The Cleveland Browns stole the offseason, plain and simple. They very likely would’ve made the playoffs last season had they let Hue Jackson go sooner and started quarterback Baker Mayfield in week one. The hype surrounding head coach Freddie Kitchens and the offense was further intensified by the offseason addition of Odell Beckham Jr in a blockbuster trade with the Giants. They have stars everywhere, but so far this season, it hasn’t materialized the way most everyone thought it would.
The Browns come into Santa Clara at 2-2 and seem to have turned a corner offensively after looking stagnant and lost for the better part of the first three games. The defining moment occurred when Browns’ head coach Freddie Kitchens called a draw running play on a late 4th-and-9 against the Rams in week three. The Browns looked like a discombobulated bunch on offense.
But the 49ers defense should not take them lightly. In week four, the Browns went into Baltimore and imposed their will on a Ravens team that looked dominant in its early-season games. The Browns went for a total of 530 total yards offense on the strength of Mayfield’s arm for 342 passing yards and running back Nick Chubb’s 165 rushing yards. That’s 8.7 yards per play! Have they turned a corner? The 49ers know this is not the week to find out in a nationally televised Monday Night Football game. Currently, the 49ers are ranked second in defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders while Cleveland’s offense is ranked 24th in offensive DVOA.
So what must they do to prevent being embarrassed? The key to stalling the Browns offense starts with the quarterback. Mayfield has not played well, and the Browns offense has relied heavily on screen passes, RPOs, and misdirection plays. Aside from one or two long passes, the Browns haven’t reliably thrown deep at all, attempting just 12 passes longer than 20 yards and completing four.
The 49ers need to take a page out of the Titans and Rams game plan, and 1) confuse Mayfield with creeper pressures, 2) stick to their wide front and force Mayfield to play from the pocket, and 3) disguise their coverages to limit passing lanes.
Creeper and simulated pressures
The Titans baited Mayfield into three interceptions and several incompletions in an embarrassing week one loss at home. Two of the interceptions came on creeper pressures, pressures that are designed to look like blitzes, but are only four-man rushes with the pass rushers coming from other areas, either defensive backs or linebackers.
They look like fire zone blitzes in that a defensive lineman will usually drop back into a pass defense zone to cover the area vacated by another defender who inserts on the rush or they drop down into a zone where they line up while other defenders rotate. Coincidentally, they are also pressures that the 49ers have increasingly run this season, and to significant effect.
The creeper pressure above is from LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s playbook, but the principle is the same: add a rusher from somewhere in the second level and subtract one from the defensive line. In the above example, the defender inserts on the rush while the defensive end drops into the shallow seam, and the linebackers rotate to the side of the defender who inserted. The defensive backs play a standard cover-3.
On the Titans’ first interception, they line up in a cover-2 pre-snap shell against the Browns 3x1 trips to the left. This is the basic Aranda creeper above, with the defender inserting from the second level and the defense rotating to cover the zone. The post-snap movement of the defense shifts into a cover-3 buzz with the safety “buzzing” down to the curl/flat zone.
Mayfield looks for the seam route but sees the edge defender drop down the strong hook/seam zone and comes back to his right to look for Beckham. The pass is underthrown as the safety who rotated to the buzz zone sinks underneath Mayfield’s throw and intercepts it.
On the second interception, they ran the same creeper pressure as they did on the first interception, and the Browns ran the same play as they did on the interception on the drive before it. This time, the curl/flat defender over the trips collisions the out route, but Mayfield is already anticipating the route is open based on the previous series. However, it is not, and the defender zone matches up to the receiver and steps in front of the pass.
The 49ers have run creeper pressures with similar success, breaking up passes and intercepting them for touchdowns.
In week one against Tampa Bay, they ran a similar creeper to the one the Titans ran against Mayfield. Solomon Thomas is the strong hook zone player and drops down the hash to cover the tight end while Fred Warner is responsible for the weak hook and rotates to the other hash to replace Dre Greenlaw, who inserts as the fourth rusher.
Sheldon day stunts across the face of the guard into the A-gap while Greenlaw rushes the B-gap. Right tackle Demar Dotson slides over to pick up Greenlaw and leaves Ronald Blair alone on a free rush. He was probably expecting right guard Alex Cappa to pick up Greenlaw, but Cappa slid over with Day’s rush into the A-gap because he was not expecting Greenlaw to rush from that depth.
Another way the 49ers run their creeper pressures is by simulating the fifth rusher, a similar creeper to Aranda’s “spike-1 rat.” Here they are running a similar version of the creeper they ran against the Buccaneers, but this time Fred Warner also simulates a rush before dropping back and robbing any shallow crosser in his area. Linebacker Kwon Alexander is inserting from the second level this time as defensive end Nick Bosa drops into man coverage against the running back out to the flat.
Warner simulates a blitz rush, before dropping back into his weak hook zone, which confuses the offensive line, and the result is that the rushers get relatively free rushes into the backfield. Eventually, Dee Ford beats his man around the edge and records the sack on quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Contain Mayfield in the pocket with wide front
One way the Rams were able to contain quarterback Baker Mayfield was through the use of wide front defensive line alignments. Mayfield has been unwilling to step up into the pocket and throw downfield and is prone to vacating a clean pocket if he senses some phantom pressure.
The wide front’s the Rams used are an indication to the quarterback that he must step up because there will be no escaping out the side since the contain rush seals the edge. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips also had them twist inside to confuse Mayfield further.
The Orange and Brown Report’s Jake Burns stated that Phillips “has the 3-T(tech) DTs crash or loop inside and now his (Mayfield) sightlines are out of whack again. He is expecting an open middle of the field line of sight, but the Rams take that away and make his eyes shift.”
The Rams run a tackle-end exchange stunt (what Wade Phillip’s calls an “exit stunt”) with Aaron Donald and Clay Matthews. Donald loops to the outside first, and Matthews stunts inside behind him. The pass protection slides in the direction of Donald and Matthews, but Phillips also sends the fifth rusher up the middle, Cory Littleton.
Littleton’s rush clogs the middle with Michael Brockers and Samson Ebukam. There might be a lane to escape, but Donald forces his way through off the edge and forces Mayfield out of the pocket to attempt a throwaway.
The Rams also utilized a tackle twist up the middle to seal the inside running lane and prevent an escape or a step-up and throw. The twist keeps the middle of the field closed to Mayfield’s vision with three offensive linemen to block Donald and Brockers. The Browns run three verticals from trips with a shallow cross coming underneath from the opposite, but Mayfield cannot see the route wide open. He tries to escape the pocket but Matthews eventually works into the backfield and finishes with the sack.
Some of the 49ers’ best defensive work has come on the utilization of twists and stunts in key moments of their first three games. They’ll have to use them this week too if they want to free up some pass rushers like Nick Bosa and Dee Ford if they want to keep them clean from double teams and chip blocks.
The 49ers defensive play call here is a fire zone blitz with a tackle-end exchange stunt to the right. Defensive end Nick Bosa is looping inside behind defensive tackle Deforest Buckner, who drew two blockers when Bosa peeled off to loop around. Nickel defender K’Waun Williams came off the edge, drawing another blocker and removing the pass protection as Bosa loops through the A-gap.
Bosa speeds through A-gap getting quarterback Andy Dalton to scramble. Linebacker Kwon Alexander played his receiver with underneath leverage that Dalton doesn’t see. Bosa chases and stumbles, but it doesn’t matter, Dalton throws into the coverage and is intercepted.
The 49ers also don’t need to blitz to be effective at containing the quarterback in the pocket and preventing him from escaping and making a big play.
The defensive front is overloaded to the left side with defensive linemen in the gaps from the center to the left. Buckner is out wide to the right in a wide-5 technique, book-ended by Ford in the same position. At the snap, Arik Armstead bullrushes his blocker into the pocket while Bosa and Buckner stunt on an end-tackle stunt. Armstead loops inside and Bosa long stunts to the contain spot and keep Winston in the pocket. He tries to step up but runs into the sack Armstead.
One thing the 49ers are doing more of this year is disguising post-snap coverages in their pre-snap looks. The Rams did the same to Mayfield. The connection between the Rams and 49ers here is simple: Joe Woods. Joe Woods worked under Wade Phillips in Denver and presumably adopted some of the Phillips philosophy.
The above diagram comes from Wade Phillip’s 2003 Atlanta Falcons defensive playbook. His cover-4 coverage defense is actually a hybrid of quarters coverage on the weak side and cover-2 read on the strong side. It’s one of the many ways Phillips disguises his two-deep safety shells pre-snap. From the two deep, he can rotate down to cover 3 or cover 1 as well. Here, they run his cover 4 with the quarters coverage over the trips side. The cover-2 side is reading the release by #2.
Mayfield drops back reading the cover-2 side and sees the corner drop off on #2 running the out route. He stays in the pocket and scans the other side but the quarters coverage has the rest of the routes blanketed. The pass rush chases him out of the pocket and forces him to throw it away.
The 49ers should be expected to do the same types of things to Mayfield. On Armstead’s sack above in the previous section, the secondary was just as much as responsible for the sack as the pass rush. The same principles apply here, and the 2-read side reads the release of #2. Winston looks that way initially on his drop, but the routes are covered, and Witherspoon drops off on the #2 when he cuts out. He comes back and scans the right, but the pass rush gets to him as the routes are all blanketed.
The 49ers will be without cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, and Dee Ford’s status was up in the air until he returned to practice on Saturday in preparation for the game. Emmanuel Moseley will start in Witherspoon’s place after coming in when Witherspoon went down with a foot injury against the Steelers. The 49ers also re-signed corner Dontae Johnson, who spent his first four years with the 49ers, and then has spent time with five teams since 2017. Regardless of who starts opposite Richard Sherman, the 49ers defense will likely face their toughest test so far of the season.