Although it may be hard for some Browns fans to believe, but the defense was the best part of the team in 2017. It may not be saying much, however, as the offense was miserable.
Hue Jackson brought in Gregg Williams to fix the defense last offseason. But Williams did not have the players to fit his scheme. Williams even admitted that he had to change his style of defense this season.
Williams admitted that the Browns were playing more zone this year than he had called in his entire career. He felt that he was putting his players in the best spot to defend. But it did not equal success on the field.
The Browns finished with the 14th best defense in the league in terms of yards per game, allowing an average of 328.1 yards per game. But, they gave up the second most points in the league, allowing 25.6 yards per game. The difference in yards per game and points per game can be associated with the offense. The Browns offense gave up the most turnovers in the NFL, putting the defense at a disadvantage with a short field.
Speaking of turnovers, the Browns defense created the fewest number of turnovers in the NFL with 13 on the year. For a unit that was on the field a lot during the season, the inability to create turnovers to get off the field really hurt them.
The Cleveland defense also could not get off the field on third down. They allowed a 40.6 percent third down conversion rate, ninth worst in the NFL. This is when William’s style of defense hurt the team. Williams ran a lot of soft coverage, giving receivers easy releases on third down. There were times that the Browns cornerbacks were playing 5 to 7 yards off the line of scrimmage, even when it was third and less than five.
The Cleveland defense was also among the worst in red zone defense. The Browns defense gave up 31 red zone scores in only 46 attempts. That put them at the worst in the NFL at giving up points in the redzone.
Now let’s take a deeper look at how the pass defense and rush defense fared individually.
One of the biggest concerns about the Cleveland defense heading into 2017 was if they can stop the run. In 2016, the Browns had the second worst rush defense, giving up 142.7 rushing yards per game. But in 2017, they were a different team when it came to stopping the run. Cleveland only gave up 97.9 rushing yards per game, seventh best in the NFL. And it is not like teams weren’t running against the Browns. Teams attempted the fifth most rushes against the Browns, averaging 25.6 rushing attempts per game.
One of the focuses of the Browns rebuild in the first two years was adding talent to the defense. And give Sashi Brown credit, he built a front seven that has the potential to be one of the better front seven’s in the league. The defensive line consists of two great run-stoppers in Danny Shelton and Emmanuel Ogbah. And the Browns may have found themselves a sturdy middle linebacker in Joe Schobert, who was tied for the most tackles in the league. Even though Williams may not have the players he needs in the secondary, he does have talent in his front seven to utilize.
What killed the Browns defense in 2017 was the pass defense. No matter the opponent or quarterback, it seemed every offense picked apart the Browns pass defense. And one of the biggest gripes about the pass defense was it seemed the defense was playing with 10 players on every play. Williams decided to play one of his safeties 25 to 30 yards off the ball to prevent the big play. It became a common joke among Browns fans about where Jabrill Peppers was lined up since they could not see him on TV. Although the Browns did not give up many big plays, they were unable to stop the short and intermediate throws that keeps drives alive.
The Browns gave up 230.2 passing yards per game in 2017. And although that may not seem that high of a number, it was the number of yards per play that were concerning. Giving up 7.4 yards per play, it was obvious that teams were taking advantage of Cleveland’s soft coverage. Cleveland did not have the talent needed at cornerback to play press coverage. With Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor as their starting cornerbacks, Williams decided to play it safe this season. He was trying to avoid them getting beat for a big play.
The most concerning part of the Cleveland pass defense was their inability to prevent touchdowns. The Browns gave up 28 passing touchdowns, which is the sixth worst in the NFL. With so many problems this defense faced, it is obvious the Browns need to find talent in the secondary.
With a full offseason under Gregg Williams and the new front office, the Browns could be putting the finishing touches on this unit. They have the picks and cap space to address their dire needs in the secondary. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s would be a perfect fit for Williams’ defense due to his versatility. He is a potential pick for the Browns in the top five of this years draft. Williams also has a season full of film to review to find the best spots to put his players. With the front seven showing the potential to be a very good unit, he knows that he can put trust in that group. With a couple more pieces, Williams will have the talent necessary to be a competitive unit.