In a Triangle blog entry for Grantland, Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine is a heavily featured piece in the puzzle surrounding the evolution of defense in the NFL. Titled “Don’t Stop Frontin'”, Robert Mays digs into the always-changing formations of some of the game’s most successful defensive units. The Buffalo Bills were ranked among the top four (as compiled by DVOA) in 2013—one year after being 27th—and hopes are that Pettine will be bringing similar success to the lakefront.
While we have heard a lot about Pettine’s “hybrid” defensive scheme, the Grantland post provides some of the better analytics and quotes surrounding the very matter.
Pettine’s system during his only year in Buffalo, a year in which the Bills jumped from 27th to fourth in defensive DVOA, involved a constantly shifting combination of three- and four-man fronts. [...]
“When you have guys that are hybrid types, are they rushers, are they droppers?” Pettine says. “On two out of three plays, they might drop, and all of a sudden, on the third play, they become a more conventional rusher. You can still bring four rushers, but it’s an unconventional four.”
This defense may, on the cover, sound very similar to the one run by Ray Horton a year earlier. Horton, who is also featured in the piece, abides by similar philosophies, but as Browns fans can attest, the execution was not always where it needed to be. The Browns were crushed on third-down situations throughout the entire 2013 season, and failed miserably during several two-minute drills.
In Pettine’s world, however, creativity is key. He’s proven to be able to make miracles out of castoffs, turning Jerry Hughes into a 10-sack defender just a year after he was on the brink of becoming one of the bigger draft busts in recent Indianapolis Colts history.
“We look for creative ways to keep the back in without sacrificing a lot of coverage,” Pettine says. “We feel with these types of players, we’re allowed to do that.”
“The phrase we use is, ‘Don’t let ’em read your mail,’” Pettine says. “We didn’t want our mail being read before the ball was snapped.”
“On Tuesday morning, they’re a little more on the edge of their seat when the game plan’s going in,” Pettine says. “That’s a win for us, because it keeps guys engaged. It keeps it fun. And when offenses break down those pressures, you might run it three weeks in a row, but if you switch the people, they’re going to look at it as three completely different pressures when it really isn’t.”
The Grantland piece goes on to compare the NFL to the NBA in the manner in which “positions” are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Just as centers are shorter (and more athletic) than ever, point guards are taller than ever, and forwards can drift anywhere from 6-4 to 6-11, the NFL is experiencing a convergence of sorts. Tight ends are becoming legit, multi-faceted weapons. Defensive backs are towering over many receivers. The short-and-shifty quarterback is a growth industry—no pun intended. Defensive ends have running back speed. And Mike Pettine is well ahead of the curve.
“When you look at the draft board, you can’t say, ‘Well, we can’t take that guy because he doesn’t fit us,’” Pettine says. “I’ve always been of the contention, if the guy’s a good football player, let’s take him, and we can figure out what to do with him. We don’t want to be limited or constrained by our playbook if we have a guy that can be a dominant playmaker in the NFL.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Pettine says. “There really isn’t a set mold of what they look like. Wherever I’ve been, whether it was Baltimore, the Jets, the Bills, we never really got into body types. We looked for guys that could do multiple jobs and kind of built the system around that.”
“It also allows us defensively to almost have a chameleon-type quality,” Pettine says. “You can’t just rip the cover off last year’s scouting report against us.”
In reading these thoughts, it’s easy to see what Pettine was attracted to players like Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby—both players can hit as well as defend in space. It’s also easy to see what many were disappointed in Barkevious Mingo, last season’s No. 6 overall selection, given that he was supposed to be a similar weapon for Horton a season ago.
There’s no telling what the Browns will do during the NFL Draft, but the thoughts of having a player like Khalil Mack on his roster has to have Pettine salivating. Good news is, even if the team doesn’t add any defensive talent early, these quotes (and supporting statistics) should be enough to foster a sizable amount of confidence that the team’s new head coach will be able to get the most out of every player on the defensive side of the ball.