Quick….what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I ask “Why did the Browns fall short of the playoffs last season?” Ok, so “the Bengals game” is your first answer. Fair enough. What’s the second thing that comes to your mind, then? “Defense and a lack of consistent pass rush”? Bingo!
When Phil Savage took over the Browns in 2005, he inherited an absolute mess, and he had literally 20 different positions that needed to be upgraded at once. One area that definitely needed to be addressed was defensive line. After addressing WR and secondary in his first draft with Braylon Edwards and Brodney Pool, it was on to the D-Line in 2006.
Having not picked a defensive lineman earlier than the 5th round since 2001, when the Browns took Gerard Warren with the 3rd overall pick that year (WHY???), most draft pundits in 2006 felt pretty sure that Savage would take a pass rushing defensive lineman with the #13 pick in the 2006 draft. In 2005 the Browns were a respectable 11th in total defense points against, but were 17th in yards against and were dead last in the NFL in sacks. It was obvious that defensive pressure was something that needed to be taken care of.
The Browns took Kamerion Wimbley that year, and the guy made an immediate impact, starting in 15 games and racking up an impressive 11 sacks in his rookie year to go along with 44 tackles. Only Mark Anderson of the Bears had more sacks (12) than Wimbley out of the 2006 Draft Class. The sky seemed to be the limit for Wimbley, but 2007 would prove to be a frustrating year for Wimbley and the Browns defense. Going into the season, Wimbley had stated to the press that his goals were to get at least 16 sacks and to make the Pro Bowl. His final numbers? In 16 starts, he only managed 5.0 sacks and 38 tackles. It was a humbling experience for Wimbley.
This year, Wimbley may not be making his goals public like he did last year, but you can bet that he has lofty goals and expectations for himself again this year, and if the Browns are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to need Wimbley to reach those goals.
The complete regression in Wimbley’s numbers in 2007 can likely be associated with two key factors. One, opposing teams had figured out how to counter Wimbley’s lone move, the low outside swooping move, and Wimbley didn’t have a backup move to counter back with. Two, with really no other threatening players on the defensive line, the opposing offensive lines were able to focus on blocking Wimbley every single play with as many double teams and even the occasional triple team as they saw fit.
For the Browns to be successful this year, Wimbley will need to fix those 2 factors. You cannot be a playoff team in the NFL without a consistent pass rush and a solid defense. Last year, the team that led the NFL in sacks was the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. 2nd in sacks was their Super Bowl opponent, the undefeated (up to that point) New England Patriots. The rest of the top 10 in sacks included the Cowboys, Seahawks, Chargers, Bears, Titans, Vikings, Lions, and Jaguars. Only the Bears, Lions, and Vikings failed to make the playoffs out of that group. The Browns finished 2007 tied for 26th in the NFL in sacks. They were tied with the Colts, who were the only team to make the playoffs despite finishing in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks last year. This shows how important a consistent pass rush is to reaching the playoffs in the NFL.
So how will Wimbley fix the 2 factors that worked against him in 2007? For starters, he needs to develop an inside move. If he can force offensive lineman to play him straight up with a threat of rushing inside, it will make his outside duck and swoop move that much more lethal again in 2008. For his part, Wimbley has said that he’s been working on that counter move, but he won’t say what it is and from watching him in the preseason so far, we’ve yet to see it. Assuming it does indeed exist, though, it will be huge if Kamerion can perfect it. The 2nd factor, the lack of help on the defensive frontline, was up to Phil Savage to fix. The Browns have made some serious moves to give Wimbley the help he needs. The Shaun Rogers acquisition was made to give the Browns the kind of impact Nose Tackle they have been lacking since the switch to the 3-4 under Romeo Crennel. If Rogers can play to his potential, it will force offensive lines to keep themselves packed in tighter and they won’t be as prone to expanding and pushing Wimbley further outside where that extra step and 0.1 second is enough to keep Wimbley away from the QBs. Corey Williams is another addition who can help shore up the Browns defensive line and help keep opposing lines honest.
Kamerion Wimbley certainly is far from a bust at this point in his career. The only people from the 2006 Class with more career sacks than Wimbley’s 16.0 are Elvis Dumervil (21.0 sacks), Mario Williams (18.5 sacks), and Mark Anderson (17.0 sacks). Mario Williams wasn’t available after he was taken first overall by the Texans, and Dumervil and Anderson were later round picks (4th round and 5th round, respectively) who the Browns never would have taken at #13 overall. Wimbley has outperformed the other guys who were candidates to be taken at #13, Tamba Hali (15.5 sacks) and Mathias Kiwanuka (8.5 sacks). You don’t get the impression that the Browns are disappointed in Wimbley, but what you do sense is a feeling of urgency.
For the Browns to live up to expectations this year and to take that next step and become a playoff team, the defense needs to better. With an already shallow defensive backfield, made even shallower by injuries, the Browns’ best bet for stopping teams from throwing all over them will be through the pass rush. New Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker has gone away from the complex packages of his predecessor, Todd Grantham, and has decided to instead just install a few simple, basic defensive packages and then focus on having the players master those sets. It’s a bit of a high risk, high reward proposal when you consider the personnel on defense, but one thing that is certain is that it will limit the amount of extravagant blitz schemes and will rely heavily on the pass rush coming from the interior line and from Kamerion Wimbley on the outside. If Wimbley can return to his rookie form, the Browns just might have a chance this year. If he can’t, we might all find ourselves Waiting For Next Year once more.