Although Thursday is not the best venue to do it, the Browns will have their chance to let the rest of America in on why their defense is so great. A month into the season, it is not a fluke. The Browns defense is not good; it is great. It also appears to be getting better by the week as the players become more and more comfortable in the system as well as knowing what to expect from each other on the field. The defense appears to have everything they need to sustain this level of play not just through this year but beyond in terms of high level talent, developing players, and a true leader in D’Qwell Jackson.
The Browns rank 4th in run defense at just 79 yards per game, but they are the best in the league when it comes to yards per carry at 2.9. Everything about what the Browns do on defense starts with their ability to stop the run. All the pressure, blitz packages and successful pass defense comes from being able to put offenses in predictable down and distances. It gives the Browns an incredible amount of confidence and the ability to make plays when they know it is going to be a pass on third and long.
Against the pass, the Browns rank 9th in the league giving up 212.5 yards per game through the air. It starts with Joe Haden as a corner just entering his prime and really playing great football combined with the fact the Browns are able to put pressure on opponents up front. And what national media are noticing is that Buster Skrine has gotten much better this year. NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks went as far as saying that Haden and Skrine feel like Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. Yes, that Buster Skrine. He has always been active as a run defender, but he already has 7 pass break ups and the interception this past week. He is not a star by any stretch but part of the reason Leon McFadden is not playing is because Skrine is the guy opposite Haden right now.
Being able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been extremely important as well. The Browns are in a tie for third in sacks so far this year with 14. 6.5 of those are from Desmond Bryant and Barkevious Mingo. 6 players have one sack and Jabaal Sheard has 1.5. The Browns are able to bring pressure from all angles. When the offensive line is not able to make the adjustment and block the pressure, the quarterback has to get rid of the ball or get killed by any number of different players. Sacks are great and look good on a stat sheet but so much of it is just making the opposing quarterback feel uncomfortable and make him think about the pressure as opposed to finding receivers. Forcing the quarterback to throw from an awkward angle or throw too early can give the defense a chance to get an interception and turn the ball over, but the two of the forced fumbles the Browns have had this season were on sack fumbles; one by Sheard that prevented the Vikings from scoring points at the end of the half and then one by Chris Owens which he was able to recover himself against the Bengals.
Last but most importantly, the Browns are tied for 8th in the league in scoring defense at just 17.5 points per game after holding the Cincinnati Bengals to just 6 points this past week. With Hoyer able to protect the football and avoid turnovers, the defense was not being put in position to defend extremely short fields which could result in cheap points. If that is a trend that can continue, that average may get even better.
The one area the Browns need to improve on is turnovers. They need to cause more of them. Through four weeks, they have been able to get 7 total takeaways; 3 interceptions and 4 fumbles. D’Qwell Jackson is at least partially responsible for 4 of those as he has tipped every interception the Browns have had this year and caused one of the fumbles when he stripped the ball from Adrian Peterson. The Browns should have had two more interceptions if they simply caught passes that hit them in the hands against the Miami Dolphins. Winning the turnover battle is always a big key to the game and they did it against the Bengals and Vikings. Overall on the season, the Browns are even with 7 takeaways and 7 giveaways. The Browns won the turnover battle in the games against the Ravens and Bengals but lost it against the Vikings and Dolphins. If there is one area they need to continue to improve, it is creating turnovers and part of that is simply taking advantage of the opportunities opponents give them.
The last ingredient to this defense has been the impact of leadership and that has come in the form of D’Qwell Jackson. He has been in Cleveland the longest and really taken it upon himself to be the vocal leader for not just the defense but really the entire Browns locker room. When it has come to statements about Greg Little and Josh Gordon, they came from Jackson.
After the Browns started out 0-2, Jackson gave an emotional speech in the wake of the loss to Baltimore. Now, there are a number of things that changed as they went to Minnesota including competent quarterback play and getting Gordon back, but Jackson has gotten credit for his soliloquy. Jackson is extremely vocal on the field and has become a coach out there trying to get every ounce from every player in crunch time. This past week, it was Jackson that came out and made the statement that teams were simply not going to be able to run on this team. And the way this team has functioned, if he says it, it will be true.
Jackson is not just a leader but he is a great player. He has been an important part of stopping the run leading the team in solo tackles and he has been able to initiate every single interception the Browns have had this season, which is simply remarkable. In addition to causing the fumble on Peterson, he has also recovered one. He is the vocal leader but he is not asking anyone to do anything he is not willing to do himself.
Everyone who tunes into the NFL Network broadcast on Thursday will be able to get a peek at what Browns fans have treated to all year; great defense that is really fun to watch in Cleveland. They have talent, depth, role players who have stepped up in big situations that are developing among a cast of great players, and leadership. There is no reason to think that this defense cannot continue to play at this type of level both this season and going forward. They are playing at a high level in all facets of the defense and if the Browns are contenders in the near future, that defense will be a huge reason. The next time a lot of these national viewers will see many of these players on the Browns defense might be when they are in Hawaii later this year.