The Cleveland Browns were pathetic against the run in 2019, so what would make anyone think this year could be much better?
The Cleveland Browns couldn’t stop the run last year, so what would make anyone think that 2020 is going to be different?
Nothing is more pathetic than a football team that cannot stop the run, which is what the Browns were last year. In the fourth quarter, if the team is behind and needs to get the ball back for Baker Mayfield and the gang to stage a comeback, instead the opposing offense can run for four or more yards and a cloud of dust every play and run out the clock. If there is one thing that football fans hate it is feeling that the team is weak and helpless, and that is what they are if they cannot stop the run.
This off-season, the Browns, from Dee and Jimmy Haslam on down, have had the opportunity to redefine who they want to be as an organization and as a football team. On defense, they want to be the disciplined team that dominates the line of scrimmage, tackles hard — and stops the run. This is Jim Brown‘s team. It’s about running the ball for us. On defense, they are the team of Clay Matthews, Michael Dean Perry, Jerry Sherk, and Walter Johnson. It’s inconceivable that the Cleveland freaking Browns could be a bottom-five team against the run.
Once upon a time, the Browns could stop the run. It won’t do to brag too much about a team that went 0-16, but the fact of the matter is the front seven were very respectable in 2017. They held opponents to 3.35 yards per carry which was good for second in the NFL with Gregg Williams calling the shots on defense.
They had a three-player rotation at tackle with Trevon Coley, fan-favorite Jamie Meder, and Samoan strongman Danny Shelton. At defensive end, Carl Nassib (12 starts) and Emmanuel Ogbah (10 starts) shared time with rookie Myles Garrett (9 starts), who missed some time with an ankle injury. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert made the Pro Bowl, and Christian Kirksey had a good year.
Flash forward two years to 2019. We won’t even talk about the Air Freddie offense other than to infer that it was insane. On defense, under defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the Browns changed to an unorthodox 4-2-5 nickel formation as the base defense. Safety Eric Murray at 199 pounds was made into a starter, and the Browns cut 255-pound linebacker Jamie Collins. By the way, Collins was the Browns leading tackler in 2018 in addition to just being a bigger player.
The Browns lost size at two other positions compared to the 2017 team. Olivier Vernon is smaller than average for a defensive end in the NFL at 262 pounds. His counterparts in 2017 were Ogbah and Nassib. both of whom are listed at 275-pounds. Another high paid star, Sheldon Richardson, weighs 294 pounds which is small for a defensive tackle. He replaced 335-pound Danny Shelton.
At the other positions, Garrett and Schobert were holdovers. Larry Ogunjobi and Mack Wilson were within five pounds of Coley and Kirksey, meaning that size-wise it was a wash. The result was one of the worst teams versus the run in recent memory. How can a team that has Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Dontrell Hilliard, and D’Ernest Johnson be outgained by their opponents? And not by just a little bit–Opponents gained 2,315 yards to the Browns 1,901, a difference of 414 yards. That’s just a complete and total disgrace.
The Browns not only shrunk from seven big men up front to six, but individual players got smaller and less capable against the run. This is a bad combination. From all accounts, coach Wilks is a very smart football coach, but the circumstances were not set up for him. It would be fair to say that the team did not draft personnel who could actually play in the defense that Wilks wanted.
Watching the defensive line play very much resembled the hit television show, “Matadoring with the Stars” as the Browns linemen would step out of the way as opposing ball carriers would run like bulls, right by them.
The Browns this year revert back to the 4-3, at least for the early downs, and the early signs are that they plan to use a rotation at most positions. The Browns have thus far added no stars, but did add rotation players in B. J. Goodson, who makes his own shift from Mike Pettine‘s 3-4 in Green Bay.
Goodson was an outside backer in Green Bay and may rotate with Sione Takitaki at the middle linebacker position. Mack Wilson may be more effective on the strong-side, with Jacob Phillips and Willie Harvey also competing for game time at the weak-side. Still, this has to be better rather than leaving the run-stopping capability with a strong safety. The Browns also add Andrew Billings and Jordan Elliott to the defensive tackle rotation, and they may provide some extra beef for up front.
So, have the Browns done enough to become a stalwart defensive team against the run? The answer is no. They are still below average, but not as horrifically bad as the 2019 team. They are going to be better off with a 4-3 base that uses a rotation of players depending on the situation (down, yards to go, score, etc) rather than being too tightly fixated on the nickel defense. They need to improve their percentages with run tackling linebackers to handle the early-down and short-yardage situations.
The Browns linebackers are young and unproven. However, the team may not miss their every-down star Schobert as much as some think. Plus the Browns and Andrew Berry may still have a few surprises in store for us. It wouldn’t be a shock if a few very good NFL linebackers become salary cap cuts before the regular season, because several teams are way over budget at this point, and several major cuts have to happen league-wide.
There are very few teams that can create enough cap room to sign late free agents, so it will be a buyer’s market. The Browns could still come away with some very good players.
Plus you never know if they might hit gold with the rookies or even undrafted free agents. It’s a cliché, but true that anyone with a uniform number is a threat.