Earlier this off-season, I was given the rare opportunity to watch practice tape with members of the Cleveland Browns organization. Seeing the game from the air, and with these people beside me, gave me a unique opportunity to get perspective on what I had seen from the ground level over the off-season.
Here are some of my thoughts after going through this excellent material:
Expect the Cleveland linebackers to be quicker to the ball in the 2008 season. Players acquired during the off-season along the defensive line, coupled with changes in the defensive philosophy under the direction of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, will put the team's linebackers into a position to run and attack the ball carrier. While the spring drills were basically in a no-contact setting, one could not help but notice a handful of LB's appearing lighter and quicker. This ties to what we've been told, that a number of linebackers were asked to play at heavier weights than they would have preferred during last season. After enduring the defensive philosophy of the past couple seasons in Cleveland, the changes installed are a breath of fresh air.
OLB Kamerion Wimbley could develop into an interesting story. In comparing some 2007 footage to that of the latest practice sessions, Wimbley (in the Tucker defensive scheme) is taking more direct routes to the QB. It also helps that the right side of the defensive line was able to maintain its responsibilities and was not moved off the ball, which was a common occurrence in 2007. The scaled-down scheme will benefit Wimbley, as the pass-rushing OLB relies on speed and quickness, which was subtly neutralized by having too many scheme reads, responsibilities and a lack of talent and depth lining up in front of him. All of the above were factors in a somewhat disappointing 2007 season for Wimbley. The linebacker must become physically stronger at the point of attack to fight through blockers when engaged, rather than simply relying on his quickness.
For the "keep an eye on" file... The Browns rushed the ball far too effectively to the left-side of the offense, or the right-side of the Cleveland defense. While Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach are two of the very best at their respective positions, one has to question their constant success in practice. Bottom line: the outside linebacker on that side must be able to shed, recognize and stay home, while the defensive end needs to maintain his gap responsibilities consistently.
Shantee Orr is a player. While Wimbley is the starter, in practices, backup Shantee Orr was as impressive and in some cases more so. Somewhat undersized for a prototypical pass rushing OLB, Orr has very good quickness and strength. Offensive linemen and backs could not simply push him off the ball, as we have noticed with others in the recent past. Orr is a special teams ace and has lined-up inside a bit in sessions, though he primarily remains at OLB.
The scaled-down scheme will be critical. One immediate change in the Cleveland defense will be the scaled down number of plays in the scheme. Players are going to be put in position to react and utilize their athleticism, rather run the risk of over-thinking, which complicated matters of communication and responsibility on the field. Far too many offensive plays were executed effectively against the Browns defense because of these sort of issues in 2007. The result thus far appears to be players flowing more freely to the ball in camp sessions.
Starting ILB D'Qwell Jackson appears comfortable in the new scaled down scheme. Utilizing his quickness, Jackson has been very smooth attacking the gaps and tracking down potential ball carriers. His quickness was evident in sessions and he wasted little time feeding off the ability of defensive lineman Shaun Rogers' ability to contain multiple linemen in his gap responsibility at nose tackle. If the defensive line can live up to the potential the coaching staff believes it has, Jackson could be the major beneficiary. He could play a major role in the rebirth of a run stopping defense in Cleveland, as his recognition and burst have been exceptional.
The starting ILB spot opposite Jackson will be determined in training camp. Every indication provided is the coaching staff seeks a player to man the position consistently and there are currently reservations regarding all the players competing for the role. Andra Davis and Leon Williams have worked with the first-team defense, with Davis receiving the majority of the snaps. It is far too early to determine whether either ILB will be consistently effective, but the gaps will be available for plays to be made. Once the pads go on we will gain a better perspective of this position, as neither player grasped the role with certainty during off-season practices.
Beau Bell hasn't made an impact yet. As with most rookies this early in the process, ILB Beau Bell has not really made an impression with his on-field activities. While coming to Cleveland with the reputation of a downhill banger, he has been slowly picking up the responsibilities of the position. Through the sessions, Bell has made some plays, but appears a little short on quickness and is rather stiff.
Big Willie Style Willie McGinest remains the starter and is in great physical condition. He is undoubtedly the leader of the defensive unit and poised to make a statement in this his final season. Throughout practice sessions, McGinest displayed great veteran leadership, not only with his knowledge and recognition on the field, but with his ability to work with and guide others with technique.
Peek making a practice impact. Behind McGinest on the depth chart is Antwan Peek, but don't expect a typical "backup" performance. Peek had an exceptional off-season in practice sessions and has demonstrated the ability to get after the QB in team and individual drills. Now healthy and a great fit in this scheme, Peek is one player on the cusp of becoming a force coming off the edge for this pass rush deficient team.
The new guys fit right in. It was most interesting to view how well newcomers to the defensive line, Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers, adapted to the 3-4 defense. At the start of camp sessions, both players were tentative, as it was obvious that they were in the beginning stages of learning an entirely new defensive scheme. As the sessions passed, both players were reacting much sooner, rather than thinking through the gap responsibilities.
Defensive line rotation. The starters in the camp setting have been Williams, Rogers and Robaire Smith. Shaun Smith has been the fourth lineman, spelling the nose tackle and end positions.
Sean Jones charging back? Interestingly, safety Sean Jones was moving like a lightening bolt in practice sessions, especially against the run. An off-season in the Tucker system looks to be helping Jones, since it will utilize the athleticism and strength of the starting safety, Additionally, in 11-on-11 drills, Jones and Brodney Pool were solid in over-the-top coverage and support.
On the cornerbacks... Until the last mini-camp sessions when cornerback Brandon McDonald did not attend due to family issues, he was starting opposite Eric Wright. With McDonald out, veteran Terry Cousin stepped into the role for the majority of starter reps. In the slot is where Cousin shines as a player and will benefit this team the most. In drills, Cousin was solid covering the slot, and only struggled against Braylon Edwards coming out of the slot.