Sunday, July 23, 2017

Questions seeking answers: Part Deux

Rarely is a coach the most important addition to any football team on any level. But it’s hard not to point to Gregg Williams as the Browns’ most important addition this season.

The voluble and very much out there new defensive coordinator of the club will bring qualities to the Cleveland defense that have been missing for way, way, way too long: Nastiness and attitude.

If the players play with the same intensity Williams coaches, if they channel his in-your-face aggression, if they embody everything he stands for when it comes to playing the game of football, Browns fans are in for a treat this season.

Not since the days of Marty Schottenheimer more than a generation ago have Cleveland pro football fans been treated to the kind of defense that reflects the blue-collar ethos the city used to be famous for in the early days of the Dawg Pound.

The Browns under Schottenheimer, as a defensive coordinator and head coach, played smart, aggressive football. Mistakes were rare. Victories were plentiful. And the fans became spoiled with good reason.

In part two of our overview of the 2017 Browns, we take a look at the defense, at Gregg Williams’ defense and what we can expect.

As we did with the offense, we start with the guys up front, the grunts who do not get nearly enough credit and set the table for those who labor behind them.

First of all, how much of a problem will the defense have shifting from a hybrid 3-4 scheme last season to what most likely will be a 4-2-5 look this season?

Not much at all because the Browns last season utilized college pass rushers as outside linebackers for the most part. Players like Emmanuel Ogbah and Nate Orchard now move back to defensive end, where they are more comfortable and productive.

And what makes them more effective there?

Ogbah and Orchard, along with returnees Carl Nassib, Cam Johnson and Xavier Cooper (who can also play tackle) and top draft choice Myles Garrett can concentrate on doing what they do best and that’s attacking the quarterback, a trait Browns fans haven’t been treated to in many seasons. Look for the Browns to significantly improve on their 26-sack season a year ago.

It’s not all about sacking the quarterback. What about stopping the run, something they haven’t been successful at for many seasons?

That’s the good part. Switching to a four-man front enables Danny Shelton to be the player the club thought it drafted a couple of years ago. While he improved last season as a nose tackle, he is much better suited to play next to a fellow tackle, avoiding much of the double and triple teams he faced in his first two seasons.

When facing one-on-one blocking, Shelton has proved to be almost impossible to handle. He clearly will be the greatest beneficiary of Williams’ defensive philosophy, improving his pass rush as well as stopping the run.

And who will play next to him?

That’s the intriguing part. Right now, veteran Jamie Meder has the inside track. But rookies Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley, both extremely explosive off the ball and owning the nastiness Williams likes, should give Meder stiff competition in what could be the best battle in training camp.

What about Garrett? Where does he fit in?

In the starting lineup, of course. You don’t sit the overall No. 1 draft pick. He is good enough to be a three-down player. His biggest problem will be adjusting to the speed and quickness of the National Football League after dominating on the college level.

Seems to be an awfully young defensive line with three rookies, a couple of pro sophomores and three third-year guys. How much of a concern will that be?

Not much. Better to work with a talented young group and let them develop. Anyway, chances are one or two of the youngsters might not make the cut unless Williams wants to have more than eight linemen at his disposal.

Okay, let us turn to the linebackers, a role that will be diminished somewhat by the Williams’ scheme, which focuses on the pass rush and a mostly nickel look in the secondary. Who stands out there?

Right now, it appears as though Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey have a lock on that role. Both are coming off solid seasons and there is no reason for Williams to do anything more than cheer them on. Both are aggressive, smart and have a nose for the football.

And with 10 linebackers in training camp, it will be interesting to see how many Williams keeps. The favorites appear to be returnees Tank Carder, Dominique Alexander and Joe Schobert.

That takes care of the front seven. What about the secondary, an area a lot of people point to as the weakest on the team?

And it’s with good reason they do. The defensive backfield was absolutely hammered last season. It didn’t help that the defensive line was unable to drop opposing quarterbacks, who merrily strafed almost at will. Converting third-and-longs became commonplace against the Browns to the tune of 45.1% of the time.  

That secondary surrendered 261 yards a game, 36 touchdowns, three 400-yard games, five 300-yard games, picked off only 10 passes and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 64% of their passes. It was an offensive free for all in the Cleveland defensive backfield. And it is still the club’s Achilles’ heel.

Okay, let’s break it down. There are whopping 19 defensive backs in camp (or will be when Jabrill Peppers signs his rookie contract). (Update: He did Sunday.) That’s more than 20% of the roster. First, the cornerbacks.

There are a dozen of them. And none really stick out to the point where fans can rely on them. Brien Boddy-Calhoun and Jamar Taylor were minor surprises at the position last season, but both were prone to occasionally giving up big plays.

So where does Joe Haden fit into this picture? Now in his eighth season, this veteran is arguably on the downside of a career that began so promisingly. Nagged by injuries the last couple of seasons, Haden needs to be completely healthy in order to play the kind of aggressive defense demanded by Williams.

At one time regarded as one of the best press cornerbacks in the NFL, he needs to get back to that style, Williams should provide him with that opportunity. If he’s healthy and works hard, he is young enough – he’s only 28 – to once again become the corner Browns fans appreciated a few years ago.

The Browns signed Jason McCourty, an eight-year veteran, to bolster their cornerback roster. If he doesn’t beat out Taylor or Boddy-Calhoun to play opposite Haden, he could man the slot in Williams’ 4-2-5 look. Other possibilities are Marcus Burley, Trey Caldwell and Darius Hillary.

And the safeties?

Seven of them: four strong, three free. The most intriguing, of course, is Peppers, who probably will begin the season as the strong safety, where his main duties would be run support and checking the tight end and running back out of the backfield.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Williams uses Peppers as a walkup linebacker in certain pass situations, much the same way the Pittsburgh Steelers used Troy Polamalu and Arizona Cardinals occasionally use Deone Bucannon, who splits his time between linebacker and safety. Returnees Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell provide veteran backup.

Free safety probably will wind up as a fight between Ed Reynolds II and Calvin Pryor III in a battle of Roman numerals with Pryor owning the edge.  Reynolds started seven games for Cleveland last season after injuries racked the position. Pryor, obtained from the New York Jets for Demario Davis, has started 38 games in his three-year career.

And finally, can it be assumed head coach Hue Jackson will cede complete authority of the defense to Williams?

Guess here is he better. Any interference likely will cause more friction and inner turmoil than Jackson, who had enough of that last season at 1-15, is willing to take on. If the defense goes sour this season, don’t blame Jackson, who has enough problems with the offense.

Tomorrow:  Special teams, odds and ends and fill in the blank.

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