Danny Shelton (Tony Dejak/AP)

With an offense lacking in playmakers and overall identity, the Browns' best chance to build on their surprising 7-9 record in '14 is by taking their defense up a notch. Mammoth rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton will help

By Andy Benoit
August 12, 2015

We’ve seen a team’s fate hang in the balance of a first-round draft pick before. But typically, it tends to be a quarterback. The Browns were in this very position last year; it didn’t go too well. Despite the Johnny Manziel debacle, they’re looking to build on a surprising 7-9 season in Year One under Mike Pettine. The first-round rookie the team's fate now hangs on: nose tackle Danny Shelton.

The 340-pounder was selected 12th overall because he invokes comparisons to Vince Wilfork. If Shelton indeed translates to this level of NFL player, the Browns will have a force who can line up anywhere inside of an offensive tackle and dominate with a combination of light feet and raw, sudden strength. That type of presence makes life easier on an entire front seven.

Which is what the Browns need. They ranked dead last against the run last season (and 28th in yards per carry). It wasn’t that they got gouged for big plays. In fact, their longest rush allowed was just 38 yards. They didn’t get undone by any specific running concepts or against any particular types of schemes. What happened was they simply lined up and were ineffective.

Some have suggested the transition to Pettine’s unfamiliar Jets-style scheme was a factor. But Pettine’s scheme is not particularly complex in its run-stopping measures. It doesn’t preach much gap control; rather, it relies on having a destructive front line—preferably comprised of just three men—that gets penetration and prevents movement by opposing blockers. Kick the snot out of the man in front of you, in other words. Linebackers are then kept clean and counted on to read this action and chase down the ball. Essentially, it is run defense in its purest form, predicated on free flow and sheer physical output.

Hence the selection of Shelton. It’s difficult to win on sheer physical output if you don’t have the best physical specimens. Maybe if Phil Taylor, recently released, had stayed healthy last season things would have been different and Shelton wouldn’t even be here.

• THE ACCIDENTAL COACH OF THE CLEVELAND BROWNS: Mike Pettine wasn’t the first choice (or second or third or...) to lead the locker room. But the 47-year-old former high school coach is in Cleveland and ready to unleash a shape-shifting defense set to wreak havoc in the AFC North

Pettine and GM Ray Farmer at this point likely view any contributions from Taylor as gravy. If they planned on re-upping his expiring contract after this season, they probably wouldn’t have drafted 293-pound defensive end Xavier Cooper two rounds after Shelton. And they wouldn’t have signed ex-Dolphin Randy Starks to a two-year deal in free agency. Starks is in his 12th season but doesn’t turn 32 until December. He can still be very difficult to combat in a phone booth. Same goes for Desmond Bryant, a strong fist-fighter off the line of scrimmage. Fourth-year pro John Hughes has also shown flashes, though he too missed significant time last year (11 games) due to injury (MCL). With Shelton, Cooper and Starks joining a now-healthy Hughes, the Browns effectively have five new men to rotate up front. And just going off their build alone, none of those men will be bullied at the point of attack the way previous starter Ahtyba Rubin was.

This leaves Cleveland’s back seven in a better position to do its job in 2015. But here again we bump into the perplexity of this defense’s struggles. It has two superb veteran hunters who can run and chase: inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and strong safety Donte Whitner. Both play with a high football IQ, and both stood out positively against the run at times in 2014, their first year with the Browns. But clearly, they weren’t enough.

The men around these two must play better. Inside, next to Dansby, is 2014 third-rounder Christian Kirksey, who has yet to fully supplant a mediocre Craig Robertson. Kirksey has played in nickel packages, Robertson in the base 3-4. Presumably, coaches would like Kirksey to capture this job on an every-down basis. Outside, Paul Kruger was signed in free agency in 2013 in part because of his ability to take on edge blockers against the run. Many at the time felt that Kruger’s fairly ordinary pass rushing output did not justify his $8.1 million average annual salary. Last season, however, Kruger became a more imaginative pass rusher, posting a career-high 11 sacks. But he was not as dynamic against the run.

Barkevious Mingo and Josh McCown (Tony Dejak/AP)

Neither was Jabaal Sheard, who signed with New England this past offseason. Sheard’s departure propels third-year man Barkevious Mingo into a greater role at the other outside ‘backer position. A shoulder injury hindered the 2013 No. 6 overall pick. Given this, and given his being a slender 240-pounder who, so far, has been a utility man with no firm identity, the Browns hedged at this position by drafting outside linebacker Nate Orchard in the second round this past offseason. Don’t be surprised if Orchard ultimately becomes the fulltime starter and Mingo a sub-package specialist who lines up in various positions in Pettine’s designer pressure packages.

If Mingo does wind up playing on first and second downs, he will need a disruptive down-lineman to the inside of him. Otherwise, Mingo will get eaten alive at the point of attack against outside zone runs. The same might also prove true of Orchard, who weighs 250. (Kruger is a different story; at 270 he can be expected to win playside against on-the-move offensive linemen and certainly against fullbacks and tight ends.)

Stopping the run carries little benefit if your own offense can’t sustain drives on the ground. The Browns were erratic here last season, ranking 28th in yards per carry, too often forcing their defense to play extra snaps. It’s a whole new offense this season under first-time coordinator John DeFilippo. The former Raiders quarterbacks coach has never overseen an NFL offense, so we can’t be exactly sure as to his core football beliefs. But DeFilippo has expressed reverence for what’s been a very good Browns O-line, when healthy. It reasons that he’ll maintain much of the zone-blocking structures that comprised the system before him.

The “if healthy” part pertains to Alex Mack. After the top-five center was lost for the season in Week 6 with a broken leg, Cleveland’s running game stumbled (and on certain weeks, fell down completely). With Mack around for at least one more year (his deal runs through 2018 but he can opt out after this season), first-round rookie Cameron Erving will initially compete with John Greco at right guard. Whoever wins the job will line up opposite last year’s second-round pick Joel Bitonio, who is coming off a stellar NFL debut. With Joe Thomas, 30, still a first-rate left tackle and Mitchell Schwartz having quietly improved on the right side, the interior of this O-line will determine the efficacy of Cleveland’s ground game.

With zone running games, deeper football thinkers sometimes put too much emphasis on the blocking and not enough on the men actually running the ball. Clearly, the Browns don’t feel like they’ve found the answer here. Last season they rotated Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, along with Ben Tate (since released) and got up-and-down results. Paying more attention to the downs than ups, it seems, Farmer spent a third-round pick on Duke Johnson. This could prove fruitless; Crowell is a good outside zone back who can square his shoulders upon getting around a corner and accelerate on the perimeter. He just needs more refinement.

Cut-backs, however, often rely on good blocking from a tight end or fullback—something the Browns have gotten only sporadically. Still, DeFilippo will have to commit fully to the ground game. His passing attack doesn’t have nearly enough weapons to sustain an offense for an entire autumn. If the O-line stays healthy, whoever runs the ball can thrive. That is, assuming the Browns defense can first get off the field.

Browns Nickel Package

1. The Browns will miss Buster Skrine. He was targeted frequently last season because he played in a man-to-man scheme opposite one of the game’s premier cover corners (Joe Haden). Skrine’s lows were gradually supplanted by more highs over time. His replacement, 32-year-old ex-Packer Tramon Williams, can still compete in man coverage, but he’ll need fairly regular safety help over the top. The Browns can provide that. One of Pettine’s staple coverages on passing downs is “2 man” (man-to-man with a safety rolled over on each side). In single-high safety concepts, the Browns have enough faith in Haden on an island to have centerfielder Tashaun Gipson tilt towards Williams.

2. There will be a Williams playing slot corner in nickel this season. The Browns hope it’s Tramon. That likely would mean that last year’s No. 8 overall pick, Justin Gilbert, finally screwed his head on straight enough to play up to his potential as a No. 3 corner outside. Gilbert was expected to have already become a No. 2 by now, but immaturity and a naturally tough adjustment to facing NFL receivers prevented that. So far, he hasn’t looked much better after completing his second NFL training camp. If he can’t earn a nickel job, then the slot will once again be manned by K’Waun Williams, an undrafted rookie from Gilbert’s ’14 class. Williams was very solid in man coverage last season. Pierre Desir also saw serious reps over the summer, but it’s hard to see him unseating Williams.

3. DeFilippo likes progression read concepts, which means he’ll need new veteran quarterback Josh McCown to do a better job in the pocket than he did last year as a Buc. McCown at times has a disconcerting tendency to perceive pressure that’s not really there.

4. Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline as your most notable receivers? That ensures, euphemistically, a “ball control” offense. Neither guy runs well anymore. Factor in Gary Barnidge, Jim Dray and Rob Housler replacing Jordan Cameron at tight end and you officially have the least menacing passing game in professional football. Expect running back screens and misdirection concepts involving diminutive slot men Andrew Hawkins/Taylor Gabriel/Travis Benjamin (they’re all pretty much the same) to be the crux of Cleveland’s aerial approach.

5. Don’t expect a Manziel sighting. Moving to the suburbs and facing addiction problems might improve one’s life, but it won’t improve one’s pocket presence or coverage diagnostic skills.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

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