An Enigma Wrapped in a Riddle

Andrea looks at the self-contradicting elements of the Cleveland Browns defense, looking for a reason for their struggles n 2014.

We all know the basic story of the Cleveland Browns’ 2014 defense. The secondary was masterful, the pass-rush was not. The run defense was the league’s worst in terms of yards per game allowed. But there are some strange quirks to the Browns’ 2014 defense that make its true identity difficult to pin down. Indeed, it was an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a… well, you get the idea.

Let’s start with the pass defense. The Browns ranked eighth in passing yards allowed last year, but that’s not even the stat that matters most. What matters most is that the Browns were tops in the league in opponent quarterback rating, at 74.1, thanks to the secondary allowing a league-low completion percent of just 57.1. The Browns also boasted the second-highest interception total in the league, with 21, while tying for sixth in passing touchdowns allowed, with 22. And though the Browns were so disastrous against the run and were making quarterbacks look foolish, that didn’t stop teams from passing the football—the Browns faced the seventh-most pass attempts in the league, at 587.

But the front seven weren’t much help when it came to defending the pass, much as they were the unit to blame when it came to failing to stop the run. Cleveland’s defense had just 31 total sacks in 2014, 11 of which belonged to linebacker Paul Kruger. And this is also where things start to get strange. Cleveland’s defense allowed an average of 141.6 rushing yards per game, 4.5 rushing yards per attempt and faced the second-most rushing attempts in the league, at 500. But as we pointed out earlier this month, the Browns had the fewest missed tackles per defensive snap, at .086, and missed a total of just102 tackles on the year. The Browns also made the second-most tackles in the league, at 1,164. So how is it possible for the Browns to have the most efficient tackling defense in the NFL in 2014 while having the worst run defense at the same time?

Football Outsiders may provide a clue. The site ranked the Browns’ front seven 29th in the league against the run, and for two key reasons. One, the Browns were 29th in the league at run-stuffing, or tackling running backs for a loss or no gain—they only did so on 15 percent of their run plays. And the Browns also ranked 28th in second-level yards, or yardage earned by opposing running backs that went five to 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So opposing running backs were able to gain five or 10 yards against the Browns defense regularly, and based on the Browns’ tackling stats, were doing so completely untouched. It means that the Browns defensive front—which, worth noting was dotted with significant injuries last year, forcing players onto the field for more snaps than had been planned for—was being held in check by opposing offensive linemen so much so that they couldn’t attempt a tackle close to the line of scrimmage, let alone miss one.

Or at least, that’s the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from all of these numbers. Because, otherwise, one would expect that the league’s worst run defense would also be one of the league’s worst tackling defenses as well. But it is strange to look at Cleveland’s 2014 defense and try to figure out the what and the why, with so many contradictory facts to parse. It’s rare for a team to have such an excellent secondary and then fall so flat in the trenches, while at the same time those very same struggling defensive linemen and linebackers were able to make tackle after tackle with few clear whiffs. At least, with such clear strengths and weaknesses, the Browns know exactly what works and what will need work heading into the 2015 season.

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