Can the new faces on defense help Cleveland Browns stop the run?
By Thomas Moore
Oct 5, 2014; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (12) is stopped by the Cleveland Browns defense on a fourth down conversion attempt during the second half at LP Field. The Browns beat the Titans 29-28. Mandatory Credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports
The Cleveland Browns made solid strides on the defensive side of the ball in 2014 under first-year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.
The defense was ninth in the NFL in points allowed at 21.1 per game, tied for 10th by allowing opposing offenses to convert on just 38 percent of third-down attempts, were second in interceptions with 21, were eighth in pass yards allowed per game at 224.5, and were tops in the league in allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 57.1 percent of their pass attempts.
Much of that was overshadowed, however, by the team’s ongoing inability to stop the run.
The Browns were last in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, 27th in yards per carry, and 28th in runs of 20-plus yards. Opposing teams ran the ball 500 times on the Browns last year, and on 87 of those rushes they gained eight yards or more.
“We want to be a bully on defense. To be a bully on defense, you have to stop the run. To win in the AFC North, you have to stop the run.” – Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil
Those numbers help explain why the Browns used seven of their 12 draft picks on defensive players while also bringing in four defenders in free agency.
For O’Neil, those moves all lead to one objective – stopping the run.
“Stopping the run leads to a lot of things,” he said according to The Beacon Journal. “It leads to more turnovers [and] more sacks because you’re putting offenses in more predictable situations. It leads to less plays on the field, which leads to less injuries when you’re not out there as much. Then it also leads to more possessions for our offense, which means more points.”
While O’Neil will have to wait a little while longer to starting working with new veterans Randy Starks and Tramon Williams, he’s been able to spend time with the new draft picks at this weekend’s rookie mini-camp and likes what he sees so far.
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“We were happy with our defensive roster going in (to the draft),” O’Neil told the team’s website. “I do think Ray Farmer and his staff did a great job adding some guys for us. On college tape, they play like Browns. Competition will be high at every level of the defense. I’m excited about that. Anytime you get guys in a competitive environment, it brings out the best in everybody.
“I think that’s been the MO of Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer since we got here. They’re going to drive competition at every position group. The more competition you have, the better it is for everyone.”
The biggest addition to the defense (no pun intended) is nose tackle Danny Shelton, one of the team’s two first-round picks, but O’Neil is also looking forward to working with fellow rookies Nate Orchard and Xavier Cooper.
“Drafting Danny Shelton’s just a mammoth of a person inside, so anytime you add a guy that’s going to force two guys to block him it’s going to free things up for other guys and keep those linebackers clean to the ball,” O’Neil said. “I’m excited about Nate Orchard as far as an edge rusher and he also has a versatile skill set where he could potentially do some drop stuff, do some things in coverage for us. Then Xavier Cooper, the guy we traded up to go get. He was a guy I know we as a defensive staff thought very highly of. We were shocked he was there late in the third round.”
O’Neil is also expecting improvement as he can add more information and responsibilities now that the team will be in the second season of his system.
For example, O’Neil and secondary coach Jeff Hafley plan to cross-train each of the cornerbacks to be able to play multiple positions to give the team more flexibility in case of an injury and to help make things more difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
“When you cross-train guys on the inside and outside, it will create identification problems for offenses,” O’Neil told the team’s website. “And we won’t be giving away man and zone tells based off of what coverages were in.”
With questions hovering over the quarterback situation, the Browns are going to have to rely heavily on the defense come the fall, and there are plenty of things to like about that.
If O’Neil and the coaching staff can figure out how to stop – or at least slow down – opposing running backs, and the team takes another big step forward in the second year under O’Neil, the best may be yet to come.
How confident are you in the changes the Browns are making on defense?