BONUS Blitz of the Month - '22 May
The Browns illustrate how to blitz the Safety from their "3Y" coverage (Zion).
When talking best secondary units in the NFL, usually you don’t hear the Browns thrown into the conversation. Instead, typically you will see the Saints (who just added Tyrann Mathieu to the mix), Ravens, Patriots, Bills, or the Bucs. However, the Browns have put together a formidable unit full of young emerging stars over the past several years.
Cleveland has put draft capital into their secondary, and it is paying off. ‘21 saw the addition of 1st Round draft pick Greg Newsome III (Northwestern), and in ‘19, they added Greedy Williams (LSU) in the second round. In addition, CB1 Denzel Ward (‘18 1/4) just signed a massive contract to stay in Cleveland. The duo of Johnson and Harrison were brought in via free agency, coming from the Rams (‘21) and Jaguars (‘20). They also added CB Martin Emerson in the 3rd Round of this year’s draft.
Overall, the ‘21 Browns were the highest graded unit by PFF (90.7) and earned the 3rd lowest +EPA% at ~43% (which means they were consistently good). Mirroring that percentage is that the Cleveland secondary had a 42.7% efficiency rate versus dropback passes. Additionally, Football Outsiders had them with the seventh-best passing DVOA at -.8%. Nevertheless, the Browns were one of the top secondary units in ‘21 and appeared to be headed back to the top with everyone coming back.
Clevelands’ coverage scheme is dominated by middle-of-the-field closed (MOFC) coverages, with 40% of their calls coming from that category. The Browns get to MOFC coverage through Cover 3, with only 17% of their snaps coming from Cover 1. In terms of middle-of-the-field open schemes (MOFO), the Browns majored in Quarters, running it 24% of the time.
I usually separate Cover 1 and Cover 3 even though they are technically both MOFC coverages because of how different the techniques can be. Even if running a Bail-3 concept (CB appears to press and then bails post-snap), the defense uses zone principles outside. In Cover 1, the CBs are more aggressive at the line of scrimmage and are playing more in-phase coverage (near the WRs hip). The viral tweet of Jalen Ramsey explaining how his game is different from Trevon Diggs (Cowboys) is an excellent example of what I am talking about.
What Ramsey is describing is a difference in philosophy. The Rams are a predominantly zone team, only running Cover 1 12% of the time. Counter that with the Cowboys, who ran Cover 1 36% of the time (via PFF). That is a stark difference.
For the most part, Ramsey played off and “out of phase,” meaning he played top-down on most of his WRs. Diggs played press and ran alongside the WR, tight to him, in what is referred to as in-phase. It is essential to understand the coverage scheme when looking at secondary play. In zone, there is much more communication and nuance involved.
Circling back to Cleveland, the Browns are a majority Cover 3 team. There are multiple ways to get to Cover 3, and everyone has their own version. From Saban’s Rip/Liz to Fangio’s 3Y coverage, the way teams match can be different. A simple way to teach Match 3 is to spin to the TE, and it is also an effective way to gain numbers in the box. Below is a diagram of the THUMBS call in my version of 3Y.
In 3Y, the defense is spinning the coverage to the TE. As 11 pers. becomes the norm at almost every level of football, the ability to drop a Safety on top of the TE allows the defense to stack numbers while also placing a coverage defender on top of a vertical threat. Many teams around the league are running some variation of this scheme as an early-down call.
When defending Y-off teams, the defense must track where the TE is being used while also factoring in RB placement (Stack or Split). For example, are they a Counter/Split Zone team (TE tracks across) or a Power/Dou team (TE stays on the same side)? Since so many teams are dropping the Safety on top of the TE, it is vital to have blitzes that complement the look, and the Browns illustrated that to perfection in their 21-16 Week 18 win versus the Bengals.