The Cleveland Browns better be able to stop the run this year
Last year, the Cleveland Browns could not stop the run, so here’s hoping that they are much improved in 2020. in 2019, they typically lined up in defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ 4-2-5 alignment, daring the opposing offenses to run on them.
Well, guess what? They took the dare. They had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, giving up 5.0 yards per carry and 2,315 rushing yards on the ground.
Cleveland has to play the top rushing offense in the NFL in the Baltimore Ravens. They’re famous for their rushing quarterback, Lamar Jackson, but they are stacked in the backfield with Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins, Justice Hill, plus there are credible rumors out there that they have peanut vendors that weigh 220 pounds and run 4.4 in the 40-yard dash.
The Browns also face the Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Mixon, who gained 1,137 yards last year. There’s also the Pittsburgh Steelers are always tough, though James Conner had trouble staying healthy last year. They drafted speedster Anthony McFarland in the fourth round as well.
The point is, the AFC North is to place to be for a team that if it is going to struggle against the run.
The individual players seemed to all have favorable reviews. But if you add it up, the whole seemed to be much less than the sum of the parts. Was it the system that was flawed? Or were we giving the players too much credit last year? Maybe it was a combination of both.
The right defensive end is typically the team’s best pass rusher, but in the case of the Browns, it was their second-best pass rusher, Olivier Vernon. Vernon is a fast pass rusher, similar to Myles Garrett though not quite as talented (who is?). He generally got high grades, coming off a Pro Bowl appearance with the New York Giants in 2018.
One way to look at Vernon was that, according to Pro Football Focus, he was graded 20th in the NFL and Jadeveon Clowney — the player on everyone’s shopping list in 2020 — was only one notch better at 19th. Vernon, however, is not the world’s greatest run stuffer. The Browns have a habit of going for pass rushers and neglecting run stoppers up and down the lineup. Chad Thomas got significant reps at this position as well.
Right defensive tackle was Sheldon Richardson, a fellow that coach Kevin Stefanski knows rather well from their time together in Minnesota. Richardson is the closest player the Browns have to an actual run stuffer. He’s the 26th highest graded defensive tackle.
The buzz on left defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi has generally been positive. Cleveland fans tend to regard him as an up-and-coming young player. However, he’s not even graded as first string by Pro Football Focus who tabs him at 98th overall interior defender. That corresponds to a rotational player, not a star.
Defensive End Myles Garrett is the Browns superstar, though it would be fair to say that he is more dangerous as a pass rusher than as a run stopper.
At linebacker, the Browns featured Joe Schobert as the strongside linebacker. Schobert was a tackling machine in Cleveland, made the Pro Bowl two in his second season, piled up huge tackling stats every year, was a very smart player, hustled all the time, and was one of the leaders of the defense. Most fans, including this one, wanted to keep him in Cleveland and reward him with a new contract.
But having said all that, at the end of the day, the Browns were terrible against the run and gave up a ton of points. How can they justify giving big contracts to so many players on an underperforming unit? PFF saw him as only an average linebacker, at 49th overall. For that matter, they felt that he was very good in pass coverage, good in rushing the passer, but much below average in run defense.
Mack Wilson was the weakside linebacker. At only 21 years of age last year, he was very raw. Cleveland buzz tends to be favorable, and in fact, there is every reason to believe he is going to be better at age 22 than age 21, but he was seen only as a borderline starter by PFF at 83rd. Like Schobert, he was perceived as a much stronger pass rusher than run defender.
Back in 2017, it probably was not Gregg Williams’ intention to anoint Joe Schobert as an every-down player coming into camp. Rather, it was because he was so good, and they did not have anyone else that Williams liked. The platoon approach has always made sense. Every team uses a base, nickel, and dime formation, and that is what they will fall back on.
The Browns were unusual because Schobert appeared in more formations than usual for a linebacker. But the stats suggest they could have used an additional linebacker on running downs last year. Or the other interpretation could be that they were just not that good.
Last year, since the Browns were not playing a third linebacker, that meant they often needed to bring up another safety for run support. Morgan Burnett was a terrific schematic fit, until he came up with an ACL injury.
If you step back from the blackboard and just look at the Browns run defense and how they were seen by outsiders, the Browns were vulnerable at Ogunjobi’s spot as well as both linebackers.
Richardson was the only defender who excelled against the run, with even Garrett, Vernon, Schobert, and Wilson perceived as better pass defenders than run defenders. That sounds like a squad that might give up well over 2000 yards, and darn if that isn’t what they did.