Browns’ refusal to adapt on defense cost them dearly against C.J. Stroud

If you were to point to one factor that ended the Cleveland Browns’ 2023 season with their 45-14 loss to the Houston Texans in the wild-card round, you might say that Joe Flacco’s pick-sixes on consecutive drives. That obviously wasn’t beneficial, but it’s important to note that the Texans already had a 24-14 lead before Flacco’s first pick-six with 6:05 left in the third quarter, and Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud had completed 11 of 16 passes for 236 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 151.0 in the first half alone.

As great as Stroud has been throughout his rookie season, this was a bit of a surprise. Jim Schwartz’s Browns defense came into this game ranked second in Defensive DVOA and second in Pass Defense DVOA, behind only the Baltimore Ravens in both instances. But Schwartz refused to bend to the one reality he had right in front of him — that Stroud was set up well to take advantage of the Browns’ primary coverage concept.

In the regular season, the Browns played single-high coverage — either Cover-1 or Cover-3 on 64% of their snaps, the NFL’s highest rate.

But C.J. Stroud against Cover-1 and Cover-3 in the regular season? Try 141 of 228 for 2,054 yards, 1,335 air yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 105.4. Only Dak Prescott and Lamar Jackson had higher passer ratings against middle-of-the-field closed coverage in the regular season.

How that played out in this game was in no way beneficial to Schwartz and his players. Stroud faced single-high coverage on 17 of his 21 passing attempts in the game, and at no time did Stroud have to deal with any kind of wrinkle pre-snap to post-snap to muddy the picture and delay his reads and throws.

The worst part may have been that this was the plan going in.

“I think playoffs come down to who can be themselves the best, if that makes sense,” Schwartz said last Wednesday. “Can we be the best version of ourselves versus the Texans being the best version of themselves? I think that’s when it’s all said and done. You’ve got 17 games under your belt. There’s not a whole lot you’re going to pull out that another team hasn’t seen. And really at this point of the year, people are going with what they do best. I think that has a lot to do with it. I really can’t worry about him and how he’ll treat the game.”

Sure, but assuming that a rookie quarterback (no matter how advanced) has already seen everything you might throw at him, so you’re just going to do your thing, no matter how good he might be against it? That’s a bit of a stretch, and in the end, that cost the Browns the game more than anything else.

Edge-rusher Myles Garrett confirmed this after the game.

“[Schwartz] said from the beginning he’s going to ride with what got us here, and he’s not going to change up. There’s not going to be any magic call that’s going to get us out of anything or get us through anything. I guess they were just doing things a little bit different that kept us off balance, and I think just the tempo which they were doing it, whether it was running the ball a little bit differently than we had expected, getting the ball out on time, trying to just delay us enough up front to get the ball to their skill players and make plays. We have to be able to make plays all across the field, not just up front or not just on the back end. It’s all together.”

And that’s the problem — you never want to be behind the schematic eight-ball when you don’t need to be. The play shown above is Stroud’s 27-yard completion to receiver John Metchie with 1:34 left in the first quarter; it was not the first or last time that Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik’s single-high beaters foiled Cleveland’s attempts to stop them.

This 21-yard pass to receiver Nico Collins with 11:51 left in the first quarter — the Texans’ second offensive play of the game — had Collins running the deep over out of 21 personnel — two backs, one tight end, and two receivers. Noah Brown’s vertical route from the left side cleared safety Juan Thornhill, who had to watch Brown and Collins at the same time, and afforded Stroud an easy read and throw underneath, with cornerback Denzel Ward a step behind Collins.

Stroud’s 76-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brevin Jordan with 12:13 left in the first half was a simple leak to the flat out of 22 personnel — two tight end and two backs — but as Greg Cosell and I detailed in our game preview, the Browns will tend to gear up for the run against heavy personnel (hat tip to Robert Mays and Nate Tice of The Athletic Football Show for the actual numbers) no matter the down and distance. Slowik had to know this, and he had to know that if Schwartz didn’t flip the script, his young quarterback could feast. That’s what happened here.

This is not to malign Jim Schwartz as a defensive coordinator — he’s as responsible as anybody for the Browns’ turnaround this season. But Schwartz may spend some time this offseason wondering why he didn’t tailor his game plan more to Houston’s extraordinary young quarterback — and the offensive genius behind that quarterback’s most meaningful plays.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire