2016 Browns Preview (Part Three of Four): The Curse of Ken Whisenhunt

The portion of the preview will go into less detail… because a preview is supposed to predict what will happen and why. I can’t imagine that I need to go into detail about to expect from a defense run by Ray Horton.

Maybe the best measure of Horton’s ability is this statistic: Teams who hired him have gone a combined 21-50, losing 10 or more games four times. If it weren’t for Ken Whisenhunt (who gave him his first coordinator’s position– then hired him again in Tennessee after Cleveland fired him– Horton probably would never have become a coordinator.

Given Whisenhunt’s fractious relationship with the Browns– he went postal in a few interviews– Horton might be WHisenhunt’s revenge on the franchise.

And do not tell me that Hue Jackson must know what he is doing, because Jackson has never worked with Horton. He doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge about whether Horton can coach.

Your preview of what to expect from Ray Horton’s 2016 defense: They won’t stop the run, they won’t pressure the passer, they won’t force turnovers– and if they enter the fourth quarter with a lead, they won’t hold it.

Defensive Line

The most exasperating thing about Horton is either inflexibility or lack of knowledge. Horton spent 11 seasons Dick LeBeau’s staff, running a 3-4 and using the zone blitz scheme. That is the only scheme Horton has ever used as a coordinator. In both Cleveland and Tennessee, he inherited a 4-3 team and threw the scheme out– and a bunch of the players with it. (Arizona was already using a 3-4.)

Now I do not have a preference– it is very clear that you can win with either alignment– it is really stupid to come in and install a scheme that requires you to get rid of players. You can run a 4-3 that uses the zone blitz– Lebeau did it when he was a head coach in Cincinnati. Horton even spent two seasons on LeBeau’s staff when he did that.

The Browns have been drafting 4-3 linemen and trying to convert them to 3-4 linebackers. It would make things a lot simpler if they simply used a 4-3 with Carl Nassib and either Emmanuel Ogbah or Nate Orchard at the ends, with Danny Shelton, Jamie Meder, Xavietr Cooper and John Hughes at tackle.

But unless they’ve been hiding that alignment, we’ll see them playing the scheme that makes the worst use of their talent– two journeyman at ends (Hughes and Cooper), with an underachiever (Shelton) at nose tackle– solely because those players have the correct body type for Horton’s bottom-dwelling scheme.

John Hughes: In four seasons, he’s played 1,550 snaps, and he has 5.5 sacks, 3 passes knocked down and 108 tackles.  I know that 3-4 ends won’t pile up numbers, but that isn’t even a good season. He’s now playing for his fourth coach (Pat Shurmur, Chud, Pettine and now Jackson) and I have yet to understand why anyone thinks he can play.

Xavier Cooper: In 363 snaps (just under 25% of Hughes’s total) he has 1.5 sacks and 17 tackles. This makes him a “young John Hughes.” I am happy he is on the team because our new cat is named Cooper, and I am hoping to buy him a jersey for Christmas (my wife likes dressing up her pets).

The big difference between the two is that Hughes (because he is lazy and doesn’t move around much) gets caught out of position much less often than Cooper (who follows the ball and takes himself out of the play.

Carl Nassib: If I were running the defense, he would be starting, simply because he’s the only player who made anything happen in pre-season: four tackles, two sacks, two passed battled down and a forced fumble.

At 6’7″ and 272, he’s too tall and too light to play 3-4 end (you want 6’2″ and 315) and too big for linebacker (6’3″ and 257 is the max), so unless the Browns change schemes, he’ll get underused.

Danny Shelton: He was the 12th pick in last year’s draft. He didn’t play like it. In fact, he looked less like the #12 player than Jamie Meder. He played less at the end of the season than he did at the beginning.

You can imagine that he’s going to be a great player, but there isn’t any basis for it. The people I know didn’t expect him to play well, and being drafted by Ray Farmer isn’t much of a credential.

Jamie Meder: He played less and produced more than Shelton. He’s undisciplined (out of position a lot), although you could call that “enthusiastic”, if you prefer.

It would be interesting to see if he could be used for good– and if he were used in a 4-3, he would be more valuable. A defensive tackle who sometimes gets out of position is a problem; a nose tackle who doesn’t fill the gap is a nightmare.

It’s a sad state of affairs when the loss of Desmond Bryant– an adequate player, but certainly not a great one– seems devastating.

Linebacker

The theory behind the 3-4 as it is supposed to be played: Your three linemen tie up the five blockers, freeing the four guys behind them to close off the angles and swarm the ball.

The theory behind the 3-4 as the Browns play it: Everyone runs to where they think the ball will be, freeing the offense to run into the areas they’ve left open.

Amazingly, the Browns turned over almost their entire unit– and managed to keep the three players (Chris Kirksey, Tank Carder and Nate Orchard) most often out of position last year. To this unit they’ve added:

  • Another converted 4-3 lineman who didn’t play the run in college (Emmanuel Ogbah)
  • Two undersized linebackers (Joe Schobert and Scooby Wright) who might be D’Qwell Jackson, but are probably Kaiuka Maiava
  • A free agent encouraged to leave a good defense (the Jets) because he made too many mistakes (Demario Davis)

I don’t have any individual comments to make– it’s too depressing. The only thing I will say is that I have never heard anyone outside of Cleveland suggest that Kirksey was anything more than a journeyman… and he might be the best player here. If Ogbah or Orchard get sacks– or Schobert or Wright become productive– that’s a step forward.

Otherwise it is a black hole.

Secondary

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, every starter on the unit had made the Pro Bowl (even if some of them were well past that point). Now they’re one player away from being entirely unproven.

Joe Haden: He went to the Pro Bowl on reputation in 2014 (which corrected an injustice; he could have gone in 2010 and would have gone if he hadn’t had a PED suspension in 2012. But he missed 11 games last year and has been hurting all pre-season. He’s 27, undersized, and he never had the blistering speed you want from a corner. He might be done.

Even if he can still play, this might be Haden’s last year. He has a truly horrible contract:

  • Signed through 2019, at $42.5 million
  • All of this season guaranteed ($10.1 million)
  • $4 million of his $11.1 million salary guaranteed next year

This is the kind of contract a Moneyball team tries to shed.

Tramon Williams: When Buster Skrine signed a 4-year, $25 million deal with the Jets, the Browns hooted about how overpaid he was. Then they gave a 3-year, $21 million deal to Williams, who was six years older, and had been encouraged to leave Green Bay because his skills were slipping.

The Browns predicted that Williams would be starting after Skrine had left it. They’re going to lose that bet. Williams can’t cover a lick– if K’Waun Williams hadn’t gotten hurt, Tramon wouldn’t be on the team. It’s only a matter of time until he goes away.

Jamar Taylor: He’s young (25), is a former #2 pick (Miami, 2013) and he has the speed to cover, if not the size (5’11” and 192). He never fit into the Dolphin defense, but a lot of people do like him, so he has a chance to be a good player. Probably he’ll play better than Tramon Williams did last year.

Jordan Poyer: Like Taylor, he represents a step forward. Unlike Taylor, he beat out some people who could play. He played passably when Tashaun Gipson was injured (as he usually is) last year. (The question I kept asking was why he only played 424 snaps.)  Given Gipson’s contract demands, it made sense to let Gipson leave.

Poyer beat out Rahim Moore (who used to be a decent player) and if he can last a full year (and play as well as he did in spots), he should help.

Ibraheim Campbell: If he succeeds, he’ll be only the second player (Bitonio) drafted by Farmer who came anywhere close to expectations. It would have been better to keep T.J. Ward– signing Donte Whitner and having to cut him wasted money and hurt the team– but that milk has been spilled.

Campbell is the type of strong safety I intensely dislike. I prefer players who get takeways, or prevent plays by tipping the ball away. Campbell, like Whitner, gets to the play after the yardage has been gained, but delivers a blistering hit.

Unless he reads the play sooner and gets to the ball a lot faster, he’ll produce at the same level Whitner did last season– not nearly enough.

The rest: All the other players can be summarized in two sentences. “Mike Pettine likes players with speed, even if they were undersized or less physical. Horton likes players who are bigger and can hit, even if they aren’t fast.”

I prefer speed, but the type of players Pettine liked get hurt a lot and don’t do much for run support. Horton’s players give up big plays.

It’s primarily a matter of style, not substance. Pettine was a better coordinator than Horton, but it won’t matter much, frankly.

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3 thoughts on “2016 Browns Preview (Part Three of Four): The Curse of Ken Whisenhunt

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