Browns Top Priority is Stuffing the Run

You may hear Phil Savage talk about rushing the passer, but OBR commentator Rich Passan believes that there is no priority higher than stuffing the run. With nose tackles like Haloti Ngata (pictured) and Maake Kemoeatu available via the draft and free agency, the move the Browns have to make is obvious...

In his pre-draft get together with the media last week, Browns General Manager Phil Savage intimated he plans on addressing three areas when free agency begins Friday and the college draft rolls around in late April.

He targeted the pass rush, the need for a veteran wide receiver and improvement along the offense line.

There's no reading between the lines with Savage. That's because he leaves no space there. But sometimes, it's what he doesn't say that catches everyone by surprise.

So don't be astonished if Savage first addresses his team's most important need, the one he so adroitly sidestepped with the media: Stopping the run.

If the Browns are to become contenders in the National Football League, they must first - and foremost - stop the run. Rushing the passer is important, as are a reliable veteran receiver to complement the younger kids and a stud offensive lineman or two.

But if teams see they still can run on the Browns and don't have to pass much, what good does it do to improve the pass rush? The Browns need to stuff the run and force the opposition to pass.

Until they effectively shut down the opposition's ability to move the football on the ground, they will have trouble competing. It should be priority number one.

It is critical that Savage somehow, someway brings a run-stuffing nose tackle to Cleveland along with another inside linebacker to help Andra Davis.

Far too often last season, the opposition softened the Cleveland defense by pounding away between the tackles. They got to the second level with ridiculous ease and made it difficult for the linebackers to do their job. The backers could not operate cleanly.

That served two purposes: It wore down the Cleveland defense and strengthened the opposition's defense resting on the bench.

The running game is the staple of any successful team's offense. It's all about sustaining drives, keeping the clock moving, rocking your opponent back on its heels.

Last season, the Browns' defense faced way too many short-yardage situations on third down. It is imperative to significantly increase the average third-down yardage. And you do that by making it difficult to run on first down.

Watching the defense for the last seven years has become an exercise in futility and frustration. How many times have we seen the defense force third down and fail to do deliver? Sure, the red-zone defense was strong last season. No argument. Inside the 20-yard line, it was quite impressive.

What frustrated fans more than anything was watching that defense time and again fail to make the big play outside the 20. It seems as though the Browns played an entirely different game when the opposition entered the red zone.

Winning at the line of scrimmage is the hallmark of teams that do not just make the playoffs, but advance beyond the first round. Stop the run and you can start punching tickets for the playoffs.

What the Browns need are two or three players who can come in and put up the stop sign; two or three players who commit to winning a vast majority of their individual battles; two or three players who can make plays.

Then and only then should Savage address other areas of need with the pass rush a close second. Whether that pressure comes from the defensive line or linebackers, opposition quarterbacks need to know they have to make decisions a lot faster when playing the Browns.

Sacks are nice, but hurries are even better. Making a quarterback throw before he wants and creating the atmosphere for an interception is just as effective, if not more effective, than dropping him behind the line of scrimmage.

One area that needs to improve - and this feeds into all of the above - is the turnover department. The Browns did not create nearly enough takeaways last season; getting off the field and the ball back into the hands of the offense.

The draft is rich in defense this year. It is incumbent on Savage to be patient when making his picks and focus heavily on the side of the ball that ultimately leads to winning football, the side of the ball on which his team needs the most help.

It is time to give Romeo Crennel and Todd Grantham the ammunition they need to play the kind of football that excites fans. The kind that will put the Browns back on the road to respectability and beyond.

Rich Passan has had a long and varied career covering sports in Northeast Ohio. A long-time reporter and columnist of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Rich also spoke to fans frequently as host of a Cleveland AM radio post-game show. Rich recently retired from daily reporting and is living in Arizona, where he devours every scrap of information that comes his way about the Cleveland Browns.

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