You didn’t need to be a professional scout to see that the Browns pass defense was bad in 2016. But how bad were they, really? If you look at some more traditional numbers, the answer looks like it might be “bad, but not completely irredeemable.” They finished 21st in total yards and completion percentage, and 27th in yards per attempt. That puts them solidly in the bottom third of the league, but it’s not laughably bad or anything. Other teams were worse.
Unfortunately, once you start to dig a little deeper, a different picture emerges. The good folks over at numberFire looked into it, and concluded that the Browns pass defense was historically bad. How did they come to this conclusion? They leaned heavily on a metric they call “Net Expected Points,” or NEP, which is similar to the “Expected Points Added” or EPA metric used by some other outlets. The short explanation is that you can combine the down, distance, and yard line on any given play to come up with the “expected” number of a points an average team scores in similar circumstances. For example, if a team has the ball at the 50 yard line and it’s 3rd and 2, they can expect to score 1.23 points on that drive. Calculating the difference in the expected point value before and after a play gives you NEP. For a more complete explanation, go here.
What they found over at numberFire does not paint a rosy picture. Starting in 2000, they looked at schedule-adjusted NEP per play for each individual team season. Out of 542 total seasons, the Browns defense came in at 540th. Whew. That is driven mostly by the pass defense, which came in at 539th. The rush defense was still bad, but at 477th it wasn’t quite “historically bad.”
But wait! It gets worse!
The two areas that the Browns struggled with most were allowing touchdowns (6.63% of all passes went for TDs, 532nd) and sacking the quarterback (4.79% of dropbacks, 501st). The Browns play a pressure defense, meaning they bring lots of blitzes in order to generate sacks and turnovers, but at the risk of giving up big plays. Looking at the numbers, it seems clear they only have half of that formula down. The Browns did everything they could to generate pressure, and they were still in the bottom 10% of all teams since 2000 when it came to sacking the quarterback.
So now we get to play the blame game. Are the team’s corners and safeties bad? Yeah, probably. But they aren’t totally without talent. Joe Haden hasn’t seemed like a pro bowl player in a couple years, but he’s still decent. Jamar Taylor had a nice year. The safeties are a big question mark, but there’s some interesting players back there. It seems pretty clear to me that the issue was up front. The Browns could not generate any pressure, and without pressure you could have a secondary full of Patrick Petersons and still give up tons of yardage.
The Browns will likely count on some players currently on the roster to step up next year and provide more sacks, namely Emmanuel Ogbah and Ryan Nassib. Assuming Jamie Collins is brought back, he should help as well. But the upcoming draft is full of edge rushers, including the current favorite to go first overall, Myles Garrett. Whatever direction the Browns choose to go this offseason, it seems clear that improving the pass rush should be a top priority.