Myles Garrett is a special player on the Browns defense. His power, athleticism, and ability to overwhelm whatever left tackle he approaches has made him the face of Cleveland’s defense and a superstar edge rusher.
Rookie corner Denzel Ward is also a special player on the Browns defense. His speed, quickness, ball coverage skills, and overall consistency have added a major boost to Cleveland’s secondary, and he’s in the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
While these might be the two best players on the Browns defense, I don’t think both of them are the most valuable. That would go to third-year middle linebacker and Pro Bowler Joe Schobert, a former Wisconsin Badger.
In seven games this season, Schobert has made 56 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and six pass disruptions. But those raw stats don’t begin to tell the story of how much impact the MLB (or inside linebacker, it’s the same thing really.) gives this defense. In Schobert’s absence due to injury, the Browns defense notably stalled. Against the Falcons, however, the former fourth rounder in the 2016 NFL Draft made his presence as clear as day, making key plays throughout the game.
Pro Football Focus has Joe Schobert as the highest graded off-ball coverage linebacker in the league with a rating of 91.3. I don’t personally look at PFF’s rankings as the football gospel considering they do different work from my own, but it does show that other publications highly respect his impact in 2018.
For those who have watched Schobert from the beginning, this has been an awesome development. Coming out of Wisconsin, he started out as an edge defender and that didn’t really work. In his sophomore season in the NFL he made the switch to middle linebacker, putting up a good season and getting voted to the Pro Bowl as a replacement for Ryan Shazier thanks to being tied for second in tackles amongst all players (142).
And in 2018, Joe Schobert has put all the pieces together. No more is he just a good middle linebacker; He’s one of the best middle linebackers period. What Baker Mayfield is to the Browns offense is essentially what Schobert is to the Browns defense: He’s the quarterback of that unit, communicating with the rest of the unit what the play call is going to be.
But Schobert’s role in the Browns defense goes beyond following orders before the snap. For more on that, let’s breakdown his tape and explore just how good he is.
Schobert is in zone coverage on this 3rd and 5 at the Ravens’ 47. Baltimore rookie tight end Mark Andrews is who he eventually goes up against, and Joe Flacco has his sights set on him. It should be noted that the Ravens snapped the ball early so that they could have a post snap advantage over Cleveland.
Schobert recognizes Andrews is breaking inside, spins, and chases the tight end down. Flacco’s timing on this play is late; As soon as Andrews enters his break, that’s when the quarterback should fire the ball and lead his receiver for a first down. But Flacco fires this one late and behind because of his lack of anticipation.
But Schobert’s play here is extremely impressive. He’s able to spin and catch up to Andrews without slowing his mechanics down, and he makes a great diving pass breakup to force the Ravens to punt. This was made in spite of Baltimore getting the snap off early.
Schobert is clearly a household name in Cleveland as a coverage linebacker, but his days of rushing the passer aren’t exactly over either. Middle linebackers can on occasion blitz the quarterback, and in a Gregg Williams defense that is rich in blitzing and pass rushing talent, it should come as no surprise that the third-year player would be involved too.
In general, the Browns defense did an excellent job of covering on this play, with no receiver open downfield. This is a pretty basic play for Schobert to make, but his balance and tackling technique on this sack of Derek Carr are evidence that he wasn’t out of place as a pass rusher.
For all the faults Gregg Williams has, he has a much better grasp of how each player in the Browns defense can succeed in 2018. He’s been ahead of the curve in teaching how to tackle and cause turnovers in an era where defenses are forced to adjust with the league favoring the passing game, and with a huge upgrade in talent it’s no wonder this defense ranks as one of the more dangerous and explosive in football.
In the three games Schobert missed, the Browns defense gave up exactly 32 points per game and 458.7 yards per game against a slaughterhouse of offenses in the Buccaneers, Steelers, and Chiefs.
The Falcons, another offensive powerhouse, put up 16 points and 382 total yards of offense when Schobert made his return. On the last three plays of the Falcons’ first drive of the 4th quarter, all on or inside Cleveland’s 5-yard line, he made three consecutive stops to turn the ball over on downs, with the last two becoming the biggest of the game.
This is a touchdown from Tevin Coleman if Schobert doesn’t interfere. He’s able to recognize the hole opening up in the A-gap and reacts the same time Coleman gets the handoff. Schobert’s efforts stop Coleman just shy of the end zone, forcing a 4th and 1.
Once again, this might be an easy touchdown if Schobert was taken out of the picture. The target on this play is third-string tight end Eric Saubert (for some reason) who breaks to the back middle of the end zone. Schobert quickly identifies that Saubert is a receiver on the play and accelerates toward him.
The linebacker’s tight coverage on the tight end forces Matt Ryan to attempt a perfect throw, one where he has to throw his receiver open. But against Schobert it’s overwhelming, and Ryan’s almost gets there but falls incomplete, giving the Browns the ball back on an incredible series of downs from Schobert.
Joe Schobert has ascended into a superstar linebacker, one that covers a huge patch in the Browns defense and makes that unit play much more cohesively as a whole. Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi and Denzel Ward may be the more explosive players, but in terms of overall value, I don’t think it can be argued Schobert ranks at the top.
Schobert is a special player, one that combines quick instincts with smooth coverage and refined footwork. He’s putting together a second consecutive Pro Bowl worthy season, and is more than deserving of a contract extension with Cleveland. At this rate it’s hard to see him not get it in the offseason.
Simply put, there are few coverage linebackers playing better football than Joe Schobert right now, and he deserves all the recognition he can get and then some.
(Featured image via Waitingfornextyear.com)