Cleveland Browns 2011 Season Preview: Defense


Who knew the Browns actually had a defense this year? All this talk about Colt McCoy and the West Coast offense has made this the forgotten unit, but no other part of the team has seen more turnover.

Out with the Old

If you fell asleep in 2009 and just woke up, you won’t recognize this team.

Former head coach and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Dick Jauron will replace coordinator Rob Ryan, who bolted for the Dallas Cowboys with his “organized chaos,” the 3-4 defense. Jauron will run the more conventional 4-3, which is four down lineman and three linebackers.

Pretty much any defender affiliated with former head coach Eric Mangini is gone. That includes Eric Barton, David Bowens, Kenyon Coleman, Abe Elam, Blake Costanzo, Jason Trusnik, and Matt Roth.

The Browns also parted ways with Shaun Rogers, Eric Wright, and Robaire Smith.

The only key contributors second-year general manager Tom Heckert DID NOT bring in are lineman Ahtyba Rubin, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, and safety Mike Adams, all Phil Savage guys.

In With the New

Heckert has been working this side of the ball. He’s used his top two picks in both of his Browns drafts to select defensive players.

Last year, he addressed the secondary by drafting cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. This year, the defensive line got all the attention with the picks of Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard, two rookies who are expected to start and make an impact.

Along with those four draft picks, you’ve got lineman Jayme Mitchell, alternate safety Usama Young, linebackers Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, and cornerback Sheldon Brown as the bodies who weren’t around when Mangini took over.

Where Do They Stand?

Ironically, last year’s Browns defense ranked the highest it had ever been in the expansion era. Rob Ryan’s unit was 11th overall in the NFL – sixth against the run and 15th against the pass.

Prior to that, the best defensive ranking the Browns have managed in the expansion era was 15th overall in both 2003 and 2004. Those were the years of the Butch Davis 4-3. After Romeo Crennel arrived in 2005 and installed the 3-4, the defense routinely ranked near the bottom of the league.

It’s hard to imagine the Browns will be able to crack the top ten in total defense their first year into a new scheme. The Browns pretty much committed their entire draft to this transition, and their top picks in Ward, Haden, Sheard, and Taylor are all very young.

Then again, their schedule should prove much easier as well.

Schedule

The AFC South is suddenly wide open, and the NFC West provides a definite opportunity for the Browns to improve. Last year that division matched up against the NFC South and the AFC West. From those divisions we saw:

  • The Falcons jump from 9 wins to 13,
  • The Bucs jump from 3 wins to 10,
  • The Raiders jump from 5 wins to 8, and
  • The Chiefs jump from 4 wins to 10.

Last year, the Browns faced six teams who finished in the top half of the league offensively (Saints, Patriots, Jets, Chiefs, Steelers, and Jaguars). This year they’ll face five of last year’s top-15 (Colts, Texans, Jaguars, Raiders, and Steelers), but that’s a little deceiving.

Peyton Manning could possibly be out two to three months, the Raiders benefited from an easy schedule last year, and the Jags just cut veteran QB David Garrard and will go with former Brown Luke McCown, or rookie Blaine Gabbert.

On that note, six out of the 13 teams on the Browns’ schedule will be using a replacement or rookie quarterback: Bengals, Colts (if no Peyton), Titans, Seahawks, Jaguars, and Cardinals. Besides Matt Schaub, Sam Bradford, and Big Ben, the regulars don’t look all that imposing either.

Things to Watch for

Ward and Haden

Two rookies last year who saw a lot of playing time are now expected to be leaders of the young defense. Ward started strong but faded as the season wore on. We should get a better indication of just how impactful he can be this year.

Haden cracked the starting lineup by mid-season, and wound up leading the team with interceptions with six. He’s already a fan favorite, but is he the shutdown corner we assume he is right now?

Matthew Stafford and Nate Burleson abused Haden in the Browns preseason game against the Lions. There is something to be said about finally becoming the No. 1 guy when the bullets are flying. And on top of that, sometimes they don’t fly at all.

Eric Wright looked great next to Brandon McDonald a few years back because he was hardly ever targeted. Opposing quarterbacks simply felt McDonald was the easier target (and they were right). Then last year, with the arrival of Haden and Sheldon Brown, Wright got picked on and suffered.

Is Nnamdi Asumugah a shutdown corner on every play, or does his reputation keep opposing quarterbacks away?

Can Joe Haden build a reputation this year, and if so, is Sheldon Brown going to be this year’s Eric Wright?

Sheard and Taylor

Taylor is going to have a target on his back with the fans because of his connection to the Browns controversial draft day trade. Instead of picking a stud with the sixth overall pick, they traded down and Taylor became the face of the class of 2011. He also held out of camp, and is not known as a sack artist, so his play will be hard to quantify.

Because of the switch to the 4-3 and the Browns needing more linemen, Sheard was a pick of necessity and needs to prove himself. The league is littered with average second-round picks, and if the Browns are going to take the step forward we’re hoping for, he needs to be better than that.

I expect both players to have their moments early, and then fade down the stretch. We saw it last year with T.J. Ward, and playing the Ravens and Steelers four times in the final five games will be tall order for everyone.

Depth Chart

It’s thin to say the least. The Browns need things to go their way for this unit to make a splash, and let’s face it, things never go their way.

D’Qwell Jackson had training camp buzzing, and as the middle linebacker he’s a great source of hope on this young unit. He has the combination of youth and experience that can really make a difference, but he’s missed the past two years to torn pectoral muscles.

32-year-old Scott Fujita is great leader, but he missed seven games last year to a bum knee. Chris Gocong is a former Eagle and a total question mark after missing the entire preseason to a neck stinger. For a team stressing youth and development, the linebackers are older wild cards.

Kaluka Maiava, Titus Brown, and recently-acquired Quinton Spears are the backups.

Marcus Bernard is a backup to look for on the defensive line. He led the team in sacks last year as an outside linebacker, but we’ll have to see what he can do as a lineman. After that, if anyone else goes down the entire unit is going to suffer. Brian Schaefering, anyone?

Sheldon Brown and Usama Young/Mike Adams are going to be under a lot of pressure this year. The backup corners will be rookie Buster Skrine, and former Eagle Dimitri Patterson.

Prediction

Eric Mangini had assembled a defense of 30-somethings who were slow and better in cold weather. This younger version should start off fairly well when the weather is warm. The competition won’t be that stiff, and everyone legs should be live. An early bye week should benefit them as well.

After that, it could be tough sledding. The schedule is back-loaded, injuries very well could be piling up, and the young players learning a new system might start to get tired.

Overall, it sounds like Jauron’s system is simpler and more player-friendly. Fujita specifically mentioned being mentally exhausted after going through all of Mangini’s designed checks every play. The problem is, the simpler 4-3 defense is successful with dominating athletes up front who can get pressure on the quarterback, and speed everywhere behind them.

The Browns don’t have enough playmakers yet to really win games with their defense alone. They should finish ranked 14-20 in the NFL in total defense, and will need help from the offense to limit their exposure, keeping them fresh and off the field.

Like the rest of the team, they’re set up nicely for the future, but don’t be surprised if you see some ugly play in spots this year.

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