After being exposed as the weak link, the reason the team wouldn’t reach their ceiling, the Cleveland Browns defense has taken a turn. Torched early, the D gave up 31.5 points per game in the first seven contests this season. But defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ unit has clamped offenses since, allowing only 13 per. Has something changed? Can this defense remain steady, or will they again take poundings against elite offenses? The important games remaining (Tennessee, Baltimore, Pittsburgh) come against strong offenses capable of hanging 30 in a multitude of ways. If the Browns wish to run over teams on offense, the defense must remain stiff.
Don’t overlook the weather since the start of November. Three games in Cleveland, along the lake. Two featured 40 mile per hour wind gusts, they played the third with rain throughout. Not conditions conducive to throwing the ball. Pass defense is the team’s biggest weakness, yet it’s earned assists from the environment at First Energy Stadium. Bad weather, even in Cleveland, isn’t a guarantee, however. But has something changed?
This defense has allowed the offense to stay in games all season via the big play. The Browns are eighth in the league in sacks per game (2.7) and fifth in takeaways (1.7 per game). Despite hemorrhaging points for the first two months of the season, Myles Garrett was around to force a fumble or drive the offense into long distance situations with sacks. But Cleveland’s weak safeties made them vulnerable to big plays. Ronnie Harrison (acquired with a 5th round pick sent to Jacksonville just before the start of the season) has settled the back line, not allowing deep chunk plays, while also playing strong against the run. While Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph continue to cause nausea, Harrison is proof not every piece has to be a star. Above average can replace horrid and lead to a stronger unit.
Wilson looks lost in his sophomore year. He’s diving at air, missing tackles in the run game, and lagged in coverage against tight end Richard Rogers on Sunday before losing him for an easy touchdown. The linebacking core is the weakest unit on defense. They can’t afford days when Wilson sleeps. He has to get better.
The others’ rankings reflect discipline more than ability. They stay committed to their assignments and prevent big plays. Goodson played the most snaps of any against Philly (64, or 94% of defensive plays run). Smith (53%), Wilson (47%), and Takitaki (31%) play situationally. Smith is their best pass defender in the middle (6.1 yards per target allowed), while Takitaki handles the run best, grading an 85 against the run according to PFF. None, however, are dynamic. Woods doesn’t like to blitz because his LBs can’t get to the quarterback. On 70 blitzes between the four, they’ve accounted for two pressures and a half sack. Two pressures. Two. They aren’t able to do more because they lack the athleticism to make plays in either the run or the passing games. But they’re efficient. Other than Wilson, they get ball carriers on the ground and don’t give up chunk plays through the air. This will have to do.
Sunday’s game featured two stars, Denzel Ward and Olivier Vernon, who, along with Myles Garrett, are key to the rest of the season in Cleveland. Ward has put together a superb rebound season after his shaky 2nd year in the league. He leads the league with 15 passes defended, allows a 60.7% completion percentage, 6.5 yards per target, and an 88.6 QB rating on balls thrown his direction. All quality numbers indicative of the impact Ward has on receivers. He’s fluid and remains connected to his assignment in man-to-man coverage. Twice Sunday, Ward forced Carson Wentz to make perfect throws to complete passes, and he failed. A back shoulder throw to Travis Fulgham on 3rd down was knocked away. Tight coverage on Alshon Jeffery on another third down crossing route required throws the Philly QB was incapable of making. In big moments, Ward brings it.
With Myles Garrett one of 2 or 3 defenders in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, his dominance has been obvious. But games like the one Vernon unleashed on Sunday push the Browns defense to another level. Three sacks, a safety, and a batted ball wrecked the Eagles’ offense, forcing a wobbly Wentz into poor decisions throughout the day. Though they haven’t done in the same game, the Vernon-Garrett combo collapsing the opposition from both sides of the defense is what John Dorsey envisioned when he traded for Vernon last off season. Injuries have hampered him in Cleveland, but he’s a worthy number 2 pass rusher when healthy. If he becomes more reliable, he’ll force offenses to remove some double teams against Garrett. This becomes the ceiling for the Browns defense.
The lack of talent in the back seven won’t allow them to stifle proficient offenses, but Garrett and Vernon will. Great quarterbacks only become average in the face of consistent pressure. It levels the field. After the Mayfields and Chubbs and Garretts, Vernon is most important to the success of the Cleveland Browns for this season. When he’s below average, talented teams can scheme around Garrett. But if Vernon plays the rest of the season as he did against Philly, quarterbacks have little left to do. A dominant Vernon equals a scary Cleveland defense.
The Whip Around
1.The Patriots sit at 10th in the AFC at 4-6, a position quite unfamiliar for Bill Belichick. And while most will blame Tom Brady’s departure for the slide, Belichick deserves blame, too. New England ranked as the number one DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) team in the league last year, but are 32nd this season. DVOA grades every play of the season and compares its success to league averages. A drop off that large isn’t just caused by a loss of a 43-year-old quarterback. Belichick’s defense is giving up 9 more points per game and the Patriots’ turnover margin has dropped from +1.2 to 0. The loss of a franchise quarterback hurts, even more when the entire team hierarchy got built to take advantage of his strengths. But Coach Belichick is the greatest ever, right? He needs to prove he can do it without Brady to keep that title.
2. Joe Burrow’s injury is infuriating, but predictable. Bad franchises remain that way for a reason, and despite having a significant amount of talent in the middle of the decade, Cincinnati still couldn’t win a playoff game. Now in rebuild mode, their star-in-the-making quarterback has a torn ACL and MCL, plus other structural damage. Burrow has the most pass attempts in the league behind an offensive line with PFF grades too embarrassing to type. Since Mike Brown took over operations after his father’s death, the Bengals have been a cheap organization set on saving money instead of investing in wins. Now a young star is paying the price.
3. Once part of the best WR duo in the league, Adam Thielen must make one-handed touchdown catches in losses to the Cowboys. Terrible loss, pretty catch.
4. With an average Lamar Jackson, are the Ravens anything more either? Baltimore is averaging 5 fewer points per game than in 2019. Jackson’s passing numbers are off some (3% less completion percentage, 0.7 fewer yards per attempt), but his rushing numbers have fallen from jaw dropping to good. He’s averaging 1.3 fewer yards per rush on more carries per game. Teams haven’t allowed the game changing play from Jackson with his legs and are forcing him to make throws from the pocket. He completes 63% of his passes, a number that’s inflated because of the space his legs afford his receivers. Jackson is such a dynamo, maybe he makes just enough precise throws to allow his legs to carry them to a Super Bowl. But when have we seen it done before?
5. Alex Singleton makes tackles. Philly’s second year linebacker cracked the starting lineup in Week 6 against Baltimore and has impressed since. 16 tackles last week against the Giants, followed by 12 on Sunday in Cleveland, Singleton is an active playmaker for Philly’s defense. He stuffed a goal line run by Kareem Hunt and recorded a sack and a QB hit that allowed the Eagles to remain within striking distance despite Carson Wentz’s erratic play. Philly has the most talent in the division, but Wentz seems lost, and the injuries continue to mount. But Singleton seems to be a keeper if they can ever figure out what’s wrong with their former MVP candidate at quarterback.
6. Running backs are so plentiful as to be essentially worthless, but Alvin Kamara’s skill set makes him irreplaceable in New Orleans. Like the fear of a Steph Curry 3, just Kamara’s presence in the Saints backfield causes defenses to over bend, cheating in his direction at all times. In any other system his effect gets dulled, but Sean Payton’s offense leans on Kamara in order to hide Drew Brees’ (and now Taysom Hill’s), lack of deep ball strength. Kamara screens are touchdowns in waiting. While Michael Thomas is absurd, Kamara is their game breaker. If New Orleans makes a run, it’ll be because of him.
7. Will Detroit just fire Matt Patricia already? Another Bill Belichick disciple without the flexibility to mold his coaching to the talent of his team, Patricia has tried to force his brutish personality on his players with little luck. A 20-0, listless beat down against a Carolina team starting their third-string quarterback is dumb. Patricia has lost this team and everyone knows it. Just being near Belichick doesn’t make a coach. His relationships, intelligence, and people skills mean far more than who he used to work for. Patricia possesses none of the above. Hire someone who can make something out of Matthew Stafford’s career and allow Patricia to fail as a defensive coordinator somewhere else.
8. Man’s league.
9. Tom Brady Monday night against the Rams on throws over 15 yards downfield: 1-9, 2 interceptions. Brady is the reason the Bucs are Super Bowl contenders, yet his declining arm strength and accuracy down the field will cost them in January. Elite weapons Mike Evans’ and Antonio Brown’s impact lowers when the deep play abilities they bring don’t exist. Add the fact that Brady struggles when pressured, and it’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay becoming the first team in history to play a Super Bowl home game.
10. It’s time for Lamar Jackson to win a big game against an elite opponent. How will he fare against the Steelers hounding, pressure heavy defense? Not the situation Jackson has succeeded under in the past. Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh, Jackson can reconstruct Baltimore’s season with a victory against the 10-0 Steelers. Although the division is likely already out of reach, the Ravens playoffs chances would take a hit with a loss and a 6-5 record. For Pittsburgh, do they care about going undefeated? Not likely, with a veteran coach and quarterback who’s eyes are only on the Lombardi. But a home loss against the rival Ravens will never do, and Pittsburgh can force the Ravens to run the table to guarantee a playoff berth. The Steeler defense vs. Raven offense. Saddle up. How, and if, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Minkah Fitzpatrick contain Jackson is an irresistible watch. Though the early Thanksgiving games are snoozers, the best rivalry in the league will provide a potent end to the holiday slate.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com