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Browns Mailbag: How can Browns D-Line step up during 2nd half of 2020?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

Rested? Refreshed? Ready for Sunday?

All of the above.

That's how we're feeling as the Browns get back to work Sunday when they host the Houston Texans.

The mail never stops, and we've got plenty of your questions to tackle before the Texans come to town.

How many wins do the Browns need for a playoff spot? (taking into account the other AFC teams.) — Tim B., Columbus

This is a good question without a definitive answer. And let's make one thing clear: Browns players can't be concerned with it. They just need to keep winning games and let everything else take care of itself.

All of that being understood, this past week of action in the AFC showed nothing will be handed to the Browns. This conference is absolutely loaded because the teams everyone expected to be good — Chiefs, Steelers and Ravens — are performing at an elite level while a number of others — Bills, Colts, Titans, Raiders and Dolphins — continue to pile up wins. The Browns are one of nine teams in the conference with five or more victories. Repeating the first half of the season would get the Browns to 10-6 but it wouldn't guarantee a thing.

Simply put, every game matters moving forward, and that's why the Browns are doubling down on their "1-0 every week" mindset. If it wasn't clear before the bye, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski made it abundantly clear to the players upon their return.

"For us, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we concern ourselves with anything other than the Houston Texans, who I think are a good football team," Stefanski said. "I do not think it helps us to set our gaze anywhere but where we are right now, and that is a big game this Sunday in our building versus, I think, a really good football team."

Have Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki shown they can be starting LBs? — Jack B., Painesville

Let's start with Wilson. He's been getting more and more work as he gets himself back to 100 percent. In an interview Monday, Wilson said he was finally there, and that could mean even more action for the second-year linebacker, who has 17 tackles on the season. That said, the Browns are rotating their linebackers much more this season compared to 2019, when Wilson was an every-snap player after Christian Kirksey went down with a season-ending injury.

"He is feeling more comfortable each and every week," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said recently. "We just keep pressing him and just tell him to go out there and try not to do too much. We are trying to limit his reps somewhat and give him a little bit more each week. I think he is getting better each game."

As for Takitaki — 39 tackles on the season — he's been valuable to the Browns both as a rotational linebacker and on special teams. He was lauded by his coaches for stepping up on special teams during a stretch where the unit was laboring.

No matter who is on the field, Woods wants to see more from all of his linebackers during the second half of the season.

"I feel at times at each position they are all doing good things, whether it is the D line, linebacker or in the back end," Woods said. "We just have not been able to consistently put together a solid game for four quarters, whether we start off with the interception or give up a few plays in the second quarter or fourth quarter. I just think at each position, we are looking for consistency. We are looking for guys just to execute their technique and play with maximum effort. We have not been able to do it for 60 minutes."

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Houston Texans

Were there no other options out in FA or trade to help the middle of the D-line? Teams have run a muck the last 2 games! — Antoine F., San Leandro, California

What about some depth players in the rotation on the defensive line and are the defensive tackles playing up to expectation? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

I bundled these questions together because they're both about the defensive line, an area that has come under some focus in recent weeks.

The last time we saw the Browns play, they surrendered a season-worst 209 rushing yards in a loss to the Raiders. It was the worst possible time for a performance like this because of weather conditions that made passing the ball an adventure. As a result, the Browns couldn't get off the field and the offense was only able to possess the ball six times. It was an uncharacteristic performance for the Browns, who have otherwise been pretty stout against the run.

"We were just getting knocked back so that is something we will look at. Ultimately, we have to stop the run, whether we play shell or single high," Stefanski said. "We knew that they were running it and we were not able to stop it so that is something that we will look at long and hard to find a way to get better."

One day later, Stefanski said the Browns' performance had nothing to do with effort or attitude. It was technique, which is fixable.

"When your technique is not great, that is when you are going to get knocked back," Stefanski said. "We need to fit the run. When you fit the runs, just like anything, you need 11 guys to do their jobs. There were certain things throughout the game that contributed to that, but it is all correctable in my mind."

When it comes to stopping the run, Week 8 was an aberration. We'll revisit after Sunday's game against the Texans, who are near the bottom in the league in rushing offense.

Perhaps one of the bright spots to come from the Raiders game was seeing Olivier Vernon collect his first two sacks of the season. For a long stretch, it was Myles Garrett or nothing when it came to sacks from Cleveland's defensive line. On the season, Garrett has nine sacks while the rest of the Browns' defensive linemen have a combined 6.5.

Stefanski called Vernon's two-sack performance "huge," and the Browns are looking for more of the same from Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, Adrian Clayborn, Jordan Elliott and Vincent Taylor during the second half of the season.

"We are counting on those guys, and they know that. Really, the entire defensive line room, I think, is eager to make sure that they are doing their part," Stefanski said. "We just have to keep progressing and keep coming on with that group."

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