The Owl: Plugging the Leak

The Owl has examined the Browns 2006 list of opponents, which has brought the Browns immediate player needs into very sharp focus. Our feathered friend examines how immediate needs will impact the Browns draft and free agency approaches...

We do not need games to grade or coaching decisions to second-guess to feel involved in running the Browns in the offseason. Free agency and the draft provide excellent avenues for that for critics on all levels.

So let's go on record right now and say finding a nose tackle and an inside linebacker to stop the run have to be Phil Savage's top priorities between now and May 1. The 2006 schedule demands it. Read on to see whom the Browns face.

Do the Browns need a pass rusher? That is priority B. Could they use some better offensive linemen? Sure. They could get better at both guard spots and left tackle, but they can get by on what they have and add depth. But until the Browns do a better job against the run, they will be outside looking in again during the playoffs next year.

Players often said last year the talent is on the team. It's just that players were out of position here and there. Forget it. The talent was not there.

Pointing out run defense was a problem for the Browns in 2005 as Coach Romeo Crennel often did would be like saying there was a leak in the Titanic.

The Browns finished 30th against the run. That is two spots better than they finished last season despite sending all those defensive linemen to Denver, yet run defense remains the biggest problem. And it is one the Browns better solve, because flood warnings are already out for 2006.

Three of the top four rushers in the AFC in 2005 are on the Browns' schedule next season. The Chiefs Larry Johnson with 1,750 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns led the conference in rushing. San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson was third with 1,462 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. He caught 51 passes for another 370 yards and two touchdowns.

Bengals running back Rudi Johnson, whom the Browns face twice, was fourth in rushing with 1,458 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Two of the top six NFC rushers are on the schedule. Falcons running back Warrick Dunn was fourth in the conference with 1,416 yards and three rushing touchdowns. Rookie Cadillac Williams of Tampa Bay was sixth with 1,178 yards and six touchdowns.

In short, there were 15 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL in 2005, excluding the Browns' own Reuben Droughns, and the Browns play 10 games against them, including Johnson twice and the Steelers' Willie Parker twice. Another opponent in 2006, the Texans' Dominack Davis, finished with 976 yards, plus the Texans are likely to make USC running back Reggie Bush the first pick in the draft.

The Ravens' Jamal Lewis had an off-year and still rushed for 906 yards. Denver's Tatum Bell finished with 921 yards, nearly giving the Broncos two 1,000-yard rushers. Mike Anderson squeaked in with 1,014 yards on the ground.

Adding the near misses to the 1,000-yard rushers means the Browns' run defense is going to be severely challenged 14 times in 16 games.

"We're going to play better running teams, but I think everybody tries to run the ball a little bit in the NFL," Crennel said. "There is one or two that don't run it as well, but I think everybody tries to. You have to be sound against the run. Otherwise, in that chess match, you're always behind a move."

The landscape can change quickly in the NFL because the salary cap and age can decimate a team like a natural disaster. Draft and free agency can bolster the weak.

At first glance, the Browns schedule in 2006 is more difficult than the one they faced in 2005. The better crop of runners is just part of it.

In 2006 the AFC North plays all four teams in the NFC South and all four teams in the AFC West. In 2005 the AFC North played the NFC North and the AFC South.

Only the Bears made the playoffs from the NFC North. Tampa Bay and Carolina were in the playoffs from the NFC South. Tampa Bay was eliminated in the opening round.

The AFC South did send Indianapolis and Jacksonville to the playoffs, but the other two teams - Tennessee and Houston - won a combined six games.

The composite record of the NFC North in 2005 was 29-35. The NFC South was 33-31. The AFC South was 32-32. The AFC West was 33-31.

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