An In-Depth Look Inside Ray Horton’s Defense

May 8th, 2013

Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense is far from your grandfather’s version of the defense. (photo: Editor: Brendan Leister

In a Cleveland Browns offseason filled with player acquisition and roster turnover, an unlikely candidate has emerged as the most anticipated addition by many.  That candidate is former Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Ray Horton.  Horton brings ten years of playing experience and 19 years of coaching experience at the NFL level; dating back to 1994.

Horton is best-known for his attacking 3-4 defensive scheme.  He blitzes more often than most and his players are coached to match his aggressive philosophy.  However, simply referring to Horton’s scheme as a standard 3-4 defense is not completely accurate.  He employs multiple defensive fronts and consistently does his best to match up his defensive personnel to the offense’s personnel packages.  In a league that is continually growing to be more stylistically progressive, Horton is one of the coaches that is leading the charge.

Understanding Offensive Personnel

Before I go on, it is important for readers to understand how offensive personnel is coded.  When coding offensive personnel, all you have to do is count the number of backs and tight ends on the field.  The number of backs comes first and the number of tight ends is second.  Therefore, if an offense lines up with two backs and one tight end, that would be referred to as “21 personnel”.  The number of wide receivers in a given personnel package goes without saying because there are always five skill players on the field (excluding the quarterback).

When defensive coaches game plan, they designate a position for each player on the opposing offense.  Although players have positions on the official team roster, they could be given a different designation by coaches if they are deemed to be a difficult matchup.  For example, a player like New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez can line up as a tight end, in the backfield, in the slot, and out wide.  Simply designating Hernandez as a tight end may leave a defense in a tough spot when they try to match up with the Patriots using their base defensive personnel.  Therefore, coaches may treat Hernandez as a wide receiver and match up with a sub-package to get more speed on the field.

Defensive coaches also look at play calling trends by offensive coaches when certain players are on the field and when the offense is in certain personnel packages and formations.  For example, if the Patriots pass 60% of the time when Danny Woodhead is on the field, the defense will probably send out a personnel group that can succeed against the pass when they see him making his way to the huddle.  The same goes for personnel packages and formations.  If the offense runs or passes a high percentage of the time in a given situation, a good defensive coordinator will adjust his personnel accordingly.

Another factor that puts stress on defensive coaches is the fact that the defense is only able to substitute when the offense huddles.  This gives offenses with versatile skill players an advantage because they can line up in multiple formations with the same personnel packages and keep the defense from making substitutions all while playing at a fast pace.  For example, a team such as the Patriots (sticking with the theme) with versatile playmakers like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead can stay in 12 personnel and use multiple formations for an entire drive while the defense is unable to make a single substitution.

Now that you understand how offensive personnel is coded and you have an idea of some of the many added stresses that defensive coaches face on a week-in and week-out basis, let’s move forward.

Ray Horton’s 3-4 Fronts

The above photos provide an example of a variation of one of Ray Horton’s 3-4 fronts.  The offense has come out in 12 personnel with one back in the backfield and two tight ends lined up outside of the right tackle.  The defense lines up with nose tackle Dan Williams in a 0-technique (head-up on the center).  On the left side of the defensive line, Vonnie Holliday is lined up in a 5-technique (head-up on the right tackle).  Calais Campbell is lined up in a 3-technique (shading the outside shoulder of the left guard) on this particular play.  The outside linebackers (#50 O’Brien Schofield and #94 Sam Acho) are lined up on the line of scrimmage on opposite sides of the offensive line.  The strong inside linebacker Paris Lenon (#51) is lined up directly behind Holliday and the weak inside linebacker Daryl Washington (#58) is aligned over the the right B-gap.

A basic 2-gap 3-4 defense will typically have two 5-technique defensive ends that control the gaps on either side of the offensive tackles.  However, in this particular instance, the right side of the defense looks to be 1-gapping while the left side is 2-gapping.  For an excellent read on defensive fronts that use multiple gap concepts, here is a piece by Chris Brown of  Ray Horton consistently uses multiple gap concepts and he changes the roles of his players to maximize their talents in specific situations.

In 2012, Horton used 3-4 fronts most when matching up with offenses that relied heavily on running the football and 21, 12, and 22 personnel.  In two games against the San Francisco 49ers, Horton’s defense lined up in a 3-4 front on 36 out of 57 snaps (63.2%) and 55 out of 69 snaps (79.7%) respectively.  Against the Chicago Bears in week 16, Horton matched up by using a 3-4 front on 45 out of 61 snaps (73.8%).  The game that Horton relied most on the 3-4 was when he faced the New York Jets in week 13.  Horton matched up with the Jets by using a 3-4 front on 67 out of 78 snaps (85.9%).

Throughout the entire 2012 season, Ray Horton relied on a variation of his 3-4 defense on 563 out of 1,110 snaps (50.7%).  On first and second downs, Horton relied on a variation of his 3-4 defense on 520 out of 849 snaps (61.2%).  On third downs, Horton only relied on a variation of his 3-4 defense on 40 out of 249 snaps (16.1%).

A few more variations of Horton’s 3-4 are as follows:

Free safety Kerry Rhodes is lined up as the eighth man in the box.

Again, Calais Campbell is aligned over the left guard rather than the left tackle.

Darnell Dockett is lined up in a 3-technique between the right guard and right tackle. Kerry Rhodes (#25) is lined up as the eighth man in the box to the strong side (right).


Ray Horton’s 2-4-5 Defense

In the above photos, you can see that the Cardinals have two defensive linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs to match up with the Patriots as they’ve come out in 11 personnel.  Calais Campbell is lined up in a 1-technique (on the inside shoulder of the left guard) and Darnell Dockett (#90) is lined up in a 3-technique (on the outside shoulder of the right guard).  O’Brien Schofield is the left outside linebacker and he is covering the tight end to the outside of the right tackle.  Sam Acho is the right outside linebacker and he has aligned on the outside of the left tackle.  The inside linebackers (Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington) are aligned across from the offensive guards.  Patrick Peterson (#21) is the left cornerback, William Gay (#22) has moved inside to cover the slot, and Jamell Fleming (#23) has subbed in as the right cornerback.

With the growing use of the slot receiver and the declining use of the fullback, offenses have become more and more dependent upon 11 personnel.  With offenses continually evolving, defensive coaches have been forced to adapt if they want to keep up.  Enter Ray Horton’s 2-4-5 defense.  With the 2-4-5, Horton has the luxury of adding more speed to the field while keeping a strong front seven.  The alignment requires two versatile and athletic linemen that can play multiple techniques along the defensive line while still being stout enough to hold up against the run.  For the 2-4-5 to be successful, the entire defense must play fast, aggressive and physical.

During the 2012 season, Ray Horton relied on the 2-4-5 defense most when matching up with teams that spent much of their time in 11 personnel.  When Horton faced the New England Patriots in week two, he employed the 2-4-5 on a staggering 80 out of 82 snaps (97.6%).  Even on the 17 snaps that the Patriots came out in 12 personnel, Horton used the 2-4-5. In week six against Chan Gailey’s spread offense and the Buffalo Bills, Horton used the 2-4-5 on 52 out of 69 snaps (75.4%).  When the Cardinals faced the pass-heavy Detroit Lions during week 15, Horton used the 2-4-5 on 55 out of 81 snaps (67.9%).

Throughout the entire 2012 season, Horton used the 2-4-5 defense on 505 out of 1,110 snaps (45.5%).  On first and second downs, Horton used the 2-4-5 on 306 out of 749 snaps (40.9%).  On third downs, Horton used the 2-4-5 on 191 out of 249 snaps (76.7%).  With offenses continually trending more and more toward the passing game, it will be interesting to look back on Horton’s first season with the Browns and see if he relies on the 2-4-5 any more or less than he did during the 2012 season.

A few more looks at Horton’s 2-4-5 defense are as follows:

This image really illustrates how much respect Ray Horton has for Calvin Johnson.

The strong safety and inside linebackers blitzed on this play.

This is a pretty standard example of the 2-4-5 against 11 personnel.

Here is the 2-4-5 against the Bills’ Wildcat formation with Brad Smith at quarterback.

Ray Horton’s Other Defensive Packages

The only other packages that Ray Horton used with any kind of regularity during the 2012 season were his 2-3-6 (dime package) and 4-4 front.  For the most part, the 2-3-6 was only used when Horton had to match up with 10 or 01 personnel.  Horton only employed the 2-3-6 25 times throughout the entire 2012 season.  The only game that Horton brought out the 4-4 was when he used it ten times in a week eight matchup with the San Francisco 49ers.

An example of Horton’s 2-3-6 is as follows:

A safety often comes up in the box and acts almost as a linebacker in Horton’s 2-3-6.

End zone angle of the previous image.

An example of Horton’s 4-4 front is as follows:

The 49ers are in run-heavy 22 personnel.  Horton counters with the 4-4.

Ray Horton’s Blitzes

Ray Horton is one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in the NFL.  He is known for finding creative ways to put pressure on the quarterback.  The most exciting thing about this for Browns fans is that the numbers back up the reputation.  During the 2012 season, Horton blitzed on 279 out of 588 pass plays (47.4%).  To put that number in perspective, defensive coordinators around the NFL only blitzed on an average of 31.6% of pass plays.

When Horton blitzed, his players normally did a good job of executing.  On the 174 plays that Horton sent five rushers, 59 combined quarterback hits, hurries, and sacks were created.  This means that a hit, hurry, or sack was created on 33.9% of snaps that Horton sent five rushers.  (If you think that is impressive, wait until you hear how often pressure was created when Horton sent six rushers.)  On the 64 plays that Horton sent six rushers, 35 combined quarterback hits, hurries, and sacks were created.  This means that pressure was created on 54.7% of snaps that Horton sent six rushers.  Just by looking at these numbers, we can conclude that Horton does an excellent job of designing his blitzes.

Like any defensive coordinator, Horton blitzes more or less depending on the situation.  When using the 2-4-5 during the 2012 season, Horton blitzed on 142 out of 505 snaps (28.1%).  28 (19.7%) of Horton’s blitzes from the 2-4-5 came on first downs, 24 (16.9%) of his blitzes from the 2-4-5 came on second downs, and 83 (58.5%) of his blitzes from the 2-4-5 came on third downs.  When using the 3-4 during the 2012 season, Horton blitzed on 125 out of 563 snaps (22.2%).  50 (40%) of Horton’s blitzes from the 3-4 came on first downs, 60 (48%) of his blitzes from the 3-4 came on second downs, and 11 (9%) of his blitzes from the 3-4 came on third downs.

Final Notes

In looking at Ray Horton’s profile on the Browns’ team website, I found some very impressive statistics in regards to his 2012 performance.  The stats are in the following quote: “This past season, Horton guided a defensive unit that led the NFL in passer rating allowed (71.2) and interception percentage (4.4%). His defense also ranked second in the NFL in interceptions (22) and third-down efficiency (32.9%), third in red zone defense (44.4%) and fourth in takeaways (33). The defense also ranked fifth in passing defense (200.8 ypg), first downs allowed (288) and points allowed per drive (1.42).”  These statistics are even more impressive when you consider that the Cardinals played in arguably the toughest division in football (the NFC West) and the defense was lacking in premier edge rushers.

All in all, Cleveland Browns fans should be very excited for the arrival of Ray Horton.  He is one of the most creative defensive minds in the entire NFL and he has a proven track record.  In looking ahead to the 2013 season, the Browns’ defense looks much more promising than it has in recent memory.  The unit has depth on the defensive line, young talent and athleticism on all three levels, edge rushers that can put pressure on the quarterback, one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, and one of the top safeties in the NFL.  When you combine all of these factors, the future looks very bright for the Browns’ defense.

I would like to give a special thanks to for all that they do.  Without the information that they provide and all of the work that they do, articles like this one would be nearly impossible.

Thank you for reading and thank you for supporting!

Tags: Arizona Cardinals, Browns Film Room, Cleveland Browns, NFL,, Ray Horton,, X's and O's

7 Responses to “An In-Depth Look Inside Ray Horton’s Defense”

  1. CTownThunder says:

    Thanks for this, wonderful read.

  2. Heathmalc says:

    Excellent read, and very informative. Thanks.

  3. Bluey says:

    I really enjoyed that, as an Australian I’ve grown up with Rugby League and Rugby Union. I’ve watched NFL for a few years but I’m still learning a lot about the X’s and O’s and this is one of the best reads I’ve come across for that.
    Thank you for taking the time.

  4. JJamiekinder says:

    I am a huge Browns fan, high school football coach and break down film year round…… on!

  5. BilliardsBum says:

    This was an excellent read! I am sure that there will be some growing pains, but this article got me excited about the season. I just hope the Browns are able to keep Horton for at least a few years before a team picks him for their head coach. It would be nice to have some time to groom an heir to his defense within the organization since I think that it is only a matter of time before he gets rewarded with a head coaching gig for his accomplishments. Keep up the good work.

  6. Ricky D says:

    Thanks for giving us a little more depth on Horton’s defense. Any way you could follow up with a “why” as to the various formations? Looking forward to seeing the new defense in action.

  7. Thank you all for the replies! They are much appreciated. In reply to Ricky D: Horton matches up with offenses with the different formations so that he can get his best 11 players on the field for the particular situation. It’s all a part of the game of matchups. I hope this answered your question.

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