Why did Cleveland Browns defense underachieve last year?

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

The players were young and had talent but why did the Cleveland Browns defense struggle to find consistent success in 2018?

Despite having an apparently perfect combination of young talent and a superstar defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, the Cleveland Browns defense underachieved in 2018. A bright spot was 31 recovered turnovers, which was good for third in the league, but the rest of the stats were downright grim.

The Browns ranked 21st in points allowed (392) and gave up 6288 total yards (29th) — according to Pro Football Reference.  Opponents were able to run on the Browns at will, amassing 2163 rushing yards (28th) and 4.7 yards per carry.

In terms of sacks, you have to figure that any team with Myles Garrett on it should be near the top, right?  Not so for the Browns. They managed only 37 sacks, which was good enough to tie for 22nd in the NFL. How could they be that bad?

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The inability to stop the run is particularly vexing because the Browns were solid against the run in their otherwise pathetic season of 2017. In that year, they gave up only 3.4 or in other words, the 2018 team gave up 1.3 additional yards per rush compared to 2017, an astonishing difference.

The factors for an underachieving defense are (1) underestimating the value of players who were allowed to walk away from the team; (2) overestimating the value of the remaining players; and (3) the coaching staff may have mismatched the scheme to the talents of the players.

Though the Browns brought in significant talent in 2018, they also let go of several players for reasons that are not clear to us. In particular,  cornerback Jason McCourty (ranked by Pro Football Focus as the sixth-best cornerback in the NFL last year) was traded to England in exchange for moving up a few spots in the seventh round, which is essentially zero value.

Big man Danny Shelton was traded for a third-round pick, which is not bad value for a Ray Farmer first-round pick (if that sounds like a silly statement, consider that his other picks were Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert).

He was not a starter or four down player last year, but he was very effective as an early-down run-stopper and made key stops in the Super Bowl. The reasons for the departure of McCourty and Shelton from Cleveland were never made clear.  It might have been that they were just upset about going 0-17, or maybe there was some friction with management.  That is worrisome.

In pre-season, there were other major departures. New arrival Mychal Kendricks, a former
were allowed to leave the Browns during the off-season, presumably because they were upset that Kendricks changed his plea in an insider training scandal from “innocent” to “guilty” without telling them.  The departure of Carl Nassib was also harmful.

Nobody seems to know why he was let go, since there was a general consensus that he was good enough to play as a key reserve if not a starter. But while in Cleveland he had the reputation of being a run defender, he had 6.5 sacks in only nine games for Tampa Bay last year.  That is more than anyone on else on the Browns had other than Myles Garrett.

It might be that losing Nassib and Shelton hurt the defense more than everyone thought.  It’s worrisome that of the four players who left the Browns defense, there isn’t anyone that you can point your finger and say, “this guy wasn’t any good.” Something was wrong somewhere, whether it was one of the assistant coaches, head coach Jackson or the front office.  Someone was chasing players away from Cleveland, and it is not likely that a team can shoo four good players off the team and expect to be good.

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In addition to the bad habit of not retaining good players, the holdover talent did not play at the expected level.  Admittedly, this correspondent tends to be biased towards the Browns, so it is helpful to consult a third-party source such as Pro Football Focus. The main contributors from the 2018 Browns defense are shown in the table below. Your humble correspondent has recorded a few notes about his perceived media buzz (totally unscientific of course), along with the Pro Football Focus summary evaluation.

The color code in the last box approximately follows Pro Football Focus, which uses blue/green to signify an elite player, green for an excellent player, yellow-green for a below-average NFL starter.  Yellow and orange signify a rating that is too low for an NFL starter.  As always, PFFs grades are not intended as a talent evaluation per se, but rather an averaged play-by-play record of how well the player carries out his assignments for each play.

There are many positives.  PFF shows Garrett, Schobert, and Ward as Top-15 performers, and Jabrill Peppers as Top 20 at their respective positions basically agreeing with the way that most of us saw those players last year. So the Browns should have been in good shape with those four starters to build around.

Rounding out the rest of the secondary, Damarious Randall was rated as the 30th best safety in the NFL, or about an average starter based on 64 starting slots in the NFL.  Derrick Kindred was rated at 90th, which corresponds to a backup player.

Cornerbacks Phillip Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, and T. J. Carry were rated as below average starters, but starting-caliber nevertheless.   On paper, that should have been close to a playoff secondary.

The linebacker spot was not as well-stocked. Overpaid but still talented Jamie Collins was graded as below average.  PFF ranked Christian Kirksey and Genard Avery below starting caliber.

In the DL, Emmanuel Ogbah was ranked below starting caliber, and so were Trevon Coley and Larry Ogunjobi.

If you believe PFF, even when healthy the Browns were bringing quite a few yellow and orange ratings onto the field.  In football, it really matters how good your eleventh-best player is because that is where the other team is going to attack.

Is it possible that the coaching staff owns some of the responsibility for the underperforming defense?  Gregg Williams may have been a better head coach than defensive coordinator last year.  Williams has the reputation of having a brilliant football mind.  He has the attacking defense mentality of his mentor, Buddy Ryan, but can also play cover 2 and multiple defensive back formations.

With few exceptions, the players seemed to love playing for Williams.  He has the reputation for being a little crazy, but maybe that is not an entirely bad thing for a defensive coordinator.  Still, anyone can get into a rut, even a football genius, and maybe it was hard to accept that he did not have horses on the Front 7.  Some of the plays he wanted to run were just not going to work for a team that really had only one pass-rushing threat upfront in Myles Garrett.

In his heart, Williams would still have preferred to bring the house on the pass rush and nail the quarterback.  That is not possible when the quarterback only needs to worry about one dangerous pass threat.   In time he would probably have figured out a remedy, but unfortunately, the NFL only gives you 16 games to get it worked out.

The run defense never did come together as shown by the graphic below, showing the week-by-week rushing yard totals against the Browns. That huge spike at the end is 296 yards rushing given up to  Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. That is proof positive that there were problems in the Front Seven.

New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is equally well regarded as Gregg Williams.  His tendencies to play more zone defense, with less emphasis on blitzes and more use of extra defensive backs, bodes well for the upcoming season.

Moreover, after looking at the devastation on the ground last year, the arrival of Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson take on new importance.  The defensive line now appears to be a strength, rather than a weakness like last year.

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For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, subscribe to PFF’s EDGE or ELITE subscriptions at ProFootballFocus.com.