FAB 4. Horton Would Be An Interesting D.C Candidate
Whether Dirk Koetter stays on in Tampa Bay or the Bucs end up hiring Jon Gruden, the team will need a new defensive coordinator in 2018, as Mike Smith is not expected to return after a very disappointing year by the defense.
If Koetter stays, speculation will turn to good friend Marvin Lewis, who is stepping down as Cincinnati’s head coach at the end of the season, to be the Bucs’ new defensive coordinator. Lewis was the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator from 1996-2001 where he won a Super Bowl title in 2000 with his top-ranked 4-3 Under defensive scheme. Ironically, Smith was his linebackers coach during that time. In 2002, Lewis became the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach in Washington before taking the Bengals head-coaching job in 2003.
If Gruden comes back to the Bucs, speculation will turn to his friend and ESPN colleague Rex Ryan, who ironically, was the defensive line coach under Lewis in Baltimore from 1999-2001. Ryan, the son of legendary Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, continued as the Ravens defensive line coach until he took over as defensive coordinator from 2005-08 when he switched to a 3-4 scheme. Baltimore’s defense ranked first in 2006 and third in 2008. Ryan became the New York Jets head coach from 2009-14 and the Buffalo Bills head coach from 2015-16 and deployed a 3-4 defense at both stops.
But there is another name that the Bucs should consider for defensive coordinator regardless of who the head coach is – Ray Horton. The 57-year old Horton didn’t coach last year after being fired from Cleveland after one season but was fired by Hue Jackson.
I’m not going to hold that against him. It’s the Browns for God’s sake.
Horton, a former NFL cornerback and safety, coached defensive backs under Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin from 2004-10. Horton learned under Dick LeBeau’s and brought his “Blitzburgh” 3-4 scheme to Arizona in 2011 when he was named defensive coordinator, working for head coach Ken Wisenhunt.
In two years with the Cardinals, Horton took a unit that ranked 29th in total defense in 2010 and improved to 18th in the league in 2011 and 12th in 2012, which was his last season in Arizona. Horton’s third-down defense, which typically featured blitzes, was the best in the NFL in 2011 and the second-best the next year. In 2012, the Cardinals led the league in passer rating allowed (71.2), ranked second in interceptions (22), third in red zone defense (44.4 percent), fifth in takeaways (33 and fifth in passing yards allowed (200.8 ypg.). Horton helped turn cornerback Patrick Peterson into a shutdown man corner and a Pro Bowler.
After Winsenhunt and his staff were fired after the 2012 campaign, Horton interviewed for the Browns head-coaching job, which ultimately went to Rob Chudzinski. Horton was so impressive in his interview that he was hired to be Cleveland’s defensive coordinator.
“I can’t control if the quarterback throws the ball in three steps, five steps or seven – that’s not my decision,” said Horton, whose Cardinals defense ranked second in blitzes in 2012, upon being hired by the Browns. “What I can do hopefully is (place) enough pressure where those are big plays, where you get off on third down. … There is a lot of hidden yardage, hidden statistics in a game … and there is a lot of ways to affect the quarterback without hitting the quarterback.”
After finishing 23rd in the NFL in 2012, the Browns ranked ninth in total defense (332.4 ypg.) in 2013, which was the team’s best finish since 1994. Horton’s defensive line coach was Joe Cullen, who guided Cleveland’s defensive front to limit opponents to just 3.9 yards per carry, which ranked eighth in the NFL and was the team’s lowest average in 18 years. The Browns also registered 40 sacks, which were the most since the 2001 season. Like he did with Peterson in Arizona, Horton helped Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden make the Pro Bowl, in addition to Browns safety T.J. Ward, who earned a Pro Bowl berth for the first time in his career.
But despite the progress that was made, Chudzinski and his staff were fired after just one season in Cleveland. Cullen ended up in Tampa Bay on Lovie Smith’s coaching staff, while Horton went to Tennessee to reunite with Wisenhunt.
Horton didn’t have as much success with the Titans, who won just five games over two years before Wisenhunt and the staff got fired. Tennessee recorded 39 sacks in each of the two seasons, and the defense improved from 27th to 12th in total yards and from 29th to 27th in scoring defense with only one Pro Bowl player on the roster in defensive lineman Jurrell Casey.
“Scheme-wise, one of the most impressive things about Ray is his flexibility,” Wisenhunt said about Horton in Tennessee in 2014. “He has the ability to go between a 4-3 and 3-4 and put our players in the best position to succeed. It has been evident by what he has done and where his defenses have ranked in the league over the last few years.”
“As for our defensive system, I have said from day one that I don’t coach a particular alignment, I coach men who want to get after it and we will play physical and fundamentally sound,” Horton said upon taking the job in 2014. “We will do whatever suits the men that I coach and whatever the Tennessee Titans can do best.”
Horton then went back to the Browns, but couldn’t replicate the success he had in Cleveland the first time and was fired after just one season. Ward was gone, Haden didn’t play as well, and the Browns defense lacked talent in finishing 1-15. Of course the Browns are 0-15 this season.
Bringing Horton and his blitzing 3-4 Under scheme to the Bucs would be interesting as he has more talent to work with in Tampa Bay than he did in Tennessee or Cleveland. Surrounding Horton with his long-time defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi, bringing Cullen back from Baltimore to coach the defensive line, and keeping Duffner on staff to coach linebackers might best utilize the current talent on this Bucs roster.
Horton could set David, Alexander, Spence and Beckwith free to take turns teeing off on the quarterback on blitzes, which is something they haven’t done nearly enough of under Smith.