The New York Giants will face the 9-4 Cleveland Browns on Sunday Night Football this week. The game was flexed into the prime time slot when it became apparent that both teams would be in position to fight for playoff berths in their respective conferences.
This was also expected to be the first time Odell Beckham Jr. played the Giants since being traded from New York to Cleveland in 2019. That story line alone had this game circled on the two teams’ calendars, but also by just about every writer in the football media ecosystem.
That meeting, of course, isn’t happening since Beckham tore his ACL. However, this game will feature three more returns as Olivier Vernon, B.J. Goodson, and Tae Davis all get the opportunity to play their former team.
The Giants won four of their last five games, however their winning streak was powered by suffocating defense. The Giants have fielded an anemic offense this year, with their 183.5 passing yards per game rank 30th in the NFL, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets for worst in the NFL, while their 300.1 total yards and 18.3 points per game both rank 31st in the League.
The good news for the Giants is that while the Browns boast a talented defense on paper, they have had to contend with injuries all season long and their defense isn’t nearly as good as it should be. That being said, they could be getting healthier as EDGE Myles Garrett is another week further away from his battle with COVID-19 and CB Denzel Ward could be returning to the field.
What could the Giants be facing?
Yet another dangerous front
If there’s been one constant for the Giants throughout the 2020 season it has been the caliber of defensive linemen the Giants have faced. It seems as though every week they’re playing a defensive front that boasts a lineman who is top-10 in some category.
This week the Giants face another formidable defensive front boasting a star pass rusher. The Cleveland Browns feature a stout and deep front with few weaknesses from end to end.
The star of the show is, unquestionably, EDGE Myles Garrett. Garrett was expected to be an impact player since his freshman year at Texas A&M, and has only lived up to the hype since then. Garrett is currently the third-rated EDGE rusher in the NFL, per ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric, and is tied for third in the league for total sacks despite missing games in weeks 11 and 12 while battling COVID-19.
Garrett is a big (6-foot-4, 275 pound), long (351⁄2 inch arms), fast (4.65-second 40-yard dash), explosive (41-inch vertical and 10-foot-8 broad jump) EDGE rusher who came into the league dominating on pure athleticism. However, he has since worked to refine the technique aspect of his game since being drafted, working with fellow TAMU alum Von Miller and pass rush specialist Chuck Smith in his off-seasons.
Considering how the Giants struggled (to say the least), with Haason Reddick a week ago, they will need to game plan to account for Garrett. But complicating matters is the rest of the Browns’ front.
Bookending Garrett is a familiar face in former Giant Olivier Vernon. Vernon is, well, Vernon — that is, not a dominating force up front, but a very consistent player who wins with technique, persistence, and a white-hot motor. Vernon has stepped up his production in recent weeks, racking up 5.0 sacks (two of which came this past week against Lamar Jackson), 8 quarterback hits, 5 tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and a pass defensed since Garrett’s diagnosis in Week 11.
On the interior the Browns have DTs Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson. While neither Ogunjobi nor Richardson have the sheer mass of the Giants’ defensive linemen, they are both long, powerful, and explosive players. Both Ogunjobi and Richardson are capable of being disruptive gap-shooting penetrators as well, as well as stout run defenders.
The Browns’ defense is rooted in 4-3 principles, but they frequently play with five or six defenders along the line of scrimmage, adopting hybrid looks.
Here we see the Cleveland against the Tennessee Titans on an early fourth-and-1 try.
The Browns line up in a (modified) Bear Front here, with Ogunjobi lined up as a 0-technique nose tackle while Richardson is at the right 3-technique and rookie Jordan Elliott is the 3-technique on the defensive left. Garrett is lined up as the 7-technique outside of the left tackle while Vernon and S Karl Joseph form the “Duo” over the TE and RT on the strong side of the offensive formation. Cluing that this is a Bear (or 46) defense and not a Tite front, the Browns are playing an aggressive Cover-1 coverage shell, though that doesn’t show up in this angle.
Despite the Titans’ ability to pick up yardage on the ground, the Browns’ defense holds on fourth-and-1, stopping Derrick Henry at the line of scrimmage.
The Browns used similar concepts — be they Bear fronts, Tite fronts, or 4-3 Under fronts — throughout their game against Tennessee to limit Henry to just 40 yards rushing.
Given how important the running game has become for the Giants, we should expect to see a similar game plan. The Browns might keep four down defenders, but feature plenty of formations with five or six defenders on the line of scrimmage to force the Giants’ offensive linemen to win one-on-one matchups.
The Giants will see another familiar face (or two) at the second level of the Browns defense in starting MLB B.J. Goodson. The Giants traded Goodson to the Green Bay Packers before the 2019 season and he signed with the Browns as a free agent this past offseason. Goodson has been playing okay for the Browns with his usual decisive down-hill run defense. So far he’s racked up 84 combined tackles while playing 90 percent of their defensive snaps — both are far and away career highs. While Goodson’s pass coverage leaves something to be desired, he is also tied for third among linebackers with 2 interceptions.
The Browns’ speed at the second level is supplied by sophomores Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Wilson has not lived up to his pre-draft billing for the Browns, notching just 32 total tackles (and 7 missed tackles) in 7 starts. Takitaki is probably the Browns best (or at least most versatile) linebacker, contributing as an off-ball linebacker in run defense, pass coverage, and pass rush.
Takitaki could become a solid three-down linebacker as he develops, giving their defense more options for personnel packages and alignments behind their defensive front. Curiously, Takitaki has only seen 37 percent of the Browns’ snaps this year, despite some of Cleveland’s issues covering the middle of the field.
Between Goodson’s limited coverage abilities and Wilson’s poor tackling, we should expect to see the Giants make attacking the middle of the field a point of emphasis.
A battered secondary
Finally we come to the Browns’ secondary, which looks considerably different from what they envisioned back in August. Back when training camp started, the Browns were anticipating a secondary of cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, backed by safeties Grant Delpit Jr., Ronnie Harrison, and Karl Joesph. That is, at least on paper, a formidable unit that should excel at man coverage. Unfortunately for them, Delpit suffered a torn Achilles just before the start of the season, Williams suffered nerve damage as a result of a shoulder injury suffered in training camp, and Harrison is on IR with a sprained shoulder.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Browns heading into this weekend’s game is whether or not Ward, their star cornerback, will play. Ward is one of the best corners in the NFL when healthy, able to play tight man coverage and take receivers out of games. Ward has missed the last three games with a calf injury following a great game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Browns like to play aggressive man coverage, though they use Cover 2 and 4 looks to try and disguise their intentions. While that’s well tailored to their anticipated starting secondary, their depth players are depth players for a reason. Terrance Mitchell has probably been the best of the bunch with 10 passes defensed and 3 forced fumbles on the season, but he isn’t a number 1 corner.
The Browns games have been shootouts without Ward (and Garrett, due to COVID-19) on the field, giving up 47, 35, and 25 points over that span. In the three games before that, with Ward and Garrett, they had given up 17, 7, and 16 points.
The Giants receivers have struggled to consistently create separation this season, but they could have some opportunities if Ward isn’t on the field. Being able to create matchups against Tavierre Thomas, Kevin Johnson, or M.J. Stewart is certainly more appetizing than if Ward is on the field and can man up on Sterling Shepard or Darius Slayton.