Much of it has centered on how Peppers, as the single safety, has lined up 25 yards deep. People watching on TV don’t even see him in the picture.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, though, Peppers found himself in man coverage on one of the best receivers in the NFL, A.J. Green. The seven-yard touchdown was too easy, as a big, talented, Pro Bowl receiver easily took advantage of a rookie safety . These things happen, but this play seemed glaring because the Browns had a guy not known for man coverage lined up against one of the best in the league.
“They ran a zero beater,” Peppers said, referring to cover zero, a defense without a safety and an all-out blitz.
“They scored on our defense,” cornerback Jason McCourty said.
Which is a fair way of saying Peppers was simply the most visible player on the play.
On the play, Peppers initially lined up in the end zone, with cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun on Green. But early in the snap count, Boddy-Calhoun crept toward the line, a clear indication he was going to blitz.
Dalton saw it, and had time to change the protection. Boddy-Calhoun went back to Green, but shortly before the snap again crept close to the tackle, telegraphing the blitz. Again.
At the snap, the Browns rushed eight, leaving three receivers in man coverage. Boddy-Calhoun was handled easily by the tackle, and Dalton got rid of the ball before he was challenged. That was why McCourty said the play was on the defense. The call was designed for the pressure to disrupt the play.
“If I’m blitzing and I knock the ball down and he’s open, then we don’t talk about the touchdown,” McCourty said. “If somebody is supposed to get to the quarterback and sack him, you don’t see that.”
The one thing the Browns could have done was check out of the defensive call. Hue Jackson said things happened too quickly, but on tape it appears there might have been time for a check or even a timeout.
“Normally we like making the quarterbacks play guessing games, so we’ll check right along with him,” Peppers said. “But we didn’t get the check in time.”
That call had to come from the middle linebacker.
“The mike’s have all the power,” Peppers said.
Peppers said he was aware that the Bengals liked to run corner routes in that situation, but he also had seen Green score on an inside route a week earlier. So he played inside leverage, which gave Green an easy release.
“Not too much I could have really done there,” Peppers said. “It was a great route, great ball, great catch.”
Browns coaches talk frequently about knowing each other and knowing a system. In this instance, Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams trusted his pass-rushers would get there.
When they didn’t, the result was an easy touchdown.
From plays like those are an 0-4 record borne.