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.
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).
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.
Joe has been writing for WFNY since April 2014. He is a diehard Cleveland sports fan, who is just looking for a winner in this town. He has been around sports his entire life by working with the basketball and football teams at St. Ignatius High School and also with the football team at Baldwin Wallace. Besides watching and writing about sports, Joe loves to spend time with his family and two dogs.