The most important and pressing question about the Browns defense is the pass rush, especially with the loss of Jamir Miller for the season and what he brought on third downs. Unfortunately, our star defensive end, the #1 overall pick in the draft, just ahead of Lavar Arrington, cannot provide a definitive answer to the question because he has yet to prove he can provide a consistent rush, game in and game out.
Courtney Brown, in his third season, should be coming into his own as a game-changing pass rusher. However, he has not shown he can be a consistent force that the Browns can rely on to provide pressure from the edges. He just can't seem to disengage from offensive tackles (even just average offensive tackles) and is escorted out of the pocket by said tackles. Maybe the light will turn on sometime this year, but we enter the season wondering who will provide pressure from the outside on the quarterback.
While I and others perceive a problem with Courtney's production, many Browns fans do not. Their argument usually has something to do with the fact quarterback sacks are just one measure of defensive end's productivity. Brown is one of the best defensive ends in the league against the run and always follows his assignments, they say. To that argument, I say: Who cares? Truly, Brown is a fine defensive end versus the rush, and is quite adept at making plays on running backs even on plays that go the opposite end of the field. I will grant that Brown is one of the premier ends at stopping the run. But as a defensive end, his job is to sack the quarterback. Simple as that. Does anybody remember or care whether Mean Joe Green stuffed the run? Bruce Smith? Deacon Jones? Michael Strahan? Reggie Camp?
It's particularly galling that the player drafted after Brown has been busy wreaking havoc and making a Pro Bowl while Courtney seems more worried about staying in his assigned pass rushing lanes than making game-changing plays. Consider Lavar to be Van Halen's "Unchained" to Courtney's Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major."
Further, if Brown were a fourth round pick and he was getting paid commensurate to that status, the Browns would be getting good return on their investment. But Brown, as a #1 overall pick and supposed touchstone of this defense, is getting paid to perform like Bruce Smith, not Reggie Camp.
In an age where the salary cap and the current structure of free agency puts tight constraints on free agent movement, every draft is critical and missing on even one high draft choice can cause a franchise to spin its wheels for several years (e.g. post-Ryan Leaf Chargers, post-Blair Thomas Jets, post-Tony Mandarich Packers, the Bengals). For the money Courtney is getting paid and the resources spent to acquire him, he needs to be damn near a borderline Hall of Famer if the Browns are to receive good return on their investment.
So why does Courtney have difficulty bringing it on a consistent basis? He certainly does not have any physical limitations. Any fears or misgivings about his physical skills are allayed when watching film of the interception versus Purdue when he was at Penn State, where he batted a Drew Brees pass in the air, caught it, and outran everyone for a touchdown. And the way he stretches is the stuff of Pure Football legend.
If it's not the physical, then, it must be the mental. Brown does not display much, if any, emotion on the field (hence the nickname, "Quiet Storm"). While some fans interpret his stoicism as quiet intensity, others suggest disinterest. Len Pasquarelli recently quoted an NFC executive: "He just seems to have no passion for the game. I'm not talking about a lack of heart, because I don't think that's the case. But he seems to act like the game is not all that important to him."
Juxtapose Butch Davis' recent statement that Brown is "too robotic" with what we know about Davis' public statements about players in general (where never is heard a discouraging word), and even the most casual observer can see that Davis senses a problem with Brown's lack of passion about the game.
I hope that the misgivings and fears about Courtney's play are allayed and put to rest for good this season. If there ever was a time for Courtney to be The Man™ it is now. He has a strong supporting cast, is in his second year in the defensive scheme, and the team has an offense that may actually be able to build leads and force the opposition to come from behind and pass the ball.
I hope this Nitanny Lion can change its stripes (yeah, I know, lions don't have stripes, but give me some journalistic license) and add in a little Lawrence Taylor/Dexter Manley to his personality, sans the illegal substances or illiteracy. I hope what we saw in preseason, where Brown was, for the most part, a non-factor on passing downs, does not portend similar ineffectiveness when play begins for real on Sunday.
I hope he can bring the heat like a #1 overall pick should.
Until he does, I remain skeptical.