Before the season began, the position group with the most concerns for the Cleveland Browns was at defensive tackle. The most glaring issue was the lack of a seasoned veteran presence.
Gone this year were past veterans Malik Jackson and Sheldon Richardson. In their stead are youngsters Tommy Togiai, Jordan Elliott, Perrion Winfrey plus practice squad members David Moore and Roderick Perry. The only player in this group with any great experience is Taven Bryan, who the Browns signed away from Jacksonville during the off-season.
Bryan (6’-5”, 295 pounds) is a former first-round draft pick taken with the 29th pick in the 2018 NFL draft. A former Second Team All-SEC player out of Florida, Bryan was considered a very aggressive defensive lineman with high production. But in his final two years in Jacksonville he was considered anything but as Jaguar fans were happy to see him leave. Being with Cleveland is considered a new beginning for the talented athlete.
What has changed now that over one-quarter of the year is in the books?
Numbers don’t lie
The Browns are getting beaten badly with their run defense.
Against the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland surrendered 202 yards. The Falcons had just 21-yards on the ground midway through the second quarter. Obviously, someone on the offensive coaching staff realized that starters Myles Garrett, Taven Bryan and Jadeveon Clowney were all missing and so they pounded the ball for the remainder of the game.
After the Browns went ahead 13-10 in the second quarter, Atlanta began at their own 25 and had a 10-play 75-yard drive that used up 5:15 of the clock before scoring a touchdown. Get this: every play was a run. Nine runs were for five yards or more.
202 total rushing yards for two-and-a-half quarters.
The Los Angeles Chargers were ranked dead last in rushing yards going into Sunday’s contest. Yet repeatedly, they made good yardage with medium-sized runs, one long scamper and once the smoke cleared had gained 238 rushing yards for the day.
For the past two games, Cleveland’s defense is making running backs into household names. The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler had game totals of 36 yards, 39, 5 and 60 until he busted out for 173 against the Browns.
Tyler Allgeier is Atlanta’s backup running back and almost topped 100-yards; but the backup to the backup, Caleb Huntley, had 56-yards in spot duty.
“The Browns lack initiative and urgency when pursuing the ball carriers, coupled with inconsistent pursuit angles seems to be plaguing this team,” said Marcus Donald of the Browns podcast ‘The Mr. Deacon Experience.’ “Another issue that I noticed about the defense is the lack of defensive execution and fundamental tackling.”
And the average yards per carry for these runners are off the charts: Ekeler – 10.8; Allegeier – 8.4; Breece Hall (Jets) - 7.1; Huntley – 5.6; Joshua Kelley (Chargers) – 4.9; and Cordarrelle Patterson (Falcons) – 4.2.
Let’s examine the Browns’ run defense league-wise to see where they stand.
At one point in the season, they ranked seventh. After the Atlanta and Los Angeles debacles, they are now cast into the abyss at Number 28 having allowed 691 rushing yards. This defense is only ranked 18th in opponents’ rushing attempts with 130, but 69 of those came in the last two games.
Now that the rest of the league realizes that they can run on this defense, expect everybody to rush 30-40 times a game just like the Falcons and Chargers.
Cleveland is also third worst in yards per carry average (5.3) as well as rushing touchdowns (8) and 26th in opponent’s rushing for first downs (37).
In the first four games combined, the Chargers rushing total almost matched the 258 yards they got against Cleveland.
If playing the run is the issue, what are the tackling numbers saying? After all, stopping the run begins up front.
Chargers – total tackles per position
Falcons – total tackles per position
Against Atlanta, the linebackers were the top two tacklers and three of the top seven. The rush defense was nonexistent as the Falcons gained 112 yards in the fourth quarter alone. The Browns’ strategy was to tackle the runner 10 to 12 yards downfield. Atlanta scored 13 points in the final stanza and threw just one pass.
In the LA game, the linebackers accounted for the second and fifth most tackles.
What these numbers say, is the defensive line is not making tackles - especially the defensive tackle group. The bulk of tackles being made is coming from the second and third levels. The largest amount of total tackles is coming from the secondary. They have to worry about bringing down receivers after completions much less get the added burden of being so involved in run defense added to the pot.
Time after time both games featured a Browns defense that was incapable of making a critical stop when needed. Missed tackles, out-of-position, could not disengage with blockers and hand grabbing at jerseys seem to be the norm.
Is it difficult to say if it’s one guy’s fault or another? What about an entire group?
PFF overall grades through five games:
- Taven Bryan: 51.9
- Perrion Winfrey: 47.9
- Jordan Elliott: 30.2
- Tommy Togiai: 28.9
- Myles Garrett: 91.5
- Jadeveon Clowney: 88.8
- Isaac Rochell: 59.4
- Alex Wright: 42.5
- Chase Winovich: 42.4
- Tony Fields: 79.9
- Sione Takitaki: 70.0
- Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: 63.2
- Jordan Kunaszyk: 61.8
- Jacob Phillips: 36.0
Up the gut run defense
At one point the Falcons ran the ball 14 consecutive plays. It wasn’t like Atlanta was doing anything the defense hadn’t seen, it was just really a matter of stopping it or not stopping the process that was being rammed down their throat.
Freeze the above video at the :24 mark. Ekeler hasn’t even made it to the line of scrimmage yet and six Browns remain in the play. When he turns it upfield, JOK and Alex Wright miss the tackle to which Grant Delpit engages the runner at the four; then instead of taking his legs out jumps on his shoulder pads and rides him until he scores. (Editor’s note: shoulder pads do not stop pumping up and down once you engage.)
Absolutely no defense wants to be known for being soft against the run. Why? Because it is the very basics of any defensive unit to be able to stop another team from running the ball at will and quite frankly, it is embarrassing to fail in this regard.
“DC Joe Woods is simply too stubborn to make any critical changes during an active game,” Donald explained. “He lacks creativity and continuity in his defensive play calling. These overall bad choices could cost him his job.”
If you play fantasy football, start whichever running back is playing the Browns.
After the Chargers game, Myles Garrett stated:
“Once they cracked that 75 or 80-yarder, knew they were definitely going to lean on it. They felt like they had an advantage on us to attack some of the soft spots in our defense and that’s what they did. They were able to rush for over 200 (yards) and that’s clearly on us. I feel like that’s on us, the D-line, making sure the edges are set and not getting knocked off the ball.”
Making sure “the edges are set”? Really?
Ekeler’s first touchdown was to a wide-open right flat where he entered the end zone untouched.
In watching both the Falcons and Chargers games again, there are several glaring issues.
1. The 4-2-5
This defense is allowing clubs to run on the Browns.
The tackle on the side of the play takes the defensive end and moves him towards the sideline. The guard on that same side shifts and walls off the defensive tackle toward the middle. The center blocks down on the other defensive tackle, then bounces off and takes out the offside linebacker. This frees up the offside guard to pull and lead the running back. The guard then pushes off the other linebacker and the hole opens up.
Yes, it is that simple.
In both games, this happened over and over.
“Woods’ refusal to come out of the Browns base 4-2-5 nickel defense which favors more DB’s than run stopping linebackers seems to be the biggest issue on this team,” Donald surmised. “I understand that it’s a copycat league. But if you don’t have that type of veteran personnel in the backfield who understand the nuances of playing the game and the position, you can’t always copy the opponent’s methods.”
2. Defensive tackles
Our DT group gets pushed a lot more than they do the pushing. If the play is designed to go between the guard and center to one side, the offensive center and guard on that side move out both defensive tackles consistently. Both offensive tackles engage their defensive ends while their other guard takes out the linebacker to the side the play is being run. That only leaves the other linebacker and, usually, the tight end will get in his way.
The issue is the Browns defensive tackles are losing battles at an alarming rate.
Apparently, Myles Garrett is the only Cleveland player that has been versed on containment. The other defensive ends crowd down, lean toward the middle or get stuck between the tackle and the tight end placed on that side.
Ekeler’s first touchdown was a cakewalk as there was zero contain. The same thing happened near the goal line in the Jets game where Breece Hall caught a short pass to the right and there was nobody home. Same side - same ending. Both plays were to Clowney’s side.
4. Linebacker play
The loss of Walker is the beginning stage of decline for this group. All of these top running outputs occurred after his injury. Right now, the linebacker play in general is just atrocious. JOK is a fine linebacker and a very good tackler with exceptional effort, but he also overshoots gaps and gets sealed-off plays on a consistent basis where he has no chance to be involved. So far he has not had that leap of greatness that has been expected from him with a drop in instincts.
Sione Takitaki is a good coverage linebacker but misses tackles and is over-eager. Jacob Phillips is just overwhelmed with his role and is not a difference-maker. Tony Fields is inexperienced as a defender and does quite well in special teams. Jordan Kunaszyk has shown flashes but is out-of-position quite a bit and has issues disengaging with bigger offensive linemen.
The Browns need linebackers who will read the run and fill voids. They need guys who will stick and not tackle high where players continue for positive yardage. Somebody that will hit someone and take them down. Cleveland did trade for linebacker Deion Jones from Atlanta who has impressive tackling numbers including 137 total tackles last year. The past three seasons he has had over 100 tackles.
To show how desperate Cleveland’s front office is to assist the linebacker group the franchise traded for Jones before the Browns players had left their locker room after the Chargers game.
Against Atlanta, the Browns had a reason they were so lousy against the run. Make that three reasons: no Myles Garrett, no Taven Bryan and no Jadeveon Clowney.
But against the worst running team in the league the following week when all three played their running back was made to look like Walter Payton?
The middle of this defense is just too easy to push around and there aren’t enough second-level guys.
This defense must do something instead of speaking Hollywood talk and stating that they know they missed assignments and need to work on things.
During free agency, the Browns should have signed DT Akiem Hicks from Chicago who then inked a one-year deal with Tampa Bay for $6.5 million with incentives that could push it to $10 million.
But now? Bring some guys in. This year. Now. Deal with the long-term problem either in the NFL draft or free agency - or both.
Currently, the Browns have $33.835 million in cap space.
DT Ndamukong Suh (6’-4” 313 pounds) – Probably a Hall of Famer and still a useful inside defender at age 35. He is a load to move and remains a very strong man. Named to five Pro Bowls. Base salary last season with Tampa Bay was one-year for $9 million.
DT Sheldon Richardson (6’-3”, 290 pounds) – The former Brown is still a good run defender despite being 31 years old. He is a quality defensive tackle with no weaknesses. Richardson made $1.075 last year.
DT Eddie Goldman (6’-4”, 336 pounds) – Signed by Atlanta this summer for $1.12 million and then retired two weeks later. He may want to still play and is just 28 years old. Was waived by the Chicago Bears in a cost-cutting move. Was a Pro Bowl alternate recently in 2019. While he was with the Bears, Goldman emerged as a dominant run stopper. In his six NFL seasons, he had 175 total tackles, 13 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, 21 QB hits and 2 fumble recoveries.
DT Da’Ron Payne (6’-3”, 320 pounds) – Washington. There is good news/bad news with Payne. He is in the final year of his rookie contract and is a very good run defender. He is also paid $8.5 million this season and analytics state you don’t pay your defensive tackles that much. Washington has a very deep defensive line group and quietly let other teams know during the off-season that Payne, age 24, could be moved. Former First Team All-SEC, National Champion, and NFL All- Rookie Class.
The Commanders are currently 27th in rushing. Cleveland has three starting-caliber running backs. With this trade, the Browns would add a player with a history of success who has yet to hit his prime.
There are numerous issues including the fact that the defensive tackle position is being totally ignored as the team’s greatest weakness. The defense needs linebackers who can fill holes instead of being pushed aside by not tight ends but bigger offensive linemen. Each loss it appears to be the same undefined promise to improve on an obvious deficiency.
“Kevin Stefanski is the overseer of the coaches, players and training staff for this team,” concluded Donald. “He needs to hold individuals accountable and relinquish offensive play calling activities so he can focus on game day events. Even if that means micromanaging the whole game.”
And it is not like the franchise has not tried to address its pressing problems this year as they signed Bryan and drafted Wright, Isaiah Thomas and Winfrey with full expectations that this new core might help fix Cleveland’s problem.
Remember this defense was supposed to be “tough, smart and accountable”?
After the Chargers loss, Stefanski stated in his presser:
“We gave up way too many yards, including a real big one early in the game. It is always a combination of things, but we have to be better stopping the run. Have to.”