The modern Cleveland Browns have never been known for their defense. Typically a bottom feeder in the defensive rankings (and occasionally a mid-ranked defense at best), the 2011 Browns find themselves in some unfamiliar territory.
Going into Week 8 of the season, the Browns boast the fourth-best defense in the NFL. Strangely enough, the entire AFC North occupies the top-four spots for overall defense (No. 1 – Baltimore Ravens, No. 2 – Cincinnati Bengals, and No. 3 – Pittsburgh Steelers). That puts the Browns in some impressive company.
They’re doing it with one of the youngest rosters in the league, starting two rookies on the defensive line (Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard) and two second-year players (Joe Haden and T.J. Ward) in the secondary. By cutting ties with many of their older veterans, the Browns’ defense has been able to play faster and more aggressive, and, so far, the move has paid off.
Going into Sunday’s match-up with the San Francisco 49ers, the Browns have accumulated 17 sacks and four interceptions. They surrender only 119.5 rushing yards per game and 171.5 yards per game through the air. If you were looking for an overwhelming reason as to why the Browns are currently 3-3, the defense is it.
That being said, the Browns haven’t played many explosive offenses – it’s true that this young defense has been able to benefit from playing the likes of the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, and Seattle Seahawks. The real tests are coming soon enough, though that isn’t necessarily the point.
Regardless of the opponent, there is an obvious change in the defensive culture of this team. It should be noted too that this is happening in the first year of the transition to a 4-3 defense. It’s a nod to the strong draft classes of the past two years – something else that has been painfully absent in the Browns organization in recent years. The Tom Heckert-led drafts have been defensive-minded, and four current defensive starters have come from the 2010 and 2011 draft classes.
It’s a slow process, but the Browns have come away from the past two drafts with obvious game plans. Building the defense has allowed the Browns to stay competitive despite a disappointing offense. One would assume the blueprint for success will soon shift over to the offense, especially since the Browns have two first-round draft picks to play with in 2012.
Until then, the Cleveland Browns will continue to rely on their young, tenacious defense. The schedule gets tougher, but there is no denying the obvious improvement of this unit. If Browns fans remain patient, the future of this team remains especially bright.