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.