There are two starters on the Cleveland Browns defense that have not played particularly well this season and while there is still time for them to turn it around, it seems as though both are ultimately not the answers at their respective positions; at least not at the moment. The first is inside linebacker Craig Robertson and the second is free safety Tashaun Gipson. Seven games into the season and really the last couple weeks, both have had their weaknesses really come into focus and opponents have taken advantage for some big plays.
The defense under Ray Horton has worked to hide their weaknesses and has done a good job for the most part. This has especially been the case with Robertson, who does a good job of flying around and making plays against the run when the defensive line protects him. He has pretty good athleticism and range that lets him cover a good amount of ground, occasionally blitz and protect the Browns against the run.
The problem is just finding a relatively athletic linebacker who can run around and make plays when not blocked is not a difficult player to find. That is why Robertson was available as an undrafted free agent in the first place. He does not always do a good job when it comes to tackling, which can result in missed attempts and Robertson struggles when it comes to taking on and shedding blocks. When an offensive lineman gets to him, he goes down and it is not pretty. Robertson is just not a big guy and plays at around 235lbs, so when he ends up going against a 320lb guard, it is not terribly surprising. Generally, 3-4 linebackers are closer to 250lbs.
Robertson’s lack of size would not be problematic if he were an asset in pass coverage. The problem is he has struggled in that area. Particularly in the last two weeks, opponents have exploited him in coverage and made a lot of plays on whoever he is supposed to be covering. It has just been a rough stretch.
So, Robertson is an undersized linebacker that cannot beat blocks and cannot cover well. That is not a great combination. Robertson can improve, get stronger and work to get better in coverage, but it is difficult to imagine the Browns will not at least bring in some competition for him that can at least do one of those two things. The front office completely overhauled the position behind Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson and it is likely not done yet. The Browns should not give up on Robertson, but they do need to bring in more competition to that spot and he might ultimately be better served as a backup if he cannot improve and add more to his game.
With Gipson, he is part of an increasingly talented secondary, but has trouble making an impact. Joe Haden is good and getting better and Buster Skrine has gone from being a hated player in Cleveland to becoming a great complement to Haden that has occasionally outplayed him. T.J. Ward is an in-the-box strong safety that works best when he can have some freedom to make plays from blitzing to being a great tackler in the running game to occasionally making plays in pass coverage. The Browns still need a better nickel option or get a corner that is good enough to push Skrine in there, but they may want to upgrade the safety position as well.
Gipson is an extremely poor tackler. His form is unbelievably inconsistent and is often times a problem. He is not as bad as Johnson Bademosi, who is as bad as there is on the roster, but Gipson is bad. So often, he just throws his shoulder at the opponents’ legs in hopes of tripping them up for the tackle. There are times when he will go in and take on an opposing ball carrier from a terrible position of weakness like he did with Jermichael Finley today when Finley scored the touchdown. Gipson was in terrible position, did not use his arms well, had no power and ended up being speed bump because of his form on Finley’s highlight reel. Later on the same drive, Gipson made a good tackle where he went over used his arms to wrap up and threw an opponent to the ground. He has shown he can go and chest up an opponent and make a good tackle, but he does it so rarely that he plays like a timid corner rather than a safety.
When it comes to coverage, Gipson will occasionally make a play but usually leaves something to be desired. He is not involved in a ton of plays and at times when he does, he tends to come up short. No one is going to describe Gipson as a ball hawking safety that is always a threat to cause a turnover. He has made a few plays, but is not anyone a team has to game plan around.
The Browns run a system where the safety position is extremely important; arguably more important than a second corner. When Horton was in Pittsburgh, they had Ryan Clark to Troy Polamalu and in Arizona, they had Kerry Rhodes to Adrian Wilson. The Browns want to believe Ward can be the type of player that Polamalu and more to what Horton does now, Wilson, but they need that other guy to be a threat to cause turnovers.
Like with Robertson, having a free safety that can be a bad tackler and occasionally make plays in coverage is not overly difficult to find. And like with Robertson, the Browns should not give up on Gipson. That being said, the Browns should look to bring in competition or an outright upgrade that makes Gipson have to get better or become a backup in this system. And the Browns could use more depth at the safety position anyway.
The Browns have a good defense that has the potential to be a great defense. Part of becoming a great defense is taking even average parts and working to improve them. The Browns need to keep trying to improve the inside linebacker and free safety spots as both are crying out for depth anyway, but getting players who might not be superstars but can make people think they could be because the pieces around them are so good would make this defense so much better. The good news is both players are only in their second year in the NFL and can get better but, if the Browns can get to a point where Robertson and Gipson are depth rather than starters, they are a much better team. Those two positions along with the nickel corner, which is currently being filled extremely poorly by Chris Owens need to be addressed and likely upgraded as this defense continues to move forward and get better.