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.