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Browns working to defend opposing tight ends

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Team focusing on the middle of the field, mixing up coverages to combat long-term issue.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns have struggled to defend opposing tight ends for just about as long as most fans can remember.

It hasn’t matter who was on the field, or who was calling the plays from the sidelines, if a team was facing the Browns, the tight ends had that date circled on their calendar.

That was particularly true last season, as the Browns defense seemed to give up a big day on almost a weekly basis. Some of the lowlights included:

  • Jared Cook of the Oakland Raiders hauling in eight receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns in Week 4
  • Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs with seven receptions for 99 yards and two touchdowns in Week 9
  • Austin Hooper of the Atlanta Falcons with 10 receptions and a touchdown in Week 10
  • Ian Thomas of the Carolina Panthers with nine receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in Week 14

All told, the Browns surrendered 100 passes for 1,008 yards and seven touchdowns to opposing tight ends in 2018. According to cleveland.com, those totals ranked second, ninth and fifth worst, respectively, in the NFL.

The year before, the Cleveland defense allowed the third-most catches (89), ninth-most yards (868) and second-most touchdowns (10). In 2016, opposing tight ends were fourth in receptions, seventh in yards and first in touchdowns, according to cleveland.com.

The good news is that the Browns are aware of the problem and are working on a solution during training camp, as linebackers coach Al Holcomb explained on Monday, according to clevelandbrowns.com:

“We are going to mix it up. We are going to play man, we are going to pattern match and we are also going to play more of the stop-drop. It is just based on the opponent and who we are playing. Right now, we have an entire system kind of going in so you are going to see a lot of different variations of different coverages.

“Definitely the middle of the field has to be controlled by the linebackers for the part, in particular the MIKE linebacker a lot of times. From a technique standpoint, we are working that in terms of where our eyes should be, what are exit angles should be, how we should address vertical routes down the field and things of that nature and at some point, we are going to continue to get better.”

And lest we forget because it is so rare to hear a Browns coach be asked an actual football question, it was Jake Burns of cleveland.com that posed the query to Holcomb:

The Browns will only face a handful of the league’s top tight ends in 2019 - George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5 and a pair of dates with Vance McDonald of the Pittsburgh Steelers standout (although a playoff date with Kelce and the Chiefs could be on the horizon). But given the way they have played in the past, any tight end has been just one step away from a big day against the Browns.

If they can solve the problem, however, it will be another big step toward achieving the team’s bigger goals for the upcoming season.