Reality is not pretty for Cleveland Browns defense

Aug 26, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) throws a first down pass during the first quarter of a football game against the Cleveland Browns at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 26, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) throws a first down pass during the first quarter of a football game against the Cleveland Browns at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland have a lot of work to do on defense before the season opens on Sept. 11. But how much better can they really be?

Early on in training camp, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton described the team’s defense as being a  “kaleidoscope” of interchangeable parts.

It was an interesting choice of words, although maybe not in the way that Horton intended. While a kaleidoscope’s mirrors and colored glass do create a changing pattern, they also alter the user’s reality, making it hard to see the real picture.

That may be a blessing for Horton, as through the first three weeks of the preseason the defense  has been horrific, a reality that is only now starting to set in for Browns fans.

“I think it is about time we put units together and let them play and get these guys ready for the opener.” – Head coach Hue Jackson

The defense’s issues were on full display Friday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who did pretty much anything they wanted on offense while going up against the Browns top-line defense. The Buccaneers had 305 yards of total offense and 14 first downs in the first half, led by quarterback Jameis Winston 259 passing yards and two touchdowns.

Winston did most of his damage against cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Jamar Taylor. Gilbert was burned badly by wide receiver Mike Evans for a 47-yard reception that would have been an easy touchdown if Evans had not stepped out of bounds. Two players later Taylor looked just as bad on a 32-yard touchdown reception by Evans.

This is a problem as the Browns are going to have to rely on at least one the players to be on the field when the season opens, which means there could be plenty of big days on the horizon for opposing wide receivers.

One of the biggest issues for the defense, according to cornerback Joe Haden, has been a lack of communication.

“It’s not big things that are messing us up,” Haden told after the game against Tampa Bay. “It’s small things, communication errors. Like when [Mike Evans] caught that touchdown pass, we were supposed to be in cover two with a safety over the top. People just weren’t really getting all of the checks.”

Players being confused and out of position were hallmarks of Horton’s defense the last time he was in town. Even though he promised to make things simpler this time around, Haden’s comment provides a clue that Horton hasn’t truly changed his ways.

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The secondary is not solely to blame in all this, of course, as it would certainly help if the Browns front seven would help out with a pass rush. Another one of the aspects of Horton’s defense is that it likes to hit the opposing quarterback “coming off the bus,” but that was hardly the case against the Buccaneers.

Making matters worse is that Tampa was missing its top three guards, but the Browns still could not get consistent pressure.

If the front of the defense can’t get after the quarterback and the back of the defense can’t cover any better than it showed on Friday night, well, the Browns are going to be in for some long afternoons this fall.

Some of the issues will start to resolve themselves in the coming week as the Browns will work to trim the roster down to 53 players by Saturday’s 6 p.m. deadline. Having fewer players to get on the field will allow the defense to settle into a rotation and, at least in theory, start to focus on fixing the problems.

“I believe in all of our guys and I believe in this defense and this scheme. I believe we will be fine,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said on Sunday. “We are just trying to put as many playmakers on the field as we can and see what players do best and try to get them to do their best on the field. That is all we are worried about. That is all we are trying to do is get better.

“We are still developing guys. I just believe Ray has a master plan and that he will develop everyone into being the best player they can be.”

Many Browns fans were excited about Horton taking over the defense if for no other reason than he is not Jim O’Neil, who is very bad at being a defensive coordinator. But what those fans failed to grasp, or chose to ignore, is that “better” does not always mean “good.”

The one saving grace in this is that the Browns don’t face an imposing offense until Week 5 of the season. Among their first four games, only Washington finished in the top 10 last year in scoring, so there is still some time to fix things, although the resources to do so may be limited.

Next: Browns: Offensive takeaways vs. Bucs

And if things continue to go the way they have?

Well, just keep giving the kaleidoscope a twist until it gives you a reality that is more to your liking.