Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's all up to the defense
If the Browns expect to make strides on defense this season, they must complete two tasks: Flat out stop the run, then get up close and very personal with opposing quarterbacks.

That’s all. It’s that simple.

The offense, as we already know, will take baby steps before we find out what personality emerges. That could take at least half the season as Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson acclimate themselves to the National Football League.

The defense, meanwhile, needs to keep the team in games this season, much as it did last season when the offense resembled something out of high school.

That defense ranked a very deceptive 10th overall in the NFL last season, thanks in large part to the No. 2 ranking against the forward pass. That was more than balanced by their No. 30 rank against the run.

Same old, same old vs. the run. No matter who they bring in, opposing teams run almost at will against them. Been that way for a very long time.  Opponents don’t need to throw the ball in order to be effective.
A closer examination reveals the Browns were thrown against last season fewer times than just one team. Is it any wonder they wound up with a very deceiving No. 2 ranking?

So what did Tom Heckert Jr. do to rectify the situation? Dipped into the free-agent market for defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Yes he did. Whoop-dee-do. Order your playoff tickets now.

Rucker is supposed to help the pass rush. Only one problem, He’s much better against the run. The Browns expect him to be a whole lot better than Jayme Mitchell, last season’s disappointment on the flank. Parker, a lot closer to the end of his career than just about anyone on the roster, is an over-the-hill third-down pass-rush specialist.

The general manager then drafted defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn, both of whom will have trouble arriving in the same zip code as the opposing quarterback. Once again, Heckert seems to have loaded up on run stuffers who have trouble stuffing the run.

It’s almost as though Heckert is throwing as much run-stopping stuff against the board as he can in hopes of coming up with one or two guys who might actually force the opposition to throw the ball more.

As for the pass rush, the Browns last season had 32 sacks, a modest number that needs to increase substantially. In the last 10 seasons, they have cracked the 35-sack barrier just once. That was in 2009, when they racked up 40 in Eric Mangini’s first season as coach with crazy Rob Ryan as his defensive coordinator.

In order for the Browns to have a shot at respectability this season, they must reach a happy medium on defense. They cannot continue to give up 145-150 yards of real estate on a weekly basis. And they cannot continue to allow quarterbacks to scan the field for 8-10 seconds and play dial-a-receiver.

That has got to change. If it doesn’t, it makes no difference how quickly Weeden & Co. adjust to the professional game. It’s going to be yet another long season.

Men far smarter than I have said offense is all about finesse and timing, and defense is all about aggression. No argument here. It’s also been said that offense win games and defense wins championships. Again, no argument.

How the Cleveland defense performs this season will determine just where the club will be on that late December Sunday in Pittsburgh when the Steelers most likely will try to put a bow on another successful season.

That’ll undoubtedly be because of a well-balanced offense and a solid, aggressive and opportunistic defense, qualities to which the Browns should aspire.


  1. Hi Rich,
    I think you're a bit off saying the Browns defensive stats last year are mis-leading.

    First, the Browns were the only team to give up less than 20 points a game AND score less than 20 a game. In fact, they scored about 14 points a game. In other words, with more help from the offense, the defensive stats could have been better.

    Second, the Browns were 9th in defense in average yards per play allowed. This obviously includes both run and pass. Again, for a defense that got no help from the offense, this is pretty good.

    And, third, you don't need a great defense to win a championship in this league, but you do need a good rezone defense and a good pass defense. When the Saints won in 2009, their total D was something like 25th. BUT, they were near the top in rezone defense and their average yards per TD pass allowed was the best in the league by far. In other words, they gave up yards, but were stingy giving up TDs.

    What the Browns really need is a better passing game. No surprise there of course, but the stats I look to are the difference between a team's yards per pass attempt, offensively and defensively. The best teams almost always have the best net positive difference. In 2009, the Colts had the 4th and the Saints the 5th best net diffential. Last year, the Giants were 5th. In 2010, the Steelers and Packers were 1st and 2nd.

    So, even if the Browns defense does exactly what it did last year, but the offense does the league average of 7.2 yds per pass attempt, the they would rank in the top 10 (based on last year's stats) and join the seven other playoff teams in the top 10.

    Just my thoughts.

    As always, thanks.

    Paul from Seattle

  2. Well thought out, sir. But I do no necessarily agree with your conclusions.

    Football is a team game. All aspects need to mesh in order to achieve a positive end result.

    I submit to you that if teams had been forced to pass more on the Browns last season because their running games were being shut down, the Cleveland secondary would have been torched.

    That was not a good secondary for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it received little or no help from the front seven regarding putting heat on opposing quarterbacks.

    The personnel back there was mediocre at best. Even Joe Haden struggled some. They are lucky opposing teams didn't have to throw as often against them.

    This season, the Browns face more tough teams than last season. Their defense will be tested a lot more than last season. And they sure as hell had better stop the run or else we'll see a repeat of last season.

    Again, the defense must step up or the improved offense won't be able to offset the problems.

    1. I agree that the defense needs more pass rush, has to stop the run better, and I definitely believe that it needs an infusion of speed and more playmaking ability. Here's hoping the drafted LBs will provide some much needed speed.

      I think some of the "success" of the defense last year, if you can call it that, was due to Dick Jauron. I think he did a fine job last year playing some smoke-and-mirrors.

      Still, this team doesn't need a great defense to win. They need a much better offense with a passing game that gives opposing coaches fits. It's why the mirage of 2007 happened at all. Anderson's arm, before teams figured him out, coupled with Edwards on the edge and Winslow over the middle, gave defenses all kinds of problems even as the defense ranked almost dead last.

      My biggest beef with the current regime is their emphasis on building a defense first. In my unprofessional view of things, good offenses make teams more competitive than good defenses. Maybe you may not be championship caliber, but you will be a playoff contender faster in my view.

      Paul from Seattle

  3. Hi Paul,

    Where this team did well last season was in the red zone, where they forced a lot of field goals instead of touchdowns. That's one of the reasons they allowed so few (relatively speaking) points.

    What this team needs is a defense that can get off the field with some regularity, create turnovers with a greater regularity and display an aggressive approach that forces opposing offensive coordinators to worry.

    As for offense vs. defense, an old saying goes something like this: Offense wins games; defense wins championships.

    The offense will be better this season because it can't be any worse. But the defense has to step it up, too, and accomplish the above. If those two units improve, then we might be looking at something special this season. Maybe not the playoffs, but distinct improvement.

    This club must walk before it runs.