It was the most important ingredient in our Winning Mix piece ahead of the Browns' Week 3 meeting with the Los Angeles Rams. Cleveland dumped it into the stock pot with reckless abandon.
We're talking about turnovers, of course, and how the Browns forced three of them in their Sunday night loss to the Rams, a game that was very much dependent on the solvency of Cleveland's defense. The battered-but-not-beaten unit was the strength of the Browns against the defending NFC champions, and the primary reason that Cleveland had a chance to send the game to overtime in its final minute.
Their main accomplishment? Forcing those turnovers.
Here's how they made three game-changing plays.
The first play we'll highlight was the first big momentum swing of a game that had been, well, less than thrilling through most of the first half. With the contest tied at 3-3 just before half, the Rams were inching toward midfield and a potentially lengthy field goal attempt for kicker Greg Zuerlein, who has demonstrated many times before that he can convert the long ones.
Then, Myles Garrett struck.
The interesting part about this play, and about some others in this game, is where Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks decided to line up his front four. Defensive end Olivier Vernon lined up in the A gap at one point earlier in the first half and confused the Rams' offensive line, leading to a pressure of Rams quarterback Jared Goff and a loss of a yard, which forced the Rams to settle for a field goal.
This time around, he lined up defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson — typically an occupant of the A gap and the 1 technique — outside right tackle Rob Havenstein in a wide 9 technique, with Garrett (the usual occupant of such an alignment) inside him as a split between a 3 and a 4 technique (which some might refer to as a 4i). This put Garrett's speed and power in the B gap and Richardson's power in the C gap, but far enough from the nearest blocker to allow him a few steps to ramp up his momentum before contact.
More importantly, it presented Havenstein and right guard Jamil Demby with a problem: How do they handle both defensive linemen in an unusual alignment?
Garrett is of first concern because he's closer to the center, splitting both the guard and tackle with his alignment, and is a rare talent. As such, both linemen first pay attention to stopping him. Garrett rushes through the outside shoulder of Demby and into Havenstein, who's also dropping and pivoting to take on Richardson. The aforementioned momentum build-up allows Richardson to blow through Havenstein's outside shoulder, leaving the tackle with only one last resort: Hook Richardson with his arm.
He does that, but Richardson still gets through it, diving toward Goff, who was stepping up into the pocket as part of his pass drop. At the same time, Garrett wins his rush around Demby, creating a two-man pressure into the side of Goff's throwing arm as he keeps his eyes downfield. Richardson's dive misses, but Garrett's does not.
Garrett's arm hits Goff's before he can start to throw, knocking the ball free and upfield, where linebacker Joe Schobert recovers. A Todd Gurley tackle saves a touchdown, and the Browns end up kicking a field goal to take a 6-3 lead into halftime.
I spoke with Richardson this week about this play, and how often he's lined up in a wide 9. Surprisingly, he said it's been a lot; he was a defensive end before he reached Division I football. That experience is evident in his rush on this play.
Richardson also said Garrett's sack should have been his, but he got out of the way so as to not hit Garrett and missed Goff by this much as a result.
The second turnover came shortly after the Browns answered the Rams with a touchdown drive to regain the lead at 13-10. Veteran cornerbacks T.J. Carrie and Terrance Mitchell received the start in place of injured starters Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, and after a night spent keeping most everything in front of them in the passing game, Carrie found the perfect moment to strike.
On the previous play, Carrie gave Rams deep threat Brandin Cooks a bit of a cushion, resulting in a 13-yard completion to Cooks, who ran a deep curl. Carrie closed, but not quickly enough to force an incompletion. The next play, Cooks runs a comeback along the sideline at about the same depth. This time, Carrie is ready to jump on the pass.
The Browns show Cover 4 before the snap, then roll to Cover 3, with Carrie occupying a deep third. Knowing Cooks is the deepest player in his third and that he has the protection of Juston Burris alongside him, Carrie jumps Cooks' route with the thought it's likely Goff would go back to him. Goff somewhat telegraphs the throw, fading to his left and stepping toward Cooks before firing, confirming Carrie's thought.
The pass is a bit too inside for the route Cooks was running — a better throw is batted down or completed along the sideline — and Carrie takes advantage, closing the gap and diving in front of the low throw for an interception.
The final Browns takeaway is one that left them with a chance to send the game to overtime, and much of the credit should go to Schobert.
In fact, we'll just say it now: Schobert might be one of the most underrated defenders in the NFL today.
Facing third-and-3 and clinging to a 20-13 lead, the Rams come out in a trips right formation that includes a tight end on the line, and then quickly shift to twins left look with Cooper Kupp and Cooks lined up to the left. Receiver Robert Woods moves in tight to the right of tight end Gerald Everett, and one who'd watched this game might expect Goff to target Kupp or Cooks along the left side of the field.
After some shifting in the linebacking corps, Schobert takes up his position in the middle as a roving defender while the Browns deploy a Cover 1 man defense with Burris as the deep safety. Schobert reads Goff's run fake to Gurley, doubles back into pass coverage and spots Woods crossing over the middle with Jermaine Whitehead trailing him.
Schobert gets his head around just in time to see Goff targeting the man he's running underneath, and the linebacker extends his arms to tip the ball into the air.
Burris, playing as the aforementioned deep safety and shaded to his right toward Cooks, who was running a streak (so as to run off any over-the-top help against Woods), is in perfect position to catch the tipped pass for an interception. The only thing he and Schobert did wrong on the play was run into each other, stopping what might have been a long interception return.
The Browns didn't end up producing points off this turnover, or the Carrie interception. But the takeaways kept the Rams from putting more points on the board and kept the Browns in the game until the very end.
That's all you can ask for out of your defense, which came to play Sunday night.