Why Browns must address their run defense problem
Cleveland fell to 2-9 with their loss to the Ravens on Monday Night Football. The issues at quarterback are well-documented, but one persistent issue over the past few years has been the run defense. The Browns have ranked near the bottom of the league against the rush over the past few seasons. A number of offseason additions have failed to pay off. The Browns have acquired a number of players, especially at five-technique, whose priority was rushing the passer, rather than defending the run.
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To be fair, Cleveland made attempts to address the issue in this year’s draft by adding NT Danny Shelton (-4.3) in the first round. Although he’s had a steady start to his NFL career, he’s likely to improve the Browns’ run defense in the coming years.
Shelton finished seventh overall against the run in 2014 amongst college defensive interiors. However, the Browns decided to go after another pass rusher on the defensive line with their third-round pick, adding Xavier Cooper from Washington State. He’s really struggled this season, recording a -14.7 grade overall, and has found NFL life tough against the run, in particular, where he’s recorded a -9.4 grade in just 106 snaps. Cooper’s struggles are perhaps unsurprising, considering he graded as only our 221st college interior defender against the run.
The strategy of adding predominantly pass-rushing 3-4 defensive ends extends to free agency, also. Randy Starks was outstanding for the Dolphins in 2013, but he struggled at the point of attack last year. Despite recording a -6.6 run defense grade, the Browns added him anyway. Although he’s done a decent job this year (+1.0), he’s not capable of covering for the deficiencies of players around him. Starks has just one positively-graded season against the run since 2009.
The same arguments can be made about the signing of Desmond Bryant. He made a name for himself as a pass rush specialist with the Raiders in 2012, recording a +14.0 grade in that facet of his play. However, he graded negatively against the run (-1.0). Since moving to Cleveland, he has a -10.1 grade in run defense, even if he’s shown improvement this year (+1.4).
Overall the Browns’ strategy for developing a strong run defending unit appears muddled. They ask their defensive lineman to two-gap and take on double teams, but then add players who are better at pushing the pocket. The struggle of the run defense is not only the responsibility of the defensive line—the linebackers and secondary are culpable too—but it’s a priority for the men up front. Considering their personnel are more adept at rushing the passer, it’s no surprise the Browns continue to get gashed on the ground.