Cleveland Browns’ Run Defense Officially Indefensible

Following Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Cleveland Browns rank 31st among all NFL teams when it comes to stopping the opposing team’s running back. Allowing a robust 151.3 yards per game, the Browns are essentially allowing their opponents to leave half of their playbook at home.  The quarterback hands the ball to their running back of choice – a starter or workhorse is nary a requisite – and the offensive line is tasked with out-toughing the Cleveland Browns front seven, allowing the ball-carrying back to run rampant.

Only the winless and hapless Indianapolis Colts, long known for their ineptness in the trenches, have been run against more (419 attempts) than the Cleveland Browns (409).  The Colts boast a pair of veteran defensive ends whose game is predicated upon speed and getting to the opposing quarterback. The other five individuals boast very little in terms of name recognition or size; the Browns had their most successful running game of the season in their Week 2 win with a then healthy Peyton Hillis.  Where the Colts can choose to either continue focusing on speed and pass-rushing or to start the process of filtering in size to replace veterans, the Browns find themselves in a seemingly endless pitch of quicksand.

The last several seasons have seen the front office continue to pile assets on to the defensive side of the football. Joe Haden, TJ Ward, Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita, Jayme Mitchell and Sheldon Brown are all starters on the defensive side of the ball and have been added to this roster within the last two offseasons. Athyba Rubin, who combined with the rookie Taylor provides the Browns with nearly 700 pounds of human on the interior portion of the line, was recently handed a much-deserved contract extension that will keep the former late-round pick in Orange and Brown for at least the next three seasons. Gocong received a similar three-year extension, albeit for considerably less guaranteed money. It appears that the Browns will also go to the discussion table with D’Qwell Jackson who has had a bounce-back story for the ages, providing the team with a vetarn presence who not only talks, but also walks.

Coupling all of this together, the team has considerable resources allocated – or about to be allocated – towards six of the players who would be considered the front eight.  The wiggle room: Mitchell the pass-rusher has recorded two sacks in 12 contests; Fujita, the team captain, will be 32 years of age entering next season. Having an edge pass-rusher is integral, but if a team opts to run the ball 55 times as Baltimore did this past Sunday, the pass-rush is rendered moot.  Fujita is due $3.65 million in 2012, becoming a free agent in 2013.

Where the Colts have speed an a defense that had been aided on a quarterback who forced the opposing offenses to play from behind more often than not, the Browns are sans identity.  They’re big up front, but can be taken out of plays with double-teams.  There is potential on the edges, but – save for Jabaal Sheard’s ability to get to the sidelines when needed – are largely inexperienced. And where there is experience in the linebacking corps, there is little to no speed; fullbacks have repeatedly taken Browns linebackers out of plays.  The result: players like Mike Adams forced to attempt open field tackles on a bowling ball-shaped man with thighs the size of H2s, ultimately sliding down him as if he were lathered in grease. Perhaps TJ Ward and Fujita, if they were healthy, would have made a difference, but even if each player was good for, say, 25 fewer yards, we are still looking at nearly 250 yards of ground yardage.

Throughout much of this 2011 season, fans and the front office have been able to hang their hat on the team’s defense. After back-to-back seasons of defensive additions, it has long been time to start allocating free agent additions and draft picks to the offensive side of the ball; a unit that has a considerable gap in terms of talent when compared to the rest of the AFC North let alone the majority of the NFL. After this Sunday’s anhiliation to the tune of 200-plus yards from Ray Rice and nearly 100 more from a 34-year-old Ricky Williams, both parties are now forced to step back and reassess what they have put together. 

Fans can tout the talent disparity all they wish.  Having a running back of Rice’s skill level is undoubtedly a bonus when it comes to how much work an offensive line has to do. When a defense knows a run is coming, however, and cannot stop it, that speaks more directly to toughness than it does talent.  Need additional proof? Ninety-four of Rice’s yards came after initial contact.  

“They flat out whipped us up front,” said Jackson post-game. “It was embarrassing, it was a slap in the face.”

An ideal situation would be to go into the 2012 NFL Draft with a confined list of needs. Where “offensive play-maker” sat proudly next to “bookend right tackle,” we now have to grab our pens and scribble items like “impact linebacker(s)” and “the next Julius Peppers.”  And this doesn’t even consider the questions surrounding quarterback Colt McCoy.

The 3-4 (and or 46) defenses of Rob Ryan were tough to  grade. Surely, those seasons saw considerable running totals from opposing running backs, but they were largely comprised of players who are no longer starting for the Browns.  What we have now is a completely remodeled house that appears to be made more of cards than brick and mortar.  Ray Rice is a talented back, and the team can say that they have to go back and watch the tape all they want – masochists they may be.  But Rice, along with Rashard Mendenhall and Cedric Benson are all solid backs and they’re all players who this team will face multiple times throughout the season.  Chalking vesuvian rushing totals up to talent when facing Arian Foster, Ben Tate or Chris Johnson is acceptable to a point; it’s not every day you’re tasked with stopping players from different divisions. 

Rice and Mendenhall and Benson, however, provide a trio of talented backs for which the team has an entire season to prepare.  Fall victim to a zone-blocking scheme, sobeit.  Give up nearly 300 yards on the ground to a division rival at home, and that’s akin to getting slapped in the face 55 times in front of your family, and all they can do is watch.

And hope. 

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

  • MrCleaveland

    This is certainly no excuse, but I sometimes think that our defense looks at our offense, realizes the futility of it all, and then loses whatever killer instinct they might have had.

  • Harv 21

    No doubt they miss Ward, who often comes up and stops runners cold as they just get past the first line.

    But let’s be honest. You cannot give up that many rushing yards in one game unless your effort is subpar. Taylor did not play hard yesterday, for whatever reason. Mitchell was awful. Sheard went all out, but this week Rubin looked like he was making tackles with his back to the line after he had been blocked aside and the runner passed him.

    Sure, the roster is crying for playmakings LBs; Mr. AFC Player of the Month makes plays when he can sprint somewhere unblocked. Fujita looks old when he’s not hurt. But it’s not just personnel. This defense seems to start each game half asleep on the first drive, and yesterday they just looked too intimidated or uninterested to knock heads in the trenches. Maybe it’s Ryan-withdrawal, lack of respect for Shurmur/Jauron, or classic season’s over syndrome.

  • boomhauertjs

    Jump, Randy.

  • Ike

    I’ve always held that the Browns’ defense isn’t the reason they’re 4-8, and I still believe that. But there’s a reason we have the #1 ranked pass defense in the league; good teams don’t have to throw on us.

  • Gbwoy

    What MrCleavland said, combined with being on the field so much. Which does nothing to explain why they get beat so early in the game, but it’s all I’ve got.

    No excuse for a team with the talent we have on the D-Line to give up that many yards on the ground. I really like Sheard, Rubin and Taylor. But I’m seriously wondering what the issue is. It isn’t just the linebackers, because those three should make just about any linebackers look good, right?

    I don’t know, wasn’t able to watch the game on Sunday.

  • b

    The Browns should have 3 of the top 40 picks in the draft. Offense is needed, but I would love to see them go LB, CB and DE in that order.

  • M D

    Stopping the run is whoever is tougher in the trenches. It is man on man. Obviously we have very “soft” players. They get shoved around, give up points and then go sit down for a few minutes. Then they do the same thing over again until the game is over and then pick up that big paycheck in the middle of the week.
    When is someone going to get tired of being beat every week and stand up a fight for something. What is it now, 13 years of this crap. The sad thing is, I’m stupid enough to still care.

  • Hurricane

    For some reason the Browns are always awful at stopping the run. It doesn’t seem to matter who the DC is or who the players are.

    Here are the Browns Run D rankings for the past eight years: 26-29-28-27-29-30-32-22.

  • MrCleaveland

    @6

    Speaking of our extra first-rounder this year, Julio Jones dropped a game-tying pass in the end zone on the last play of the game yesterday. So it’s win-win for us. We get the extra pick and we already have plenty of guys who drop passes, so we don’t need JJ.

  • Eric G

    The good news is, our boys are tied with STL for the hardest remaing schedule over the next 4 weeks. Should keep the rest of the games unwatchable. Hooray.

  • Sam

    The Browns’ needs on offense can not be forgotten…or lose their priority. Having seen the game, seeing the the stats – which don’t do justice to the manner in which the Browns defense was totally man-handled – and seeing the last few drafts here are my thoughts:

    1) The Browns have done well with their picks the past two years. Haden, Ward, Taylor, Sheard (and add it Rubin) are solid.

    2) The Browns defense could use a break more than it could a playmaker linebacker.

    3) Drafting a true No. 1 reciever of J. Jones or A. Green caliber would do wonders for our passing game. Massoquoi and Little could be good No. 2 and No. 3 options.

    4) We have (2) picks in the first round. I’m convinced they should be a combination of WR and run stuffing MLB. Round 2 goes to the right tackle position.

    If we hit on those three (and that is a big if) I think it does the most to help this team in both the short- and long-term.

    Other thoughts:

    1) Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers all would have trouble completing passes to our receiving corps. Even if we could draft Andrew Luck (which is practically impossible at this point) what good would that do? Who will he throw to?

    2) I’m hoping Hillis can return next year. If not, this article throws a wrench in my agenda above. It might be worth adding our own workhorse RB to rival the likes of Rice, Benson and Mendenhal. Trent Richardson looks pretty good at No. 5 – No. 7 draft order, no?

  • MallaLubba

    I still think this is more proof that the offense is the problem. If the opposing team has zero fear that the Browns will score, then why bother going to the air at all? You start creating a real threat and putting points on the board regularly and you’ll see the run defense numbers improve dramatically.

  • http://waitingforextyear BAJ22

    I would guess a lot of the problems on defense are caused by the (horrible) offense. Once H&H turn their focus on offense in the draft, it will (hopefully) help both sides of the ball.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    I still believe the defense is good enough to win right now. Sure, they got whipped yesterday. Bad games happen. However, the greatest problem is, and will continue to be, offense.

    Team offensive and defensive rankings don’t mean that much. Just look at the Saints, Packers, Patriots, etc. They routinely give up big point totals, but they also score a ton…and they win.

    Here’s my point…

    We’re all mad about yesterday, but when you take the long view, you see this team only gives up about 20 per game. With an adequate offense, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

    Defense doesn’t win championships in the NFL anymore…high-powered passing attacks do. This team needs offense. Adding more defense will mean they lose 17-10 instead of 20-10.

  • Chris

    Last year at this point our players were still playing for their coach. This year? Seems they have nothing to play for.

  • Woods

    Yesterday was ugly. There was good run blocking by the Ravens and questionable effort by the Browns run defense. It is time to start looking at the draft.

    Best Case Scenario is the Browns end up with the #5 pick and can execute (extort) a trade down to say the #10 spot for a team that desires QB’s Barkley or Griffin. The Browns would pick up a second round pick for their troubles.

    Then the draft would look like this:

    1A. Richardson RB (Hillis is as good as gone)
    1B. Jeffrey WR or Floyd WR
    2A. RT – Glenn, Osemeli, Adams
    2B. RDE – ?

    Or it could line up like this…

    1A. Coples DE
    1B. Burfict LB
    2A. Ball RB, Polk RB
    2B. Glenn, Osemeli, Adams RT

    Ugh. Being a Browns fan is like being a battered spouse…

    See you on Thursday…

  • ben

    On Sunday, I told myself that I wouldn’t read anything about the Browns until the season ended. But, I am a masochist. I’m glad I read this, however, because this line was pretty great:

    “What we have now is a completely remodeled house that appears to be made more of cards than brick and mortar.”

  • mgbode

    @15 – while I’m not a big Coples fan, your 2nd scenario is likely a better use of value than the 1st scenario. Picking up DE’s in the late 2nd round is not a great spot for them.

    We have so many needs though, that I really hope we just draft BPA all the way around (and that might be QB at our 1A slot)

  • -bobby-

    I think the problem is mainly in the front 4. Im not the best with tape and schemes (Rick maybe you can shed light on this) but when I watch other teams it seems like the whole DL moves toward the ball. I saw a few times yesterday when Mitchell just gave up the push and in turn gave up yards. Hes not playing physical up front at all. Taylor might be in the same boat, but I wasnt able to see that well without replays/ more knowledge on schemes. Itd be a fun thing to look at tho in the video breakdown.

  • oribiasi

    @ -bobby-: You can’t pin this atrocious performance on the front 4 any more than you can pin it on the DBs. It’s a team effort; when Ray Rice makes a cut you need to have smart LBs who can fill the seams and not allow him to run into the history books. Rice would routinely (yesterday) get the ball, watch our lineman duel it out with theirs, see a seam, and hit it hard. Inevitably, he would out smart the out of place LBs that are doing…something…else…I guess, and hence run for huge gains.

    This entire team is poorly prepared, poorly coached, outmanned, outgunned, etc. On basically every level.

    It’s so sad. We had one thing we could definitely hang our hat on (Special Teams) and this trio of idiots blew that up too.

  • Grower

    This is alittle off subject but when the Ravens flank Flacco out wide dont you want to see the corner just go up to him and just drive him to the turf??? We are a very “SOFT” football team to say the least…There is not a team in the league that respects the Cleveland Browns…

  • Woods

    @mgbode. You are correct that this team has so many needs. I agree with you that Coples might not be the best first pick, but it seems like DE is not a strength in the 2012 draft and he could be the best of the bunch. Off the top of my head, here is a list in somewhat of an order of need.

    RT – I think this is more important than WR
    WR – Hopefully Little can learn from his drops and develop into a #2
    RB – Hillis will be gone, what is on hand is uninspiring
    RDE – Mitchell ain’t getting it done
    LB – Fujita replacement
    RG – Hopefully Steinbach comes back and Pinkston moves over.
    FS – Adams and Young should be a backups, not starters.
    LB – Gocong would look better coming off the bench
    P – If you watched the LSU vs GA game, the punters were weapons…

    I didn’t put QB on the list. I am willing to give McCoy one more year rather than draft yet another QB and trot him out in front of a porous line with crummy wide receivers. I will readily state that I could be wrong.

    With regards to needs, the Browns are a target rich environment…

  • christopher

    24 points.

    The defense gave up almost three hundred yards rushing on 24 points.

    The Packers, Saints, Patriots give up 24 points on their best defensive days. The difference is they score more than the opposing teams. plain and simple.

    Sorry, the defense is not THE problem here; it still needs work, but is not THE problem.

    It was absolutley clear to me as I sat in the rain until the end of yesterdays game…..we will never win with Hardesty/Obi-wan as RB’s, Cribbs/MoMass/Little as starting wideouts and Tony Pashos on the offensive line.

    Address the offensive in the draft. Fill DE, LB and CB holes via free agency.

  • mgbode

    @christopher – only the 49ers are showing that an elite defense can make up for a subpar offense (okay, not as subpar as our offense)

    still, if the BPA is by far defense at out slots, then I won’t mind taking them.

    @Woods – my list is a little different than yours, but not much

    RT – not to be solved before the 2nd round at the earliest (because of value), but it’s ugly and has been since Tucker was a reliable RT.

    LB – not to be solved before our 1B pick (value again), but we need a LB desperately. Take the best one there or in the 2nd, but let’s get one. DQ can play WOLB if we find a good MLB. Fujita has been disappointing and can be replaced if we find a good SOLB. Gocong can move to SOLB if we find a good WOLB. So, let’s take a LB early in the draft.

    QB – McCoy could get another year. I don’t have a huge issue with it as long as we bring in someone to challenge him (Flynn, a draft pick, etc.). If we have a choice of Luck(doubtful), Barkely(again, doubtful), or later on Griffin(I don’t want him top10, but late 1st or early 2nd I’d be onboard with), then I would jump and still let Colt start the year.

    WR – very good draft for WRs and we need a WR. Let us take advantage.

    DE – we need a RDE badly. But, not sure any will be worth our top picks. Taking the best DE when he’s not close to being the BPA is not a good value proposition. Might need to scour for a bandaid in FA (if Heckert will do it).

    FS – our safety play has been terrible. terrible angles, terrible tackling, terrible coverage. terrible, terrible, terrible.

    LB – again, wouldn’t mind keeping DQ as a starter and replacing Fujita and Gocong.

    WR – WRs tend to get hurt, we need a deeper stable. Heck, we need to build the stable to house them in.

    RB – possibly. I still think alot of the Hillis stuff is
    stumping for a contract and his injuries this year derailed him (see NBAPA vs. Owners to see how a resolution makes bad feelings go away). If we do re-sign Hillis, then we can take a RB late or UDFA or free agency.

    OG – I think Steiny will be back and Pinkston will slide over. But, just in case, it’d be good to have another option on hand with a later middle round pick.

    CB – always need another young corner with a late pick. oftentimes good for STs here too (especially early on).

    P – as an UDFA.

    LS – as an UDFA.

  • Nickd

    I’m all for taking a playmaker with the first two picks. I just don’t see the downfield playmaking ability of Colt McCoy. The problem with this offense is EVERYTHING has to be PERFECT for them to score. 9 times out of 10, your drive isn’t going to be perfect. If the Browns never complete passes over 10 yards, then uh, we need a QB who can throw downfield more. The WCO does throw downfield if it’s there.

    I can see us going QB and WR or RB and WR in the first round. We need offense. Badly. Let’s use free agency for a RT. Hopefully we can find a decent LB or two there, too. Free agency might be big for us this offseason.

    All that said, I’m a fan of RG3. Dude looks like a player. Can throw the long ball well. Great at making plays with his feet. Draft will be interesting if we don’t blow it by taking a long snapper in the first round.

  • Greg

    BTW: Baltimore was ranked 29th in rushing before yesterday even with Ray Rice…

  • christopher

    @mgbode

    exactly my point. the 85 bears and the 2000 Ravens are the most prominent teams i can think of where a superior defense carried an inferior offense, but thats it.

    2 teams in the history of the super bowl have had a defense win the big one.

    every other team has had their offense carry the team or a combination of a good but not great both sides.

    FIX THE OFFENSE, the defense will be fine.

  • mgbode

    @christopher – the 2007 Giants want to have a bit of a discussion with you. and, for that matter, the 1991 Giants do too.

    then, we can talk about the NE Pats. Remember, the Pats who won the Superbowls were much more defensive oriented teams who had just enough offense to skate by (and Brady’s 4th quarter theatrics).

    and we haven’t even mentioned the Steeler’s first one with Big Ben where he also was not much more than a game manager for that one.

    and we could go further before we even get to teams where the defense was just as important as the offense (90s Cowboys for instance)

  • Matt

    Also, the 2002 Buccaneers over the Raiders. The final score of 48-21 is due to the defense getting 5 picks, 3 of which went back for 6.

    That’s a defense that wins football games.

  • Matt

    Also, per wikipedia:

    It was also the first time in Super Bowl history that the league’s #1 ranked offense (Raiders) was pitted against the league’s #1 ranked defense (Buccaneers).

  • christopher

    @mgbode

    good points all around with those teams.

    But here is where i see a fundamental difference with those teams and us; the QB on the Giants, Pats, Steelers although they played “game manager” during those wins were working with much more arsenal than Colt works with. And not just their offensive players, I mean their overall skill sets. (although i will say that all three of those teams during those years also had the best offensive lines in the league as well) Eli Manning, Tom Brady and Big Ben are the elite QB’s of the NFL and you absolutley knew they were going to be watching those games.

    point being i guess is that while the defenses on those teams carried, the offense was still there.

    our offense is nowhere to be found. so IMO if we fix the offense you in turn begin to fix the defense because teams must gameplan for us scoring points.

    whatever, it’s all relative……. just fix it. FIX IT! :)

  • mgbode

    Tom Brady – yes, the underpinnings of him being an elite QB were obvious in those seasons even as a game manager.

    Big Ben – not at all. he extended some plays and made some really nice throws at times. he was also putrid at times. I more expected his career arc to go the route of Mark Sanchez than what he has accomplished since then.

    Eli – I don’t know what to say on him. He’s the most perplexing QB in the sport (outside of Tebow of course). He can be an elite QB on some days and make unknown WRs look great by putting the ball right on the money. Then, on other days (or the other half in the same game) look absolutely like garbage. And, without the consistency one way or another to say either is an outlier. Just strange.

    ———————-

    in the end, we agree that we need to fix both sides of the ball. hopefully, we can correctly identify the BPA at each of our draft slots and take them. let’s get this thing fixed and start actually moving forward instead of sideways.

  • Craig

    1A – Trent Richardson
    1B – Vontaze Burfict
    2 – RT

    I would say Michael Floyd with 1B, but I’m sick of drafting 2nd tier WRs and praying that they can play as the #1.