In case you haven't noticed, the Browns have finally concluded a three-week tour of the AFC North – an organizational survey of sorts that produced three losses and offered scant evidence of overall team progress.
And judging from the general sense of apathy emanating out of Cleveland recently, even some of the most diehard Browns fans have already checked out of a 4-9 season full of unwatchable football.
Yet, beyond the losses, the past three weeks have served as a measuring stick of just what the eternally rebuilding Browns need to do in order to improve. After all, any type of real improvement for the Browns begins in their own division.
As such, the Browns have some extensive work to do – merely to compete with the likes of the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers.
Call it a symptom of Eric Mangini's desire to build a physically imposing veteran defense or simply chalk it up to years of inept drafting, but the Browns' defense remains one of the slowest units in the league. Against all three AFC North opponents, this unfortunate realization was again displayed.
Within tight spaces, the Browns' defense is a solid unit – one that is even capable of domination. In 2011, the defense has executed several outstanding goal line stands – including a series of stops against each divisional opponent. The mass of defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and rookie Phil Taylor contribute to a wall that allows a second line of slower linebackers to flood to the ball.
Of course, problems arise when the Browns are stretched across the field. Currently, the Browns feature two front seven defenders in Jabaal Sheard and D'Qwell Jackson who are capable of making plays horizontally across the field. Evidence of this deficiency could be found in both the Cincinnati and Baltimore games – where each team gouged the Browns' defense with well-executed screen passes. Or, against Pittsburgh, the Browns' defense was successful when the Steelers ran inside, but victimized on stretch runs.
For the Browns' defense to truly improve, an athletic outside linebacker has to replace veteran Scott Fujita, while upgrades at defensive end and more inside bulk are needed.
Likewise, in these more defined parameters of space, veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown is able to stay with younger, quicker opposing wide receivers. However, Brown has become a liability in downfield coverage – which is a problem in the AFC North. Consider that Brown will need to cover each AFC North team's secondary wide receiver. This list includes Antonio Brown, Jerome Simpson and Torrey Smith – all players gifted with incredible speed.
Complicating matters is what lies beyond Brown in the team's deep secondary. Injured starter T.J. Ward is more of a run-stopping safety, which leaves a combination of journeymen Mike Adams and Usama Young to man the free safety spot. Considering the downfield passing games of all three AFC North opponents, adding a top-flight free safety is a priority for the Browns moving forward.
While Brown and Adams are great veteran presences, the Browns' defense will continue to suffer if both of these players are full-time starters.
Getting back to screen passes – which in the Browns' case has proven to be a historical mark of weakness – the current offensive line is not capable of blocking for such a play. Despite head coach Pat Shurmur's continued insistence on calling screen passes; the right side combination of Shawn Lauvao and Tony Pashos is ineffective when it comes to such plays.
Simply put, Lauvao is undisciplined in his blocking assignments, while Pashos is too slow and clumsy to get in front of a ball carrier. Both players can excel at times in run blocking, but neither is particularly skilled at pass blocking – at least within Shurmur's specific scheme. In fact, it would appear that current left guard Jason Pinkston would probably make the best right tackle given the team's makeup. Pinkston has proven surprisingly effective when on the move. Of course, this shift would create a gap at left guard – unless veteran Eric Steinbach can return from injury.
Either way, the Browns' offensive line woes again need addressed during the offseason. Besides Pashos being a liability on the outside, the majority of opposing pressure has come up the middle of the Browns' line. Center Alex Mack has slipped a bit in 2011, presumably because of the young talent surrounding him. While the return of Steinbach could be viewed as a positive in 2011, adding more help becomes yet another priority.
It's too easy to suggest that the Browns' offense needs playmakers. Although there are several critical needs found among the roster, the quickest way for the Browns to close the gap between themselves and the AFC North is to add both a downfield receiving target and breakaway running threat. Of course, such a notion is easier said than done – but then again, having a couple playmakers on the field forgives deficiencies in other areas.
Perhaps no better example can be found than last Thursday's game in Pittsburgh. In most respects, the Steelers are – and have been – a team that features a terrible offensive line and aging defensive talent. However, the likes of Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall offset these issues. The same logic can be applied in Baltimore with Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice and now in Cincinnati via A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham.
Yet, even with the hopeful addition of some playmakers this offseason, the Browns' offensive schemes need to be critiqued and improved before next season. Far too often this season, a designed pass ends with a receiver falling to the ground or instantly being tackled by a defender. In other words, there is little forward momentum created by a Browns' completion. Contrast this with the premiere passing games in the league – such as Pittsburgh – where receivers catch a pass in stride and bound for extra yards.
Of course, having a quality quarterback and receivers who can actually catch the ball also helps.
Now for the hard part.
Talent aside, the last three games have revealed a disturbing realization about the 2011 Browns. Simply put, there are very few players who are capable of exhibiting the kind of game-changing intensity required of winning teams.
Outside of Josh Cribbs, Alex Mack, Ahtyba Rubin, D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden and T.J. Ward – and excluding the technical wizardry of Joe Thomas and Phil Dawson – the Browns don't offer much in the way of enthusiastic bursts of leadership. Considering the circumstances of a nine-loss season, such is to be expected.
However, the present coaching schemes often leave much to be desired in this area.
Against Baltimore, the Browns' offense appeared to be operating in a vacuum – in a completely separate dimension compared to the rest of the roster. There was little urgency in the play calling, despite Baltimore's insistence on keeping the Browns in the game until the third quarter. On defense, Dick Jauron's squad knew exactly just what the Ravens were doing as they continually ran the ball. Yet in both cases, the Browns appeared nothing more than an impotent NFL pretender.
A few nights ago, this same urgency disappeared in another close contest. After a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger returned to the game, the Browns' defense barely managed to rush four passers on obvious passing downs. Again, the defense became mesmerized by a too obvious heavy dose of running.
Contrast the Browns' meek nature with that of the Steelers later in the game. After Colt McCoy returned from a nasty James Harrison hit, the Steelers sent extra blitzers up the middle of the Browns' offensive line and chased a wobbly McCoy into an inopportune game-clinching interception. Obviously, the Steelers realized McCoy's limitations, sensed blood and changed the game – while the Browns simply allowed their opponent to again set the tone.