(Source: Yardbarker)

The Evolution of the Cleveland Browns 3-4 Defense: Part I - the Defensive Line

Since the dawning of the Romeo Crennel-era in 2005, the Cleveland Browns have operated under a 3-4 defensive scheme. Unfortunately, instead of getting better playing the 3-4 during the past five seasons, the Browns defense has regressed statistically, going from 16th in total yards allowed in Crennel’s first season  to 31st last season, the first under Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan.

With the arrival of new President Mike Holmgren, many thought the Browns would transition back to the 4-3 since Holmgren’s previous teams in Seattle and Green Bay both reached Super Bowls utilizing the scheme.

Instead of coming in and preaching change like President Obama,  President Holmgren decided to keep the 3-4 in place and retained Ryan, having apparently been satisfied  with the noticeable progress he was able to make with the defensive unit during the last portion of the season.

With that I mind, I now give you the first of a three-part series in which I’ll look at the three different levels of the Browns 3-4 defense heading into the 2010 season.

Up First: the Defensive line.

To a defense (and fans of that defense), there’s nothing more frustrating than having the football consistently run down your throat, which opponents have done  to the Browns since Crennel instituted the change to a 3-4 in 2005.

Now I recognize that the Browns’ struggles against the run preceded the transition to the 3-4, but for the sake of this topic, I’m ignoring those years. So don’t call out the new guy for already being lackadaisical, crazy commentator.

Instead, focus on how poorly the Browns have fared against the run in the past five seasons, but proceed with caution because the following statistics are quite alarming:

- 2009: 137.6 ypg. (30th)

- 2008:151.9 ypg. (28th)

- 2007: 129.5 ypg. (27th)

- 2006: 142.2 ypg. (29th)

- 2005: 137.6 ypg. (30th)

Now in spite of the wretchedness of these numbers and the fact that the Browns did finish 30th against the run just last season, there are some reasons to be slightly optimistic about the Browns chances of cracking the top 25 this season.

For the most part, Ryan’s defensive unit DID tighten up as last season progressed, and they particularly made significant strides against the run towards the end of the year.

A lot of this success coincided with the emergence of Ahtyba Rubin, who filled in very effectively at nose tackle after starter Shaun Rogers was lost for the season with an ankle injury. Of the five games that Rubin started in the middle, the Browns held three opponents to under 100 yards rushing.

As we all know, 3-4 teams have no chance of stopping the run if they’re weak in the middle – so obviously Rubin was doing something right while he was in there. From what I’ve seen of Rubin, all signs indicate that the “TUB” is more than just a one-hit wonder. He’s explosive and powerful, not to mention he’s certainly girthy enough at 6-2, 330 pounds.

This gives me some reason to believe in the Browns defense this season since the nose tackle is the centerpiece of every 3-4 defense’s prevention of the run, but it certainly doesn’t make me cocky.

After all, having a solid nose tackle that is able to control the line of scrimmage and occupy bodies (PLURAL!) does not guarantee surefire success for a 3-4 defense such as the Browns, but it certainly allows, or enables, good things to happen. If the 3-4 defense were an automobile, then the nose tackle would be considered the metaphorical key to the ignition.

In Rubin’s case, I’m confident that he can AT LEAST get the car started.

How the car runs after it gets started is certainly up in the air, and a lot of this for the Browns will depend on the impact Shaun Rogers is able to have on the defensive front. It’s going to be interesting to see how the big guy is able to handle the transition to defensive end after playing in the interior of the defensive line for the the first nine seasons of his career.

The negative Nancy in me has a feeling that this going to end unfavorably. After all, Rogers is coming off  ankle surgery and in all likelihood will be suspended for at least one game, if not more. Not to mention, he’s truly an ideal nose tackle  (and a very good one when focused and motivated)  that’s best suited in the middle of the defensive front where he can generate a push and consume multiple bodies. Out at defensive end, Rogers will be matched up with NFL tackles that are much more capable of handling his girth and strength.

There’s just a lot of things that lead me to think that 2010 could be a not-so-good year for the monster they call Big Baby, even if he’s turned over a new leaf by converting to the good side of the law.

In a perfect world, though, this experiment will work, and Rogers will team up with Rubin to form a very stout 1-2 punch on the defensive line. If that is able to somehow happen, then I’m confident that this defense will be able to finish in the top 20 against the run. Considering how bad the Browns have been against the run since their rebirth, I would be very satisfied with this.

The absolute  cherry on the pie, though, would be if sixth round draft choice Clifton Geathers of South Carolina is able to somehow make an impact at defensive end. Like a lot of other people, I’m very intrigued by the 6-7, 300 pounder. He may be raw and carry some baggage, but Geathers is a massive, long athlete with serious pass rushing potential and NFL bloodlines. It would be a tremendous boost for Ryan and his defense if Geathers is able to at least serve as a pass rushing specialist this season.

All in all, the cupboard is far from bare in terms of the first line of defense for the Browns as they enter their sixth season running a 3-4.

In Rubin, I believe the Browns have a legitimate nose tackle that can serve as a foundation for an improving defense.

But like I said earlier,  a successful 3-4 defense starts at the nose tackle position. Other players must step up and make the plays.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll look at the second level of the Browns 3-4 defense: the Linebackers.

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  • Rob K

    The Browns actually started a 3-4 defense in the early 80′s. Jerry Sherk and Mike Sheppard were listed as nose guards at one point (the Oilers were the first in the AFC central to use 3-4 defense), giving way to Bob Golic as the noseguard during the Kosar era. It’s not like we just started using a 3-4 scheme in the last five years like the reporter made it sound like.

  • Bernie Dawkins

    Good research, but I chose to focus on where the Browns stand right now – in 2010…and how our 3-4 has evolved since RAC incorporated the D in 2005.

    Besides, what’s the point of talking about the Browns defense from the 1980′s? It has absolutely nothing to do with where the unit stands today. After all, in the 20+ years since then, the Browns have played a 4-3 defense and have been out of the league.

  • barry

    the browns also ran a 3-4 under belichek – and belichek tried to turn michael dean perry into a NT, except perry’s skill set was that quickness and an ability to get past defenders and get upfield, which made him ineffective as a NT and he got traded.

    what confounds me is why people fail to recognize that shaun rogers is michael dean perry all over again. rubin is more effective merely because he stays home instead of getting upfield – if a NT gets upfield by going around a center, that means the gap on the other side is undefended – AND allows the center to go downfield to block a linebacker.

    the steelers and vikings led the league in sacks, but did it very different ways – the vikings 4-3 defense got most of their sacks from their front four, while the steelers got most of their sacks from their linebackers, while their DL had what you might consider miserable stats. the point is that if a 3-4 DL has actual noteworthy stats, the odds are good that the defense can’t stop the run because that DL is freelancing instead of occupying blockers and letting the LB’s make the plays.

    • Bernie Dawkins

      All good points, Barry.

  • Hamfist

    I think this is a very sound write up. Rubin’s ability/acceptance of the “plug” role was the key to the defense’s resurgence at the end of the year.

    I’m of the opinion that we will continue to run an “attacking” 3-4 under Ryan with or without the presence of Rodgers. (A Steelers approach vs. a Pats “read & react” style.)