Albert Einstein is credited for saying the definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Now, the Cleveland Browns were not around when Einstein was walking this earth, but if they were and he was a football fan he would probably attribute that definition to the team’s defense.
Despite coming into the season with lofty national expectations for the secondary and the defense as a whole, the Browns defense under second-year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has been an absolute disappointment. Defensively (all stats according to ESPN), the team is currently No. 29 in the league in yards given up per game (407.3), No. 25 in passing yards (268.5), No. 32 in rushing yards (138.8) and No. 29 in points given up (27.7).
To put the defensive statistics into context through 10 games, last season they were No. 23 in yards given up (366.1), No. 8 in pass yards (224.5), No. 32 in rush yards (141.6) and No. 9 in points given up (21.1).
Somehow, despite investing numerous resources (draft picks and free agent money) into upgrading the team’s defense, the Browns have actually managed to get worse in all of those defensive categories. Well to be fair, they got better in run defense since they are allowing 2.8 yards less per game (insert sarcasm here).
All season long, general manager Ray Farmer has been the source of the frustration from the fans because the players he has brought in are not producing at a high level. The frustration has pretty much boiled over at this point of the season, as “#FireRayFarmer” can be seen every Sunday on my Twitter timeline.
At the forefront of those frustrations is Justin Gilbert, Farmer’s first pick at the helm of the organization (No. 8 overall in 2014). Gilbert—who was inactive against the Steelers this Sunday—has played just 31 defensive snaps this year according to Football Outsiders. Though he just played 23 snaps in Week 9, Gilbert was a healthy scratch in favor of the team “seeing what they have” in 2015 sixth-round pick Charles Gaines—a player who has been on the injured reserve all season.
Let’s put that final statement into perspective for a second. The Cleveland Browns coaching staff, O’Neil and head coach Mike Pettine, would rather have a player who has not played a down of regular season NFL football get a chance to “see what they have” in him than to “see what they have” in a player who was drafted Top 10 in the 2014 NFL Draft. Yeah, I’m just as confused as you are.
Aside from Gilbert last year, the Browns made heavy defensive investments in the 2015 NFL Draft as well. Danny Shelton (round one), Nate Orchard (round two) and Xavier Cooper (round three) were all expected to help fix the run game and apply pressure on the quarterback. The trio has—to this point—been a major disappointment in both areas.
In free agency, the team brought in cornerback Tramon Williams to help out that Top 10 secondary from a year ago be even better. They also brought in defensive end Randy Starks to assist with those run and pass rush problems as well.
When you look at that group combined with the players on the roster from 2014, on paper it is pretty hard to believe the unit is this bad. Sure, they lost Jabaal Sheard, Buster Skrine and Ahtyba Rubin in free agency, but the additions and players returning from injury (Tashaun Gipson) were supposed to provide a major spark.
Unfortunately as the statistics from earlier and the team’s 2-8 record reflect, none of those additions has made much of an impact. In fact, the defense as a whole has regressed in a major way—but who is to blame for the regression?
While many like to point the blame directly at Farmer and Pettine, if you read between the lines it sounds more like the problem is with the team’s defensive coordinator, O’Neil. If you do not believe me, look no further than the below quote after the team’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Courtesy of 92.3 The Fan’s Dustin Fox on Twitter, the aforementioned Williams stated, “Whatever the coaches ask of us we try and do the best of our abilities but at the same time.. You let a player be a player.” Fox followed up with analysis of that quote by stating, “Tramon is a veteran. It sounds to me like he is frustrated with the way that they are using some of the younger guys.”
“Whatever the coaches ask of us we try and do the best of our abilities but at the same time.. You let a player be a player” Tramon Williams
— Dustin Fox (@DustinFox37) November 15, 2015
The reason I brought Fox’s follow-up tweet into the equation is because a source close to the team conveyed something similar in a conversation to me over the last few weeks. Specifically, it was mentioned that Williams was encouraging younger members of the secondary to keep their heads up despite not receiving recognition or playing time for solid performance from the coaching staff.
Williams is not the only one to criticize the staff this season. Paul Kruger, who has been used to drop back in coverage many times this season by O’Neil and the rest of the defensive staff, alluded to a similar mishandling of players and what they are good at a few weeks ago. Kruger was brought to Cleveland a few years ago in free agency because of his ability to get to the quarterback, not his pass-coverage abilities.
Now, we all know owner Jimmy Haslam has gone on record for saying there will be “No Change” during the team’s Bye Week. And while that may be a good idea in regard to Farmer and Pettine for the remainder of the season, it is the absolute wrong move when it comes to O’Neil—even if he is Pettine’s buddy.
Between the regression of the defense and public comments in regard to how players are being used, it is pretty clear that O’Neil has not done well since Pettine let go of defensive control to focus more on the offense this season. The inability to find a scheme that can slow opposing offensive rushing attacks for a second consecutive season is disappointing, but the fact the team is giving up close to 30 points per game is an utter embarrassment.
If you look around the league, other embarrassing defenses are recognizing problems and making changes already. The New Orleans Saints just fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan this week, whose defense was giving up 31.5 points per game.
Along with firing O’Neil, the Browns need to consider playing more four-man fronts instead of their 3-4 base defense. Not that this is a news flash to anyone who watches the game, but the team just does not have speed rushers who can rush from a stand-up outside linebacker position. Furthermore, their defensive line has been struggling to create problems at the point of attack with just three players—even with the massive Shelton anchoring the middle.
Putting four players on the line and mixing in rushes from your linebackers can create opportunities to plug the gaps in the run game and finally get pressure on the quarterback. Sure, it will remove a potential coverage player when the base 4-3 is being run—but this team needs to focus on reducing the time opposing quarterbacks have the ball in their hands if they want to have any chance at winning the rest of the season.
Change 10 games into any season—especially at the magnitude I am suggesting—will obviously be met with apprehension from fans and members of the team, but it is an absolute necessity. This team was supposed to be built around a defense that created turnovers and kept games close, and neither are going to happen as long as O’Neil is in charge.