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A Tale of Two Defenses

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns’ defense has been off to an up-and-down start over the first five weeks of the 2021 season. With at least eight new regular contributors on the defensive side of the ball, it is not a huge surprise that this defense is not yet rock solid on a consistent basis. But the extreme peaks and valleys in play through five games are staggering:

  • Weeks 3 and 4 averages: 151 yards/game against, 6.5 points/game against, 11 first downs surrendered per game
  • Weeks 1 and 5 averages: 445 yards against, 40 points/game against, 24 first downs surrendered per game

Week 2 was an odd one, with a few peaks and many valleys showing up in the same game. The Browns defense looked powerless to stop Tyrod Taylor until he exited with an injury, and then settled in a little bit (but only a little bit) after Davis Mills replaced him.

Week 2 aside, between the good and the bad weeks, we are allowing twice the first downs, three times the yards, and six times the points.

So why is there this type of discrepancy?

I wish I could answer that. Or perhaps more accurately, I wish Joe Woods could answer that. But I don’t have a simple answer and I am sure he doesn’t either, or he would have already fixed things. Here are a few plausible explanations:

The Browns are still developing chemistry and learning the system

This is true, but it is boring. And by “boring” I simply mean that I don’t believe a lack of early-season “chemistry” can account for 33.5 points per game.

Our defense has been banged up, hasn’t played together much, and haven’t played for our coach very long. But none of that matters on Sundays. We have to play better despite these facts, and we know that we can because we’ve seen it.

Defense is harder than ever, and teams are scoring at unprecedented rates

While this is true, I was actually surprised to find that scoring has not gone through the roof as much as I had expected, at least not overtly:

NFL Averages

1991: 19.0 pts/game

2001: 20.2 pts/game

2011: 22.2 pts/game

2021: 23.7 pts/game

There has only been a 1.5 point/game increase over the past 10 years. Another way to think about that jump is that there is about one more field goal scored in each game. And if you had asked me to guess what that increase would be before I looked it up, I would have put my money on 6-7 points per-team, per-game, at least a touchdown and a field goal between the two teams in a given game.

If we look all the way back to when Jim Harbaugh was still applying his mediocrity to playing quarterback as opposed to coaching quarterbacks playing quarterback, we still don’t see an additional touchdown per-game, per-team. Thirty years ago, each team was only scoring 4.7 fewer points per game than they are in the young 2021 season.

So how is our defense giving up so many of those points?

Quality of opponent

The quality of the offenses we have faced so far, and specifically the quality of quarterback play that we have seen thus far really stands out.

Surrendering 33 points to Patrick Mahomes seems reasonable. That’s pretty close to Kansas City’s season average of 30.8 points per game, and their 2020 average of 29.6 points per game. But 47 to Justin Herbert seems...not great. Herbert is good, but he’s not that good.

Is there something about our defensive scheme that works well against mediocre QBs, but absolutely falls apart against good ones? If there is, that’s troubling. Because...

Good QBs are really good these days

One area where offense has markedly changed over the past 20 years has been the efficiency of quarterback play. Not only have the best quarterbacks been better than ever, the amount of good quarterbacks seems to have exploded:

2001 QBs over 65% completion: 1

2021 QBs over 65% completion: 18

2021 QBs over 70% completion: 4

We’re seeing a lot more quarterbacks who are completing passes at a higher clip, and not just by checking down:

1991 QBs with 7+ net yards per passing attempt (yards per pass but with sacks included): 3

2001: 2

2011: 9

2021: 14

What does this mean for us?

With many more quarterbacks who can consistently move the ball, yet only slightly more scoring, this implies to me that a “bend, don’t break” style of defense might be effective. It doesn’t seem possible to completely stop the top 10-15 QBs, but slowing down their scoring might be possible. And this is good news, considering this appears to be Joe Woods’ preferred flavor of defense.

However, it is concerning how little the Browns have been able to slow down good quarterbacks so far this year. And the global trends in points and yards seem to be inverted for our bad weeks. On a bad week, we are allowing only about 3 times as many yards, but we are allowing 6 times as many points. Why would a defense designed to bend but not break seemingly do the opposite?

Over the next two weeks I’m going to be taking a look at our defensive film, and breaking down some of our...breakdowns. Hopefully I will be able to find some insights that help to explain why our defense has gotten shredded in about half of our games so far. Stay tuned!