Most of the scrutiny these last four games will be on Charlie Frye, but coaches and General Manager Phil Savage have other concerns, particularly on defense. Just how much repair is necessary?
It has been obvious from the beginning the Browns lack that impact player who can turn a game around on one play. Linebacker Kenard Lang argues that player is not necessary because the Patriots managed to win three of the last four games without stars on defense, and despite all their injuries it looks like New England is going to be in the playoffs again.
But the Browns do have one player on defense that, though he has not consistently been that impact player this year, certainly has the potential to be.
Chaun Thompson is arguably the most improved player on defense since the start of the season. He and Alvin McKinley are tied for second on the team with three sacks, which certainly is not much through 12 games, one behind Orpheus Roye. While the Browns are gauging whether Frye is the quarterback of the future, they can judge whether Thompson is the pass rusher of the future by cutting him loose against Carson Palmer Sunday.
The three sacks are already a career-high for the third year linebacker out of West Texas A&M. He has 75 tackles and needs six more for a career high in that category.
This is essentially Thompson's second year. When Butch Davis drafted him in 2003 he knew Thompson was going to be a project. Whether Davis erred by spending a second round draft choice on the 6-2, 242-pounder does not matter anymore. Now that he is Romeo Crennel's pupil the only question is how much better can he get as the Browns settle into the 3-4 defense?
"I think he's still a work in progress and he's made some progress. I think we've seen it on the field." Crennel said. "Overall, the [linebackers] as a whole have done a good job. The inside linebackers have more production from a tackle standpoint. We haven't gotten much from the outside linebackers in the pass rush area. We need a consistent pass rush from those guys. They've done a decent job in coverage and an adequate job against the run."
Crennel is probably overrating his linebackers as a group, but he certainly has something special in Thompson. There is no doubt Thompson is quick. He covers a lot of ground quickly with his long legs.
Whether Crennel concludes Thompson is the answer for the future could come down to the pass rush. But Thompson is more than a pass rusher. If he continues on his current pace Thompson will finish with more than 100 tackles. He has eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage on run plays.
"I think I've come a long way from last year," Thompson said. "My rookie year I was late to training camp (he held out). Last year I was in camp but I couldn't do anything because my thumb was broken. This year I went through the whole camp and preseason. That helped a lot switching to the 3-4."
Thompson wants to be more consistent. He made a textbook tackle of Texans running back Domanick Davis behind the line of scrimmage, slamming into Davis before he could turn the corner and burying him for a loss. His position coach, Mike Haluchak, wants to see more plays like that, and so does Crennel.
"Romeo has a belief that if you can do it once you can do it a million times," Thompson said. "That's what I want to do - run to the ball. Good things happen when you hustle.
"I want to be a force on the field play in and play out, not just here and there. I want to play within the defense, but I still want to be a dominant player and make people account for me."
The numbers don't tell the whole story, but they do say at least part of this defense has potential.