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Cowboys @ Browns: Previewing Cleveland’s Defensive Personnel

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A look at the defensive strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys Week 9 opponent.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Browns feature one of the weakest defenses in the league; let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel.

Defensive Line

Before we get started let’s just throw it out there, this may be the worst defensive line in the league. The Browns run a 3-4 and often times defensive linemen in a 3-4 scheme are role players who open up other players to make plays and get overlooked, but this group is truly one of the worst in the league, 4-3, 3-4 or otherwise.

The headliner of this group, if there is one, is the 12th-overall pick of the 2015 draft, nose tackle Danny Shelton. At 6-2, 335 Shelton has great size for the two-gapping nose tackle position but he has struggled with his weight since entering the league. He has improved since his rookie season and has entrenched himself in the middle of the defense, but he is still a run-only player as he provides next to nothing as far as pass rush. Jamie Meder, a third-year man out of Ashland, and Xavier Cooper, a third-round pick in 2015, start next to Shelton, neither of whom are particularly good against the run or rushing the passer. Rookie second round pick Carl Nassib has started to get more snaps recently and may soon take over for Cooper as the starter. If there is one bright spot on the line it is Nassib, who has good length and explosiveness for a 3-4 defensive end.

Rounding out the depth chart is rookie sixth-round pick Tyrone Holmes and journeyman Stephen Paea, who was cut prior to the season by the Redskins. There is a reason that the Browns have a bottom three run defense in the league, and all you have to do is look squarely at this defensive line.

Linebackers

The Browns linebackers are nothing to write home about, although the fact that they actually have NFL caliber players on this unit is encouraging when compared to the defensive line, especially with the recent acquisition of Jamie Collins in a trade from the Patriots. Collins is an explosive athlete with impressive size and length who is very good in coverage, and dangerous as a blitzer. It’s unknown what role or how much playing time he will receive in his first game with the Browns, but the Cowboys must account for a player capable of making game-changing plays. It must be noted that it’s rumored that the Patriots traded Collins in part because he was free-lancing too much and that they began to view him as a sub-package, coverage linebacker only. If true, it’s hard to imagine being traded to the worst team in the league will do much to improve his on-field discipline.

Prior to the Collins trade this group was led by third year man out of Iowa, Christian Kirksey, and free agent signing Demario Davis. Kirksey is a three-down linebacker who has had an impressive start to his career, showing strength to stand up to the run and athleticism to drop into coverage, while also adding 5.5 sacks over his first two seasons. Davis on the other hand looked to be on the path to stardom after his first few years with the Jets, racking up over 100 tackles in both his second and third seasons with the team, to go along with 4.5 sacks and an interception, but he fell out of favor in 2015 and was allowed to leave in free agency. Davis has been a value signing for the Browns as he has played well so far in 2016 but he will likely be replaced in the lineup by Collins.

At outside linebacker the Browns have promising rookie Emmanuel Ogbah, a player the Cowboys were rumored to covet with the 34th pick of the 2016 draft before the Browns took him at 32nd overall. He has great size at 6-4, 275 lbs., yet displays surprising fluidity and agility. He is a powerful, explosive player who has managed 3.5 sacks in the first half of his rookie season. Some questioned his fit as a 3-4 OLB as common logic suggested that he would fit better as a 4-3 defensive end, but he has played well so far as the Browns like to move him around the formation. Sometimes he will play a pure, stand-up 3-4 OLB, other times he will put his hand down on the edge and even on the interior of the line. Ogbah is the most dangerous pass-rushing threat on the Browns roster.

Opposite Ogbah are 2012 seventh-round pick Cam Johnson and 2016 fourth-round pick Joe Schobert, who generally split snaps with one another. Johnson has managed two sacks so far, the first two of his career, while Schobert hasn’t shown much in his rookie season. This spot is clearly the weak link of the linebacker group as the other three linebacker spots are pretty well settled, pending what they do with Collins.

Secondary

The Browns welcomed back Joe Haden last week after he missed the last two games with a groin injury; he is the only Pro Bowl caliber talent on the defense as a whole, aside from the recently acquired Collins. The 2-time Pro Bowler is almost certainly the best player on the team after Thomas, and is arguably one of the top 10 cornerbacks in the entire league. He has good size at 5-11, 195 and very good speed, but what really makes him is his impressive ability to change direction and mirror receivers. He also has fantastic ball skills, as indicated by his 18 career interceptions and nearly 100 passes deflected in only about five and a half seasons worth of games. Haden has been somewhat injury prone recently, playing in only five games in 2015 and only five so far in 2016, but he is an elite talent when on the field and it should be fun to watch his matchup with Dez Bryant. It’s likely that Haden will follow Bryant all over the field as he is capable of playing outside and in the slot.

There isn’t a whole lot behind Haden though as the Browns other primary corners are Jamar Taylor, a former Dolphin, and Tramon Williams, a long-time Packer who had some good years in Green Bay but is on the downside of his career at 33 years of age. Undrafted rookies Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Tracy Howard have also started to see their snaps increase recently as the Browns usually prefer to go with cornerback heavy alignments since their safeties are generally weak in coverage and lack range. Outside of Haden this unit is largely made up of replacement-level players and is probably one of the worst cornerback groups in the league, although Taylor has had a somewhat impressive season so far with two interceptions.

Unfortunately for the Browns their safeties aren’t much better. Their most trusted safety seems to be Ibraheim Campbell, a 2015 fourth-round pick out of Northwestern, although he isn’t particularly impressive in any area and seems to get playing time by default, because the Browns have no other options. Campbell is mostly a box safety who struggles in coverage, preferring to be closer to the line of scrimmage to support the run and lay hits. Fourth-round rookie Derrick Kindred out of TCU has seen an increased role recently and may be starting to eat into Campbell’s role as the team’s primary safety.

There’s no sugarcoating it, this is one of the worst secondaries in the league and there’s a reason they rank in the bottom 10 of the league in passing yards allowed. Outside of Haden and maybe Taylor the entire secondary is made up of replacement-level players and rookies.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Everywhere, this is quite possibly the least-talented defense in the league at just about every level, and perhaps one of the least-talented overall that I’ve ever seen. On a per game basis this unit ranks second to last in the league in rushing yards allowed, eighth to last in passing yards allowed, and third to last in points allowed

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Complacency
  • Mental mistakes, penalties, and turnovers
  • Joe Haden and the unknown role of Jamie Collins
  • It’s the NFL and anything can happen in any given game