The Evolution of the Cleveland Browns 3-4 Defense: Part III - the Secondary

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(The last installment  in my preview of the three levels of the Browns 3-4 defense heading into the 2010 season.)

The Secondary

To put it nicely, the secondary was  a sore spot for the Browns defense last season. But that’s being polite. In all truthfulness, the secondary was actually quite terrible as they spearheaded a defense that ranked 29th against the pass and recorded just 10 interceptions.

In years past, some of this blame could be attributed to the lack of a pass rush, but even that wasn’t the case in 2009 as Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan found ways to dial up the pressure and the defense tallied 40 sacks – their highest output since 2001.

No, things were just bad in the Browns secondary, from poor coverage to poor tackling to poor players. There’s really no sugar-coating the poor play of the secondary, and nothing from last year indicated that this unit had any hope heading into this season.

In fact, had he had the misfortune of watching the Browns secondary play last year, even Nostradamus wouldn’t have had the nerve to predict that this unit would enter the 2010 season with the most upside and talent.

Yet, that’s exactly how it stands heading into this season, and all credit must be given to the new President/General Manager combo of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert as the pair did an excellent job of quickly upgrading a weak secondary by acquiring Sheldon Brown in a trade with the Phildelphia Eagles and selecting  three defensive backs in the draft.

Where Three is not a Crowd, but Welcomed

In the first two levels of the Browns 3-4 scheme, I started in the middle with the nose tackle and two inside linebackers because of their integral role in shutting down an offense’s ground game. This time, I’m starting on the outside with the cornerbacks, because obviously these guys are pretty important when it comes to defending the pass.

At least on paper, this is arguably the strongest and deepest unit of the Browns 3-4 defense, which is remarkable considering that it was only last season that Brandon McDonald was part of the starting tandem. Thankfully, he’s been relegated to at least fourth CB status where he can provide the Browns secondary with some experienced depth behind incumbent starter Eric Wright and two new faces, former Eagle Brown and the 7th pick of the 2010 NFL draft, Joe Haden of Florida.

In Wright, Brown, and Haden, the Browns have a formidable and talented trio of cornerbacks that has the potential to quickly right the ship in terms of pass defense.

Wright enters his fourth-year as a defensive starter with both a new number (21) and a new responsibility (he’s being asked to play nickleback). While nobody is ever going to mistake Wright for Prime Time, he definitely is one of the better corners in the AFC North with above average coverage skills. Last season, he was the lone bright spot of a shoddy secondary and finished with 4 interceptions and 14 passes defended. Those numbers should improve this season now that he some help (and teams won’t be able to target McDonald). Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Wright has a Pro Bowl caliber year.

As for who the other starting CB spot, my hope is that it’s occupied by our $50 million rookie come Opening Day. For one, he’s simply more talented than Brown, and that’s not a knock on the former Eagle at all, but more of a compliment to Haden’s talented skill set and intangibles. Haden’s just a great athlete blessed with fluid hips and very good ball skills, and as the icing on the cake, he’s a physical corner that is capable of giving the Browns defense good run support on the outside.

Besides, Haden was taken seventh overall as a cornerback, not a quarterback – which I find to be compelling for two reasons.

First, young cornerbacks get better by playing, not by sitting.

Unlike the quarterback position – where it can be invaluable for a young guy to watch and learn for some time – young, talented cornerbacks like Haden need to be handled in probably the exact opposite way and immediately thrown out into the fire. Considering that there’s three pretty good quarterbacks in the AFC North and more than a couple of Pro Bowl berths among the wide receivers, I think it probably would be in our best interests if  Haden started from Opening Day on  and took his lumps early. That way, he can correct and learn from his mistakes and improve the second time around in the division.

The second reason this is important is because if you remember, Haden went to Florida expecting to be a quarterback, but ended up as a top 10 pick at cornerback, which is a very, very difficult position to excel at regardless of the level. That, right there, says a lot about the type of competitor and football player Haden is, or at least it does to me. He just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that pisses away his talents, but rather like the kind of player that makes the most of his opportunities. Call me stupid, but I really like this pick.

As for Brown, I love what he brings to the table, which is primarily experience and physicality. He’s not  exactly a lock down cover guy (see last year’s Dallas / Philly playoff game), but he still tallied 5 picks last season with 17 pass defended. I think this was a very smart, underrated move by Holmgren and Heckert, and I’m confident that Brown will help the defense as either the second or third CB,

Overall, the Browns appear to be well-stocked at cornerback, and I’m optimistic about the future of our pass coverage.

I’m not saying we’re going to lead the league in interceptions or anything, but I’m all but certain that we’ll improve upon our 29th ranking.

Wanted: A Playmaking Safety

Being in the same division as two of the best safeties in recent memory, we know from first hand experience what a playmaker at the back end can do for  a defense. This is why I desperately wanted to see former Tennessee Volunteer Eric Berry somehow end up in a Cleveland Browns uniform, as he was the only safety in last year’s draft with the potential to develop into an Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu-type player. Guys like that  don’t slip in the draft, though, and Holmgren and co. instead addressed the position by drafting two other safeties: T.J. Ward of Oregon in the second round and Larry Asante of Nebraska in the fifth round

With that in mind, there’s some uncertainty at the back end of the Browns defense heading into this season

Returning starter Abe Elam failed to deliver many thrills in his first season in Cleveland. Sure, he had a 91 tackle season, but for the most part it was a relatively quiet 91 tackle season in which he failed to record an interception and defended just two passes all season long.

Elam doesn’t have to be spectacular this season, but he absolutely must elevate his play and at least solidify one of the safety spots, because all signs indicate that he’ll be paired with a rookie in  Ward who is sure to have some ups and downs as he learns the defense and adjusts to the speed of the NFL.

Still, Ward has the potential to be a very solid safety for the Browns that can help the D in their prevention of the run. At Oregon, he seemed to excel in reading offenses and filling the lane as the eighth man in the box, skills that I think will translate over nicely at the NFL level if Ward is able to stay  healthy –  which is a definite area of concern.

All things considered, it may be unrealistic to envision Ward becoming a true game changer at safety like his AFC North counterparts (Reed and Polamalu), but it’s not unfair to expect him to become as good as their unheralded and underrated running mates, Ryan Clark and Dawan Landry.

I wish we would have landed Berry, but I can’t help but feel that Ward is a steal. I like him – but only time will tell.

As for our other options at safety,  well there’s really nothing that impressive.

Mike Adams does provide the secondary with some depth and experience, but he’s pretty mediocre if you want to get right down to it. Meanwhile, I think our fifth-round selection Asante is a little too raw to make an impact this season and more of a developmental project. There’s some potential, but I’m just not sold.

Nor am I sold on our safeties as a whole. But… I think we can get by at this position if Ward turns out to be the real deal. Otherwise, we’re pretty much screwed because we’ve set ourselves even further back in terms of finding a solution at safety.

Conclusion

If I had to use one word to describe how I feel about our secondary heading into this season, I would say that I’m intrigued by the blend of young talent and veterans that we’ve added this offseason.

I’m not expecting miracles, but I’m certainly anticipating improvements.

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Tags: Abe Elam Brandon McDonald Dawan Landry Eric Wright Joe Haden Larry Asante Mike Homgren Rob Ryan Ryan Clark Sheldon Brown T.J. Ward Tom Heckert

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