents to pick up a first down 46 percent of the time in such situations.
They finished Sunday’s loss allowing Kansas City to convert 10-of-19 third downs, or 53 percent. That is higher than the Denver Broncos who lead the NFL by converting 52 percent of their third downs.
While that number sounds terrible, it was actually a tale of two halves. The Chiefs converted 9-of-12 third down attempts in the first half while converting just 1-of-7 in the second half.
So what changed? Ray Horton’s game plan changed.
In the first half, Horton used straightforward, predictable pass rushes on third downs. On all but one third down he rushed the two outside linebackers and one inside linebacker. This rush combination leaves the Browns' biggest weakness on defense, the inside linebackers, on an island and with a huge target on their chest.
There was only one third down that Horton didn’t send that combination of rushers in the first half. That time he had everyone drop into coverage and the defense stopped the Chiefs from getting a first down.
Let’s take a look at three plays from the second half of the game when Horton became creative, unpredictable and helped out his linebackers.
Play 1: 3rd-and-7 on Kansas City's own 25-yard line with 3:15 left in the third quarter
This is the Chiefs second possession of the second half. Horton has his defense lined up in its standard blitz package on third downs. The pressure looks like it again will be coming off of the edge from both outside linebackers and the inside from an inside linebacker.
All the cornerbacks and safeties are lining up in what appears to be man-to-man coverage or in a zone.
As soon as the ball is snapped everything on the defense changes. Jabaal Sheard (bottom of the formation) does not rush and drops out to cover the slot receiver. The inside linebacker, who was showing blitz, now drops back and will pick up the tight end in coverage.
Instead, the other inside linebacker blitzes. At the top of the screenshot you can see cornerback Chris Owens blitzing right behind outside linebacker Paul Kruger. Safety Tashaun Gipson then shifts outside to pick up the wide receiver that Owens has abandoned.
This is a monumental shift in blitz and coverage from pre-snap to post-snap.
As you can see in this screen shot, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has nowhere to go with the ball downfield and has to step up into the teeth of the pressure.
This play resulted in a sack. Smith made changes to his receivers routes pre-snap based on what Horton’s defense was showing and what they had been doing all game long. Once he snapped the ball the coverage completely changed, and he was not able to make a read fast enough to get rid of the football.
Play 2: 3rd-and-14 on Kansas City's own 36-yard line with 12:37 left in the fourth quarter
The defense looks extremely similar before this snap as well. Both outside linebackers look like they are going to rush, one inside linebacker appears to be rushing and everyone else is playing man coverage on the outside.
The only difference here is that safety T.J. Ward is near the line of scrimmage but is backpedaling as if he will retreat into zone coverage down the field.
Once again, as the ball is snapped the blitz package changes. As the inside linebacker blitzes, Ward continues to backpedal for a few steps and then blitzes off of his outside shoulder.
This is a delayed blitz.
Everyone else picks up man coverage and Tashaun Gipson is the deep safety in a zone.
Once again all of Smith’s receivers are covered downfield and he has to hold onto the ball.
With the Chiefs needing 14 yards to pick up a third down, Horton knew he had a little extra time to blitz. He dialed up a delayed blitz from Ward and before Smith could react he was sacked.
Play 3: 3rd-and-18 on the Browns' 49-yard line with 4:10 left in the fourth quarter
With the game hanging in the balance, Horton’s defense once again lined up in their base blitz package for third down. Both outside linebackers are showing blitz and all the corners and safeties are dropping into man and zone coverages.
At the far right of the screen shot you can see Ward motioning for Gipson to pick up the uncovered slot receiver.
This time the entire defense shifts as the ball is snapped.
Sheard, who appeared to be blitzing from the bottom of the defensive line, backpedals out into coverage. The slot cornerback from the top rotated all the way over into an intermediate zone. The inside linebacker still blitzed, but the cornerback from the top of the screen shot is following right behind him on a blitz. The safety Ward then shifts over into man coverage on the wide receiver he abandone
Smith rolls out to the side of the field which had a receiver uncovered before the snap of the ball. Before he can take five steps, that side of the field is flooded with defenders, and the blitz is hot on his trail from the back side.
The Browns baited Smith on this play. They made him feel like there was a miscommunication in coverage and then rolled the entire defense to that side of the field. By the time Smith could look back to the other side, the receiver was covered by Ward and the QB was sacked once again.
This play was huge because it gave the Browns offense one last shot at winning the game.
Ray Horton and head coach Rob Chudzinski spent two weeks preaching that halftime adjustments were overrated. This shows that a lot of that is just lip service.
Every coach knows that changing a scheme at halftime can throw your opponent out of rhythm or help out your guys that may be struggling. The Browns coaches know it too.
If Horton can continue to mix up the blitz packages he sends on third down, the Browns defense can be much more successful at getting off the field.
Game-film screenshot is courtesy of NFL Game Rewind (subscription required).