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Dec 7, 2013; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Lacoltan Bester (11) blocks the pass intended for Oklahoma State Cowboys cornerback Justin Gilbert (4) during the fourth quarter at Boone Pickens Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

Browns defense putting emphasis on ball skills

The Cleveland Browns under Mike Pettine are putting a substantial amount of emphasis on players that can get to the football and capitalize on opportunities.  Starting with free agency, continuing with the NFL Draft and the announcement of Joe Haden’s contract extension, the team has either replaced or reinforced the defense with players that have shown they can cause turnovers.  The Browns want to get stouter defensively, but they also want to be able to punish opponents more often when they make mistakes, creating opportunities for the offense as well as giving themselves opportunities to score points.

The Browns want to be strong against the run, so they can put opponents into obvious passing situations, making them more predictable.  At that point, the Browns want to be able to put pressure on the opponent with the pass rush.  Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil have basically left the pass rushers alone and want to work with what they inherited.  The focus has been on their coverage unit.

Last year, the Browns struggled to rush the passer for a few reasons.  First, Desmond Bryant went down for the season.  He was the most valuable player for the entire defense.  Second, the Browns pass rushers just need to do better at winning individual matchups.  Too often, the Browns would send five or six and opponents were able to hold in their protection.  Lastly, and the issue the Browns sought to address in this offseason, there were too many soft spots in the defense that either were easy to exploit or were not threats to take the ball.  The goal for this year is to have a defense that has threats everywhere that can punish opposing passers when they throw under duress as well as making them hesitate and potentially take sacks they would not have last year.

Last year, the Buffalo Bills were able to deflect 90 passes as well as 23 interceptions as a team while the Browns were only able to deflect 78 passes and record 14 interceptions.   While many people will think of the secondary when it comes to coverage, this applies to the inside linebacker position as well.  The Browns struggled to get production out of Craig Robertson and anything but zone coverage from D’Qwell Jackson.  Jackson deflected 7 passes and had an interception while Robertson had just three deflections and an interception.  To Jackson’s credit, four passes he deflected were intercepted, but the total amount of production forced the team to make substantial adjustments.  T.J. Ward was moved to nickel linebacker while Leon McFadden went to strong safety.  Jackson is now in Indianapolis and Robertson is likely to be competing to stay on as a backup.

The Browns responded to the issue brought in Karlos Dansby from the Arizona Cardinals.  Not only does he have the size and strength to be a presence against the run, but he has been terrific in his ability to help in coverage.  This past season with Arizona for example, Dansby was able to deflect 19 passes and had 4 interceptions; double what Jackson and Robertson were able to produce combined.

The Browns also drafted Chris Kirksey from Iowa who is expected to be a substantial help in what he can offer in coverage.  He has shown the ability to play both zone and man as well as the speed to cover a substantial amount of ground.  Kirksey should be a huge reason Robertson is almost never seen again when it comes to passing downs, if ever.

In the secondary, the Browns just gave Haden a $68 million contract because he can be a great cover corner, but he also was able to deflect 20 passes this past season as well as intercept 4 passes.  He has some ups and downs in his play that need to be addressed (Antonio Brown, Cecil Shorts), but overall it makes a great deal of sense.  Haden has gotten really good in using his long arms to get to the football without getting called for pass interference in addition to being one of Andy Dalton’s favorite receivers.

The Browns also brought in Donte Whitner, allowing T.J. Ward to walk in free agency.  Ward was a stereotypical in the box safety that was able to make plays, but he primarily operated as an additional linebacker as opposed to a true coverage safety.  Whitner is more of a back end safety that has more to offer in terms of a traditional skill set.  With the San Francisco 49ers last season, Whitner was able to deflect 12 passes this past season with a pair of interceptions while Ward had the same number of interceptions but just five deflections.

Meanwhile, Tashaun Gipson led the team in interceptions with 5.  It is important to point out that four of the five were off of deflections, but he was in position to make the plays.  Gipson missed some opportunities last year and needs to work to capitalize on them, but he should even more situations where he can potentially make big impact for the Browns.  He is accustomed to playing the deep high safety that Pettine tends to favor as he was constantly having to cover that much ground with Ward last year.

In the draft, the aspect of the newest corners the Browns drafted that jumps out to most immediately is their size.  And certainly there is no question that had to play a part in why the Browns ultimately selected them.  However, their ball skills at the collegiate level are obvious.  The two of them combined for 37 interceptions and 84 pass deflections as noted by Emory Hunt of FootballGameplan.com.

These moves should allow Buster Skrine to play in the slot almost exlusively, where he has been his most comfortable and effective.  Skrine had 18 pass deflections this past season and dramatically improved from previous years, but only had 1 interception, which was off of a D’Qwell Jackson tip.  The other reason Skrine was able to get as many deflections as he did was because he was targeted as much as any corner in the league.  Skrine improved and the hope is that moving him inside will allow him to be more efficient and hopefully better when it comes to causing turnovers.

Statistics are not the be all end all indicator of anything, but especially when crossing from pro to college, they can at least serve to illustrate a point.  Additionally, in every single situation, the Browns opted to go with a player that was more productive in these particular areas.

The Browns have put a clear focus on getting better when it comes to not just defending the pass, but in hopes of being able to cause turnovers and give the offense in better field position.  Last year, the Browns were able to score four defensive touchdowns, though unfortunately two of those went to the Denver Broncos with T.J. Ward.  Nevertheless, the team has clearly put an emphasis at becoming more dangerous when the ball is in the air.  It remains to be seen how effective these new players can be for the Browns, but the evidence suggests there should be a substantial improvement in terms of their skills as well as Pettine’s incredible track record.  There should be a big difference this season and it could be what ultimately puts the Browns in the conversation for one of the best defenses in the league.

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