The finish line is in sight, but there's still important ground to cover.
After looking at the defensive line Tuesday, we're taking one step back and focusing on the "4" in the Browns' 3-4 defense.
The Raw Data
Karlos Dansby - 12 games, 93 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 2 pass deflections
Craig Robertson - 16 games, 92 tackles, 2 INTs, 4 pass deflections, 1 fumble recovery, 1 TD
Chris Kirksey - 16 games, 75 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble
Paul Kruger - 16 games, 53 tackles, 11 sacks, 4 pass deflections, 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Jabaal Sheard - 16 games, 44 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 pass deflections
Barkevious Mingo - 15 games, 39 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 pass deflections, 1 fumble recovery
Scott Solomon - 2 games, 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
Eric Martin - 13 games, 2 tackles
Forced fumbles - 18 - T-7th
Opponents third-down conversion rate - 38 percent - T-10th
Sacks - 31 - 27th
Scoring defense - 21.1 points per game - 9th
The High Point
We keep coming back to this game, but it's impossible to ignore when discussing the Browns' defensive highlights of 2014. Just like we did with the defensive line, we're recognizing the linebackers for what they did to contribute to Cleveland's 24-3 rout of Cincinnati on Nov. 6. Though this group didn't add to its sack total on this night, it played a big role in limiting the Bengals to less than 4 yards per carry and just 86 yards through the air. The unit was at full strength for this performance, and it showed.
The Low Point
Stats can be deceiving, and that's why our choice of the Browns' loss at Jacksonville might seem a bit out of place. Cleveland intercepted three passes and Dansby and Kirksey each notched a sack, but one of the NFL's worst offenses was able to have its way on the ground en route to its first win of the season. Denard Robinson, a former college quarterback, broke out in a big way with 127 rushing yards and rookie quarterback Blake Bortles delivered a number of costly scrambles as the Jaguars scored 24 unanswered points to stun the Browns.
Two linebackers contributed to a big play that gave the Browns the lead on a team still alive in the playoffs. On Dec. 7 at FirstEnergy Stadium, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck dropped back into his own end zone and immediately felt pressure from Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant. Bryant delivered the first hit while Kruger came strong and stripped the ball from Luck's hands. The ball wasn't on the ground long, as Robertson swooped in and grabbed it for the touchdown.
We couldn't settle on one for this category. Robertson stepping in for an injured Dansby was one of the brightest spots in an otherwise disappointing second half to the season for the Browns. The defense didn't seem to miss a beat while Dansby missed four games, as Robertson racked up a number of tackles and guided Kirksey, who also saw a bump in playing time, to success at Will linebacker. With Dansby back in the lineup, Solomon emerged as a big-time playmaker in the final two games of the season. The former Buccaneer was on the practice squad one day before he forced a fumble against the Carolina Panthers and he added a sack in what served as quite the audition for 2015.
Quote to Note
"It was exciting for me, honestly. For me, it was a nice little landmark and it's always nice to see plays that affect the game in a positive way for your team. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a relief and a confident feeling. I'm excited that I've had some success this year and I definitely want to build on that going into next year." -- Kruger, on piling up double-digit sacks after a tough 2013 season
Outlook for 2015
The big offseason decision centers on Sheard, the former first-round selection who is an unrestricted free agent. Sheard, who moved around a bunch because of the Browns' back-and-forth between a 4-3 and 3-4 defense, played hurt through most of the season but toughed it out and never missed a game. Robertson, who had a career year and was named the Browns' Man of the Year, is a restricted free agent. Mingo is another player who played with a significant injury through most of the season, and the coaches weren't disappointed in his lack of statistical achievements because he did the "dirty work." Some notable, big names will be on the free agent market, a group that includes Brian Orakpo, Jason Worilds, Lance Briggs, Osi Umenyiora, Sean Weatherspoon and Rey Maualuga. Vic Beasley (Clemson), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Dante Fowler Jr. (Florida) are among the pass rushers expected to be selected in the NFL Draft's first round. If the Browns opt to use the No. 12 pick on an outside linebacker, at least one should be available.