Cleveland Browns rush defense shows up

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

An upset win over the Atlanta Falcons was possible thanks to the Cleveland Browns rush defense showing up

The Cleveland Browns rushing defense has been missing in action most of this season, but showed up against the Atlanta Falcons, completely containing Tevin Coleman and Ifo Smith. Overall the Falcons had only 71 yards on 19 carries or 3.7 yards per carry, with Coleman leading the team  with only 44 yards. The Browns have been a bottom-five team so far this year in terms of giving up rushing yards  with 4.7 yards per carry and 138 yards per game.

This is particularly perplexing in view of the stout performance of the rush defense in 2017. The Browns defense in fact was second in the NFL in rushing yards per carry, allowing only 3.4 yards per carry. In terms of net yardage, the Browns were seventh with 1566 yards for the year (97.9 yards per game).

That number is a little inflated because Browns opponents were always ahead and thus kept the ball on the ground. Thus, the deterioration of the run defense in only one year is utterly shocking.

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At the beginning of the season, many observers believed the Browns defense was actually the strength of the team, and they added Denzel Ward, E. J. Gaines, T. J. Carrie, Terrance Mitchell, and Damarius Randall. Youngsters like Jabrill Peppers, Derrick Kindred, Joe Schobert, Larry Ogunjobi, Trevon Coley and superstar Myles Garrett were expected to improve.

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Myles Garrett was injured his rookie year and only played 9 games in 2017, which makes the team accomplishments even more impressive. The line was anchored by Danny Shelton, who was able to plug up the entire middle of the field. Trevon Coley came out of nowhere to become a force at the other defensive tackle spot, and the Browns got good performances from second year men Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, both of whom benefited from the switch from Ray Horton’s 3-4 alignment to Gregg Williams’ 4-3 base alignment. Rookie Larry Ogunjobi was also part of the rotation on the inside.

So with talent like that, why are the numbers so poor in 2018?  Part of the reason, first of all, is that the Browns shed good players for unknown reasons. What really hurt was giving up Carl Nassib and Danny Shelton, both of who are good runstoppers. Shelton is not a great pass rusher because of his lack of speed, but the big Samoan kid rules the middle of the line.

Likewise Nassib is not an All Pro but does play at the level of an NFL starter, and he’s still improving. The Browns also gave up Jamie Meder. Though Meder went undrafted and is not considered to be among the most talented players, he had the moxie and guts to block the kick that saved Hue Jackson’s one win in 2016.

Linemen are always banged up and you can never know who far away they are from their peak in any given game. But it is clear that Trevon Coley is not the player that he was during the first half of 2017. Emmanuel Ogbah had impressive sack totals in 2016 and 2016—9.5 sacks and 13 Tackles for Loss in 26 games.

However, this year he has generated only 1.5 sacks and 2 TFL in 7 games. Similarly, though Larry Ogunjobi looked like he was about to set the world on fire in the early going with 3 sacks in his first two games, but only 1.5 sack since. He came up big against the Falcons, however, with a half a sack and two hits on Matty Ryan. Ditto for Emmanuel Ogbah. As a group, three of the four DL starters seem to have dropped off from last year, even while Myles Garrett has stepped it up.

Losing middle linebacker Joe Schobert for three games to a pulled hamstring was a major blow. Schobert was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and continues to play at a high level. Christian Kirksey, his replacement, was also very good in the middle, but perhaps not quite at the level demanded by his $9.5 Million dollar annual salary.  Jamie Collins was injured in 2017, and is not at his former All-Pro level, though he does lead the Browns in tackles and had a good game versus the Falcons.  Genard Avery

Some of the blame must also fall on the shoulders of coach Gregg Williams. Williams, it will be recalled, comes from the Buddy Ryan coaching tree. Ryan defenses are famous for aggressively rushing the quarterback, though of course that leaves the defense less prepared to stop the run. Williams’ reputation is that he has that same aggressive, attacking style, but he also knows how to play more conservatively when the situation calls for it.

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However, though the pass is more important than ever in today’s game, it’s still true that if you can’t stop the run, you can’t win. Versus the Falcons, the Browns were able to survive the aerial bombardment from Matty Ryan, while shutting down their running game. Hopefully, this level of performance can carry over to the next opponent, Paul Brown’s other team.