The Browns and some in the media have painted a sunny picture about the Cleveland defense. The Browns 10th-ranked defense has come as a bright surprise during a season that has been grim to date, but the story behind the ranking is a bit cloudier. This Browns defense still struggles against the run, although it's improved over a season ago.
Aside from the season opener, weather conditions, player inexperience and inconsistency has contributed to slow down opposing offenses:
- Game one vs Dallas - The weather was perfect, but the Cleveland offense and defense certainly wasn't. The Cowboys offense was precise and physical - overpowering the Browns defensive line consistently. With the Dallas offensive line commanding the game, the Browns pass rush was stymied - which led to the Cowboys unleashing their dominating passing game. The Cowboys also ran the ball very effectively.
- Game two vs. Pittsburgh - Rain and gusting winds slowed the passing game to a crawl. The Steelers passing game was quiet - and so was Cleveland's. Pittsburgh ran the ball efficiently - which was enough against a Cleveland offense that could not execute. The Cleveland defense was unable to consistently create pressure despite facing a questionable offensive line that has been mediocre through four games of the season. Despite the injury issues the Browns were facing, this was a very winnable game - if not for the mental errors and consistent execution issues on the offensive side of the ball.
- Game three vs. Baltimore - A rookie QB and an unheralded offensive line took it to the Browns on this day. Play-action by the rookie and physical play along the line stymied a Browns defensive scheme that wanted to pressure the rookie QB into making mistakes. The rookie threw two INT's, but the Browns couldn't capitalize on the mistakes and a spotty Ravens passing attack - while the physical play of the Baltimore offensive line jump-started the running attack. Again, the Cleveland couldn't stop the run when necessary, while displaying the inability to pressure the Ravens offensive tackles. Otherwise this season, the offensive line has been an area of concern for the Ravens.
- Game four vs. Cincinnati - The Bengals have talent on both sides of the ball, but continue to be a breeding ground for simple, unquestionable inadequacy. With starting QB Carson Palmer sitting out, the Bengals were an opponent misfiring from the onset. The Browns defense pressured the Bengals backup QB and offense consistently - but the Browns were in dire straits, losing to the lowly Bengals in the third quarter. The Bengals have not been nearly as bad as many would like to believe and have been competitive in most cases.
Through four games of the season, the Browns defense has been seriously challenged on one occasion - as the Dallas Cowboys offense rushed the ball with authority and threw the ball well. The Browns play against Tony Romo and company makes it hard to make strong arguments that the defense is taken a huge step upwards. Against the Cowboys, the Browns defense was a step slow for the duration. But every team has this type of game at some point... some teams can overcome the issue and persevere, while others fail to adjust. In this specific game, the Browns simply failed to execute - mentally and physically.
It remains to be seen if the struggles against the Cowboys were a sign of the "real" Cleveland defense when facing a top opponent, or whether they simply had an off-game.
The challenge, at this point, is determining whether problems within the Browns defense have been masked in later weeks by problems with opposing offenses, or whether genuine improvement has occurred.
In the losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, the Browns defense at times flashed signs that they might be able to compete at high level. Likewise, they've been impacted by offensive ineffectiveness - losing the time of possession battle has been detrimental to this Cleveland team. Any defense will be exposed when its offense it's constantly trotting back onto the field after far too many three and outs.
The most disappointing game of the season had to be the loss in Baltimore. Granted, the Ravens remain a strong defensive team - which was evident as a couple turnovers suddenly changed the complexion of the game. But an unheralded Baltimore offensive beat the Cleveland defense, both mentally and physically. Unable to pressure the QB, the Ravens rookie signal-caller utilized play-action to freeze the Browns defense on numerous occasions, and used the Cleveland aggression against itself - in running behind gaps where the defensive linemen would penetrate.
Another big concern shows up when the Browns have had their backs to the wall - and have to stop an offense at a key juncture. The unit has not been succeeding with any frequency in these situations.
Depth along the defensive line could become an increasing factor as the season progresses, as well as the inconsistency the defense his shown at the LB positions.
An area of great concern heading into the 2008 season was the defensive backfield - but the issue has been minimized somewhat due to the Browns offensive woes and the opposition's success on the ground. Outside of the Dallas game, the Cleveland defensive backfield has not been challenged to the fullest - which should change against the New York Giants on October 13th.
The season is young and time remains for the Browns to turn their misfortunes around. A huge question remains, in my opnion, about whether the defense can rise to the occasion if the offense does indeed begin to click as they did in 2007.
Tune in Monday night against the Giants - this will be a real test on both sides of the ball, and will give us more information about what direction this team will head for the duration of the season.