The Cleveland Browns defense has been a major letdown so far this season. Billed as being improved against the run and potentially one of the better defenses in the league, opposing teams are averaging just over 400 yards of offense per game this year and Cleveland is 30th in total yards allowed with 2,002.
Undoubtedly the most disappointing part has to be their run defense. The front office made it a point to upgrade the Browns run defense by drafting Danny Shelton and Nate Orchard, and signing Randy Starks. Instead of being improved, the Browns are the worst defense in the league against the run, having allowed 747 total rushing yards (149.4 yards per game average – 30th).
To add insult to injury, the Browns offense is averaging 27 points per game over their last four games and seems to be finding a rhythm under Josh McCown, meaning if the Browns defense was able to stop anybody even a little bit, their 2-3 record could’ve been much better. Head coach Mike Pettine has stated that the Browns are a “by any means necessary offense,” which got me thinking that perhaps for the Browns, the best defense is a good offense.
The Browns offense, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, is currently 7th in the league in total yards and 6th in the league in passing yards per game, averaging 289. While they are only averaging 23.6 points per game, that total is being held down by their Week 1 clunker against the Jets in which they only managed 10 points.
As mentioned above, the Browns offense is averaging 27 points per game since then. Meanwhile, the ground game has been underwhelming and at best inconsistent.
Currently, the Browns are averaging 88.4 rushing yards per game and just 3.7 yards per carry. At one point the ground game was thought to be the focal point of the offense. These stats, as well as the imbalance in passing attempts (188) to rushing attempts (118), suggest that this is no longer the case. The Browns should use this new found weapon (the passing offense) to their advantage, and begin to attack downfield early in games and force the opposition to play from behind.
If this strategy is utilized, it would have a two-pronged effect.
First off, if successful, it would force the other team to play catch up. This probably means abandoning the run earlier in the game, thus making the offense one dimensional, predictable and easier to defend. The Browns defense wouldn’t have to be as concerned with stopping the run and could be more opportunistic by trying to create turnovers. It would also allow the outside linebackers to not have to worry as much about setting the edge against the run. They could instead pin their ears back and just try and get after the quarterback.
Secondly, even if the Browns don’t hit big plays early in the game, it shows the other team that they’re willing to take shots downfield. This means that a defense would be less likely to load up the box and stop the run for fear of giving up a big play, and that Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson would have more room to run and pick up yards. Thus, the passing game would set up the run.
The Browns should use this strategy not just on a whim and a prayer, but because they seem to be having success moving the ball.
Cleveland is currently tied for 6th in the league in average yards per play with 5.8. Their 5.8 average yards per play ties them with high octane offenses like Green Bay and Atlanta, and just ahead of New Orleans and the New York Giants. The Browns passing offense, and big play offense, has been fueled most notably by Travis Benjamin, who has six receptions of 20-plus yard with a long catch of 60 yards.
However, there other players that factor into this as well.
Gary Barnidge also has six receptions of 20-plus yards, with a long catch of 40 yards. Johnson has also emerged as a big play option, as he has two receptions of 20-plus yards (as well as a 20-yard run), and is currently tied for 5th among running backs in total receptions with 21. Despite missing nearly two full games, McCown is 16th in passing yards with 1,203. His average of 301 passing yards per game is 6th among quarterbacks. The Browns have the ability to hit big plays and have done so all year. Doing so early would greatly help the defense.
It can’t all be about hitting big plays, though.
In addition to getting ahead early, the offense will also have to hold onto the ball to keep the defense fresher and off the field. Fortunately for the Browns, this is something they’ve been able to do. Currently the Browns are 14th in the league in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 30:04 per game. This number appears to be trending up as well, as over the last three games the Browns have held the ball for an average of 31:18 – good enough for 9th in the league.
The Browns defense has struggled and there haven’t been any signs of improvement. Whether the cause is scheme, execution or player fit, the Browns defense appears to be what it is, an over-hyped unit with its share of shortcomings and without much help on the horizon (has Ray Farmer called free agent Brandon Spikes yet?).
Despite this, the secondary does have some talent (Tashaun Gipson, Joe Haden, Tramon Williams and Donte Whitner are all former Pro Bowlers) and Paul Kruger is able to get after the quarterback. At the beginning of the season the thought was that the Browns defense would put the offense in a position to win. Knowing what we know now, the Browns offense should be Cleveland’s best defense.