BENGALS OC JAY GRUDEN VS. BROWNS DC RAY HORTON
Call it third generation West Coast offense vs. third generation Zone Blitz defense.
During the 25th anniversary season of their second AFC championship season, the Bengals come face-to-face with their rich X-and-O history Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and they fittingly do it in Cleveland, where it all began with founder Paul Brown.
Gruden is one of the many heirs of the offense that Bill Walsh perfected in Cincinnati under Brown, the one that had its beginnings on the Cleveland lakefront in the late '40s when Brown dared convention and started throwing the ball to all kinds of people.
When the West Coast became the rage in the '80s, Bengals defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau came up with the novel concept of blitzing players and covering up their holes with zones in an effort to throw off the rhythm of the quick passing attack.
But he couldn't throw it off well enough in 49ers quarterback Joe Montana's famous and final Hey-is-that-John-Candy? drive of Super Bowl XXIII that robbed the Bengals of the title with 34 seconds left 25 years ago. Solomon Wilcots, who along with David Fulcher were the safeties on the S.W.A.T. team posters popularizing the secondary that year, may have been on the poster but he wasn't on the field for that final drive.
LeBeau turned to Horton, his sixth-year player he drafted as a cornerback but had been playing all over by that point.
"I didn't like it, but I understood it," says Wilcots, now one of the more familiar NFL Network analysts. "Dick wanted experience out there. He went with the seasoned guy. It was just my second year in the league and my first season playing safety ever. Ray helped me out a lot that year helping me through the switch out on the field. Very intelligent. Always the smartest guy in the room kind of guy. When he left the Bengals he went to play under Jimmy Johnson and won a Super Bowl, so that tells you what he was able to do and able to learn. He was that guy that got everybody lined up and knew where everyone was supposed to be."
Heading into his fourth game as the Browns defensive coordinator, Horton has the league raving about a unit that is sixth in the league and suffocating people in allowing 2.8 yards per rush while already racking up 12 sacks from eight different players.
"He's got players and they're buying what he's selling," says Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham. "He's got them taking chances, getting up the field, I'm sure he's pumping them up. I can just hear Ray now. 'If you feel it, go for it. Take a chance.' "
Wilcots agrees. Joe Haden is one of the NFL's top cornerbacks. Phil Taylor has to be mentioned as a top noseman. End Paul Kruger is a solid veteran rusher, he says rookie rusher Barkevious Mingo "is special," and inside backer D'Qwell Jackson simply makes every tackle.
Lapham should know of such things Horton. He was his Bengals teammate for a year, that rookie season in 1983 Horton arrived in the second round out of Washington, and he called that Super Bowl run.
"Ray's really smart; every kind of smart you can be," Lapham says. "Street smart, book smart. No flies on him. Ray's made a lot of money in the market. He's a bright guy, an idea guy. One of these guys who's always trying to learn more."
Horton learned at the foot of LeBeau. After playing for him, he coached the secondary under him in Cincinnati in the late 1990s and in Pittsburgh much of the past decade before getting his own gig in Arizona in 2011.
And yet what people see transpiring on tape is a lot of Horton's own stuff. Especially as he tinkers with lining up a front seven that is the best the Bengals have seen so far and Lapham thinks may be the best they'll see all year.
"(The differences) are more in the back end in coverage, but that's only because he'll play maybe a little more man," Lapham said. "They'll isolate Joe (Haden) and let him play man so they play half and half stuff. Some double zones. And that's because they're three games into this project. Dick's defense is about having guys that are experienced. You notice Dick has never left to go install his defense. It's a complex scheme and it'd tough to get all 11 guys on the same page playing at a high level right away. Ray Horton has done it as well as anybody ever could."
The Bengals offense gets a break in the sense this is the third straight game it is facing the LeBeau School. The Bengals put up more than 400 yards against the master himself two weeks ago against Pittsburgh and then six days later had three TD drives of at least 80 yards against Green Bay's Dom Capers and his LeBeau-influenced scheme.
Lapham thinks the Bengals offensive line responded well in both games.
"The fact they're giving up just 2.8 yards per rush after playing Adrian Peterson tells me something," Lapham says. "They play the conventional 3-4 and just play the heck of it on run downs. The guards are uncovered, but the Bengals guards (Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling) have been doing a really good job double-teaming inside in the running game."
The continuity of working against the same conceptual defense helps, Jay Gruden says, but not everything is the same. Gruden remembers Horton's Arizona defense quite well. The Bengals barely beat the Cardinals on Christmas Eve that season in the Jerome Simpson Flip Game and got only 83 yards of offense in the second half while Andy Dalton threw it just 22 times for 136 yards the entire day. He also says it's not entirely a Pittsburgh-LeBeau look.
"Great football coach. He had a good defense in Arizona, now he's got even better players in Cleveland," Gruden says. "He's got if not one of the best, the best corner in the league in Joe Haden. He's got good edge guys … he's added wrinkles of his own. There's a lot of LeBeau, but there are some philosophical differences. You can see the coverages are similar. Some of the fronts are a little different. I would say they're similar but not identical.
"They play tight man-to-man. Sometimes they play half the field, or quarters. They do a good job of changing up not only their blitzes but their coverages."
What makes Horton dangerous, Gruden believes, is the combination of good rushers meshing with a sound pressure scheme. He says Cleveland's balanced approach makes it hard for such players as the running back and guard to see what's happening in time to adjust. And picking up the blitz has been a work in progress this season. The Browns have allowed five sacks and according to them, not one has been allowed by the offensive line.
"Everybody has to be on top of their assignments," Gruden says. "All his blitz pressures are pretty sound. It's not like there are free runners and wide-open guys. Usually they'll have someone popping out, maybe a safety on the tight end. Maybe a linebacker popping out on the back. They've got everybody accounted for."
Gruden loves what rookie running back Giovani Bernard has done in pass protection even though he missed his first and only blitz pickup last week against the Packers. And he'll have to be on point this Sunday because maybe the biggest thing Horton has done is change the mentality.
Here they come.
Horton said in his Thursday news conference in Cleveland that he's got only 50 percent of the system installed and that there's plenty more on the way. Wilcots has seen this act before. The playbook is going to be bigger than even that.
"What Ray does is something that every guy who played for Dick LeBeau recognizes," Wilcots says. "When a player comes in and says, 'Hey Coach, why don't we do this off of that? You got us doing this, but let's change it and do this.' And Ray says, 'OK, you guys want to do that.' That's something Dick always understood and that's why the playbook grew. He listens to players as well as anyone and Ray is very good at that.
"Nobody is lighting them up and they're going to get better. He's going to bring it and see where the chips fall. They'll finish in the top half of the league when it's all said and done."
Twenty-five years later and Horton is still calling it.