Without turning their roster upside down, the Browns may figured out a way to change their linebacking corps from a weakness into a strength in 2008.
Despite the cast of characters at linebacker being largely the same as in 2007, every indication leads me to believe the Cleveland defense is going to pull off an about face as the 2008 season approaches. The moves made by the organization have been geared to not only improve individual positions, but to ripple that improvement through the starting eleven, elevating play at every position.
In 2007, quality and depth issues along the Cleveland defensive line robbed the team of any hope of stuffing the run, and created challenges for the linebackers in creating pressure. Cornerbacks had to cheat up... linebackers couldn't flow to the ball carrier.
Playing alongside with the Smiths, Robaire and Shaun, the new acquisitions give the Cleveland defensive line the ability to manage at the point of attack and create opportunities. Looking back at last season helps us understand why this is so important.
THE 2007 SEASON
Looking back at the 2007 season, I can't erase the mental image of outside linebacker Willie McGinest lining up along the interior of the defensive line. Nor can I erase the memories of inside linebacker Andra Davis playing at times as if his feet were stuck in the mud.
Last season, some of Cleveland's linebackers were forced to play at a heavier than customary weight. This was at the request of the coaching staff, and was requested due to the inability of the defensive line to keep bodies off the linebackers.
To combat the physical toll that opposing offenses would dole out to the linebackers, some players were asked to get bigger. While it helped them in some ways, the additional weight did rob some of their initial burst - that special quickness that helped get some of these players on the field in the first place.
Coupled with an ever-changing defensive scheme, the Browns linebackers in 2007 couldn't help but struggle. Former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham frantically pushed coaching buttons at times: utilizing schemes that hadn't been worked on consistently, changing assignments, and so forth. All of this took its toll on the defensive side of the ball.
This isn't to say the players are not responsible - they are. To talk to many of them, though, these players did not believe they played their best football.
Last season, problems on the defensive line rippled out to impact linebackers in a number of ways, all of them negative. This year, the improved line may have exactly the opposite effect, and is already starting to show in subtle ways.
Let's take a look at the players who will be playing behind that improved line, and what we might be able to expect during the coming season.
Inside linebacker Andra Davis comes to camp lighter and potentially quicker, but will have to fend off veteran Leon Williams and 2008 draft selection Beau Bell to keep his starting spot. Davis has made plenty of tackles in his career, but has not been the presence against the run the Browns have needed.
Leon Williams has benefited from playing experience and will battle with Davis for the starting role opposite D'Qwell Jackson on the inside. At times, Williams has demonstrated the ability to make plays at the line of scrimmage, but consistency has been an issue. Watching Williams' development, I suspect some of his consistency issues may relate to the play along the defensive line.
D'Qwell Jackson is penciled in as a starter and may benefit the most from the reinvigorated defensive line. Jackson's game is predicated on being in motion. He is quick, plays relatively fast, but lacks the overall bulk and strength to fend off opposing guards who have reached the second level of defense. Flowing to the ball carrier is his strength and this defense is now structured to take advantage of it.
Rookie Beau Bell looks great on tape. He smashes ball-carriers, has an endless motor, plays big, and can move well. While his measurables are not dynamic, Bell could simply be a "football player". Outside of Jackson, Bell may be best suited of the insider linebackers to play sideline to sideline in pursuit. Bell's greatest gift, though, is one the team has badly needed: the ability to move forward and punish.
The Browns didn't get the play at outside linebacker position they hoped for last season, which showed up on the field as a sub-standard pass rush and containment issues.
Good luck in the health department will go a long way to a return to form in 2007, but, again in this case, the coaching staff hopes an improved defensive line makes dramatically improves the productivity at OLB.
If the changes work as planned, the team will be in a better position to utilize the speed and quickness that Wimbley and Peek possess. Forcing the opposition having to deal with the new-found capabilities of this defensive line will make all the difference.
Let's again examine how the line should help the players who hope to disrupt the plans of opposing offensive coordinators this year.
For Kamerion Wimbley, the 2008 season won't be about changing his game or modifying his role. The defensive staff will use Wimbley to attack. This is the third-year player's strength, but it depends heavily on the ability of the linemen to provide protection and opportunities. The game changes drastically when the opposition cannot scheme to stop Wimbley specifically. Unfortunately for the Browns, the was the case often in the 2007 season, as teams were able to push Wimbley off the ball and pinch the edges. Wimbley was not so much double-teamed as forced wide in his pursuit, reducing his effectiveness.
Antwan Peek played well as a 3-4 backer with the Houston Texans in the 2005 season. In 2006, the Texans went to the 4-3 defense and Peek played as a defensive end. Peek has the speed, quickness and burst to make plays in the Browns scheme, and displayed some of this quality during the 2007 season. Unfortunately, a knee injury robbed Peek of some of his quickness, burst and ability to cover ground as he had during training camp, and an ankle issue further added to the physical woes of the outside linebacker.
Healthy, lighter and hungry, Peek can be an extremely important component in the Cleveland defense. He plays well at the point of attack and can drop into coverage adequately, but again, until he gets on the field and shows the ability to make plays and stay healthy, his role is not tightly defined.
Veteran Willie McGinest provides the experience and leadership for the Cleveland defense. The 2007 season was not a good one for the Browns defensive unit and McGinest enters into what may be his final season dedicated to helping getting this Browns team into the playoffs and beyond.
At this late stage of his career, McGinest may not possess the dominant physical qualities he displayed as a member of the New England Patriots. He will still be able to make plays on the field, but McGinest moreover provides an ability to act as an on-field mentor and coach.
In addition to Peek, another wild-card for the Browns heading toward the 2008 season could be Shantee Orr. Somewhat undersized, but very quick and athletic, Orr can become a situational pass rusher at the very least. In Houston, Orr was yet another OLB caught up in the Texans' switch to the 4-3 defense. In Cleveland, Orr will provide depth and an ability to pressure the opposition.
Behind a vastly improved defensive line, a healthy McGinest, Peek and Orr should supply solid play and a threatening presence coming off the edge. If Kamerion Wimbley is able to return to his 2006 form as well, opposing offenses will have a lot to worry about.