Good morning, Cleveland Browns fans, and welcome to gameday! Be sure to check out our game preview and prediction for the Browns' Week 7 matchup today against the St. Louis Rams. In this week's edition of "The Sunday Five," I look at the startling piece that came out a few days ago about the Browns' defense, the high volume of games Cleveland will be playing over the next two weeks, and more.
1. The Expose the Browns Needed: About one year ago today, Kevin Jones, a staff writer of Browns.com, invited the Dawgs By Nature staff to briefly tour the team's headquarters in Berea. It was surprising to see a person of Jones' youth at the forefront of web content being put out by the Browns, but it was nice to see the team embrace the "blogger generation." In my brief encounter with him, I learned that one of the big advantages that Jones had compared to the other media members was his darn-near 24/7 access to players. While the likes of Tony Grossi (ESPN Cleveland) and Mary Kay Cabot (Plain Dealer) might be limited to 30 minutes of select player interviews a few days a week, Jones was in the building all day and could have those one-on-one type of conversations.
In my limited time with him, I could see why players wouldn't mind gravitating toward Jones, whether it'd be football-related or not. When you write for the team, though, you can't just put anything out there. You have to promote everything about the Browns in a positive light. That includes acting like Jim O'Neil stating "we will stop the run this year" this past offseason has some merit to it, or the praise that the coaching staff gave guys like DL Phil Taylor and WR Terrelle Pryor before they are cut. There is a fine line between having to spin everything positive, and then doing what I do here at Dawgs By Nature. You will rarely, if ever, see me writing overly-pessimistic pieces. However, I try to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the team as best as I can.
Jones decided to leave Browns.com two weeks ago, but didn't officially announce it until Friday. Jones said, "It was a fun challenge putting a positive spin on all things Browns, but I'm excited to develop my own unique voice inside the media." He didn't waste any time getting started when he published a piece on Sports Illustrated about the Browns' struggles on defense in 2015.
2. The Root of the Defensive Problem: I hate to copy+paste so much of Jones' piece, but I feel I have to in order to help spread the cry for help that Browns players made to Jones while he was with the team:
Recently, a number of players have told me what they believe is the main impetus behind the continual running-back beatings: The Browns have issues with gap integrity—football speak for jamming the holes between the offensive linemen.
Rather than being assigned specific gaps, Cleveland's defensive linemen play different techniques based on how their offensive counterparts are blocking them. The linebackers, then, are expected to guess what technique their teammates are using, scrape through the resulting mess and make the play. Opposing offenses have identified this flaw on film and are repeatedly, week-after-week, gashing the edge of Cleveland’s defense. It’s a completely chaotic approach to stopping the run, and players have said—off the record—they're spending way too much time thinking, and not nearly enough time reacting.
"It’s an entire guessing game," said one source. "Imagine trying to define mud."
When I've been doing my weekly film review sessions, I couldn't quite place my finger on why the Browns' linebackers looked so indecisive this year. Even though ILB Karlos Dansby later came out and disagreed with Jones' article, Lane Adkins of the OBR has hinted at the same issues. Over at the OBR forums, Brent Sobleski said, "Honest to goodness, this is the first time I've ever heard of a defense where players have to guess what their gap responsibilities are. I simply can't wrap my head around it."
If the Browns are going to run the type of defense they are trying to run, I'm of the opinion that they need world-class type of players at multiple positions in the front seven. The problem is they are running it without a Pro Bowler to speak of. If this is the definition of the Mike Pettine and Jim O'Neil trying to install a "graduate-level defense," they've got the wrong approach.
3. Other Delicious Nuggets: Although the stuff above was the primary takeaway from Jones' article, there were a lot more juicy nuggets. Some of these are obvious, but gain more merit when you here a former insider spilling the beans:
- Jones says the Browns' front office is starting to have anxiety because their two best defensive players, ILB Karlos Dansby and CB Tramon Williams, are getting toward their mid-30s. Guys like CB Justin Gilbert and NT Danny Shelton haven't lived up to their draft status yet, and the team isn't on the same page with FS Tashaun Gipson long-term. Jones specifically says that he doesn't see a long-term deal with Gipson getting done "if Ray Farmer is still in charge next offseason."
- On the defensive line, Jones says, "31-year-old Randy Starks has turned out to be a somewhat overhyped signing," and that he's taking away snaps from the likes of Xavier Cooper and Jamie Meder. Remember that this club parted ways with Billy Winn before Week 1 after he was one of the club's better contributors in 2014.
- Jones says that head coach Mike Pettine has been floored with the defensive struggles in 2015, to the point where he never even fathomed the struggles as a possibility in his wildest nightmares.
"[Pettine] was so sure of the defense heading into the season, he radically reversed his role to start coaching offense for hours on end, devising the scheme and game plans with first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo."
- In a radio interview on 92.3 the Fan, Jones said that head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer are on the same page a lot more than people think. The rift between them is overblown and driven by the likes of Tony Grossi. If there is one sticking point, though, Jones believes that if Pettine could make the decision himself, he would just cut WR Dwayne Bowe.
4. 3 Games in 12 Days: This is the portion of the schedule where the Browns are going to be very busy. They will play 3 games over the next 12 days, starting with today's game against the Rams (October 25th). Next Sunday, they are back at home against the Cardinals (November 1st), before going on the road to face the Bengals (November 5th) on Thursday Night Football. It's a good time for Cleveland to get back in the playoff race if they can win two of three games to bump their record to 4-5. If they go 1-2 during the stretch, then 3-6 is pretty darn gloomy.
After November 5th, the Browns go through a stretch where there won't be very much football. They will only play 1 game in 24 days, with that second game coming on the 25th day. Why? Because of the Thursday game against the Bengals, the Browns' next game is November 15th (a Sunday) against the Steelers. Then, Cleveland has a bye week, and their next game is a Monday Nighter on November 30th against the Ravens. So hopefully we can savor these these next couple of games with some victories, because then we'll be starved for football the rest of the month.
5. Projecting the Inactives for the Browns vs. Rams: It's time to predict the inactives on gameday, as the team can only dress 46 players. The players we know for sure will be inactive this week are TE Rob Housler and CB Joe Haden. I also thing FS Tashaun Gipson (doubtful) will be inactive. The other four inactives I'm projecting are QB Austin Davis, WR Dwayne Bowe, TE E.J. Bibbs, and S Don Jones.
Although I'd like to see Bibbs active, when asked about him earlier in the week, the Browns coaching staff said they were concerned about whether he could step in on special teams. Housler contributes on special teams. Then I look at ILB Jayson DiManche, who was just signed this week and is known as a special teams guy. I wouldn't be surprised if the team sees DiManche as a substitute for Housler on special teams, and then just uses OL Cameron Erving as the third tight end. If WR Marlon Moore is good-to-go from his injury, I think he'll be up instead of Jones. If not, Jones will be active.
Also, it'd be the most Browns-thing-ever if Bowe was active and playing significant reps this week.