Heading into the 2015 season, the Cleveland Browns defense was reportedly re-tooled to do two things—stop the run and get after the quarterback. Well, here they are heading into game No. 4 of the season against the San Diego Chargers, and it is safe to say the team’s defensive front has not done either of those things yet this season.
Fortunately for defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and his vastly underachieving unit, the Chargers offensive line could be just what the doctor ordered. According to a report from The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Four of the five starters (offensive line) were not on the field Friday during the period of practice open to reporters. One of the four, right guard D.J. Fluker (ankle/chest), partook later in limited fashion. Left tackle King Dunlap (concussion), left guard Orlando Franklin (ankle) and center Chris Watt (groin) were sidelined for the entirety.”
The article went on to say, “Franklin officially is out Friday. Dunlap and Watt are doubtful and Fluker is questionable.”
With as many as four starters potentially out (probably three) on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will finally have the opportunity to let their “improved” defensive front loose. Though the team is No. 9 in the league in sacks with seven through three games, that number is greatly skewed—as all seven of those sacks came in the team’s lone win of the season against the Tennessee Titans and rookie quarterback, Marcus Mariota.
On top of their inability to get to the quarterback in two of their three games, the Browns defense has been atrocious when it comes to stopping the run. They are dead last in the NFL, as O’Neil’s unit has given up 475 yards on 96 carries this season. Giving up 158.3 yards per game on the ground, the Browns are (heading into Sunday) 13.3 yards more than the next closest team in the league (Miami).
To say their struggles are a disappointment is the understatement of the year. The team spent a high first-round draft pick on Danny Shelton, inked free agent Randy Starks to a deal, took pass rusher Nate Orchard in round two and then traded back into the third round to secure Xavier Cooper. For those of you who struggle with simple math, the Browns made five selections in the first three rounds of the draft—and three of those were supposed to upgrade their front seven.
Unfortunately for the group thus far, Orchard and Cooper have been pretty much MIA this season. According to Football Outsiders, Cooper has played just 28 snaps over the course of three games this season, while Orchard has played just 33 snaps on defense (one more on special teams). For comparison’s sake, Karlos Dansby has played every defensive snap this season (according to Football Outsiders) at 222.
Now, we have heard of teams “easing players in” but this is a pretty difficult pill to swallow for Browns fans through three games. With the Browns allowing Houston to swap spots with them at No. 43 and falling back to No. 51, passing on a player like Hau’oli Kikaha to trade down (two sacks and two forced fumbles), is looking like a colossal mistake right about now. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but with Orchard’s inability to see the field at a position of extreme need—this looks like a major miss by general manager Ray Farmer.
Sitting at 1-2, the Browns defense needs to take advantage of this Chargers offensive line that is riddled by injuries. This means that it is time for guys like Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Armonty Bryant and Orchard to pin their ears back get after Philip Rivers early and often on Sunday.
Because if they cannot take advantage of playing against a slew of NFL backups, not only could their jobs be on the line in the offseason—but their defensive coordinator could find himself on the proverbial hot seat as well.