The Cleveland Browns’ defense—particularly against the run—is a problem this year. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
In fact, Kevin Jones wrote a detailed piece on the Browns’ run defense woes for Sports Illustrated on Friday. And earlier in the summer, we took a historical look at the Browns’ ongoing struggles to stop the run, struggles that date back to before the Mike Pettine administration and have lingered since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. Scheme, coach, personnel: It doesn’t matter, it seems. The run is something Cleveland cannot defend and when someone devises a system that can, he or she should be locked into a coaching job with the Browns for a decade.
As Jones pointed out in his piece, “The Browns have issues with gap integrity.” But what does that mean, in bas relief? The numbers this season are startling. It’s not just that the Browns are yet again the last-ranked defense in the league against the run, averaging 149.8 yards allowed to their opponents so far this year (up from their 32nd-ranked 141.6 rushing yards per game allowed in 2014). It’s also that they have given up eight runs of 20-plus yards this year (tied with the San Diego Chargers and second only to the Tennessee Titans) as well as a league-leading three runs of 40 or more yards.
Tackling has been a problem, as would be expected with any poor-performing defense. The Browns have totaled a combined 47 missed tackles on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. As such, the fewest opponent rushing yards in a game they’ve given up this year was 91, to the San Diego Chargers. And while that was a brief sign of improvement, the Browns went on to allow 181 rushing yards to the Baltimore Ravens the following week (121 of which belonged to Ravens back Justin Forsett alone). Indeed, big days for even the most marginal of running backs—think the Titans’ Dexter McCluster—have been a common occurrence when it comes to Cleveland’s defense this year. And that’s because opponent doesn’t matter: Any back can get the job done against the Browns, from McCluster, to Denver’s Ronnie Hillman to even the New York Jets’ Bilal Powell, who had 62 rushing yards in Week 1, on top of Chris Ivory’s 91 yards and two scores.
What’s most disconcerting is that the Browns cannot stop the run at any level of the field. Jones focused on the lack of gap discipline, which is an issue, as well as the inability for Cleveland’s defenders to set the edge. Football Outsiders’ defensive metrics reflect this. The Browns are 24th in the league in yards allowed from the left end of the defense, 31st from the right end and 30th in yards allowed between the center and the guards. In other words, the Browns cannot defend the run, full stop. There is nowhere they excel. Adding Danny Shelton in the draft hasn’t helped. Bringing in Randy Starks in free agency hasn’t helped. A rotational approach, not just to the defensive line but also to the linebacker position, hasn’t helped.
Unsurprisingly, Football Outsiders also notes that the Browns are fifth-worst in stuffing runs—as in, stopping a run play at or behind the opponents’ line of scrimmage—and rank 30th in the league in second-level yards, as well as dead last in open-field yards. Second-level yards, in this case, means yards earned by opposing running backs between five and 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, and open-field yards are those earned from 10 yards or beyond the line. It’s not surprising, because of the Browns’ missed tackle rate, the number of big rushing plays they’ve allowed and the crazy number of after-contact yards opposing running backs are earning. Based on Pro Football Focus’ numbers, McCluster, Latavius Murray, Danny Woodhead and Forsett have all had season-high after-contact yardage in their respective meetings with the Browns. It’s not difficult to assume what rookie St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley is going to do against this defense on Sunday.
Jones’ piece details a specific issue that is plaguing Cleveland’s defense: A too-complex scheme that is causing players to overthink. Defensive assignments are determined thusly: “Rather than being assigned specific gaps, Cleveland's defensive linemen play different techniques based on how their offensive counterparts are blocking them. The linebackers, then, are expected to guess what technique their teammates are using, scrape through the resulting mess and make the play.” Thus, concludes Jones, “the defense may be too complicated for its own good.” The pre-snap confusion that’s supposed to stem from such a scheme is instead causing confusion for the Browns’ defenders, not the opposing offenses.
And that’s certainly one concern. But it also goes beyond that to simple fundamentals: General discipline, for one, and tackling techniques, for the other. Scheme alone doesn’t dictate a defense’s success or failure making tackles. With so many backs rushing for five, 10, 15 or more yards at a clip, it’s obvious that numerous players are failing to wrap up and get stops. Scheme may dictate why the Browns are stuffing so few runs, but it does not explain away the multiple missed chances per play. And even more troubling is that the Browns defense gets worse as games go on. Though the Browns’ last four games have been decided by a touchdown or less, opposing offenses run more and more as the games have progressed. The Raiders had just 52 rushing yards against the Browns at halftime and ended up with 155; the Ravens had 34 rushing yards at halftime and ended with 181; the Broncos had 71 rushing yards at the half and ended with 152. This defense is not only getting-got by the run on a weekly basis, but it is also being worn down by it.
This is a problem with no clear solution. And it could get worse. There’s not just Gurley to deal with this Sunday, but also two meetings with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le'Veon Bell, two meetings with the Cincinnati Bengals’ Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, another against Forsett, plus Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch looming in Week 15. Playing the guessing game, which is what Pettine and coordinator Jim O’Neil are asking of their defenders, is not going to work against backs of this caliber, especially if it’s something that leads to McCluster—McCluster—earning 98 yards on just 10 touches. But altering the scheme alone may not help things for the Browns, just based on that approach not paying off in the past. How to fix the Brown’ run defense is a million-dollar question (as in, if anyone can properly answer it, they immediately deserve a million dollars). But there’s no overnight solution to these problems. Again: This defense cannot stop running backs off the edges nor in the middle of the field. It cannot stop backs from gaining significant yards. It cannot tackle. It gets gassed in the second half. This may just be the lay of the land in Cleveland this year, as it has been season after season. Simplifying the defense may provide some quick fixes for the Browns, but that assumes Pettine and O’Neil have the willingness to do so. But Cleveland’s issues are more systemic than the system, which makes finding a solution highly complicated.