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Browns Mailbag: Should Browns be encouraged by rush defense in season opener?

We're using the atypical off day to deliver our weekly edition of the Browns Mailbag.

Love the column. Wanted to know what in the world happened to Hollywood Higgins? Was a big contributor on the glittering first drive, then was MIA in nearly the rest of the game. I swear I didn't see him out on the field for nearly all the second half. I didn't see him listed on any post-game injury report. -- Justin P., Kirtland

Higgins made two big catches on the Browns' opening drive, including a 35-yarder that set up Dontrell Hilliard's short touchdown run. Higgins was rolled up during the second quarter and was sidelined with an ankle injury. He played 31 of a possible 71 snaps while Damion Ratley, who appeared in just one preseason game because of a hamstring injury he suffered Day 1 of training camp, played 35. Higgins said he expects to be ready for Monday's game against the Jets.

Hypothetical question Andrew, if you don't mind, please? If a game-winning 60-plus field goal situation were to occur, who should be the kicker? -- Dave B., West Hurley

This isn't the wildest question, but it has a simple answer. No matter the length of the kick, Cleveland would roll with Austin Seibert, who booted a 54-yard field goal with plenty to spare in the Browns' preseason loss to the Buccaneers. Yes, punter Jamie Gillan was spotted nailing a field goal of 60+ yards during a preseason practice, but he wasn't brought to Cleveland to kick. That's Seibert's job, and the Browns are confident in his leg strength.

As proof that your question wasn't too out of left field, here's Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer's answer to it from last week's press conference.

"I think Austin would be the best bet," Priefer said. "He has such a strong leg, as well. He would be the guy."

Check out photos from today's practice by team photographer Matt Starkey

When seeing the inactive list, seeing OLB/DE Genard Avery on this list and not in the starting lineup was puzzling. This player can rush the passer and stuff the run, including the size and speed to deal with a powerful RB such as Derrick Henry! He's the type of disrupter that compliments our four-man front! Was he hurt or was it this 4-2-5 scheme that kept him off the field? -- Phil H., St. Clairsville

The first thing to note here is the Browns entered Sunday's game with a nearly clean injury report. That meant the team had to make tough decisions with its seven inactives. It won't be often -- if ever -- the Browns are in this situation again this season.

As for Avery, the second-year linebacker has a ton of potential and upside. He was a menace when he was used as a situational pass rusher last season and spent time as both a defensive end and linebacker during the preseason. Avery, though, missed a large chunk of training camp with an injury and only got meaningful playing time in the preseason finale. 

As for the impact of the 4-2-5, Cleveland used its starting linebackers, Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, on all 59 defensive plays. Adarius Taylor played just three snaps before going down with an injury. That was it for the linebackers. As for the defensive ends, Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon played 90 and 92 percent of the snaps, respectively, while Chris Smith and Chad Thomas each played less than 10 plays. So, essentially, there weren't a ton of opportunities.

With Taylor injured, Avery could see increased opportunities as soon as Monday against the Jets.

Can we expect this defense to be largely improved against the run this year? -- Joseph J., Corry, Pennsylvania

My short answer: Yes. My longer answer: The Browns showed just that Sunday against the Titans even if the numbers didn't necessarily reflect it.

When you look at the box score, you'll see the Titans out-gained the Browns, 123-102, on the ground. That's slightly worse than the 118 rushing yards per game Cleveland surrendered last season, but it never felt like the Titans had control of the game from that standpoint. Eleven of the Titans' 28 rush attempts went for 2 yards or fewer. Tennessee never broke off a run of 20 yards or more and just six of the team's first downs were picked up on the ground. The Browns beat themselves in a number of ways, and the Titans did a number of things to win the game the way they did. I'm just not sure if Tennessee's rushing performance made the top five for why the Browns are still searching for their first win.

The Browns invested heavily in their defensive line during the offseason, and Freddie Kitchens believes it can still be a strength of the team. We'll know more about how much the group has improved over the next few weeks, as Cleveland draws Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and Baltimore's cavalcade of runners.

"Don't try to do too much. We emphasize that all of the time," defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said last week. "Just do your job. We have to play with violent hands. Those guys do a great job of cutting up front, the front level as well as the second level so we have to stay alive, stay on our feet, use our hands right here and get off blocks."

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