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Defensive Tackle Continues to be Drain on Browns Defense

Defensive tackle was the worst position for the Cleveland Browns in the 2021 season and a month into the 2022 season, it is no better. Identifying what's gone wrong and why the Browns went this route knowing it was likely to be a problem.
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The Cleveland Browns expected to get better results on defense from a solid 2021 season so long as they improved from having the worst defensive tackle position in the league. One month into the 2022 season and that group once again finds itself in dead last, a limiting factor in what the defense can achieve as opponents are getting better at finding ways to exploit the weakness.

This was highlighted by the matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, but was a problem in the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a game where the Browns were without one of their starters in Taven Bryan as well as defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, the defense was mauled in the fourth quarter by a Falcons front despite often facing eight man boxes.

Third-year defensive tackle Jordan Elliott received praise for transforming his body in the offseason in what was supposed to propel him to a successful year. He might be more agile and have some more strength, but far too often he ends up doing exactly what the offensive line wants because he is unable to displace them at the point of attack.

Elliott is trying to do his job, often trying to fight pressure with pressure, but when he's unable to win that fight, he's unable to redirect and fight back the other way, ending up washed out of the play. There are glimpses of hope in what he can be, but it's not there with any consistency.

Second-year defensive tackle Tommy Togiai is usually hoping for a stalemate and rarely earning it. When he was able to isolate an offensive lineman, he has the capability to drive them into the backfield, which happened a few times against the Falcons. Far too often, he was simply driven backward out of the play. Falcons right guard Chris Lindstrom, looked like a Hall of Fame right guard as he casually drove anyone placed in front of him off the ball.

Even if there are people who don't view PFF as gospel, it is useful in identifying trends. Elliott has played 178 snaps this season while Togiai has played 82. Out of 123 defensive tackles in the NFL, they rank 122nd and 123rd respectively.

Rookie Perrion Winfrey was the most impactful defensive tackle in the game for the Browns. His speed off the ball was able to cause problems for the Falcons at times and he recorded a tackle for loss and was able to generate quick pressure into the backfield. In no way is this to suggest he should start because he is such a feast or famine player and needs to be put in the right situations to find success. Winfrey being the best against the Falcons merely underscores how bad the game was at the position.

If Winfrey can mature and continue to improve, there is absolutely a role for him on this team in the rotation as an athletic, up field three-tech.

Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are two of the best players on the Browns defense. Naturally, the scheme Joe Woods employs is built around them. They are have the speed, power and length necessary to get up field and force opponents to go back inside. That limits the amount of space the defensive tackles have to work in and gives them additional support in the form of linebackers and safeties.

Without them on the field, the Browns defensive ends were fair game for the Falcons. Alex Wright has plenty to like about his game and what he can be, but when he's wrong, it's glaring, opening the door for big runs. Isaac Rochell insisted on going inside consistently, even at times when he had no outside help, which allowed some of the biggest plays in the game both against the run and the pass. Not only does that put more pressure on the defensive tackles to work laterally while still being honest to cut backs, but it also increases the amount of the field the linebackers have to consistently cover, which was a problem in its own right.

In the game, Woods utilized different tactics to hide the issue. He ran blitzes early in the game, then used that to cause problems with simulated pressure looks that had players in the box drop out in coverage. They used rookie Isaiah Thomas as a joker type player. He was a standup defensive lineman behind the front. He was utilized some at defensive tackle as well as defensive end. Not an easy job, but Thomas was able to make some contributions in the game.

When the Browns faced the Steelers, they had both Garrett and Bryan. It was a Thursday Night Game which can produce some skewed results, but the Steelers picked up where they left off the previous year running the ball inside consistently. Najee Harris was getting over 5 yards per carry in the first half. The Steelers interior blew the Browns off the ball and Harris simply ran over and through Browns linebackers and safeties. In the second half, the Steelers stopped, which seemed an error by their offensive staff but was partially dictated by the score and perhaps a nagging injury to Harris.

Contrasted against last year where Harris had a combined 279 rushing yards in two games, that Thursday game felt like a triumph, but the same issues remain.

So even as everyone hopes the situation improves over the course of the season, it's fair to ask why the Browns weren't more aggressive in attacking the issue and allowed it to happen for the second year in a row.

The answer is Deshaun Watson.

When the Browns acquired Watson, they knew he was likely to be suspended for a significant portion of the season. Even if it was six games, that would have a major impact on the team that had a two-pronged effect.

First, the Browns weren't going to allocate a ton of financial resources into a season where they did not feel good about their ability to contend. Instead, they structured contracts to maximize their rollover cap into 2023 and the following years to give them the highest amount of space to use on players when they did feel they were ready to contend.

That number stands at $35 million, which would then become $70 million in 2023.

As a result, it made sense for the Browns to see what they have in these young players across their front. They can upgrade the ones who sink and retain the swimmers as part of the rotation.

The other issue with Watson's pending suspension was it gave potential free agents reason to be uncertain about the Browns. In the same way a wide receiver might be reluctant to sign with the Browns to catch passes from Jacoby Brissett for an indefinite amount of time, veteran defensive tackles might hesitate in signing with the Browns. Particularly, those signing one-year deals which is likely who the Browns would have targeted. The best way to quell those concerns by free agents? More money, which the Browns didn't want to spend.

The Browns traded for wide receiver Amari Cooper, which has been great. They also signed free agent defensive tackle Taven Bryan for up to $5 million. Bryan fits what the Browns want to do and was a former first round pick who hadn't distinguished himself with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Browns love to acquire former first round picks as reclamation projects, so it was a reasonable gamble on their part.

With Watson available for the entire 2023 season, there will be more free agents eager to sign with the Browns. Whether or not they approve of Watson's past off field behavior, he can get guys paid in a finite profession. If the overall roster looks promising, as it should, the Browns should be able to find veteran defensive linemen looking in pursuit of a championship.

With what the Browns have on defense, that could finally allow them to take the next step, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating to endure another year where the position is hurting the team.