2015 Browns Preview, Part 2: Defense– Bark or Bite?

My original title was based on the Michael Madsen quote from Reservoir Dogs: “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?” But it ran to four lines, so…

I’m gonna try doing an overall essay and then drilling down to the units. This lets me work in smaller units and lets you digest in smaller bites.  There won’t be any individual comments here.

The good news about the defense is that the the scheme hasn’t changed. The players who struggled to learn in a year ago should be better at it this year.

And it is a well-known, commonly-used scheme. The people who grumble about the 3-4 forget that. Of the 16 Super Bowls played in the 21st century, 5 were won by teams playing this system, as opposed to 7 won by 4-3 teams.

The other 4 were won by Bill Belicheat who plays both 4-3 and 3-4, depending on who’s hurt and what game it is– and sometimes has a 12th man buried in the turf to reach up and trip players. Point being he’s hard to classify.

When Baltimore hired Mike Pettine, he joined a team using the 3-4 “Zone Blitz” that Dick LeBeau created in the 1980s. LeBeau thought of it first as coordinator of the Bengals (it was the scheme that gave the 49ers so many fits in Bill Walsh’s last Super Bowl), then refined it when he came to the Steelers in 1992.

That was a rather gifted defensive staff. Bill Cowher as head coach, Dom Capers as coordinator, LeBeau as defensive backs coach and Marvin Lewis coaching linebackers.

The scheme came to Baltimore in 1996, when Baltimore hired Lewis to run their defense. When he left, in 2002, Mike Nolan ran the defense for a while… during which time Rex Ryan and Pettine were hired.

Ryan took over for Nolan in 2005; when he left for the Jets after 2008, Pettine went along.

The scheme Mike Pettine is using actually has three major schools of defense represented. When Bill Arnsparger was head coach of the Giants in the 70’s, he taught his 3-4 to his defensive coordinator (Marty Schottenheimer) who passed it to Cowher. Rex Ryan was an assistant for his dad, so you have Buddy Ryan’s 46.

The only elements not present are the Parcells-Belicheat system or the Dallas 4-3 that Jimmy Johnson pioneered

This scheme will work if you got the players. The question is whether the Browns do.

Old Man River

The Browns had a veteran defense a year ago; the 11 players who started the most games averaged 26.6 years old:

  • 16 games: CB Buster Skrine (25), SS Donte Whitner (29)
  • 15 games:  DE Desmond Bryant (29), LB Paul Kruger (28), CB Joe Haden (25)
  • 12 games: LB Karlos Dansby (33)
  • 11 games: NT Ahtyba Rubin (28), LB Craig Robertson     (26), LB     Barkevious Mingo (24), FS Tashaun Gipson (24)
  • 8 games: LB Christian Kirksey (22)

I know that’s a 2-5, but nobody else started more than 5 games. And sometimes the Browns had only 2 defensive linemen, so lay off. Those 11 guys stayed mostly healthy; they missed only 35 starts (a very high number, given how many collisions defenders get into).

The problem is

1. Two guys are gone. The good news is the Browns exiled Rubin to Seattle and will replace him with their #1 pick, 22-year-old Danny Shelton. That’s a reduction of 6 years in age.

The bad news is that, since Justin Gilbert is on his way to busting out, the Browns had to sign 32-year-old Tramon Williams to replace Skrine. That’s a gain of 7 years, more than wiping out the improvement. That’s an increase of one year

2. They added two old guys. The Browns signed 32-year-old Randy Starks and promoted 27-year-old Scott Solomon. According to the depth charts at Ourlads (which tends to be more reliable than what the team puts out, because Dan Shonka isn’t trying to spin anything), that will put Robertson and Mingo on the bench. That’s a gain of 5 years.

3. The other seven players get a year older. Dansby is 34, and this will almost certainly be his last year starting. Whitner and Bryant turn 30 and Kruger is 29, so the end of the road. is in sight for them

So now they’re 13 years older (27.8 years). Are they better? Hard to say.

Area by Area

One useful advance from Pro Football Focus is concept of looking at teams by skill area. Not that it didn’t exist before; just that many writers didn’t do it. I’ll go with the flow.

Pass coverage: The Browns do this exceptionally well. By keeping two dozen defensive backs (they might have signed more while I was writing this), they can swarm receivers. Three of the defensive backs (Haden, Whitner and Gipson) went to the Pro Bowl.

Williams went to the Pro Bowl, but it was five years ago. He’s not the same player.

Pass rush: In the immortal words of Vince Lombardi, it blows. It blows big baby chunks, in fact.

The shills in the media like to explain, as condescendingly as possible, that this scheme is designed to attack from any position, so no one player will have a lot of sacks. Hits and hurries are just as important as sacks.

Here’s the problem with that bushwah: Everyone in the AFC North plays the same scheme. That was the point behind the Paul Harvey-style historical tour– this isn’t some radically different approach than the ones the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers use. They can be compared directly, and the comparison doesn’t favor Cleveland:

  • Last year Baltimore (sixth in points allowed) had 49 sacks; they sacked opponents on 7.6% of their pass attempts.
  • Pittsburgh struggled to rebuild their aging defense and fell to 18th in points allowed. They still managed 33 sacks and a 5.7% sack percentage
  • The Browns (ninth in points) had 31 sacks and a 5.0% sack percentage

I will argue that Cincinnati deserves a mulligan. Coordinator Mike Zimmer got hired as head coach by Minnesota, the Bengals struggled to replace him.

  • In 2013, even though they had a bunch of players hurt, they finished fifth in points allowed, recorded 43 sacks and their sack percentage was 6.5%
  • In 2014, everyone stayed healthy, they dropped to twelfth in points allowed, had only only 20 sacks and a 3.2% sack percentage.

That mark was, I think, the worst since Lewis became coach. If they fix that problem Cincinnati will be a much tougher team.

The Browns, pretty obviously, think the pass rush issue is not having the right people. In addition to Rubin, DE-LB Jabaal Sheard (only 5 starts, but 10th in total snaps) was not re-signed. He went over to The Dark Side of The Force, where, best as Shonka can tell, he’s the second-string defensive end– on both the left and right sides– for New England. In his place comes the #2 pick,  LB Nate Orchard.

The Browns also made the sort of sensible decision that Mark Shapiro (the late, unlamented team president of the Indians) never would do.

  • Phil Taylor had one year left on his contract.
  • Due to the injuries he’s had, the NFL insurance policy kicked in, and it became fully guaranteed.You have to pay him the money.
  • He played only 133 snaps last year, so his absence doesn’t open a gaping hole.

You know you won’t re-sign him to start; him; you know he won’t re-sign to be a backup. So why not just cut the guy and move on? In his place is the #3 pick, Xavier Cooper, who has played (or tried to, at any rate) end, tackle and nose.

Cleveland also (correctly) decided that Footballs R Us sells players like Ishmaa’ily Kitchen in bins at the front of the store. They let him go and went with Jamie Meder. The difference between the two players probably can’t be be measured by the cast of all three CSI shows.

Both Orchard (29.5 sacks in his last two seasons at Utah) and Cooper (24 in two seasons at Washington State) are, if you believe some of the draft analysts, great, great pass rushers. If you believe some of the others, they’re erratic players who beat up weak opponents, when they had the matchup.

What both camps agree on: Orchard and Cooper suck at run defense. Suck hard, in fact.

I asked one guy if the problem with Orchard was lack of strength, bad technique, misjudging the play or just not liking to hit. His answer was “Yah, all that stuff, plus a few tricks he invented.”

The people who were most insistent about Cooper and Orchard not being great run defenders were the ones telling me, a year ago, that neither of the corners Cleveland drafted (Justin Gilbert or Pierre Desir) liked to tackle. So, yes, I believe that.

With which we come to the third facet of defense: run defense. We all know where the Browns stand on that.

  • Last in total yards allowed (2,162)
  • 29th in yards per rush allowed (4.5)
  • 20th in touchdowns allowed (13)
  • Most importantly of all, 31st in rushing attempts allowed (500, second only to Philly)

The rushing attempt stat is important, because running the ball has three benefits:

  1. It burns time on the clock, which gives your own defense rest. A rushing attempt uses (best as I can tell) more than 30 seconds of clock time. A pass, because they either fall incomplete or the player is pushed out of bounds so often, about 15.
  2. It wears down the defense. This means they run out of steam late in the game.
  3. It reduces turnovers and penalties. Running back fumbles happen less often than interceptions or strip sacks. And holding penalties are much rarer on runs,  because you’re driving people backwards, not trying to keep them from getting by you.
  4. It holds down overall scoring. More on that in a moment

Starks used to be an exceptional run defender (we’ll see if he still is; he’s 32). Shelton looked like a decent run defender (hard to tell in pre-season). They might help.

Williams is a little bigger than Skrine (who was 5’9″ and 182), so maybe that matters. Maybe Solomon, even though he is on his fourth NFL team, has untapped depths. Kirksey will be a year older– and hopefully wiser.

But some players will be older and more beat up and slower. And the fundamental thing about good run defense is simply maintaining your lane. You seal off the edges, trap the guy in the center and then move in.

The reason Cleveland plays awful run defense is that it bites on fakes and over-pursues. They leave lanes open; the ballcarrier cuts back.

You don’t need youth or speed to play good run defense. Eric Mangini’s 2010 team was 12th in run defense, despite having 4 guys over 30, and 4 more in their late 20’s. You just gotta hold your position and let the ball come to you. Well, we’ll see.

Degree of Difficulty (or Game Pace)

The big concern I have about the defense is whether we can trust the data from last year.

The Browns were 9th in defense, which is great. As is the 337 points (21.1 per game). But the point differential for the team was -38, which was 26th in the league.

Here’s an interesting thought. There were six teams worse– and they were a ton worse. The team that finished 27th was the Jets (-118) and it went from there to Chicago (-123), Tampa (-133), Washington (-137), Jacksonville (-163), Tennessee (-184) and Oakland (-199).

And if you don’t understand why I posted that list, notice the high number of teams who faced the Browns last year. The Browns had a terrible offense, but a good defense. Tampa, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Oakland were bad on both sides of the ball.

You can blame that low ranking in point differential on the offense (which was 27th in the league, scoring only 299 points). Or you can look at it this way.

In 2014, the 32 NFL offenses each played 16 regular-season games. That’s 512 total games where they could have scored 30 points or more. An offense scored at least 30 points in 126 games (24.6%).

My language sounds fuzzy because there were 24 games where both teams scored 30– meaning 48 total instances in 24 games. One team did it in 78 games. The full list is here. , if you want to look Here’s a link to the data.  Both teams did it in 24

The Browns scored 30 points only once (the 31-10 beating of the Steelers in week 5).  That’s a whopping 6.2%

NFL offenses scored scored 25 points or more in a game 192 times. That’s 37.5%. Cleveland scored between 25-29 points only four times. Their percentage (counting the 30-point game) was 31.2%

In 307 of the 512 games, an offense scored 20 points or better. That’s 59.9% of the time. But even when we drop the threshold that low, the Browns were still below average. (At least they were closer: 10 games out of 16 a 56.2% mark.)

The other 6 times, they scored less than 14 points. Once they were shut out.

So, OK, it’s nice that the Cleveland defense allowed 30 points in a game only twice. But in many  games, the opponent didn’t need to score many points to win.

  • Carolina won by scoring only 17 points
  • Baltimore was able to win by scoring 20 points
  • Houston and Baltimore (in their first meeting) won with 23 points
  • Jacksonville won with 24

That’s 5 losses by a point total that is (in this era) below average. And Buffalo won with 26 points, Indianapolis with 25.

I classify a game as a “rout” if a team wins by more than two touchdowns (15+ points).  The Cleveland defense was on the losing end of a rout 3 times in low-scoring games: Buffalo (26-10), Houston (23-7)and Jacksonville (24-6).

Maybe we just need to blame the Cleveland quarterbacks for being inept. But I can’t help wondering if opponents were staying away from the high-risk, high-reward plays.

In those 7 games, opponents ran the ball 245 times (35 carries a game) for 1,095 yards (4.5 a carry). They threw only 243 passes– less often than they rushed– and chose very short, very safe routes.

The Cleveland pass defense provided enough stats for a Ray Horton press conference. Opponents had 10 passing TDs; the Browns had 10 picks. The opposing QB had a 71.6 rating for the game. The Browns allowed only 6.2 yards per attempt– and that is before we factor in 8 sacks and 62 yards.

I can’t answer that question to my satisfaction. But we’ll find out this year. The only non-AFC North quarterbacks the Browns faced worthy of the name in 2014 were Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and “Matty Tank” Ryan. (add Cam Newton, if you must. Just don’t tell me you did, OK?)

Blake Bortles and Derek Carr might be good players someday; they weren’t last year. The Browns faced Jake Locker / Charlie Whitehurst in a game. They had to shut down Mike Glennon; not a task that keeps people up nights. And it is a sad day when Kyle Orton, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bortles (playing very much like a rookie) led their teams to wins by more than two TDs.

This year Cleveland gets to face Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Alex Smith, Philip Rivers, Colin Kaepernick, Nick Foles and Carson Palmer. Carr will be more experienced (he played better down the stretch last year). The only gimmes are Marcus Mariota (in his second game) and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

I hope the Cleveland defense is as good as they claim they will be. They’ll need to be.


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