Can the Browns defense still be the backbone of Cleveland's football team?
Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil was asked this exact question at his Thursday press conference in Berea. His confidence in the unit, despite ranking 27th in the NFL in total yards allowed, is unwavering.
"I'm not willing to say we're not going to be a good defense, we're not going to stop the run," O'Neil said. "I'm confident in our players. I'm confident in myself. I'm confident in our coaches.
"I've got to do a better job putting guys in position where they can make plays."
The Dawg Pound is anxious to see results from Joe Haden, Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger and Co. – and the task of shutting down an opposing offense won't get any easier in San Diego.
It's Week 4 and Cleveland's defense is busy preparing for its stiffest competition yet.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and wide receiver Keenan Allen are already household names across the country. But now, it's rookie running back Melvin Gordon who's helping form one of the most lethal playmaking trios in the NFL.
Only three games into his career, Gordon has shown early flashes of becoming the missing element San Diego's offense has lacked since LaDainian Tomlinson's departure back in 2009. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gordon ranks 11th in rushing to start the year (190 yards) and broke out Week 2 against the robust Cincinnati Bengals front seven, posting 16 carries for 88 yards.
"I think he's special," O'Neil said. "He's a really good football player. He's doing a really good job running the ball, runs hard. He's got make-you-miss ability, he can catch the ball out of the backfield."
What the Browns have to do with Gordon is limit any type of big gash like Oakland's Latavius Murray and Tennessee's Dexter McCluster were able to do in previous weeks. Gordon already has three runs of 20 yards or more. Only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Dallas' Joseph Randle have more to begin 2015.
"When you allow a 48-yard rush or whatever it was, you can't do that," O'Neil said. "You have to be consistent every single play. You can't be consistent for 28 plays or 29 plays and play good football and then for one or two runs you give up a 20-yard run and a 40-yard something run, that's what kills you."
As Cleveland hopefuls sift for positives to take away from the defense, they don't have to look any further than the middle. Newcomers Danny Shelton and Jamie Meder have been a breath of fresh air at the nose tackle position, cleaning up what had been a problematic area last season.
Even while being consistently double-teamed down-in and down-out, Shelton has piled up 11 tackles in three games, the most of any defensive lineman on the team.
"We're not getting hit in the middle, guys," O'Neil said. "Those big runs aren't coming through the A gap."
If we see marked improvement from Cleveland's defense Sunday, one thing is for sure: They'll have earned it against this San Diego offense.