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Browns offseason analysis: Putting the DBs under the microscope


It took a little more than a week to break down the Browns' offense and just three days to take care of the defense.

We're gaining momentum as the finish line nears.

When you're done reading today's breakdown of the secondary, go back and look at the defensive line and linebackers. Don't forget about the offensive breakdowns, either -- quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive line.

The Raw Data

Donte Whitner - 106 tackles, 1 INT, 54 INT yards, 5 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

Joe Haden - 73 tackles, 3 INTs, 20 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries

Buster Skrine - 66 tackles, 4 INTs, 34 INT yards, 18 passes defended

Tashaun Gipson - 52 tackles, 6 INTs, 158 INT yards, TD, 8 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

Jim Leonhard - 35 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 34 INT yards, 3 passes defended

K'Waun Williams - 31 tackles, 1 sack, 8 passes defended

Justin Gilbert - 29 tackles, 1 INT, 23 INT yards, TD, 8 passes defended

Pierre Desir - 9 tackles, 2 passes defended

Jordan Poyer - 9 tackles

The Rankings

Pass defense - 224.5 yards per game - 8th

Interceptions - 21 - 2nd

Percentage of 1st downs allowed through air - 31.3 - 2nd

Opponents' passer rating - 74.1 - 1st

The High Point

Yep, it's that game again. The Browns' pass defense intercepted three of Andy Dalton's throws with Skrine leading the way with two. Haden completely locked down Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green, who finished with three catches for 23 yards on 10 targets. Cincinnati completed just three passes of more than 10 yards and finished with just 79 yards between its two quarterbacks. It was one of the last games of the season in which the entire unit was healthy, as Gipson would be lost for the season two weeks later at Atlanta.

The Low Point

It happened early, and it really wasn't all that bad the entire time. Still, the 376 passing yards Cleveland surrendered to Pittsburgh in the season opener was a plateau it wouldn't come close to hitting the rest of the season. Antonio Brown and Marcus Wheaton each had catches of 40 yards or longer and the two combined to finish with 213 yards and a touchdown. With the score tied and 26 seconds to play, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Wheaton on back-to-back passes for 11 and 20 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Best play

There were a bunch to choose from, but this particular highlight-reel moment brought two of the secondary's top players together for a spectacular play. One play after he surrendered an 11-yard catch to Vincent Jackson, Haden chased down a streaking Jackson and tipped an underthrown Mike Glennon pass into the hands of Whitner. The veteran safety ran it back 54 yards on his first interception of the season, and the Browns added to their lead a few plays later with a field goal.

Surprise, Surprise

Three times in 2014, the Browns were pleasantly surprised by an unassuming player stepping into a big-time role. When Cleveland needed a new look for its nickel defense, it was Williams, an undrafted free agent, who landed a pivotal spot in the slot and played well at the position until he went down with an injured hamstring. When Gipson went down with what would be a season-ending injury, Leonhard, playing in his final NFL season, filled in seamlessly and made a number of big plays, including an interception in the end zone at Buffalo and a long interception return against the Colts. Summoned to duty when Haden and Gilbert went down with injuries against the Bengals, Desir held his own in his first NFL action at defensive back and played well the following week against Carolina to provide plenty of optimism heading into 2015.

Quote to Note

"Our secondary is the best secondary in the league. If you watch our secondary, we play man-to-man a lot – press-man, double-zero, with no help over the top. No other secondary in the league does that." -- Skrine

Outlook for 2015

Perhaps no position group on the team provides more reasons to be optimistic, but there's some work to be done during the offseason. Skrine, who has improved with each passing year since the Browns selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, will have some options as he hits free agency. Though Haden is locked in as the Browns' top cornerback, Skrine has played well enough to be viewed as a No. 1 option for a number of teams. After his Pro Bowl season, Gipson is a restricted free agent. Barring a change of heart, Leonhard ended his career in the 2014 season finale at Baltimore. The offseason will be important for Gilbert, who didn't play all that much and ended his rookie season inactive because of a violation of team rules. He flashed the talent that made him the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft, but it will take more to land a regular spot in a secondary this flush with depth. If the Browns look to add to the group through free agency, Tramon Williams, Devin McCourty, Kareem Jackson and Antonio Cromartie are among the top names available. The Browns secondary is filled with a number of players who were either undrafted or selected in the late rounds, but if the team is looking for first-round talent, cornerback Trae Waynes (Michigan State) and safety Landon Collins (Alabama) are the biggest names in a 2015 DB class light on high-end talent.

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