Through all the offensive woes, the Browns defense stands strong

Browns vs Redskins goal line stand

Johnny Manziel versus Brian Hoyer. This battle has been the talk of Cleveland and the focus of national media—”Johnny Manziel and the Browns!” Seemingly every Browns-related story has been about the quarterback competition or the offensive woes that find the team struggling to find the end zone. But through all of these other story lines, the Browns defense has really shown itself to be a potential top-ranked unit in the NFL.

The Browns first team defense has allowed a combined 13 points in roughly four quarters of the play through the first two preseason games. On Monday Night Football, the starting defense forced four turnovers against the Redskins, including two interceptions, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. Despite an onslaught of penalties directed toward the Browns’ secondary, the unit is developing into a complete group after several acquisitions this offseason.

Cleveland’s front office started the offseason with the free agent signings of safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Karlos Dansby. These two players gave the defense much needed experience, toughness, and leadership along with their talent. They continued in the offseason by adding cornerback Justin Gilbert in the first round, Chris Kirksey in the third round, and cornerback Pierre Desir in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. These three added youth, speed and length to the defense along with much needed help in weaker positions. They also added Isaiah Trufant and Jim Leonhard to add to the depth of the secondary and special teams unit.

As the adage goes, the defense is built from the inside out. The line has great depth of talented lineman who can make plays when called upon, having the luxury of six players who will be subbed in and out based on the situation and play call: Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, John Hughes, and Armonty Bryant (Bryant is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker). The first five players can play all three spots on the defensive line, which gives the team the ability to keep each player fresh. It allows the Browns to withstand an injury (See: Bryant, Desmond) because the next man can come in and produce just as well.

Phil Taylor has been really impressive this preseason. He was in the Redskins backfield on multiple plays causing a run for loss or a short gain. He is a true run stopper who can use his brute strength and size to push the lineman back and disrupt the play. Ahtyba Rubin is another run stopper who has been the most consistent player on the defensive line over the past couple years. These two players are the key cogs of the Browns run support up front.

Desmond Bryant could be the most talented player on the line, but he has not been able to stay healthy in his time with the Browns. He is a pass rusher who can make plays on passing downs either by sacks or hurries of the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, the d-line could be even more dangerous.

The third year players, Billy Winn and John Hughes, along with second year player Armonty Bryant, give the Browns depth and youth along with their budding potential. Armonty Bryant might be the most impressive player so far in the preseason. He showed off his excellent pass rushing ability on Monday with a sack, a quarterback hit, a tackle for loss, and three tackles. Bryant could develop into a sack artist with more experience and playing time. Billy Winn is an athletic lineman who had a couple flashes against the Redskins where he got into the backfield and disrupted the play. John Hughes is a big body run stopper who gives the team someone else to help in the run defense.

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To add to the talented and deep defensive line, the Browns have three outside linebackers to help in pass rush and coverage duties. The most impressive outside linebacker this preseason as been Barkevious Mingo. He has been all over the field, showing off his athleticism and speed. In the two preseason games, he has six tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and a quarterback hit. He seems more instinctive, playing sideline to sideline, and is not overwhelmed with his role as a linebacker.

Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger are the experienced outside linebackers who are very good pass rushers. Kruger had an average year last season and so he will look to regain the form of his Baltimore Ravens days. Sheard is the team’s most consistent pass rusher over last couple years. These two players give the Browns two players who can make plays in the backfield on passing downs.

The inside linebacker group is an improving unit especially with the offseason acquisitions of Karlos Dansby and Chris Kirksey. Dansby is the leader of the linebacking group and one who will be looked upon for consistency. He is a complete linebacker who has excelled in coverage, serving as an upgrade in covering the intermediate areas where the team struggled last season. He makes plays in the passing game, but he also is great at the line of scrimmage where he helps in run stopping and pass rushing.

The other inside linebacker spot is the biggest question mark on the entire defense. Craig Robertson is the incumbent starter, but he has struggled ever since his promising rookie season. He had a solid first half of the preseason including the Lions game, but reverted back to his average play in the Redskins game. Kirksey is the more talented player because of his athleticism and coverage skills. He has the ability to cover players ranging from quicker backs to the bigger tight ends. If one of these players can stand out and be a productive player, the defense will not have many holes left.

The front seven for the Browns has a lot of versatility. The defensive line and linebackers have the ability to adapt to the situation and line up the personnel who fits the situation. The Browns have players who are run stuffers, pass rushers, and coverage players. This diversity of players gives the team the ability to be a complete defense that can change into different styles and formations of defenses.

But to complete the defense the team needs a strong secondary. The Browns have really added to this unit and it seems like they might have solved a weak spot on the team. Last season the Browns struggled finding a compliment to number one corner Joe Haden. The team added first round pick Justin Gilbert to be the number two corner and solidify the corner position.

The corner position now has depth with the multiple acquisitions this offseason. The best case scenario for the Browns is that Gilbert wins the number two corner spot and Buster Skrine is placed as the slot corner. Gilbert showed his ability in the second preseason game with a solid game. He showed his size and length off in the endzone by knocking down a corner fade route. Skrine has looked good this offseason, so the team could have three corners who are above average. Skrine is perfect for the slot corner spot because of his speed to stay with the quick slot receivers. The depth behind him has combination of youth (Pierre Desir and Leon McFadden) and experience (Isaiah Trufant).

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Not to be outdone, the Browns also have a safety group who is very good and deep. The team replaced T.J. Ward with Whitner, who gives the team an upgrade in pass coverage while still instilling toughness and leadership. (Also: Cleveland!) Tashaun Gipson has been impressive so far this preseason, including an interception against the Redskins, and is a perfect fit for a free safety because of his coverage ability. These two safeties are good in coverage, so the corners will have help in coverage from the two players behind them. The depth behind the starters is really underrated. It has players (like Jordan Poyer and Leonhard) who can come in and be a nickel corner in certain situations. Mike Pettine has even hinted toward three-safety packages that could include more versatile players at the expense of more coverage-focused cornerbacks. Pettine has instituted a defensive mindset of being a hybrid defense that can confuse the opposing offense. He wants the defense to make turnovers and be a playmaking one who can change the game. The defense over the past couple years has been good, but it has not been able to get turnovers to change the course of a game and has often broken at the worst of times—including the red zone and the two-minute drill.

With the offensive struggles and the unrest at quarterback, the Browns will look upon the defense to lead the team. The defense seems to have taken on the mindset of being the catalyst of the team. They know the success relies on their ability to shutdown the opposing team. This defense has the ability to be that for the Browns.

(Photo by: AP Photo/Richard Lipski)

  • Eric G

    “Forced” may not be the appropriate word for the fumble. Morris took his eyes off the pitch and it barely made it to the tip of his fingers before it hit the ground. We just got lucky and fell on it. And the second INT was a terribly over-thrown pass by RG3, if I remember correctly.

    I’m not saying you don’t make valid points, but the outpouring of praise isn’t due, either.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The defense was the only thing that salvaged this game for me. And there was still room for improvement.

  • TNB

    I said this last season, and I’ll say it again comfortable here. The browns look like they have the makings of a top 5 defense in the NFL. They’ve already forced 6 turnovers in two preseason games, and seem to be playing against the pass far more effectively. If the offense can be competent, we’re looking at a lot of ‘low’ scoring games that are grinded till the whistle, which I find exciting.

  • nj0

    Sure is hard to evaluate things with the dozens and dozens of flags being thrown in pass coverage. Better not be a sign of things to come during the regular season.

  • Derek

    Kirk Cousins, but yeah

  • bossman09

    He took his eyes off because he was about to get crushed.

  • Harv 21

    I think the excited tone is a little premature. We wouldn’t have thought of thie defense as that great without a goal line stand against a bad to pretty mediocre team.

    Mingo is certainly active but I still see him running himself out of plays and then chasing. To justify being a 5th overall he needs to beat a blocker one-on one with a countermove to get directly to a spot rather than always trying to sneak wide and away. If they need inventive scheming for him to cause havoc, if he never justifies a double team, he was a major mistake where picked.

  • Harv 21

    no. A routine pitch, a straight drop.

  • mgbode

    Thanks for the article. I am hopeful for this defense though it’s hard to gauge much from the preseason. I do like that Mingo and Gipson seem to have elevated his play and that Gilbert does not look overwhelmed. If our DL and OLB can get to the QB (my biggest concern), then we will have a good defense.

  • Pat Leonard

    “We wouldn’t have thought of thie defense as that great without a goal line stand against a bad to pretty mediocre team.” – They’ve actually been one of the best teams in the NFL at running the football the past couple of seasons (3rd in yards/attempt in 2013, 2nd in 2012). Of course, Shanahan probably had a lot to do with that, but they are supposedly using a similar scheme this year. Stuffing their running game is no small task.

  • Harv 21

    i know Morris is good and benefited from zone blocking .. weren’t rushing stats inflated, certainly in ’12 but even some in ’13, by Griffin’s scrambling?

  • Pat Leonard

    Looks like all three of their main rushers last season did very well. Morris 4.6 y/c, Griffin 5.7, and Helu 4.4. Their next most frequent rusher was their fullback who had 12 rushes on the season and was used in short yardage situations. Stats from 2012 were similar. Morris a bit more effective, Royster a bit less effective in place of Helu.

  • mgbode

    they upgraded to Shaun Lauvao at OG this offseason. on the Morris dropped pitch, he hand-waved his guy that had a clean line to Alfred. on the goalline plays, he had 1 very good block and was driven backwards on all the others.

    it is nice having him block for the opponent.

  • Pat Leonard

    This is true, Lauvao is plate of hot garbage. I live in Redskins country and ended up watching the game with three other guys, two of whom were Redskins fans (the other one was a passive Ravens fan who doesn’t follow the team too closely). I have tried to warn them of the ineffectiveness of Shawn Lauvao, but I don’t think they are ready to believe me yet.

  • mgbode

    oh, it will come. I still cannot believe they committed $5mil/year on him.

    they play Houston in week1 and I would be surprised if the Texans do not find ways to get JJ Watt lined up over Lauvao at times just to take advantage of the mismatch.

  • mgbode

    i sort of agree, but, as noted to ex-VP below, Lauvao waved his man through and he had a direct line at Morris. I assume that is why he took his eyes off the ball (though it’s on him for actually doing it).

  • Pat Leonard

    Just call me Dick Cheney… er Al Gore… er Dan Quayle… er, nevermind I’m good.

  • mgbode

    so, you shot your friend in the face, invented the internet and mis-spelled potato.

  • Pat Leonard

    Among other things, yes.

  • markn95

    I’ll wait and see until we have a better idea about exactly what kind of pass rush this defense brings to the table. The defense ranked very well statistically last year but the pass rush was underwhelming to say the least, and we’re brining back the exact same guys as OLB: Kruger, Sheard, and Mingo. All three are decent players to a certain degree, but I don’t see any as a dominant pass rusher. Maybe Mingo and/or Armonty Bryant take the second year quantum leap, and maybe Sheard turns it up in a contract year. Kruger at this point is what he is, I think–ok, but not going to sniff double digit sacks.

    Hopefully, the run defense from last year carries over. Not much has been said how good it was last year but given our depth on the line and the Dansby and Kirksey replacing Jackson and Robertson, it should stay solid.’

    The secondary should be vastly improved. Gilbert and Whitner are huge upgrades over Ward and Skrine. I hope the 4 TO’s in Monday’s game a harbringer of thins to come. Turnovers are tough to count on, but this will certainly be a tough team to pass on. Besides the pass rush, red zone defense was the D’s biggest weakness last year, and I think TD’s will be harder to come by.

    Finally, Tate and West should give this team a running game light years ahead of last year’s league-worst (or thereabouts) showing. At the very least, it should keep the D much more fresh.

  • mgbode

    it’s better they learn early. send them this URL:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=PqRWIGvQ8-M

  • OhioCityBrowns

    No love for Ishmailly Kitchen? It’s criminal how overlooked this guy is. Watch his snaps when he sees the field and it’s impossible not to love him as a player. That goaline stand doesn’t even happen without him.

  • Michael Whitman

    Mingo has a bad habit of over-pursuing on the play. He takes bad angles on plays and gets beat. If he can stop this, he can be a dangerous LB on the defense.

  • Pat Leonard

    I just did. The first guy to respond said “Sure, but that’s hardly a large enough sample size to come to any conclusions.” These guys don’t know what they’re in for.

  • Pat Leonard

    I think you’ll find that he’s given the appropriate love around here. The Browns need him in the rotation at nose tackle, no question about it… he’s a solid young player.

  • mgbode

    Denial is a powerful force.

  • Pat Leonard

    Absolutely. I had to laugh to myself… like the 4 years I spent watching Lauvao get abused didn’t count towards the sample size.

  • rtpinfla

    I agree that the defense can be a top tier unit.
    Like last year, the big “if” is the offense. I know how frustrated I was when the defense would have a great series: an important 3 and out, a fumble recovery, or an interception, something to keep them in the game only to watch the offense implode with a miserable three and out or whatever.
    As frustrating as it was for me to watch, I have to believe the defense was more than demoralized by watching and may very well have contributed indirectly to those horrible 4th quarters where the defense just kinda faded away.
    I had deja-vu all over again Monday. Watching the defense come up big only to watch the offense go out and do …..whatever it was they were doing.