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Memo to Crennel: Weren't You a Defensive Coach?

Defense. Cleveland Browns. Defense. Cleveland Browns.

Defense: "The team that is trying to prevent the other team from scoring" (Dictionary.com)
Cleveland Browns: An NFL franchise located in Cleveland, OH.

What do you get when you combine both of the above terms? I'll tell you this: there's nothing positive about it. How is it possible that the Browns have been so bad defensively, when all of the problems have existed even before the Romeo Crennel era? It's sad to say that our best defensive unit since returning to the league featured guys like Dwayne Rudd, Earl Holmes, and Robert Griffith. One thing was common about those guys: they were veterans. Veterans work out in some cases, but apparently not when you are running a 3-4 defense like the Browns currently are.

When Crennel came to the Browns, he was brought in to make a statement defensively. After all, shouldn't the defensive guru from the New England Patriots be expected to make an impact on that side of the ball? Looking at Crennel now, I honestly wouldn't have a damn clue what he was good at doing besides making several questionable management decisions every week (poor selection of timeouts and poor replay-review percentages). Phil Savage is at blame for this too, but because managers typically take more of the blame, I'll stick with that for this piece. Since becoming the Browns' new head coach, Crennel's first big decision was to not bring back a guy like Gerard Warren, who failed miserably under the old regime. Those decisions were fine and quite popular, but absolutely nothing has been done to address the defensive line since.

Ted Washington was brought in as a veteran to fill the middle while we developed a young stud at defensive tackle. Have we drafted anyone for that position over the past two years? Well, we did draft Babatunde Oshinowo in the sixth-round last year, but he was undersized for the decision and did not make the final roster this year. Who knows where he is now. Next up was Shaun Smith, a promising young prospect that the Browns acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals over the offseason. Smith was expected to split time with Washington, but guess what happened? Something else on the defensive line went wrong.

Orpheus Roye sustained an injury in the preseason, forcing Smith to suddenly dedicate all of his practice time to defensive end, a relatively new position for Smith in the NFL. When the regular season started, Roye returned to the lineup, and Smith was the odd man out. He has seen limited action over the first several games. The coaching staff has stated that one of the goals is to provide Smith with some more playing time soon, but that's not good enough. Washington should not be a starting nose tackle in the NFL anymore, so why is he still in there? I'm not saying Smith should play every down, but putting someone in the game with a little more endurance may hold back some of the push that opposing offensive lines have been getting, seeing as the defensive line is incapable of generating any penetration.

The defensive line has been so poor, that the only people worthy of keeping are Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith for the long run. To make things more complicated, I'm putting a lot of faith in a guy like Shaun Smith, who could easily be a bust. Meanwhile, Robaire Smith is only meant to be an average defensive linemen, meaning the other two linemen need to at least be average for him to make a significant impact. Until that happens, Robaire will be limited to what he can do.

Now, let's say that our defensive line finally gets to a point where they can clog up the line. The next step is for the middle linebackers to fill those gaps immediately.

In other words, a whole new problem is created.

Saying that Andra Davis is overrated is an extremely popular phrase, but why is that? I know that he had over 200 tackles a few years ago, but who has ever rated him highly besides some of the various coaches and/or gameday announcers? The fans have always seen Davis for the type of player he real is: a linebacker that fails to make a tackle until a running back is already five-seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Seeing as Davis isn't the most fundamentally sound tackler either, we're actually fortunate at times that he does make some of the tackles that he does.

At the other inside linebacker position, Crennel has tried to settle in with D'Qwell Jackson. Jackson is still young, but it almost feels like the Browns missed out on possibly finding a gem. A.J. Hawk is making plenty of noise in Green Bay, and DeMeco Ryans is a force in Houston. Jackson seems to have a better reaction than Davis does, but his tendancies are relatively the same. Jackson is rarely able to penetrate through the line to stop a running back in the backfield, and his pass coverage skills aren't trusted highly, which is the reason Leon Williams is brought in on passing situations.

Without a "Ray Lewis" type of intimidating presence in the middle, how would the Browns be any better off with a better defensive line? Sure, some areas would slowly improve, but finding solid middle linebackers to go along with a solid defensive line adds at least another two years into a defense that is being re-built. You can't have one strong position without the other, after all. If we ever want to be up there with the Ravens, Steelers, or Patriots, we're going to have to find players that get the job done. Fortunately, based on our outside linebackers, we at least have one section of our defense that we do not have to worry about.

Kamerion Wimbley and Antwaan Peek would both be recognized on a higher level around the league if the talent around them was better. There has been some negative criticism that Wimbley only makes an impact on two plays during a game, which is true on the surface. Last week, he had two sacks against the Raiders, both of which were the best plays our defense had the entire game. When Wimbley doesn't get to the quarterback though, he does what good players do: draws double teams and creates mis-match problems. On the plays that we have gotten pressure this year, either Wimbley or Peek are the workhorses that have been involved. Peek has already tipped several passes at the line of scrimmage this year, some of which should have resulted in someone else on our defense coming over and intercepting the pass. With Willie McGinest returning soon and Chaun Thompson doing a fine job in relief duty, Savage can take partial credit for one position at least.

Now, we head to the dreaded secondary. This was a unit that despite being ranked rather poorly in the statistics last year, was praised by Browns fans because of the job defensive backs coach Mel Tucker seemed to be doing. We saw guys like Daven Holly and Brodney Pool do well when they were asked to make spot starts due to all of the injuries we had. In the offseason, people had time to get healthy, and the Browns decided that letting Brian Russell go was a loss that we could take. Here is what was expected from the unit prior to opening week:

  • Leigh Bodden: Shut down corner.
  • Sean Jones: Pro Bowl caliber safety.
  • Brodney Pool: Looking to take advantage of finally getting an opportunity.
  • Eric Wright: "Steal" of the draft at cornerback to shore up the secondary ASAP.
Instead, what have we seen over the past three weeks?
  • Leigh Bodden: Hobbled by injuries still, but defenses don't fully target him.
  • Sean Jones: Not in top-notch form; isn't around the ball as much as he should be.
  • Brodney Pool: Looks like a complete mess. Besides a few hard hits, he's always getting beat.
  • Eric Wright: "Trying to do too much", resulting in a porous secondary.
Last week, despite only giving up one touchdown pass and not as many yards, the big plays continued to haunt the secondary. On two occasions, the Raiders' receivers were so wide open that they were able to make a catch without a receiver in sight and pick up a gain of at least 40+ yards. Unlike the defensive line position, there is still some hope for the secondary. It is true that Wright is still a rookie - he's not doing as well as a guy like Pacman Jones did in his first season, but the season is still young. Jones should be fine at one safety position, but Pool may be the question mark at the other one. Since the Browns drafted Pool, there is one thing that I liked about him: he can work well when given freedom. Pool seems to operate very effectively when he is a nickel back, because he can be brought on the blitz or play tight coverage on tight ends and slot receivers. When it comes to being depended on deep down the field against one of the top receivers in this league, I have zero faith in him to be the leader of our secondary.

Getting new players in one year at every weak position is impossible, but that doesn't mean we can't get to a point where we can't contend while we rebuild. After all, the Cincinnati Bengals have had a horrid defense for years, yet are in the race each year now. Not having a first-round draft choice in the upcoming draft hurts since we will have no shot at getting a "top-ranked" defensive player. That means that the process of improving the defense will have to depend on a lot of maturity from the young guys we currently have in the coming weeks, or getting a few great deals in free agency.