The Evolution of the Cleveland Browns 3-4 Defense: Part I – the Defensive Line


Since the dawning of the Romeo Crennel-era in 2005, the Cleveland Browns have operated under a 3-4 defensive scheme. Unfortunately, instead of getting better playing the 3-4 during the past five seasons, the Browns defense has regressed statistically, going from 16th in total yards allowed in Crennel’s first season  to 31st last season, the first under Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan.

With the arrival of new President Mike Holmgren, many thought the Browns would transition back to the 4-3 since Holmgren’s previous teams in Seattle and Green Bay both reached Super Bowls utilizing the scheme.

Instead of coming in and preaching change like President Obama,  President Holmgren decided to keep the 3-4 in place and retained Ryan, having apparently been satisfied  with the noticeable progress he was able to make with the defensive unit during the last portion of the season.

With that I mind, I now give you the first of a three-part series in which I’ll look at the three different levels of the Browns 3-4 defense heading into the 2010 season.

Up First: the Defensive line.

To a defense (and fans of that defense), there’s nothing more frustrating than having the football consistently run down your throat, which opponents have done  to the Browns since Crennel instituted the change to a 3-4 in 2005.

Now I recognize that the Browns’ struggles against the run preceded the transition to the 3-4, but for the sake of this topic, I’m ignoring those years. So don’t call out the new guy for already being lackadaisical, crazy commentator.

Instead, focus on how poorly the Browns have fared against the run in the past five seasons, but proceed with caution because the following statistics are quite alarming:

– 2009: 137.6 ypg. (30th)

– 2008:151.9 ypg. (28th)

– 2007: 129.5 ypg. (27th)

– 2006: 142.2 ypg. (29th)

– 2005: 137.6 ypg. (30th)

Now in spite of the wretchedness of these numbers and the fact that the Browns did finish 30th against the run just last season, there are some reasons to be slightly optimistic about the Browns chances of cracking the top 25 this season.

For the most part, Ryan’s defensive unit DID tighten up as last season progressed, and they particularly made significant strides against the run towards the end of the year.

A lot of this success coincided with the emergence of Ahtyba Rubin, who filled in very effectively at nose tackle after starter Shaun Rogers was lost for the season with an ankle injury. Of the five games that Rubin started in the middle, the Browns held three opponents to under 100 yards rushing.

As we all know, 3-4 teams have no chance of stopping the run if they’re weak in the middle – so obviously Rubin was doing something right while he was in there. From what I’ve seen of Rubin, all signs indicate that the “TUB” is more than just a one-hit wonder. He’s explosive and powerful, not to mention he’s certainly girthy enough at 6-2, 330 pounds.

This gives me some reason to believe in the Browns defense this season since the nose tackle is the centerpiece of every 3-4 defense’s prevention of the run, but it certainly doesn’t make me cocky.

After all, having a solid nose tackle that is able to control the line of scrimmage and occupy bodies (PLURAL!) does not guarantee surefire success for a 3-4 defense such as the Browns, but it certainly allows, or enables, good things to happen. If the 3-4 defense were an automobile, then the nose tackle would be considered the metaphorical key to the ignition.

In Rubin’s case, I’m confident that he can AT LEAST get the car started.

How the car runs after it gets started is certainly up in the air, and a lot of this for the Browns will depend on the impact Shaun Rogers is able to have on the defensive front. It’s going to be interesting to see how the big guy is able to handle the transition to defensive end after playing in the interior of the defensive line for the the first nine seasons of his career.

The negative Nancy in me has a feeling that this going to end unfavorably. After all, Rogers is coming off  ankle surgery and in all likelihood will be suspended for at least one game, if not more. Not to mention, he’s truly an ideal nose tackle  (and a very good one when focused and motivated)  that’s best suited in the middle of the defensive front where he can generate a push and consume multiple bodies. Out at defensive end, Rogers will be matched up with NFL tackles that are much more capable of handling his girth and strength.

There’s just a lot of things that lead me to think that 2010 could be a not-so-good year for the monster they call Big Baby, even if he’s turned over a new leaf by converting to the good side of the law.

In a perfect world, though, this experiment will work, and Rogers will team up with Rubin to form a very stout 1-2 punch on the defensive line. If that is able to somehow happen, then I’m confident that this defense will be able to finish in the top 20 against the run. Considering how bad the Browns have been against the run since their rebirth, I would be very satisfied with this.

The absolute  cherry on the pie, though, would be if sixth round draft choice Clifton Geathers of South Carolina is able to somehow make an impact at defensive end. Like a lot of other people, I’m very intrigued by the 6-7, 300 pounder. He may be raw and carry some baggage, but Geathers is a massive, long athlete with serious pass rushing potential and NFL bloodlines. It would be a tremendous boost for Ryan and his defense if Geathers is able to at least serve as a pass rushing specialist this season.

All in all, the cupboard is far from bare in terms of the first line of defense for the Browns as they enter their sixth season running a 3-4.

In Rubin, I believe the Browns have a legitimate nose tackle that can serve as a foundation for an improving defense.

But like I said earlier,  a successful 3-4 defense starts at the nose tackle position. Other players must step up and make the plays.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll look at the second level of the Browns 3-4 defense: the Linebackers.