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Talking Cleveland Browns With Football Outsiders - Cribbs' Role, Ryan's Defense, and Impact Players

Many of you know Football Outsiders for their unique statistical breakdowns, providing the subtle details that make you go "hmmm" when you read about them. A player might look good on gameday, but they could statistically end up being a vulnerability. That type of information can be found on all 32 NFL teams in Football Outsiders 2009 book.

We asked Football Outsiders a few questions on the Cleveland Browns, including some tidbits about how the Browns will utilize WR Joshua Cribbs, what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brings to the defensive side of the ball, and which new player will have the most significant impact this year.

1. Since Football Outsiders has done extensive research on every NFL team, which new, non-rookie player on the Browns will have the most significant impact in 2009?

I think you'd have to go with Abram Elam, no? He's penciled in as a starting safety, and was the key to the Jets-Browns trade on draft day.

Elam didn't have great numbers in our charting project by any means -- his numbers against both the run and the pass were middling or worse -- but the coaching staff loves him. Which is enough to get him on the field, and that's half the battle.

2. Last year, the Miami Dolphins were popular for the using the "Wildcat" formation so often. Browns fans know that last year in training camp, Joshua Cribbs had a "Flash" package, but our coaching staff seemed too stubborn to use it on gameday. What advantages can the Browns have by using Cribbs in the "Flash/Wildcat" package?

Cleveland actually ran the second-most Wildcat-style plays in the league, with 21; obviously, Miami far surpassed them (with 90).

The Browns were, unfortunately, not particularly effective with their variation. They averaged only 4.8 yards per play, and had a success rate of 43 percent. (A play is considered "successful" by that metric when it gains 40 percent of needed yards for a first down on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down.)

To make the Wildcat tick, there has to be the threat of passing the ball. I think Cleveland's Wildcat didn't really offer that option frequently enough in 2008. (Giants game aside.)

3. What changes can Rob Ryan bring to the Browns 3-4 defense, and does he have the personnel to run it effectively?

I think you'll see Ryan attack the line of scrimmage more frequently than Romeo Crennel's 3-4 variation did. Eric Mangini and Crennel obviously come from similar schools, but Ryan obviously comes from a family where getting to the quarterback and shutting down the run are jobs 1 and 1A.

The biggest issue for the defense isn't going to be personnel -- instead, it's going to be health. Over the past several seasons, the Browns have exhibited a pretty strong relationship between the number of games their starters have missed on defense, and their rank in points allowed:

2004    41    24th
2005    3    11th
2006    52    22nd
2007    29    21st
2008    25    16th

The league average for games lost on defense is just about 19, so that's all of one year out of the last five where the team's been healthier than average. If the team can stay healthy, they'll play better. It's that simple.

4. It is stated in your book that Brandon McDonald was part of the reason the Browns were ranked dead-last in the NFL against No. 2 receivers. Is this something that mainly rests on the shoulders of McDonald, or are there other obscure stats defensively that might "hint" as to why the Browns fell short in this category?

It's always difficult to assign 100 percent of the blame for a particular stat to a given player, so we can't say that it was entirely McDonald's fault. Certainly, the Browns' safety play wasn't great last year, and an improved pass rush (the Browns ranked 30th in the league with 18 sacks and a 4.5% Adjusted Sack Rate, our stat which adjusts sack totals for passes thrown and the quality of the opposing offensive line) would've prevented him from spending too long in coverage.

But it's fair to say that McDonald deserves a good chunk of the blame.

5. The Browns rarely threw the ball to their running backs last season. With Eric Mangini now in charge, is there anything from his days with the Jets that might indicate this will change this season?

Well, he did throw to Leon Washington a lot with some success. I'm not sure if the Browns have that sort of option -- we love Jerome Harrison, but he probably doesn't have Washington's hands, while Josh Cribbs is a wide receiver.

You have to consider who's on the field. Jamal Lewis is no receiver. When he's on the field, it doesn't really make sense to toss a lot of passes to the halfback. If Harrison gets more time, I think you'll see more passes to the halfback.

Thanks again to Football Outsiders for their time!