The Cowboys entered the season with high expectations on offense, and as they’ve shaken off some rust (and a brief, yet intense, case of fumble-itis) the group has grown into the monster they were expected to be. Through three weeks they lead the league in yards and are averaging nearly 30 points a game, all without either of their All-Pro tackles on the field.
But Dallas has also benefited, at least somewhat, from the defenses they’ve played. The Rams currently rank 21st in defensive DVOA, while the Falcons are 20th and the Seahawks are 23rd. So it’s safe to say that this Cowboys offense hasn’t really, truly been tested by a good defense yet.
It’s difficult to know whether the Browns will represent the first such challenge. The numbers don’t really paint a clear picture: they rank 23rd in points allowed but ninth in yards allowed, 21st in passing yards allowed but fifth in rushing yards allowed, and are tied with the Patriots for the most defensive takeaways in the NFL with seven.
Now, a big part of that last figure comes courtesy of the Washington Football Team, Cleveland’s most recent opponent. In that game, which the Browns won 34-20, Washington turned the ball over five times. As a matter of fact, Cleveland’s defense ranked 21st in defensive DVOA heading into that game and emerged from their win over Washington being ranked eighth in defensive DVOA. That should give you an idea of just how bad that offense was.
It also offers a glimpse of what the Browns defense can be. They certainly have playmakers, headlined by Myles Garrett on the defensive line. The former first overall draft pick in 2017 has quickly established himself as one of the best young edge rushers in the NFL, registering double-digit sacks each of the last two seasons. Garrett already has three sacks this year, and he’s seventh in the NFL in pass rush win-rate for edge defenders.
Similarly, Cleveland as a whole is tied for eighth in team pass rush win-rate, and it’s easy to see why. They have a very deep rotation of defensive linemen alongside Garrett. This includes veteran pass rushers like Adrian Clayborn (injured this week) and Olivier Vernon(questionable this week), physical interior presences such as Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, and promising up-and-comers like Porter Gustin, Vincent Taylor, Jordan Elliott, and former Cowboy Joe Jackson.
The Browns new defensive coordinator is Joe Woods, who spent the past season as the 49ers defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator, after two years as the defensive coordinator for the Broncos under Vance Joseph. Woods has brought a similar approach to the Browns from San Francisco, using his deep defensive line to create pressure. As such, it means the Browns don’t really blitz that much:
Blitz rate (x) by pass rush win rate (y) on the team level.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 30, 2020
Chargers and Panthers able to generate solid win rates without blitzing much.
The Lions on the other hand...
PRWR is an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats data. pic.twitter.com/34r69KMkkH
According to this chart, the Browns only blitz roughly 21% of the time, which is the tenth lowest figure in the NFL through three weeks and less than the Cowboys are blitzing so far. Part of that is just due to the talent on the line, but it’s also got a lot to do with the team’s below average linebacker corps.
Only three Browns linebackers have recorded more than 20 defensive snaps so far this season, and it’s BJ Goodson, Sione Takitaki, and Malcolm Smith. Goodson is in his first year with Cleveland after spending last season in Green Bay, and before that he spent the first three seasons of his career with the Giants. Takitaki is in his second season as a pro, playing just 105 defensive snaps all of last season as a third round draft choice. Smith, of course, spent the final two games of last season in Dallas before joining the Browns in free agency.
There’s a reason the Browns only really make use of three of their linebackers: they want to keep them off the field. Goodson was expected to blossom into a starter in New York but never did, leading the team to trade him away. Despite being frequently used as a blitzing off-ball linebacker throughout his career, Goodson has just a half sack and seven pressures to his name, and hasn’t recorded a tackle for loss since the 2018 season. Meanwhile, Takitaki is getting his first real taste of NFL football and Smith hasn’t played over 50% of a team’s defensive snaps since the 2016 season.
This linebacking corps is where the defense is weakest. The Ravens in Week 1 attacked this group relentlessly with lateral runs to the outside and crossing routes galore that forced the secondary to start playing up more. Even the Washington Football Team tried to stretch the defense horizontally, and actually had success - 11 yards per play on jet sweeps, speed outs, and shallow crosses - until the offense started giving away the football.
Of course, Dallas has the offensive weapons to do exactly that. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard both possess the speed to run out on the edge, and Dak Prescott’s threat as a runner adds one more dimension to that. Their speedy receiver trio, especially CeeDee Lamb, offers a lot of potency on shallow crossers, screens, and jet sweeps as well. They can easily attack these linebackers and draw the secondary up before striking deep.
This is because the secondary lacks a lot of top-tier talent. Denzel Ward is a budding star at cornerback (questionable this week), but the rest of this group - featuring two former Cowboys in cornerback Terrance Mitchell and safety Andrew Sendejo - doesn’t have the athleticism to keep up when they get tested deep. Safety Karl Joseph and nickel back Tavierre Thomas also feature plenty in this back-end, and also have those kinds of physical limitations to where they can get (and have been) exposed if the linebackers struggle like they have been.
The key, of course, is holding onto the ball. Washington’s downfall was getting too carefree with the ball, and those five turnovers turned a competitive game into a cakewalk. Dallas has had their own issues with ball security, as their six turnovers are the third highest amount in the league. However, much like the Browns’ seven takeaways, it’s an inflated number due to those four fumbles in the first quarter against Atlanta.
Nevertheless, this is a defense that’s adept at capitalizing on mistakes to turn them into takeaways. That and their pass rush is pretty much all they’ve got so far. If the Cowboys can avoid costly turnovers and mitigate Garrett and the defensive line, they’re going to have a big day against this defense.