We all know that the Cleveland Browns’ defense were the worst performers against the run in 2014. They allowed an average of 141.6 rushing yards per game. Opposing offenses were quick to figure this out and opted to run the ball heavily against Cleveland’s defense, an average of 31.2 attempts per game.
But this problem just didn’t surface in 2014. In fact, it has lingered for a decade. No matter the coaching changes—of which there have been five in that time, six if you count the two different defensive coordinators employed during Romeo Crennell’s tenure as head coach—nor the scheme they install, nor the players tasked to run it has changed things for the Browns against the run.
Since 2005, the Browns have ranked no higher than 18th in average rushing yards per game allowed—once in 2012 and again in 2013. Otherwise, they have been among the NFL’s very worst teams in rushing yardage allowed, yards per rush attempt and, most notably, in first downs per game achieved by running the ball.
This ongoing problem has only been somewhat mitigated by the Browns’ often possessing high-caliber secondaries that can at least limit the damage done by opposing offenses in the air. But most of that effort was for naught, because teams have historically done a good job of moving the chains via the ground game. The Browns gave up a league-worst 7.9 rushing first downs per game last year and have found themselves in the middle of the NFL’s pack in that area just once in the last 10 years—in 2006, when they allowed a 17th-ranked 6.7 rushing first downs per game.
But that’s not even all that great, considering the Browns’ 6.4 rushing first downs per game allowed in 2013 ranked them 21st in the league. This means the NFL as a whole is getting better at stopping the run, while the Browns have stayed the same or, in some years, gotten worse. But the real question is why? Why have the Browns gone 10 years allowing no fewer than 3.9 yards per rush? Why can teams run all over them without resistance? The answer may the same one that applies to many areas in which the Browns have been deficient, not just in the last 10 years, but since returning to the NFL in 1999: A lack of consistency.
As mentioned earlier, the Browns have had five head coaches and six defensive coordinators since 2005. Five of those coordinators all ran a variation of the 3–4 base defense while Dick Jauron, employed under Pat Shurmur in 2011 and 2012 ran a 4–3 base. But not every defense is created equal. What Mel Tucker’s 3–4 looked like in 2008 was different than Todd Grantham’s in 2005 to 2007 and it was different from Rob Ryan’s 3–4 defense from 2010 to 2009. Moving to a 4–3 base in the two years that followed presented its own challenges, as did the switch back to a 3–4 with Ray Horton in 2013. And Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil’s 3–4 base of today is far different than the blitz-heavy approach that is the hallmark of the Horton defense.
And with these coaching changes come their attendant personnel swaps. What one coach or coordinator saw in one player the next pair might not see. Or the duties of the position might change. Without consistency in the coaching staff, there has not been consistency on the roster. And even players like D’Qwell Jackson and Ahtyba Rubin, who saw many of these changes, had their positions morph from one thing to the next as the coaching carousel spun on. There is a difference between a hybrid or rotational defensive front seven and a complete overhaul of defensive philosophy on a near-yearly basis. No position has been stable.
What has resulted is not a cadre of scheme-versatile players but rather a motley crew of thrown together parts, with coaches having to work with what they have—such as making due with a 3–4 outside linebacker drafted two years earlier who now has to act as a 4–3 defensive end—and adding pieces of their own. Pieces, mind you, that may not fit in yet another year, after yet another coaching change.
Stopping the run isn’t just as simple as putting big, relatively agile bodies up front and telling them “Get the man with the football, yes?” It’s a complicated dance between all seven—and sometimes more—defenders tasked with taking down a running back before he can break off the four-plus yards per carry the Browns have been allowing. But with no chance to build chemistry, let alone fully master a defensive system before it changes, the players have had little chance of improving the Browns’ lot against the run.
So what breaks this cycle? Coaching stability, for one. But if Pettine and O’Neil cannot improve the Browns’ run defense and 2015 ends the same way 2014 did, owner Jimmy Haslam’s patience with the coaching staff could run out. He wasn’t afraid to pull the plug on head coach Rob Chudzinski and Horton after just one year in 2013. But if enough goes well for the Browns this year outside of the run defense — such as, the secondary continuing to outperform most others in the league, or the offense stabilizes—then that could buy Pettine and O’Neil more time. But even just a minor improvement against the run, such as allowing fewer rushing first downs, should be enough to allow the coaches to continue their progress with this roster, and in turn allow the players a greater chance to master execution of their coaches’ vision.
There are positives about the Browns’ run defense, in that they haven’t been giving up an exorbitant amount of rushing touchdowns per game—last year, they gave up a 19th-ranked 0.8 rushing scores per game, the same as in 2013. The issue stopping the run is about opponents’ moving the chains, not from them crossing the goal line at will. And, for the first time in a long time, it looks like a coaching staff is doubling down on their efforts to truly improve the run defense, starting with the drafting of defensive tackle Danny Shelton in Round 1 this year and realizing that Rubin isn’t nose tackle material after all.
If Pettine and O’Neil can turn around what has been a decade-long issue for the Browns, they should be lauded as heroes. But history shows what a difficult task this has been for coach after coach, coordinator after coordinator, player after player. It seems like there are no things in life guaranteed except death, taxes and the Browns’ being unable to stop the run. But one of those could be on the verge of being crossed off the list, at least if Pettine’s and O’Neil’s plans are the ones to finally come to fruition in Cleveland.
All stats and ranks related to the Browns’ run game via TeamRankings.com