The Complexity of the Browns’ Secondary Problems

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the results so far this season when it comes to defending the pass.  I am starting to feel like a broken record when it comes to this phase of the Browns’ game.  I couldn’t believe that fill-in-the-blank player who came in to replace fill-in-the-blank player could possibly be worse.  Terry Cousin was a name in the blank along with Hank Poteat.  Brandon McDonald eventually found himself on that list for me too.  So certainly this year with the additions of proven veteran Sheldon Brown, rookie Joe Haden and the return of Eric Wright, who had been the best of the worst, meant that the Browns would have to improve, right?  It doesn’t appear that way as they get gashed time and again on big plays.  What’s going on?

Like anything else, it is never as simple as it seems.  I don’t have to be labeled an Eric Wright apologist to say that the “Eric Wright SUX!” tweets that I have been reading are far too reductionist.  Eric Wright has definitely had a rough year this year.  Then again, like most things in life, even those with simple answers, there are some other things going on.

First, there is a reason that the Browns only offered the tender to Abram Elam.  There is a reason that the Browns went out and drafted T.J. Ward and Larry Asante in addition to Joe Haden.  T.J. Ward has had some plays that have impressed us all, but as Eric Wright has taken almost all the blame on the big plays thrown in his direction, truth is some of those were Ward’s responsibility too.  The Browns lack cohesion and communication in the backfield.  That is natural with a rookie at safety.  But that’s not all.

In the off-season Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert were very explicit in saying that they were happy with their off-season, but they hadn’t been able to plug all the holes they wanted to plug.  We all knew at the time that they were talking about the defensive line where they didn’t really add anyone other than late rounder Clifton Geathers.  They were also talking about the linebacking corps which they improved from a depth standpoint with veterans Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, while bringing back Matt Roth and the rest.  This is important though.

The Browns haven’t been able to develop any sacks from the defensive line this season.  Kenyon Coleman has one.  Yes, I know the linebackers are supposed to get sacks in the 3-4 defense, but not all of them. And those linebackers have accounted for nine sacks.  The team’s 10 sacks makes them 22nd in the NFL right now.

This is important because it helps explain some of the lack of success in the defensive secondary.  It is easy to just look at Sheldon Brown falling down on occasion and Eric Wright’s struggles and just summarize that they just stink.  It might not be the whole truth though.  Those guys have struggled, but the Browns haven’t gotten enough pressure on the QB.  They have sold out the secondary frequently in an effort to gain more pressure via the blitz.

So, if you are keeping score at home, yes the corners have struggled.  In addition to that though, it is important to know that the Browns have blitzed a lot this season, largely unsuccessfully.  The Browns upgraded their competence at linebacker, but still lack a true playmaker.  Additionally the Browns had to forego trying to improve the defensive line in order to try and shore up some other positions.  It is all very fluid.  The Browns have a long way to go yet, but things might not be as easily diagnosed as many people would like them to be.

Some things are better. Some things still need to be improved.  Despite the struggles of the secondary, including Eric Wright, I don’t think the Browns have taken a step backward this season.  Wright might not even be back next year, but right now even with him playing poorly, he is probably taking more blame than he is due.

The only record more broken in Cleveland is the one that preaches constant patience.  That is what I have for you though.  The personnel is improving.  The communication will get better.  The Browns better work on that pass rush in the off-season.

  • MrCleaveland

    Wright changed his number from 24 to 21 this year to emulate his idol Deion. Well, he’s got the not-tackling emulation down pretty good.

    Maybe Wright should worry less about Prime Timin’ and more about just being a solid coverage guy.

  • ben

    Good piece.

  • stin4u

    That play on Hines Ward was completely awful. I agree with most of this but I will say that Wright has also played below potential this year.

  • Harv 21

    Ward did blow some coverages on deep routes Sunday, as we knew he would his rookie year.

    With Wright, in his fourth year a CB should be priming, knowing the game but still having his closing speed. This guy is regressing. Has some speed but offers little resistance within the first 5 yards and gets fooled easily. Rarely gambles for an interception, like you might expect in a contract year(because he’s always so far off the receiver?). Wonder if this guy just sleeps in film sessions, if he cares about improving.

    Sheldon Brown – looks like there was good reason for Philly’s reluctance to give him a multiyear. A thirty year old corner who keeps falling on deep routes is probably trying to make up the step he’s lost, and he won’t be better next year. Three corners on this roster was a H & H mistake. They should be starting Haden and sorting through other young guys to see what they have for next year.

  • MattyFos

    Want pass rush? Move to a 4-3 defense.

  • Craig Lyndall

    Even in the 4-3 there is no Julius Peppers or Dwight Freeney on this team. The Browns can’t scheme for lack of playmakers.

  • J-Dub

    One trend I’ve noticed is the increase in CB blitzes this year (not only in Cleveland but all over the NFL). I’m not sure if that’s Ryan’s way to counteract the talent discrepency between our DB’s and opposing WRs, or if he is trying to create pressure and bringing CBs is the only way he thinks he can. Pittsburgh burned them for two huge plays on CB blitzes, and I think most teams are picking up on this in the tape.

  • CoachA12

    Well, Eric Wright’s dad will be happy. Seriously, though, what continues to gall me is the inability for these guys to make good tackles. Far too many times have I seen these guys either A.) Go for the kill shot and whiff or B.) Try to strip the ball only to have the WR go for another 10-15 yards downfield. MAKE THE TACKLE!

    And I may be just grasping at straws here, but I really don’t think Eric Wright will be back next season. I don’t think he wants to be here at all. He is not a man that looks like he’s playing for a long-term deal here in Cleveland. He looks like a guy who has seen a number of other players get their ticket punched out of town, for one reason or another, and he knows he’ll get his ticket punched too. I’m sure the drafting of Haden didn’t go over well with him. Again, I could be completely wrong on that whole hunch I have, but I’ll be really suprised if he is a Cleveland Brown next season. Unless its for a significantly reduced price. Yep, not happening.

  • Henry23

    One of the problems is that the Browns never seem to build on the average players with better players, Brandon MacDonald was a bad tackler but he would be really useful right now as a cover corner, nickel or dime, especially as Ward and Haden develop

    Also, when the Browns don’t blitz, which is rare, the coverage has held up decently. They are sending a lot of corner blitzes too, which leaves a rookie safety covering someone like Mike Wallace – not good. Ryan may need to consider that his blitzes aren’t getting enough pressure and reconsider his schemes. Matt Roth looked like he was going to be the beast pass rusher at the end of last year. He’s still good but doesn’t seem to be as consistent.

  • eldaveablo

    I know the coaching staff has been against it, but hopefully Sheldon Brown is moved to Safety opposite Ward – if not this year than next. That is the only reason I can think for giving him a long term deal. Hopefully Brown would be willing and can make the adjustment.

    There is one encouraging thing about the draft next year. Looking at Mel Kiper’s Big Board, there are a TON of defensive end prospects. I think going young on the D-Line is the next major restoration project. Get some young talented guys with a high motor to put alongside Rubin and see how things work out. I envy the Chief’s young D-Line.

  • Mike

    Yeah, of course its a catch 22, but the Browns got good pressure on Rapeyburger for most of the game. Wright looked lost out there on Wallace and Ward (and could have stopped Ward going in for the TD if he didn’t reach for the ball and tackled). My bigger question is why isn’t Haden starting? With Brown and Wright struggling, lets put the rookie out there to see how he does. I think he’s more physical and a better tackler than both (see him on special teams, he makes some good tackles). I like Ward, but he is not a ball hawk. We need a good coverage guy as our FS because we have found our enforcer. Ward might not be able to have great coverage ability, but he can tackle and lead a secondary.
    And, I am never a big fan of the 3-4 D. We have had it for like 7 years so far and STILL have not drafted to the strengths of the 3-4 Defense. And I want to see more of Jason Trusnik. Thought he played well last year. Put Roth and Bernard at the Ends on passing downs, I think that might help bring more pressure. But, who knows?

  • boogeyman

    @5 Amen brother I have been saying that for over 3 years now. The Browns are not a 3-4 team they just want to try and emulate the Steelers and Ravens. Instead all the Browns are doing is piling up loss after loss to these teams. They have Rogers and Rubin 2/4 of the line right now. As far as the secondary goes the additions of Haden, Ward and Brown automatically make it better but as was noted it’s going to take time for these guys to gel. Brandon McDonald stunk and it’s clear Eric Wright does to so once another guy can be found (off-season) it’s time to cut bait.

  • S-Dub

    Rob Ryan has to shoulder some of this burden. They are seeing something in the film room that makes them believe these guys can cover most WR’s. Why do I say this? Because they are constantly bringing safety blitzes and leaving their CB’s 1 on 1 over the top. Ward is a rookie and will get better but Abe Elam is GARBAGE. I say put Brown back there and start Haden or just start Mike Adams back there.

    On Sunday Elam just tried to run into the ball carrier and totally missed him. Also, the TD that Mike Wallace caught over Wright was a perfect throw and couldn’t be defended by anyone in this league. They need to make adjustments and everyone needs to play better.

  • modell2hell

    Living in exile, I don’t get to see much of the games, but it seems apparent the endemic lack of pass rush (going on about 20 years now)continues to kill the Browns when they need to make a stop. Great effort has been made in the past, even expending top draft picks (Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren) to improve this situation, but there hasn’t been a formidable pass rush since the 1980’s. Defensive philosophy has to have something to do with it. After wide receiver, defensive end has to be a priority.

  • Hashish

    Why isn’t anyone criticizing Jerome Henderson, out DB coach? You can always find individuals with athletic abilities, but to make them a profession relies in coaching.

  • B-bo

    Count me among those saying the 3-4 was and is a mistake. The problem at the moment is that we no longer really have the personnel to make the switch, at least not until the offseason. The time to make the switch was back when Corey Williams was brought in, as he, Rogers, and Rubin plus anyone really would have been a terrific group (we really wasted a good deal of potential with Williams). Now it would require some drafting, though I think both lines should be the focus of that regardless.

    Here’s hoping McCoy really is an answer at QB so we have the ability to use our picks elsewhere.

  • Tommy

    If Rob Ryan has to shoulder some of this “burden”, then you better be giving him a heck of a lot of due credit for making this mostly no name defense into a decent unit. The D has improved exponentially since he got here, and he is currently stuck trying to create a pass rush with not one star pass rusher.

    Have you ever thought that Ryan may feel he needs to send the blitz all the time for the exact opposite reason you stated? Maybe he actually knows the secondary CAN’T cover the receivers, or more realistically that he knows, especially with today’s rules, that even a great secondary can only be expected to cover receivers for so long. And the only way to avoid asking them to do something that is virtually impossible is by getting pressure on the quarterback. Well, it just so happens that we can’t get pressure on the QB with a 3 or 4 or sometimes even 5 man rush, so he is forced to bring multiple guys from different areas on the field.

    We may complain a lot because this philosophy leads to our db’s getting burnt deep when even the huge blitzes don’t get to the qb, but IMO it is way better than the alternative. If we just sat back in coverage all day, most NFL qb’s would just pick us apart because our 3 down linemen would never get close to bringing pressure.

    Could Ryan be more selective in choosing when to bring the house? Maybe

    I’ll admit I’m not always thrilled with his decisions to blitz everyone in 3rd and short situations when you know the ball is coming out quick anyways. But that being said, if Eric Wright would make a tackle, it would’ve worked just fine on the goalline last Sun. Plus, Ryan has developed a reputation for his exotic blitzes, and it gives opposing coordinators and qbs a lot to worry about througout the week and presnap on gameday.

  • Tommy

    As for the 3-4 v. 4-3 issue

    You go with the system that you believe is most effective, period.

    You don’t pick a system based on your personnel. You pick personnel based on your system. Just because the Browns may have struggled to get the best personnel in, doesn’t mean you should change your system to what they obviously believe is not as effective.

    I am extremely happy with the results of the 3-4 system so far. With very few exceptions, it is the base defense for almost every top D in the league. It provides so much more flexibilty, options, and ability to disguise your D presnap, which has become so crucial in the NFL. There is a reason so many teams have made the switch from 15 years ago when the 3-4 was a radical system. Just as the focus of the offense has gone from RB to QB in the league, the defenses have adapted as well.

    Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense is one of the very best things the Browns have going for them right now, and I am only worried that he will be stolen by another team to be their Head Coach before he gets to fully see the fruits of his labor here in Cleveland (great personnel).

  • hashish

    How man times have you seen a hurried throw or a knowck down by the defense turn into a huge gain. If only our DBs could actually maintain coverage, we could be posting 3-5 sacks a game.

    We get plenty of pressure on the QB with our 3-4, but the secondary just gives up too soon. I’d like to see Ryan start camouflaging the blitz more.

  • Alex

    And the reason that so many teams have made the switch is that other teams have made the switch. Do you read TMQ on I do, and he brings up the very good point (frequently) that these looks are cyclical. A couple teams have been very successful with the 3-4, so other teams start copying them. The Steelers (according to wiki) have run the 3-4 consistently for almost 30 years. Other teams used to run the 3-4 also.

    Then the 4-3 worked for some good teams, so everyone switched to that. Now the 3-4 is working for some good teams, so everyone switched back to it. It’s a fad, it’s not because one system is intrinsically better.

  • Anthony V.

    Can anyone say Abe Elam sucks at FS… correct me if I am wrong but isn’t the Free Safetys responsibility suppose to be to give help to the corners on the deep ball…
    and again correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t it the deep ball in single coverage hurting the browns most this year.

    I am not saying Wright is a great cornerback but there is a reason that every cornerback on our team (granted there is only three) is struggling…

    When you leave a cornerback with one on one coverage against any decent QB, of course they are going to get torched… It’s not like any team is just marching down the field on us picking up 15 yards at a time… Our biggest problem is defending the deep ball…

  • S-Dub

    @Tommy: I understand the need for bringing safeties to get pass rush because we have the oldest and slowest LB core in the NFL. By bringing the safeties all the time, that tells me that the coaches think the CB’s can cover 1 on 1; and they can. It also means that Abe Elam is looking more and more like the weak link in our secondary because I haven’t seen him tackle a soul, get to the QB, or break up any passes all season. This is going to warrant a change as I stated above.

    Ward has gotten to the QB on a few occasions, definitely made a lot of tackles, and has broken up a few passes. Does Wright need to tackle? YES, but a guy by the name of Asante Samuel never tackles either. He’s pretty good.

    All of this still means that Rob Ryan is still held accountable. I didn’t say he was terrible, or should be fired, or can’t coach Defense.

  • MattyFos

    4-3 with a blitzing linebacker will leave Shaun Rogers in a one on one situation… There’s no lineman in the league that can handle Rogers one on one..