BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Jabrill Peppers is playing yet another new position: way, way-back.
Cleveland’s rookie safety has become the last line of defense for the Browns, who have gone to extreme measures to prevent teams from completing deep passes on their secondary.
Peppers has lined up 25 yards off the line of scrimmage in Cleveland’s first two games, and the unusual strategy — devised by coordinator Gregg Williams — has been mostly effective in stopping the deep ball.
“I enjoy it,” the multi-talented Peppers said this week of his new spot. “Whatever they ask me to do.”
Peppers’ versatility (he played 11 positions at Michigan), speed and ball-hawking skills make him ideal for this lifeguard-in-shoulder pads role the Browns have him in. He’s been counted on to save Cleveland’s defense, if needed, and through two games — against two of the NFL’s two biggest-armed quarterbacks — the plan has worked.
With a slight problem.
In the opener, the Browns dissuaded Ben Roethlisberger from trying to beat them deep, so he threw underneath to All-Pro Antonio Brown, who had 11 catches for 182 yards.
Last week in Baltimore, the Browns limited Joe Flacco’s ability to air it out, but he exploited some holes with tight end Benjamin Watson who had eight catches for 91 yards.
Flacco tried one home-run ball, and it was intercepted by Browns cornerback James McCourty although Peppers could have just as easily nabbed it.
When asked if it was advantageous to play safety like a baseball center fielder, Peppers, who is also returning punts and kickoffs, counter-punched.
“I will ask you a question,” he said to a reporter. “How many deep balls have we given up? We haven’t really been tried deep so that is the game plan right now. Until they change it, that is what the game plan is.”
The plan could change this week at Indianapolis, where quarterback Jacoby Brissett is still filling in for an injured Andrew Luck and doesn’t present the same issues as Big Ben or Flacco.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano has been impressed with Cleveland’s defense, “to me, it looks like there are 15 guys on the field.” Pagano said Cleveland’s deeper-than-deep safety alignment reminds him of how Baltimore used perennial Pro Bowler Ed Reed.
“Ed loved to play with great depth because he didn’t have to go anywhere,” Pagano said. “He just sat back there and read the quarterback. Fully understand why they are doing what they do, and they do it extremely well.”
Browns coach Hue Jackson defended the defensive quirk, arguing that it’s not an indictment on McCourty or Jamar Taylor, Cleveland’s other starting cornerback.
“This is more about strategy,” he said. “This is more about we discourage the opportunity for people to throw it over our head. If you don’t want to get the ball thrown over your head, just make sure that there is somebody deep enough where they don’t try to throw it over your head. That is how that works.
“It is not about the corners or not having confidence in the corners. This is something we truly believe discourages teams from trying to throw the ball over our head. You have not seen a ball go over our head that way.”
Colts rookie safety Malik Hooker is used to seeing Peppers all over the field. Hooker squared off with Peppers in college at Ohio State and isn’t surprised the Browns are using him in a variety of spots.
“I feel like he is the type of player that wherever they need him, that is where they are going to put him,” Hooker said. “If they need him at linebacker, they are capable of putting him there. That is why he is a solid player and capable of being put wherever they need him.”
Gifted with football instincts, Peppers wants to make big plays. But he has to be careful, and has so far avoided the temptation to come up and possibly get beat.
“You have to be disciplined,” he said. “At this level, you have to trust that everybody is going to do their job. We all trust each other and the job will get done.”