When I have a spare hour or two in the spring, I like to engage in a project or two from my pile of projects left over from the last several months. I had the chance to grab one on Saturday on a flight and am very pleased to show you my findings from perhaps the tape that sold the Dallas Cowboys on the hiring of Rob Ryan. It was the Browns performance in New Orleans back in October of 2010. Right there with the win against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots that I examined here back in February, I submit to you that this is the type of performance that should really have a Cowboys fan excited about what lies ahead in 2011.
A few notes to understand prior to looking at some of these ideas:
*- The Browns played both the Patriots and the Saints as gigantic underdogs. It is worth noting that when one coaches Cleveland in 2010, the downside is that you have no singular talents that every team covets. The best performances from the Browns on this day were from Shaun Rogers (off the scrap heap in Detroit), Scott Fujita (4th team in 7 seasons), David Bowens (backup player they later cut), and TJ Ward (a rookie safety) - there are no DeMarcus Ware's who flourish in any scheme at Ryan's disposal.
Of course, the upside is the inherent truth that they had "nothing to lose". Against enormous odds, the Browns were able to travel down to play the Saints with nothing to lose. Trick plays on special teams and taking chances on defense were not the best way to proceed - but, if you are the Browns, it is the only way to proceed sometimes.
Let me save you from the comments at the bottom of this article that will be quick to point out that "if the Browns were so great, why did they go 5-11?" Because that is true. There is no way to sugar coat a team that went on to fire its coaching staff and to release many of its best defensive players and just start over - including making no effort to retain Ryan. But after breaking down a few of their finer efforts, I have come to the conclusion that Ryan's creativity and motivational skills are two of his finest traits. And I submit to you that both of those are the two traits that I felt were sorely missing in Dallas the last few years.
If Rob Ryan is what I think he is - just what Dallas needs - then, the good news is that the Cowboys should bounce back rather quickly and dramatically on defense. The bad news is that if that is true, he will likely only be here for the 2011 season because that job here would certainly make him a coveted name for his first head coaching job in 2012.
*- This is Drew Brees' worst day of the season. The graders at www.profootballfocus.com looked at all 17 Brees performances and rated 15 as positive (14 very positive) and 2 negative. The first, at Arizona, was only very slightly graded as a negative. Then, this one, which was a gigantic stinker. So, perhaps, this is merely Brees having a horrid day and you could suggest it might have happened regardless of the opponent. However, from an observer's point of view, this appears to be a game where the Browns were able to confuse and confound a QB who we thought had seen it all.
Above, please witness the Rob Ryan "Amoeba" defense. We talked about this a bit in the New England Game breakdown - linked above, where the Browns deploy no DL in a 3rd down situation. Here is how it looked against the Patriots:
The Cleveland Plain Dealer was interested in this look in their game breakdown:
Ryan's amoeba is designed to create confusion as to how many will be rushing, how many will be covering, and where everybody will be coming from. Players mill around as if in a shopping-mall food court until just before the snap. It is all about taking away the pre-snap read.
The best opportunity for such a defense to thrive is when the opponent does not feature much of a running game. The Browns were not worried about the Saints exploiting gaps in the line, so they could freelance without pause. The Saints finished with 58 yards rushing on 18 carries.
Even without a ground threat, a quarterback the caliber of Brees can win a game by himself. But he's not going to do so when he never sees the opposing linebacker in coverage, as happened late in the fourth quarter. On a Saints' second-and-10 from the Cleveland 34, the Browns rushed three, Rogers applying pressure up the middle.
Think about it from a Cowboys perspective. Playing teams that do not wish to run the ball much (Philadelphia, Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England all come to mind), but do like to spread you out and pick you apart. They also employ "deep to shallow" reads on their attack which often allows for screens and dump offs where they can clear your secondary out of the flats and then isolate against a linebacker in space and pick up the 1st Down.
If you are Dallas, and you are not getting to the QB with your pass rush, what about occasionally crossing the offense up by not rushing any DL at all? In fact, what if you only had LBs and DBs in the game? It worked here for Cleveland.
The play you see above is 3rd and 4 late in the 2nd Quarter. The Saints are driving but a bit frustrated with how the game has begun. Here, Drew Brees and his offensive line are trying to figure what on earth Cleveland is thinking. However, the Saints are also wired to know that 3rd and 4 is not a running down. And that is not a running down for any team in the league - but least of which is a team that throws, throws, and throws more like the Saints. So, the Browns have 4 LBs and 7 DBs on the field on this play, and understandably, Brees finds nobody open and eventually throws the ball away.
Is it sound strategy? Well, yes and no. If you show it too much, it is easily schemed against. But, if you show it a few times without warning, it throws the QB for a loop.
Here is one of Brees' 4 interceptions from that day:
On this play, 99-Scott Fujita shows blitz, and when he gets his drop into the flat, he is right there to bait Brees into a very poor throw.
Watch the full play here
It seems that confusion was the order of the day. Look at this one. Again, who is rushing and who is not?
It is 3rd Down and the Browns send in 1 DL, 4 LBs, and 6 DBs. Who is rushing? Here is the end zone view:
This time, all 5 of the front are rushing. And the 6 DBs have everyone locked down until the rush arrives.
Rob Ryan may rush 2 or he may rush 8. And you don't know which ones. He is just as likely to rush a Corner as he is a DE. He also played most of this game without DEs.
18 different defenders played at least 12 snaps. 1st Down was largely a vanilla 3-4 like you see at the top of this page. Here is a play where they used 5 LBs, including 3 Inside LBs:
But, after that, there was nothing vanilla about the game plan. Confuse and Confound. Create havoc.
Safeties are jumping routes because Brees is depending on his WRs to break free when his man blitzes. It is all predicated on making the QB guess wrong. Again, this will not work all season without personnel. But, for 2 weeks in a row last season, against Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and with substantially sub-standard talent, the Browns were able to out-scheme the NFL's best.
Granted, they did have trouble against teams that were "run first". And they play in a division with the Ravens and Steelers. But, against these aerial attack teams, they had a little something special planned.
The above play is the "kill shot" in a game that the Browns won with ease. David Bowens is #96 and is lined up on the far hash as a LB on this play. Brees likely assumes that he is either rushing or helping in coverage on the left slot receiver. Bowens does neither and serves as a spy in the shallow middle and then helps out on Chris Ivory out of the backfield who thinks he is in a man situation with #99 Fujita.
In this frame, Fujita has his hips to the outside and Brees and Ivory both know that the option route to the inside is easy pickings for a nice gain. There is no reason to believe Bowens is sitting on that route on the other side of the field. And yet, he is.
Bowens picks off the pass and 65 yards later does a flip into the end-zone. Game over.
Resulting in this.
After watching these two performances, I am convinced even more than ever that this guy has the ideas and the ability to be at the heart of a Cowboys defensive revival.
Now, let's get the man some more players to work with. If Robert Quinn is the best player on the board, then grab him. If you have talent, Ryan will get you on the field.