Here is my five-point breakdown of the Browns’ defense halfway through the season:
>>The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 has proven to be a major step in the Browns’ rise to relevance. The first step in the latest remake of the Browns was to rebuild the defense, with emphasis on creating a stronger pass rush. The Browns wisely made a major investment in hiring Ray Horton, the most prized defensive coordinator on the open market, and letting him implement his version of the zone-blitz scheme (which he learned from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau). They rank fourth in the NFL in total defense after finishing 25th last year. They’re sixth against the pass and seventh against the rush, making them one of only two teams (Carolina is the other) to rank in the top 10 in both categories. Their additional investments in free agency (notably outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant) and the draft (Barkevious Mingo) have been paying off, along with Jabaal Sheard’s switch from end to outside linebacker, as the Browns quickly established one of the NFL’s stronger pass-rushing defenses (they rank second with 31 sacks). Horton has lived up to his billing as a highly aggressive signal-caller, sending a wide variety of blitzers (including cornerbacks and safeties) from a wide variety of locations after the quarterback. With 15 players registering at least one sack (Mingo leads with four, followed by Desmond Bryant with 3.5), it’s fair to say that opponents never know who will be in on the action from snap to snap.
>>It all starts with the defensive line. The Browns already had some solid defensive line pieces in place before the building of the rest of the front seven began. Phil Taylor, who was a mainstay at defensive tackle the past two years, is thriving at nose tackle. He’s able to use every bit of his considerable power and quickness to both tie up blockers and generate inside pressure. Incumbents John Hughes and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen provide solid depth and allow for a good rotation to keep big, fresh bodies on the field late in the game. Billy Winn, another holdover, has made an impact with his considerable athleticism. At times, Desmond Bryant can be downright unblockable and uses every bit of his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame to his full advantage. Sixth-round draft pick Armonty Bryant has been a pleasant surprise with steadily increasing contribution as a pass-rusher and run-stopper.
>>Outside linebackers to spare. Some observers questioned the wisdom of making Mingo the sixth overall pick of the draft after signing Kruger and Quentin Groves, another outside linebacker, in free agency. Suffice it to say that the Browns’ decision-makers were absolutely right to go this route. When a defense is based on outside pressure, you can’t have enough of the types of athletes who make that go. Mingo’s considerable speed and athleticism make him a perfect complement to the stouter Kruger and Sheard, both of whom are better at the point of attack against the run. And by having so many different outside linebackers in the mix, including Eric Martin, the Browns are able to frequently rotate the players in this group and keep everyone fresh in the latter stages of the game.
>>T.J. Ward’s breakout season. This has been a tremendous first half of a season for the veteran strong safety. If he keeps it up, he should be a lock to be selected to the Pro Bowl. Ward is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, including a pick-six that sealed the Week 5 victory against the Bills, and ranks second on the club with 72 tackles (which is tops among the Browns’ defensive backs and includes a team-leading 60 solos). Ward, who has been more actively involved in the pass rush than his previous three seasons, also has a pair of sacks and has frequently created pressure while blitzing. How important is Ward to the Browns’ defensive success? Consider that he has played every defensive snap in four of the past five games.
>>Buster Skrine slams the door on cornerback questions. Before the season, the cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden was viewed by some observers as a crisis in the making. There was little, or no, public confidence in Skrine filling the job. And the fact that he received the nod at the start of the season was widely seen as merely a default solution because free-agent pickup Chris Owens wasn’t anything special and third-round draft pick Leon McFadden wasn’t seen as being remotely close to ready. Skrine seemed to confirm the worst fears about his shortcomings with a horrendous showing in the season-opening loss against Miami. However, he has shown steady improvement. Skrine leads the Browns with a career-best 17 passes defensed, and has done some of his better work in the past five weeks. Skrine also has an interception and a sack. After Skrine, the next-most improved member of the team is Tashaun Gipson, who has proven to be extremely reliable at free safety, which was considered another major worry spot before the season. He shares the team lead with two interceptions and ranks third (behind Skrine and Haden) with 11 passes defensed. Gipson is a ball magnet, either causing an interception on a tipped pass or making one.
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