The Cleveland Browns rounded out their defensive coaching staff this week, hiring Jim O'Neil as defensive coordinator, Brian Fleury as assistant linebackers coach and Jeff Hafley as defensive backs coach. All worked with newly-minted Browns head coach Mike Pettine when he was the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.
On paper, all of these hires look great. The Bills had one of the NFL's best defenses in 2013 under this group of men, leading the league in tackles, producing the second-most sacks and interceptions and giving up touchdowns to opposing offenses on just 47.06 percent of their red-zone appearances.
However, the Browns had a different defensive coordinator and attendant staff last year, a group helmed by Ray Horton who had come aboard from the Arizona Cardinals. Under Horton, the Cardinals had one of the NFL's best defenses. However, when he tried to translate that through the filter of Cleveland's defensive personnel, he couldn't recreate that success.
That's why it's difficult to assume that Pettine's hybrid defense, which worked so well in Buffalo, will be just as effective in Cleveland.
What helps, though, is the "hybrid" nature of what Pettine and his staff will spend the offseason installing. The Browns' current defensive roster is itself a hybrid, composed of players from the team's last three iterations at 3-4, 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses. It could easily explain why Horton's transition away from the Dick Jauron-created 4-3 before him didn't go as smoothly as hoped despite so many free agency and draft resources being spent on building up that side of the ball.
But Horton's failure in Cleveland is a cautionary tale. It's a reason why the Browns may not have a bruising, brutal, ball-hawking defense in 2014 even though it is coached by the men who created that very same thing in Buffalo a season earlier.
The Cardinals ranked first in the league in opponent third-down conversion percentage in 2011 and third in 2012. They were second in the league in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage in 2011 and third in 2012. And they were stingy to opposing offenses in the fourth quarter, ranking fifth in points allowed in the final 15 minutes in 2011 and first in 2012.
However, those metrics all dropped considerably when Horton brought his talents to Cleveland. Though the Browns were a very respectable ninth in opponent yards allowed, they were 31st in opponent third-down conversion percentage, 30th in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage (please ignore Teams Rice and Sanders from the Pro Bowl) and last in the league in opponent fourth-quarter points allowed.
So while Pettine and company may have turned the Buffalo defense around significantly in one season, Horton's struggles to do the same in Cleveland in 2013 is reason to temper expectations about what Pettine and his staff can accomplish in 2014.
|Buffalo Bills Defense, 2012 vs. 2013|
|Year||YPG||Rank||3rd D%||Rank||RZ TD%||Rank||4Q Pts||Rank|
|via ESPN and TeamRankings.com|
One thing working in Pettine's favor—potentially, of course, as the new league year will have to start before anything can happen—is roster continuity, which Horton did not have. Upon Horton's arrival, he and the front office went about reshaping the Browns' defensive roster.
Gone were players like Frostee Rucker, Kaluka Maiava, Sheldon Brown and Usama Young, among many others. Added were veteran free agents such as Paul Kruger, Quentin Groves, Chris Owens and Desmond Bryant, who joined rookies Barkevious Mingo, Leon McFadden and Armonty Bryant. That's a lot of defensive turnover, especially at key or starting positions.
If Pettine and his crew are (mostly) satisfied with the talent level and skill sets of the defensive players currently under contract with the Browns, then he may have a better chance than Horton did into getting them to play better. They have a year of familiarity with each others' personalities and playing styles.
Though the players will (yet again) have to deal with a shift in coaching and all that entails, at least they won't be dealing with a coaching shift as well as a full roster reworking. That will help Pettine's chances of success.
However, we're still months away from ultimately knowing who will stay, who will go and who will get actual playing time. If he redoes things like the team did last year, the odds for defensive improvement sink.
The Browns hiring of Pettine and Pettine's importing of many of Buffalo's defensive staff at least shows that the team is well aware of how greatly their defense simply failed in 2013 despite giving it the majority of their attention.
However, this was the same logic they employed last year when they hired Horton to run the defense—that a prodigious defensive mind who had success turning another team's defense around could do the same in Cleveland. It didn't work.
While that's not to say this latest attempt will fail in a similar way, it is simply worth noting that Pettine and his staff's mere presence isn't a cure-all to what ails the Browns defense. While this group certainly improved things in Buffalo, this is a different place and a different time. Having success elsewhere does not mean the success will continue in Cleveland.