The calendar has turned to October, an event that usually tells Cleveland Browns fans that it’s time to start checking out the draft prospects on Saturdays.
As recently as two weeks ago, it looked like this year would be a rerun of that old routine for Clevelanders. Through two games, Brandon Weeden had looked about as effective as he was as a minor league pitcher (19-26, 5.02 ERA, 1.573 WHIP in five seasons from 2002-2006, none higher than A ball). The offensive line didn’t do him many favors and neither did the receiving corps – which was missing the suspended Josh Gordon. Trent Richardson was similarly unimpressive, earning him a ticket to Indianapolis.
In spite of the feeble offensive effort, the Browns were decidedly in both of those first two games for the vast majority of the contests. Thank the defense for that.
While most fans and pundits predicted Ray Horton’s new 3-4 system would bring improvements, but not many would have guessed that the Browns defense would be this effective through the first quarter of the season. The unit currently ranks in the top 10 in passing yards against per game (212.5, 9th), rushing yards against per game (79.0, 4th), total yardage allowed per game (291.5, 3rd), and scoring defense (17.5, 8th). Advanced statistics love the Browns too, as both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders both rank Cleveland ninth in overall defense. Even more impressive, the defense has put up the numbers while not forcing a ton of turnovers. The Browns have just seven takeaways through four games, good for a tie for 13th in the NFL.
How then are Horton’s charges so effectively shutting down opposing offenses? Exactly how he said they would.
From the time Horton was hired this offseason all the way until the Browns and Dolphins kicked off in the season opener, the coaching staff and defensive players continually spewed the same words to describe the new 3-4 system. They were going to be aggressive. They were going to attack. To this point, the numbers prove those words true. Through four games, the Browns have 14 sacks, tying them for third most in the league. Desmond Bryant has led the way with 3.5, followed by the rookie Barkevious Mingo, who has recorded one in each of his three games thus far. The Browns have also registered 12 quarterback hits and 49 hurries, further proof that Horton’s ethos is showing up on the field.
Back to Mingo for a moment. The Browns first pick in this year’s draft faced a number of questions through the offseason and training camp, many focused on his perceived light weight and his lack of statistical production in his final season at LSU. Add to that his bruised lung that forced him to sit out the season opener against Miami, and there were some in Cleveland labeling him a bust before he played a single regular season snap.
We’re three games in now, and it looks like the former Tiger may be putting those worries to rest. In his first three games, Mingo has registered ten total tackles, the aforementioned three sacks, and two other quarterback hurries. He has also batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage.
But his full impact is not contained in those numbers. In spite of the questions about his weight, Mingo has looked very powerful taking on blocks, while also displaying speed that catches offensive lineman off guard. While he is still making some rookie mistakes in the run game, he definitely passes the eye test when you watch him move on the field. Against Cincinnati this past weekend, Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of -3.7, making him one of the game’s worst performers, but anyone watching the game saw him all over the field making plays and disrupting the offense. As he continues to gain experience against NFL competition, expect him to only get more disciplined and troublesome for opponents.
In the secondary, Joe Haden has been performing like the potential All-Pro that he is, shutting down both Miami’s Mike Wallace and explosive Cincinnati wideout A.J. Green. I tweeted on Sunday that he was punching his ticket to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl with his lockdown coverage of Green, and the numbers back it up. Football Outsider’s analytics rank the Browns sixth in the league against the opposing team’s top receiver – a clear testament to Haden’s prowess.
Of course, his stellar play so far didn’t stop fans from reacting with outrage after he tweeted “Motivation!!” along with a map of Hawaii hanging in his locker. Don’t fret, Cleveland, I’m sure he’ll make the right choice and skip the Pro Bowl in order to prepare for the Super Bowl with his Browns teammates.
Where the Browns’ pass defense has seen problems, however, is across from Haden. Football Outsiders has the Browns ranked 26th best (or, alternatively, seventh worst) in the league against the opponent’s number two receiver. Much of that blame falls on Buster Skrine, who had me firing obscenities left and right when he was repeatedly victimized by Ryan Tannehill and Joe Flacco in weeks one and two.
Since then, Skrine has been improved. His play in the Bengals game was especially impressive given his previous performances. While he did benefit from poor play from Andy Dalton and extra safety help (Horton gambled – and won – by frequently leaving Haden on an island against the dangerous Green), he managed to break up three passes, intercept another, and not make me scream a single time. For the Browns defense to become a truly elite unit, Skrine will have to replicate his play against the Bengals.
The Browns have also benefited from a number of strong performances elsewhere on the defense. The big free agent acquisition Paul Kruger has been solid if not spectacular, while Desmond Bryant has looked like one of best offseason signings in the entire NFL. D’Qwell Jackson has been his usual steady self in the middle. Craig Robertson has made his share of mistakes playing beside him, but he continues to improve in just his second season. On the back end, T.J. Ward continues to fly under the radar as one of the league’s best safeties, while his partner Tashaun Gipson has not done anything to open the door for Johnson Bademosi to take his job.
But the unit’s success is predicated on pressure and the ability to play behind it. So far, the defensive line and rushing linebackers have done their job to keep opposing quarterbacks unsettled in the pocket. That commitment to pressure often leaves the secondary to fend for themselves. If Skrine and slot corner Chris Owens can execute their duties as they did against the Bengals, it will go a long way in helping Ray Horton’s defense to claw their way towards joining the NFL’s elite.