Today 5:00 AM 7-9 minutes Browns
Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh may have been close to being honest when he proclaimed the Browns as “the most talented team in the division.”
Certainly the Browns have added the most talent and they also have lost far fewer impact players than AFC North contenders Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Browns traded for receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and pass rusher Olivier Vernon. Both can play at a Pro Bowl level when healthy. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson should be an upgrade in the middle of the line.
The Browns finished 7-8-1 last season, 3-2-1 in the AFC North. They were learning how to compete in their division.
The one advantage Baltimore and Pittsburgh have over the Browns is continuity. They are used to winning. They expect to win. Most of their players know how to win and the coaching staff has been stable.
Harbaugh praised the Browns to the media at last month’s NFL meetings. He has a 19-3 record vs. Cleveland in 11 years.
This is the first time in his tenure it can clearly be said the Browns open with the superior quarterback when it comes to Baker Mayfield vs. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.
As Harbaugh said, “They’ve got a great quarterback now.”
But the Ravens had a 6-1 record after they transformed their offense at mid-season to adapt to the run-first Jackson.
Harbaugh stressed how the Browns and Ravens “have had dogfights over the years” and how they were usually “tight games.”
But a 19-3 record vs. Cleveland is 19-3 – even if many of the games have indeed been close.
The Ravens ranked in the top three in most defensive categories. But they lost defensive standouts C.J. Mosely, Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle to free agency, so they may not quite as dominating on defense.
“We have to figure out how to defend him (Beckham), Baker and the rest of their offensive weapons, and there are many,” said Harbaugh.
Harbaugh would love the Browns to enter the season thinking they have actually won something, when Browns fans know better – or at least, they should.
On offense, the Browns look very good. And they indeed may be the best team in the AFC North – on offense.
But Baltimore won games with defense. The Browns often lost games when the defense fell apart.
SOME DISTURBING NUMBERS
According to Profootballfocus (PFF), the Browns defense ranked the following:
27th in overall Efficiency.30th vs. the run.32nd in tackling.28th in rushing the passer.16th in pass coverage.
PFF uses it’s own set of analytics, some complicated. To counter that, how about basic stats on defense:
30th in yards allowed per game.28th in rushing yards allowed per game.25th in passing yards allowed per game.22nd in sacks per game.21st in points allowed per game.20th in red zone efficiency.
The one area where the Browns defense excelled was forcing turnovers. They ranked No. 2 with 31.
But overall, the defense was AWFUL!
I know General Manager John Dorsey was livid about the poor tackling. According to PFF, the Browns led the NFL in missed tackles. Linebacker Joe Schobert was No. 1 with 24. Former teammates Jamie Collins was No. 4 with 20. When two of your starting linebackers are among the four worst tacklers in the NFL, the defense is in major trouble.
Next on the Browns’ list of missed tackles: Briean Boddy-Calhoun (12), Damarious Randall (12) and Jabrill Peppers (11).
Myles Garrett had 13.5 of the team’s 37 sacks. Next was defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (5.5). Given the lack of pass-rushing threats other than Garrett, it’s even more impressive to see Garrett reach the quarterback that often.
Overall, the defense is far from playoff caliber.
TAKING SOME STEPS
The Dorsey front office made some moves to help:
1. Before making the Odell Beckham deal with the Giants, the Browns sent guard Kevin Zeitler to New York for Vernon. They now have a viable pass-rushing defensive end to play at the other side of the line from Garrett.
2. But Vernon has to stay healthy. He has missed nine games in the last two seasons to ankle injuries. Last season, Vernon had only one sack in his first six games. In his final five, he had six sacks. In his final game of the season, he had 2.5 sacks and six – that’s right, six – quarterback hits against Dallas.
3. Garrett played 86 percent of snaps on defense last year – far too many. Ideally, the top pass rusher should be under 80 percent to keep him fresh. Along with Garrett, the Browns hope veteran Chris Smith and second-year player Chad Thomas can help at defensive end.
4. The Browns signed Richardson to help fellow tackle Ogunjobi. He’s an upgrade over Trevon Coley, who started 14 games. But the Browns need more depth on the line at end and tackle.
5. Ogunjobi played 79 percent of the snaps, also far too many. This draft is supposed to be rich in defensive tackles and ends. Perhaps the Browns can find more players to help with depth.
6. At linebacker, Collins has been released. If the season opened today, the Browns would start Schobert at middle linebacker, with Genard Avery and Christian Kirksey at the other two spots. Schobert is excellent in pass coverage, weak against the run.
7. Avery was second on the team in QB hits (8), behind Garrett (16). He also was No. 2 in QB hurries (29), behind Garrett (36). That’s good work for a fifth-round rookie from Memphis who played only 58 percent of the snaps.
8. On paper, the linebacker crew of Schobert, Kirksey and Avery needs help. The front office likes veteran Ray-Ray Armstrong. They signed veteran Adarius Taylor from Tampa Bay, who seems to be a role player. This unit lacks a big time, run-stopper.
9. The defensive backfield can use some more talent, but it’s in better than shape than the defensive line or linebackers in terms of depth. That especially is true if safety Denzel Ward can stay healthy.
10. When it comes to the draft, defense has to be the area of concentration. It’s also possible Dorsey could deal for a veteran defensive player on draft day. The man loves to trade.
11. The Browns hope the hiring of Steve Wilks to replace Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator also makes a difference. Wilks will keep the same 4-3 scheme, which is important. Garrett and Vernon are ideal 4-3 defensive ends.
12. New head coach Freddie Kitchens used his Alabama roots to hire Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Tosh Lopoi as defensive line coach. He also has a lot of experience coaching linebackers. The Browns are excited about adding Lopoi.
13. According to a story by John Talty of al.com, Lopoi had the play-calling duties on defense taken away from him last season by head coach Nick Saban. The belief was Lopoi struggled setting up defenses to deal with the passing game, and his strength was as a line coach.
14. The other important hire on defense is Al Holcomb as “run game coordinator/linebackers coach.” He had been a linebackers coach from 2013-17 when Wilks was on the Panthers defensive coaching staff. They also worked together in Arizona, where Wilks was fired after one season as head coach.
15. A mistake made by Wilks and Holcomb last season in Arizona was changing the defense from a 3-4 to 4-3. Wilks is comfortable with the 4-3, and the last thing the Browns need is the new coordinator to switch defensive schemes.
16. We can talk Browns and other sports at the Bay Village Library on May 9 at 7 p.m. It’s free. You can register here.
Pluto is right on re tackling concerning the linebackers and, as I've been commenting now since the earth's crust was cooling; name me the last time the Browns had a dominate All-Pro Linebacker. The last best one that comes to my mind is Jamir Miller who became an All-Pro. Loved to have that kid the Carolina Panthers have by name of LUKE KUECHLY......what a motor and very smart. I feel this should be our target imho to focus on finding that linebacker. Avery, hopefully someday might become another Sam Mills (Saints) and that's not too shabby of a comparison as Sam was albeit short in stature..............one of the best.