Much has been written and said about the Browns abysmal run defense in 2014. The team ranked last in the league in rushing yards allowed per game with 141.6 yards. Six running backs went over 100 yards against the Browns including Le’Veon Bell (109 yds), Denard Robinson (127), Alfred Blue (156), Jeremy Hill (148), Jonathan Stewart (122) and Justin Forsett (119).
Injuries certainly played a part in the trouble as Armonty Bryant lost 11 games to injury, Phil Taylor 11 games, Phil Hughes 11 games, Ahtyba Rubin 3 games, and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen 1 game. That’s a large blow to the defensive line who is desperately needed to plug holes and take up blockers in this system.
Gone is Ahtyba Rubin, who had been very good but did not have a great 2014. The Browns spent a first round pick on Danny Shelton, whom they believe to be the run stopper of the future. The Browns also took Xavier Cooper from Washington State in the third round. They added veteran Randy Starks via free agency. All of these moves were made to bolster the run defense.
The question remains whether the defense will actually be better. Browns safety Donte Whitner seems to think they are headed in the right direction.
“Yeah, just based on the competition we have up front now,” said Whitner. “We don’t have a bunch of guys injured. We have guys that have to truly fight for their job this year. Nothing is going to be handed to them. We drafted guys in the first round. We drafted guys all across the board. We brought guys in like (DL) Randy (Starks). It is a lot of competition. There are some guys who won’t be here. That is the true reality of playing in the National Football League, especially when you have a glowing weakness on your defense like stopping the run. They have to do something to bond and they have to create competition. That is why I think we are going to be better. Guys know that if you don’t get it done right now, you won’t be here so that is the difference.”
Of course the onus doesn’t fall completely on the defensive line to stop the run. Everyone on the defense is responsible. The linebackers and secondary play a big role as well. Last season the Browns allowed too many backs to run downhill, meaning they found a seam in the line and ran straight downfield as opposed to being forced to run side-to-side.
“We were horrible at it last year,” said Whitner on Tuesday. “One guy being out of place and playing some good backs they found that crease and ran downhill on us. I believe we’ll get a lot better, we have a bunch of veterans, we have young rookies in there.”
Whitner isn’t the only one impressed with rookie defensive lineman Danny Shelton. Defensive line coach Anthony Weaver likes what he sees in the rookie from Washington.
“He’s doing a heck of a job,” said Weaver on Tuesday. “But he’s a rookie so he makes rookie mistakes. He still has to learn all the defenses and all of those things, but for a rookie at the point he’s at now, I think he’s doing a tremendous job.”
Weaver also had praise for the Browns other D-line draftee Xavier Cooper.
“X has done a great job. He’s continues to have tremendous get off, off the football,” said Weaver. “He’s doing a great job with his hands and getting off blocks and making plays. The thing about him is he’s a football junkie. For instance, I was eating a snack with him the other night at 9 o’clock and almost everybody was going home. I went home. He told me he was going home. (Defensive coordinator) Jimmy O’Neil walked by the meeting room around 9:30 p.m. ,and he was in there watching film. That’s just the type of guy he is. He will undoubtedly be successful in this league.”
If the Browns are going to stop the run this season, the defensive line as a unit will have to play much better, play up to their potential in order to keep Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson and the linebacking group “clean” so they can fill gaps and make plays.
Weaver is confident the team can turn the corner and become a better unit against the run.
“I am. I have the utmost confidence in what we’ve done as a staff with Jim O’Neil and (secondary coach Jeff) Hafley, with everybody because it takes 11 to stop the run. Then the guys we have out there on the field, we’ve definitely brought guys in that can stop the run. Our group as a whole, our defense as a whole there’s added emphasis on ‘Hey, guys, this is what’s going to keep us from being dominant. We need to improve on this.’ And you can see that out there on the football field right now.”
Now what remains is to see it on the field in game situations.