NFL Draft 2013: What Dee Milliner Would Bring to the Cleveland Browns
In four days, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will step towards the podium at Radio City Music Hall in New York to announce that the Cleveland Browns will draft….
And that is where the story ends for now.
As is typical, the Browns are picking in the top 10 and could go in a variety of different directions with their first addition. Oregon outside linebacker Dion Jordan is probably the favorite, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei would likely be too talented to pass up on if he falls, BYU’s Ezekial Ansah or LSU’s Barkevious Mingo could also come to Cleveland as pass rushers, while a trade down could be the ideal answer because the franchise has no second round pick.
Yet, the most tantalizing prospect linked with the Browns this off-season has been cornerback Dee Milliner of Alabama.
According to esteemed draft analyst Ryan Lownes, Milliner is the ideal cornerback prospect with the size, speed and instincts to play the position in any scheme. For the Browns, this is the perfect piece to add to their defense. Even though the regime that took over in Ohio this off-season brought in a well-respected offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, and a head coach coming from an offensive background, Rod Chudzinski, the Browns’ new defensive coordinator may be the most exciting hire made by any franchise.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive backs coach and Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Ray Horton landed with the Browns after losing out on the vacant head coaching position in Arizona. Horton is a former NFL defensive back who has been employed in a coaching role since 2005. After the 2010 season, he took over a Cardinals’ defense that ranked 30th in the league and was enduring some significant player development.
Horton hastened individual development on the roster and allowed his unit to improve to be the 17th ranked defense over each of the past two seasons. Despite the underwhelming numbers, the 53-year-old defensive coordinator earned rave reviews from across the NFL.
Much like his former mentor, Dick LeBeau, Horton’s defense thrives on creating pressure and forcing turnovers. Last season they forced 35 turnovers, including 22 interceptions that trailed only the Chicago Bears, and 38 sacks. The previous season the same unit forced just 22 turnovers and 42 sacks. The more time Horton spent in Arizona, the more his philosophy fused with his players.
When he took over in Arizona he had to focus on individual development, player chemistry and scheme integration, but in Cleveland he faces a different prospect. Horton has to do all of those things, but to a lesser degree. The Browns have more established veterans through the spine of the unit and more overall talent that is ready to perform now.
With Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger, D’Qwell Jackson, Jabaal Sheard and a flurry of role or younger players, the front seven has enough pieces to transition quickly to Horton’s philosophy. However, in the secondary is where the unit will need work.
Much like he did in Arizona, Horton has one very talented cornerback and one hard-hitting strong safety already in place, but he needs to improve the second starting cornerback position and could potentially add a different starting free safety(Kerry Rhodes is a free agent).
Joe Haden is a young, shutdown cornerback, but in today’s NFL teams are running more varied passing-attacks with multiple threats at both receiver positions, often two tight end positions and with players coming out of the backfield. Having as many good defensive backs as possible is desirable for every franchise. For a franchise taking Horton’s approach, it is invaluable.
When the Dallas Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin this off-season, they understood that they were bringing in a scheme specific coach who will implement his ideals and force the pieces to fit into it.
Horton’s “scheme” is the polar opposite of that.
In fact, it’s difficult to call what Horton does a scheme at all. It’s more of a philosophy or an approach. Horton puts players in positions that he thinks they can succeed and crafts his scheme around their individual and collective talents.
Because of personnel and his background, you would be forgiven for saying that Horton is a 3-4 base defense coach. However, for much of last season he ran a 2-4-5 scheme that played to his defense’s greatest strengths, his defensive linemen. Nose tackle Dan Williams played just 428 snaps last year, enough for 12th most amongst Cardinals’ defenders. Of the 11 defenders who played more than him, only two were defensive linemen, Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett who finished the season with just under 1,600 combined snaps in spite of missing six combined starts.
In Cleveland, Horton should play with more three man fronts. Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant provide his defense with a strong three man presence in the trenches. However, that three man front doesn’t necessitate that he will play with four linebackers on the field or have all of those players put their hands on the ground. With Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Quentin Groves, James Michael-Johnson, Craig Robertson and LJ Fort providing different skill-sets for Horton to plug and play in different positions, he will have a variety of directions to go in.
It’s tough to predict the shape of the front seven, but it’s clear that Horton will carry over his aggressive approach in everything that he does. That includes the secondary where Horton was never scared to put Patrick Peterson on an island against wide receivers last year.
The Cardinals’ problem last year on defense was with their other cornerbacks, not Peterson.
Peterson was/is by no means on the same level as a fully healthy Darrelle Revis, a Richard Sherman or a Joe Haden, but he is still more than capable of playing the very aggressive coverage that Horton asked of him. Peterson played a lot of man coverage against number one receivers, Haden will seamlessly slide into that role under Horton for the Browns. In fact, he played essentially the same role for the Browns last year.
Across from Peterson, Greg Toler played on the outside while Wiliam Gay covered slot receivers. This was the soft spot of the Cardinals’ defense because better teams could target Toler and Gay’s lack of physicality in single coverage. In the above image, Gay is matched up against Julio Jones in single coverage. Kerry Rhodes is the deep free safety, who is not in a position to give help to Gay immediately.
Because Gay is overmatched physically, he has to give a cushion to the receiver even as he motions towards the sideline. As soon as the ball is snapped back to Matt Ryan, he is staring down Jones who has a clear route to the football.
With Gay playing so far off and looking at the receiver in man coverage, he never had a chance to make a play on the ball. Jones catches an easy pass for a first down 10+ yard gain.
The Browns have similar types of cornerbacks on their depth chart behind Haden to Toler and Gay. Buster Skrine and Chris Owens will likely be the two favorites to start for the Browns if their secondary depth chart isn’t altered before the beginning of the season. Skrine played over 700 snaps for the Browns last year, but he is just 5’10 and roughly 185 lbs. Owens is slightly smaller and has played even less during his four-year career.
Ideally, the Browns would like to have a cornerback pairing in the style of the Seattle Seahawks’ duo. In almost the exact same scenario as the previous one with Gay on Jones, here we see Brandon Browner, the Seahawks’ second cornerback, playing with much more physicality and taking away any easy throws with his coverage ability.
This ability to cover physically in space without giving up big plays on a consistent basis allows the Seahawks to be very creative with their formations, play-calling and coverage designs. It also makes it easier for the Seahawks to shut down rushing attacks and match up to offenses that are specifically designed to create mismatches with their linebackers or safeties.
It’s unrealistic to expect the Browns to be able to get two cornerbacks as good as Sherman and Browner, but the same ripple effects can be created through the defense with other cornerbacks of similar styles. The Browns were limited in what coverages they could use and their pass rush had little time to get to the quarterback last season. That would not be the case if they brought in Milliner.
The Milliner Impact
Milliner is 6’1 with long arms with the size and technique to play man coverage well. He is not known as a turnover machine, but would not need to be for the Browns in order to have a major impact on their defense.
Last year, the Browns took advantage of Joe Haden’s ability by regularly putting him on an island against receivers.
The above image shows what play the Browns’ formation hints before the snap. Haden is circled at the bottom of the screen, lined up against Haden, while the two other cornerbacks are in press coverage at the top of the screen. Both safeties are deep and split to either side of the field, hinting at the cover two play call.
This formation tells Michael Vick that he either needs to audible to a run, or look to the left side of the field for his first read. Forcing the ball to Jackson against Joe Haden with safety help is probably the last thing any quarterback wants to do against the Browns.
At the snap however, the Browns flip their safeties to run a completely different play.
The Browns blitz six defenders, yellow arrows, putting the strong safety in man coverage against the tight end to the left of the formation, Brent Celek, while the free safety sprints from Haden’s side of the field across the formation. Before the snap, Vick had seen that the Browns were hinting that they would give help to Haden on Jackson, but in reality the Eagles got exactly what they wanted, press coverage on their fastest wide receiver with no safety help over the top.
In the split-second that Vick has to make his decision, he never considers looking back to Haden’s side of the field. Teams never want to throw at Haden, so why would Vick completely alter his pre-snap read when the defense has seemingly given him exactly what he wanted. Single coverage against lesser defensive backs.
By the time Vick releases the ball, with a defender in his face because of the blitz, the Browns’ free safety has squashed the field and allowed the Browns’ defensive backs to squeeze closer to the Eagles’ receivers.
The Browns effectively closed off half of the field because of Haden’s reputation, his ability and their execution of the play-fake.
This play represents the Browns’ defense at its very best. However, that is the Browns’ defense at it’s limit also. The play design carries some major risks when it’s not used in the right situation. If Jackson is running a deep route and the pass protection is better, the Eagles could potentially have an easy touchdown, because Haden isn’t going to win on 100 percent of his coverages with no help at all. A screen pass would also be very dangerous because the Browns’ free safety is focused on running away from the line of scrimmage while their strong safety is forced to the wrong side of the field covering the tight end.
Only those blitzing the quarterback are anywhere close to the line of scrimmage to be in position against a short, quick pass. Of course, those players’ momentum would be working against them in that scenario.
With two top-tier cornerbacks of the style of Haden, Milliner, Peterson, Browner or Sherman(slight differences exist between this group but nothing major), the single high-safety formation becomes a feasible option on almost every single play. Below is an example of a typical single-high safety look from the Seahawks.
The Patriots have come out in a passing formation with three receivers, a tight end and a running-back. Often with this formation, the Patriots will be able to expose one specific aspect of the opposition’s setup. In this single-high formation, the Seahawks aren’t showing their hand because the Patriots don’t feel confident picking on their cornerbacks in space. The Seahawks’ linebackers are in natural positions and their strong safety could either be doing anything from that position near the line of scrimmage. Earl Thomas is the best safety in the league at this position, but their ability to rely on this formation comes from having two specific styles at the cornerback position.
Here they lined up this aggressively against the Patriots, a team not known for intimidating outside receivers, but they also did a lot of the same against the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs. It had mixed results, but much of that was because of the Falcons’ excellent execution.
The Cardinals played a significant amount of single-high last year, but not comfortably or with the same coverage on the outside. In the above image they show cover-two pre-snap, before switching to a single-high coverage after the center lets the ball go.
The Cardinals couldn’t show their single-high look before the snap because Matthew Stafford would have immediately recognized that William Gay was overmatched to the bottom of the screen. Instead, the post-snap movement makes Stafford look to his favorite target, Calvin Johnson, who does the opposite of what Michael Vick did for the Eagles against the Browns.
Stafford throws the ball straight towards the Cardinals’ best defensive back with safety help. Peterson doesn’t intercept the pass, but he continues to play very aggressive coverage down the sideline and is able to tip a slightly underthrown pass away before his safety help arrives. The quarterback wasn’t under pressure to get rid of the ball, but he wasn’t aware enough or comfortable enough in the pocket to hold onto it and move the safety with his eyes before taking advantage of the mismatch at the bottom of the screen.
Horton is comfortable with taking risks, and this was a big one. If the Browns don’t improve the cornerback position during the draft, the above play will be typical of what their defense does this season. There will be pressure and aggressive coverage, but also heightened risk. The addition of Milliner would minimalism that risk and severely impede what opposing offenses can do against the Browns this year.
There is enough talent in the front seven to rush the passer, but to lift this defense to an elite level, the Browns need to build on an area that some already consider to be a strength. Because they have questions at quarterback still, compensation elsewhere is a massive benefit both in the short-term and the long-term.
Dee Milliner wouldn’t be just improving the cornerback position, he would be elevating the rest of the roster by working across from Joe Haden.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf