Friday, January 21, 2011

Forecasting the Browns New Defense

As the rumor mill continues to churn out potential candidates for the open spot at defensive coordinator in Cleveland, it's become pretty clear that there will be a switch back to the 4-3 defense that was last used in 2004 in Cleveland. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, sources say that former Bills head coach Dick Jauron has agreed to a "general principle" to become the Browns defensive coordinator. Jauron used a 4-3 defense as the head coach in Buffalo and has recently worked with the 4-3 in Philadelphia as the defensive backs coach. Whether or not you believe Mary Kay Cabot's "sources", it appears extremely likely that Mike Holmgren will implement a 4-3 defense that he is more comfortable with than the complex 3-4 scheme utilized by Rob Ryan.

After consecutive 5-11 seasons under defensive-minded coach Eric Mangini we begin our latest rebuilding session under offensive-minded coach Pat Shurmur. This rebuilding effort will be a full-fledged project, from the ground up. After losing all three coordinators (offensive, defensive, and special teams) as well as the head coach, it looks like Browns fans will be in for a long season as the players adjust to new systems and a new culture. Later on we will be forecasting the Browns offense with the new system, but today we're looking at the defense's conversion from the 3-4 back to the 4-3.

I'm a big believer in the idea that the offensive and defensive lines set the tone for the games and everything starts with them. If you win the battle in the trenches, you'll have a very good shot to win the game. So we're going to begin by looking at the Browns defensive line and how it might look next year. Remember that this is just a projection, and a lot could change between now and next season.

In our previous 3-4 scheme, we had a nose tackle flanked by two defensive ends. The nose tackle position in our defense was tasked with taking on a double team and protecting the middle of the line. Shaun Rogers and Ahtyba Rubin have filled this position for the past two years. Rogers is not an ideal fit for this scheme because his best asset is his surprising quickness and his ability to penetrate and disrupt plays. He made his name in Detroit as a 4-3 defensive tackle and reached the Pro Bowl in 2004. If he is kept around for next season (he has been rumored to be on the trading block since last season), he may be the player with the most to gain from the transition. Potential defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is familiar with Rogers from his days as the defensive coordinator in Detroit, and might be able to rejuvenate Rogers' career. In his college career at Texas, Rodgers earned a second-team All Big-12 selection when paired with Casey Hampton, now of the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Rubin (a 330 lb. monster that defends the run very well) next to him playing a role similar to Hampton's, the tandem could prove very effective with their complementary abilities and great combined size.

The defensive end spots in a 3-4 are also similarly tasked with occupying blockers and holding their positions to allow the linebackers to make plays. They are traditionally larger and stronger than 4-3 DE's, who are often tasked with rushing the passer. Our defensive ends have been filled by a rotation of veterans including Kenyon Coleman, Robaire Smith, Brian Schaefering, and Derreck Robinson. The youngest of this group is Schaefering, 27, while the others are 31, 33, and 28 years old, respectively. If any of them remain in Cleveland next season they will probably see time at defensive tackle in a rotation with Rogers and Rubin.

Rubin is the youngest player on the line to earn significant playing time, and at 24 years old he could be a great building block or perhaps even trade bait to a team with a 3-4 defense in need of a nose tackle. The other players are all older so don't be surprised to see a lot of movement in this area over the offseason, and perhaps an infusion of young talent via the draft.

The outside linebackers in a 3-4 are the most similar to 4-3 DE's, so we will likely see some of them put their hand on the ground and rush the passer from that spot. The Browns used a rotation of OLB's last year, which included Matt Roth, Marcus Benard, and David Bowens. Roth was an All-American while at Iowa playing as a defensive end, and was shifted to 3-4 OLB in Miami after their defense converted from a 4-3. He is a likely candidate to move back to defensive end after being one of the best outside linebackers at stopping the run as well as recording 3.5 sacks in 2010. Marcus Benard is another candidate to move back to defensive end. He earned many conference honors as a defensive end at Jackson State University, and converted to a 3-4 OLB in Cleveland. However, Benard does not have prototypical size for a DE. He will likely be used as a situational pass rusher, although his coverage skills have improved so he could become a 4-3 linebacker, depending on how the coaching staff decides to utilize him.

Inside linebacker in Cleveland has been another spot that has been filled with a rotation of veterans and a few younger players. This group includes Eric Barton, 33, Scott Fujita, 31, Chris Gocong, 27, and Jason Trusnik, 26. Fujita is coming off an injury that ended his 2010 season, but he has experience in a 4-3 from his days in New Orleans and he provides a valuable veteran presence. He could be a starter at any of the linebacker positions next season. Eric Barton was brought over from the Jets by Mangini, and because of his age he will likely not play a large role next season. Chris Gocong was brought in from Philadelphia, where he has experience as a 4-3 linebacker. He should continue to earn playing time as a linebacker next year. D'Qwell Jackson is another player that could benefit greatly from the scheme change. He has missed the last two seasons with injuries, but he is still young enough at 27 to return and be effective. He recorded 348 tackles in his first three seasons with the Browns, leading the NFL in tackles in the 2008 season. His reliable tackling could assure him the starting middle linebacker spot for next season.

The secondary of our defense has recently become a bright spot, with the emergence of rookies Joe Haden at cornerback and T.J. Ward at safety. Abram Elam has also played better in his second season at safety in Cleveland, and veteran Sheldon Brown has played well at cornerback. Eric Wright, set to become a free agent this offseason, had his worst season at cornerback in 2010 but if he returns he could be a valuable part of the secondary as a nickel corner. The starting spots will likely be filled again by Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden, who took over the starting spot after Wright was injured against the Jaguars. The safety spots may again be filled by Ward and Elam, but Elam is 29 and was brought over by Mangini. He may become a victim of the coaching change. The secondary in Cleveland will likely have the least amount of change to go through, but with a new coordinator in place it is hard to know what will happen. Some expect CB Sheldon Brown to be moved to free safety, allowing hard-hitting T.J. Ward to move to his more natural position at strong safety. Once again though, this is all just speculation. If Dick Jauron does indeed take the job, his experience with coaching defensive backs could help talented but mercurial youngster Coye Francies to finally crack the lineup in a meaningful way.

To sum all of this up, it's hard to tell what exactly will happen to the defense because of the coaching changes and the age of many key starters from last season's squad. Don't be surprised to see some departures via retirement, free agency, or trades; assuming we have all of those things under the (hopefully) new Collective Bargaining Agreement. With the amount of talent at defensive line entering the draft, it would also not be a surprise to see some high draft picks used to upgrade over our aging veterans. A new coach may not want to roll the dice on a "luxury" position like wide receiver with a player such as A.J. Green, who many believe has character concerns.

As always, feel free to use the comments and stay tuned for more Browns news and analysis.

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