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Browns Mailbag: Do stats tell the real story about Browns defense?

Scoreboard watching wasn’t much fun Sunday, but we’re still riding high after another Browns victory.

Let’s dig into three of your questions before the Browns officially kick off their Week 16 preparations.

With the Browns winning, is it being lost that the defense has regressed from last year to this year? Per ESPN, the Browns ranked 14th overall last year and this year sitting 31st. -- David H., Canton

If you keep your eyes on social media throughout Browns games like I do, you probably see a lot of frustration whenever Cleveland surrenders some big yards and touchdowns. That’s natural. And yes, the Browns are down in a bunch of defensive categories compared to where they finished last season. They’ve gone from 14th to 29th in total defense, allowing 79 more yards per game. They’ve gone from 19th to 30th in pass defense and seventh to 24th in rush defense. One number, though, hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, the Browns have improved in scoring defense, going from 31st (25.6) to 22nd (24.9).

So what’s the deal? The Browns defense, in this writer’s humble opinion, is significantly better than last year’s for three reasons. Coupled with the improvement on offense, it’s why the team has six wins compared to the zero it had in 2017.

1. Turnovers

This one’s easy. The Browns ranked last in the NFL -- by a mile -- in turnover margin last year. It had a lot to do with the troubles on offense but the defense played a big role, too. The Browns forced a league-worst 13 takeaways, going long stretches of the season without a single one. The Browns eclipsed that mark before the midpoint and haven’t shown any signs of slowing down, ranking second with 30 behind only the NFC North-champion Bears. These are game-changing plays that not only stop the other team from scoring but also lead to optimal opportunities for the offense. When you more than double that total with two games left to play, you’ve got a better defense.

2. Red zone

The Browns had the league’s worst red zone defense last season, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 67.4 percent of their trips inside the Cleveland 20. This season, the Browns are still in the bottom half of the league but have risen to 22nd at 62.5 percent. In the last three games, the Browns have allowed touchdowns on just 44 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20. During this recent hot stretch, Cleveland’s defense has been at its best in clutch, red zone situations. The Browns had goal-line stands in the second half of victories against the Falcons and Panthers and held tough inside the 10 during the fourth quarter against the Broncos, who were forced to settle for a field goal despite trailing by four. “We are not scared to go up with anybody,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We work it every day in practice. Go out there and nobody gets inside our end zone. It is repetition and consistency.”

3. Seeing a decrease in points allowed per game means more in 2018

As mentioned earlier, the Browns are allowing fewer points per game this season. That’s significant considering scoring is way up in the NFL. Nine teams are currently allowing more points per game than the last-place Browns did last year. There are also some outliers -- 45 by the Raiders, 38 by the Chargers and 37 by the Chiefs -- that have inflated Cleveland’s scoring defense average. The Browns have held their opponents at 20 points or below six times this season compared to four in 2017. Most importantly, they’ve won all six of those games.

What happened to Damion Ratley? Is he injured? Or did he get moved to the practice squad or released? I felt he was having decent production the times he did see the field. -- Mike S., Fort Reilly, Kansas

Ratley is still a member of the Browns’ 53-man roster and is active on most game days. He’s helped out mostly on special teams since Rashard Higgins returned from a knee injury and since the arrival and emergence of Breshad Perriman. Jarvis Landry plays most snaps, Antonio Callaway plays about 80 percent of them and Higgins and Perriman play a decent chunk, too. That leaves few opportunities for Ratley, but he’s still a very young and promising player. He showed what he could do in a losing effort against the Chargers, catching six passes for 82 yards. He’ll have the offseason to hone his craft and work his way into a position to earn more snaps in 2019.

What is the average attendance at the Browns’ games, and is it down? -- Russ W., Dayton

With one game to go, the Browns’ average attendance this season has been 65,527 (97.2 percent capacity). That capacity ranking is 16th in the league, as eight teams are at 100 or better. Last year, the Browns were near the bottom with 87.3 percent capacity filled.

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