Skip to main content


Column: In Cleveland, it's not offense vs. defense


You could still feel the loss Monday in the Cleveland Browns' cafeteria, where players milled around with trays of food while highlights from their 25-24 defeat to the Colts blared on NFL Network in the background.

The nature and timing of the loss to Indianapolis isn't one that can be completely wiped from the memory. Not just yet.

"Coming in today was a very strong sense of disappointment and regret that we had more than enough opportunities to put that game away and weren't able to do it," coach Mike Pettine said.

The persistent theme in the building was identifiable by even those who don't know X's and O's. How could the Browns squander such a remarkable game from the defense?

My, how the theme has changed in three short months.

It seems like eons ago, but there was a time during the 2014 regular season where we were asking the opposite question: Could the Cleveland Browns offense overcome the struggling defense? Was Pettine's defensive system too complex? Could these cornerbacks play man coverage?

Go back to Week 2, where, despite the fact the New Orleans Saints rushed for a season-high 174 yards, converted 54 percent of their third-down conversions and saw all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham score two touchdowns – the Browns offense found a way to win the game. Andrew Hawkins snared a Brian Hoyer pass for 28 yards and Billy Cundiff booted the game-winner.


Go back to Week 5, Cleveland's now vaunted defense allowed 28 first-half points to the Tennessee Titans. It took two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter from Hoyer to Travis Benjamin for the Browns to secure the victory.

The point of all this reminiscing isn't to defend Brian Hoyer and the offense; they certainly have warranted criticism for their recent play. The point is to shed light on what everyone seems to be missing.

In the ebb and flow of a 17-week NFL season, there are times when an offensive unit sinks below the defense, or vice versa.

And that doesn't mean you can label the given unit -- in this case Cleveland's offense -- as permanently finished.

Right now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a defense in the league playing as cohesively as the Browns'.

Statistically, Sunday was Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's worst game of the season. He completed 45 percent of his passes, tossed two interceptions and committed a fumble that turned into a Browns defensive touchdown. The commanding performance against an MVP candidate such as Luck is the epitome of why the Bengals, Panthers and Ravens are dreading facing defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's unit as the season winds down.

Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and the secondary suffocated receivers using the patented press-man coverage while Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and the pass rush had Luck squirming in the pocket. In the middle, Craig Robertson, Chris Kirksey and Jim Leonhard were like janitors, literally cleaning up everything else on the field.


This is exactly how Cleveland's defense is meant to function.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of Jim O'Neil," Pettine said. "Especially with how the year started out and some of the flack that he took. He never wavered, never flinched. We have a great belief in that defensive staff, and more importantly the players in that room. They're very competitive."

The exact opposite can be said of Cleveland's offense against the Colts.

Inconsistency in the running game was married to inconsistency in the passing game. One-third of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West's carries went for 1 yard or less. Hoyer's quarterback rating and passing yards against the Colts dipped to a season-low 31.7 and 140, respectively. Pro Bowl target Jordan Cameron ran the wrong route, leading to a Hoyer interception, while All-Pro Josh Gordon's effort was probed.

"I just know across the board in the pass game, Josh included, that there needs to be more precision," Pettine said.

How do the Browns give a jolt to their offense? How does Cleveland resuscitate what was once a promising season with the football in their hands?

That's the reason the coaching staff burns the midnight oil at the team facility in Berea. These players and concepts on offense produced results earlier in the season. There is magic left in the tank to put up touchdowns.

Maybe the Browns do figure it out this season. Maybe Johnny Manziel comes in as that jolt we wrote about. Maybe Cleveland sticks with Hoyer against the Bengals – a team he is 2-0 in his career against – and the veteran gets his mojo back.

What we've learned from one season with Pettine – that other coaches haven't been able to bring to Cleveland – is the true team concept. It could've reached a boiling point yesterday. Frustration from the defense was warranted.

But now, these Pettine-led Browns, are tight enough to know airing drama to the press or to each other during a game won't solve a thing.

"It was good to hear those guys on the sideline ... no one side was turning on the other," Pettine said. "I've been a part of that. I've been a part of some great defenses that had some offenses that had their issues. That's a big part of it; making sure everybody sticks together. There was never a need where you felt like that was a fire we had to put out. Our guys were very supportive and, 'Hey, we've got your back.' We know we win as a team and we lose as a team."

Right now, the defense is picking up the offense. By Week 17 in Baltimore, it could be the other way around.

Or it could go like the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati games have this season: a blowout win for the Browns when both units play well together.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content