The Cleveland Browns first training camp practice open to fans is Saturday, July 28. Finally, after months of rehashing another losing season and debating possible free agency signees and draft picks, the attention turns to the 2012 season.
As evident by the discussion on theOBR forums, there are plenty of areas to discuss about a young Browns team full of potential. The staff at theOBR zeroed in on five questions relevant to this year's squad:
1. Are you happy with the job Tom Heckert has done since becoming GM in January 2010? Read the guys' takes here.
2. Which area of this team do you think is the most improved since the end of the 2011 season, and which area needs the most work entering 2012? Read the guys' takes here.
3. What will you be looking for in the first few weeks of camp leading into the Browns' preseason opener Friday, Aug. 10 at Detroit? Read the guys' takes here.
4. Last season, the Browns defense allowed an NFL fifth-best 19.2 points per game. Yet they were third-worst against the run allowing 147.4 yards per game. Well, are you glass-half full with this defense or is it just more of the same?
5. Is it too simplistic to say that the only way to win in today's NFL is to have a top-tier quarterback? Will Brandon Weeden be that guy or is it more likely he'll join the long list of never-have-beens?
Join the fellas by providing your take in the comments below.
Next up, question No. 4.
Last season, the Browns defense allowed an NFL fifth-best 19.2 points per game. Yet they were third-worst against the run allowing 147.4 yards per game. Well, are you glass-half full with this defense or is it just more of the same?
Consider me skeptical on this one, since I'd argue that the low point total and high running percentage are tied to the Browns themselves being unable to score in 2011. Without a fearsome offense, you get these sort of statistics, because teams can simply grind it out on the ground, eat up the clock, and don't need to press for scores. I'm not convinced that the Browns linebacking corps is anywhere it's needed to be for a playoff caliber team. I am convinced that the loss of Phil Taylor is huge, and that the defense will face greater pressure this year.
I'm skeptical improvement will be gained in the 2012 season due to the pectoral tear suffered by DT Phil Taylor. The addition of veteran DE/DT Frostee Rucker via free agency could now prove to be a significant move for the Browns, as the team will not be forced to rely solely on the inexperience of rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn. The addition of DE Juqua Parker should spark some pass rush opportunities opposite 2011 rookie standout Jabaal Sheard.
With the starting corps at LB returning, improvement shouldn't be expected from the group as a whole. Now, James-Michael Johnson could be the wild-card at LB. If this young man steps onto the playing field and delivers, as he had shown in the mini-camp setting, the play at LB could be interesting to watch due to his physical nature.
The CB's remain the same, and in the case of Sheldon Brown, does father time begin to catch up with him. With Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine playing the nickel and dime roles, the Browns have covered the bases.
They have to stop the run and missing Phil Taylor for up to 10 games isn't going to help. John Hughes and Billy Winn will have to be able to step in immediately. Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker will help, but the front seven will have to play better to improve the run defense.
In 2011, the Browns featured three players who could be considered solid run defenders in Ahtyba Rubin, D'Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward. Unfortunately for Dick Jauron's defense, Rubin was often double-teamed, while Jackson and Ward cleaned up tackles five and seven yards past the line of scrimmage. Taylor – who alternately shows legitimate talent and a lack of conditioning – slightly improved what has been a traditional expansion weakness for the Browns.
In 2012, Rubin will again mostly go it alone against opposing linemen. With Taylor shelved for at least half of the season – if not more – the Browns have to fill in the gaps around Rubin with veteran scraps Brian Sanford and rookies John Hughes and Billy Wynn. Some hope for improvement is found in Sheard, who proved to be an effective run stopping defensive end and free agent pickup Frostee Rucker – who is basically an end/tackle tweener. Considering the linebacking unit behind Rubin is mostly unchanged from 2011, I can't imagine a much different outcome.
Ultimately, you need to score more points than your opponent to win a football game. The Browns were unable to do that 12 times last season.
However, it was not always the defense's fault. The Browns offense was bad and they were unable to take advantage of a defense allowing an average of 19.2 points per game. Numerous times the defense put the Browns in position to win a game and the hapless offense failed to deliver.
This defense has young talent infused throughout the starting 11 and Heckert added key run-stopping defensive linemen in free agency and the draft. The direction of this until is positive because the Browns offense seems to be bolstered with more potential playmakers.
Stopping the run will continue to be a challenge because of the loss of Phil Taylor. Somehow, someway, that number – 147.7 yards rushing per game – needs to be reduced. If it is, I would expect the defensive until to once again hand it over to the offense and ask them to go win the game. This season, that notion may not seem so disheartening.