Add a Little Defense With Pressure, Guarantee the Playoffs?

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL, Tom Brady

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.

Are the linebackers any good? Pro Football Focus seems to think so. Here are the Browns ‘backers ranks:
B.J. Goodson– 20th out of 86
Sione Takitaki– 19th
Malcolm Smith– 25th
Mack Wilson– 82nd

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.

This wasn’t a called blitz, but Ward’s(21) feel for the game is elite

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.

Vernon is a bull rusher, overpowering opponents on his way to the quarterback

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

2020 Cleveland Browns Preview

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett

Competency. Consistency. Respect. Qualities the Cleveland Browns organization has hidden from since their return. Never mind winning a division including the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns haven’t won over seven games since 2007. The 2020 version has talent. As did the 2019 one. But until they establish an identity, an idea of who the Cleveland Browns are, what they do well, and a belief that they’ll do those things when it matters, nothing will change.

This is the task Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry must manage if they are to succeed where all others have failed. The ownership is inadequate, and to overcome that is improbable. But Stefanski has shown strong leadership during the off-season dealing with COVID-19 and social justice issues. He’s a rookie coach wrapping up his first training camp without preseason games, however. Given their history, how long a leash will ownership provide him?

The offense is the strength, with the biggest question mark at quarterback. Reports from training camp revealed struggles on most days for Baker Mayfield: inaccurate, interception prone, and indecisive. The last part is most worrisome. Mayfield’s problems occur when he’s in the pocket too long, tapping the ball with his left hand, scanning the field in panic. His height hinders him here. Once pressure collapses the pocket, Baker just isn’t tall enough to see over the bodies. This causes him to bail early to create new throwing lanes, cutting off half the field. He becomes less accurate on the move, another issue that hindered his progress last year. So what can they do?

This play takes too long to develop, and Baker’s indecisiveness has him walking into a sack

Play action. Three-step drops. Slant patterns. Kevin Stefanski’s primary task to resurrect the third year quarterback is a quicker release from Baker. Mayfield’s pocket presence is an issue. Adjust schemes so it isn’t. Smallish QB’s have two options. Russell Wilson is a maestro on the move. Once he leaves the pocket, the wizardy begins. Mayfield doesn’t have that ability. Drew Brees needs to be his guide. Sean Payton helps Brees by calling short routes and play action passes to slow the pass rush. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, preferred deep, slow developing routes to push the ball downfield. For big quarterbacks, such as Jameis Winston or Ben Roethlisberger, that can see down field and take punishment, this style works. But Mayfield toils in those situations. Remember how fast the ball came out during his first appearance, on Thursday night against the Jets during his rookie year? He had one read and threw darts. The ball was out of his hands before the defense could turn their heads. Stefanski has to give Mayfield less to think about.

When Baker hits his back foot on these plays, the ball is out

They’ve stacked the rest of the offense. The Browns have perhaps the best wide receiver duo and the best running back duo in the league. Nick Chubb finished second in the league in rushing yards last season. His vision is exemplary, and he’s quick. But his strength makes him elite. Chubb was third in the league last year, averaging 3 yards per carry after contact, and led all running backs in broken tackles. He’ll threaten to lead the league in rushing again. Former rushing champion Kareem Hunt signed this week to a 2 year, 13.25 million extension. He’ll get 8-10 carries per week and catch passes out of the backfield and in the slot.

The only questions surrounding Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will revolve around their health. Beckham fought a hamstring injury last season, and Landry needed hip surgery during the off-season. Each has been a top ten receiver since joining the league. Beckham is spectacular downfield, makes impossible catches, and is dynamic running with the ball. Landry is a workhorse, toiling over the middle and in traffic. He’s one of the most dangerous slot guys in the league. If they are and remain healthy, they can dominate opposing secondaries.

Austin Hooper signed in the off-season to strengthen the tight end position, and he and Mayfield developed a strong connection during workouts in Texas over the summer. While his contract is high (4 years, 44 mil), he gives Mayfield a reliable safety valve over the middle of the field. Last year’s most hated fan unit, the offensive line, found reinforcements. Jedrick Willis Jr., a first rounder out of Alabama, will play left tackle, and free agent Jack Conklin signed to line up on the right side. Willis played right tackle in college and may experience setbacks with the switch to a new position, and Conklin is a much better run blocker than in pass protection, but both are upgrades. Add them to Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio, Pro Bowl snub J. C. Tretter, and improving Wyatt Teller, and the line is no longer a weakness. The pieces are in place. If the offense struggles in 2020, the blame will fall on Baker Mayfield.

So, the defense. Myles Garrett is back from suspension. One of the best defenders, in theory, in the league, Garrett enters every year with the goal of winning Defensive Player of the Year. However, injuries and last year’s suspension have held him back. Penalties are blunting his effect on games, too. Unnecessary roughness, late hits, and jumping offsides plagued the former number 1 pick last year. Discipline has become paramount to his development. Helmet smashings aside, Garrett needs to curtail the yellow flags. As a leader of the defense, his maturation will portend their success. They won’t survive without smarter play from Garrett.

The starting defensive line returns from last year, a unit that ranked 8th in the league in quarterback pressure percentage until Garrett’s suspension. Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon represent the only grouping on the defense with proven success. Ogunjobi and Richardson had stellar 2019 seasons, especially after Garrett’s departure, and Vernon, while struggling early, began affecting games until injuries cut his season short. The linemen must dominate in 2020. Pressure is the key component to disrupting opposing quarterbacks. It’s the only problem a defense can present that offenses cannot overcome. If the Browns are to stay in games, these guys are key.

Behind them, it’s dicey. The linebackers are unproven. Mack Wilson flashed in his rookie year, but will miss some time with injury. B.J. Goodson, signed in the off-season from Green Bay, started 9 games and recorded 37 tackles last season. Sione Takitaki, drafted by John Dorsey in the 3rd round a year ago, barely saw the field during his rookie year. Jacob Phillips, a rookie from LSU, will start for Wilson, and showed promise in training camp, but this unit is uninspiring. Quick, athletic linebackers are a must given that they face Baltimore twice a year. Phillips is that, but must prove he deserves field time. And with Joe Schobert gone to Jacksonville as a free agent, Cleveland lost their defensive play caller and quarterback. Who steps into his role? Expect teams to run at the inexperience in the middle of the defense and pressure them with throws to tight ends. If this unit struggles, so will the defense.

Further back, the secondary arouses little confidence either. Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie, took leaps backward last year. Teams picked on him deep. He needs a return to All-Star form to stabilize this unit. His opposite corner, Greedy Williams, was okay as a rookie, but is hurt and questionable for Sunday. At safety, free agent signings Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo will start, while Ronnie Harrison, acquired via a 5th round 2021 draft pick from Jacksonville, is still learning the scheme. The hope was for rookie Grant Delpit to snag a starting spot, but suffered a torn Achilles during training camp and is out for the season. Holes abound in the secondary.

No one behind the defensive line has been a consistent NFL player in their career. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods brings expectations because of his work with San Francisco’s defensive backs last year and an impressive stint as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2017 (3rd in the league in total defense). The problem remains the talent level he has to work with.

Kevin Stefanski wants to run the ball on offense, controlling clock and field position. Running teams win games 17-13. To win with a dominant rushing attack, stout defense is a must-have. This defense isn’t good enough to support a run heavy offense. For the Browns, or any NFL team in 2020, the recipe for victories is to throw to get the lead, then run to keep it. Wins are contingent on quarterback play. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are good enough to win 6-7 games. Anything higher rests on Baker Mayfield. The holes on defense are too large to count on them to stifle opposing offenses. The firepower possessed by the Browns is capable of scoring 27-30 a game, provided Mayfield returns to his rookie year form. If his completion percentage rises and the interceptions fall, Cleveland can compete. So, how much do you trust Baker Mayfield? It’s a question for the fans, but also for Kevin Stefanski. We’ll know early what he thinks of his quarterback. If his game plans are conservative, the head coach knows Mayfield isn’t the future of the franchise.

Ownership must trust Stefanski to mold the Cleveland franchise into his image. Paul DePodesta, the chief strategy officer, wanted him in 2019. DePodesta seems to be the current Jimmy Haslam ear holder. It’s imperative to give Stefanski time. He’s going to miss challenges, make wrong 4th down decisions, and his team may look unprepared. Young coaches in the NFL are green. The skills needed to run a team on the sideline during a game are daunting. Minus guys with older Hall of Fame type quarterbacks (see Matt LaFleur with Aaron Rodgers), most struggle. But DePodesta and Haslam hired Stefanski to save themselves from squandering the most talented Cleveland roster since 1994. If ownership hasn’t learned patience yet, they never will.

The other franchises in the division, minus Cincinnati, are the model. They develop talent and change schemes to maximize the roster. But it takes a commitment and belief in yourself and the people you’ve hired to see the program through. What organization, in any sport, that changes coaches and general managers on a dime, prospers? None. The rest of the league is too good at exposing weaknesses. Stefanski and Berry are smart. Smart people fail, yet learn from their failures. Allow your young brain trust to fail.

It’s the only way, the only path the organization hasn’t followed. The Browns and their fans have to be alright with mediocrity for the sake of growth. Myles Garrett reached the lowest depths of his professional career a year ago. The noise, disdain, and venom he lived through will either launch his career, or break him. Expect him to have a monster season. Failure causes reflection, leading to revision, conveying to success. Only the Browns try to skip steps. Disappointing seasons in the past lead to firings and overhauls. It can’t happen anymore in Cleveland. If anyone in the organization is interested in actual success, they’ll take whatever this season brings, ignore any drama, and allow the men they’ve hired to learn, and fail.