Steelers Film Room: Cleveland Browns’ Defensive Scouting Report

This year, Jon Ledyard and I will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.

Our reports for the Cleveland Browns’ defense.


The Browns have just 15 sacks this season, tying them for 23rd in the NFL. Only 5 of them come from their edge rushers, and just one over the last month. Not getting the production they’re looking for.

Karlos Dansby continues to lead the charge defensive with a team-leading 73 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 interceptions, and a forced fumble for good measure. He’s a true three-down guy in the same vein as Lawrence Timmons, playing 98.9% of the Browns’ snaps.

Their secondary isn’t generating enough interceptions with just two from their defensive backs – both by Tashaun Gipson. The other three come from their linebackers.

They’re middle of the pack in splash pass plays allowed with 28 of 20+, tied for 14th most in the league. But their run defense has been putrid and they’ve given up 35 runs gaining at least ten yards. That’s the second-most allowed in the league. Fun fact: the Steelers have run for the third most 10+ gains. Steelers strength vs the Browns’ weakness.

The Browns rotate a lot of pieces in that front seven. It’s a hybrid front with six defensive linemen playing 28% or more of the snaps. That includes rookie Xavier Cooper, who in my limited view, has struggled on tape. Unable to stay on his feet and hold the POA.

The secondary is banged up and may not have Donte Whitner or Joe Haden. If Whitner misses, rookie Ibraheim Campbell will start. Pierre Desir should start at CB in Haden’s absence.

You’ll notice there is a good bit of youth on this defense, one reason for their struggles. Last week vs the Cincinnati Bengals, they started four rookie or second-year players along that defense: Campbell, Desir, Danny Shelton, and Nate Orchard.

There is a rotation at CB, too with Haden out. Hard to get a read on where they play their guys – I’ve seen Tramon Williams bounce from the left to right side and it doesn’t appear he’s going up against a certain receiver. Maybe it’s a field/boundary tendency I missed. Justin Gilbert also played about 1/3 of the snaps against the Bengals. A “throw at the wall and see what sticks” approach. Eight defensive backs played at least two snaps last week.

Schematically, they will over shift their front to the strong side like shown here.


And will play a Bear front to cover up the center and both guards.


Their defensive line shift and move, too. Jamie Meder, who I actually still have a hard copy of his Ashland tape, will play nose and left end. Ditto with the linebackers – you’ll see a guy like Paul Kruger line up on either side.

Their secondary is primarily a man-free scheme. Lot of Cover One Robber with a safety taking away any crossing routes. A great role for a ballhawk like Gipson.

CLEDRobber1 CLEDRobber2

In subpackages, they’ll show an amoeba look and get their pass rushers on the field.

In third and long, they’ll zone blitz and bring their a safety or corner while dropping the end in coverage. Saw it multiple times against the Cardinals and Bengals. Armonty Bryant came close to a pick against Arizona.




Cleveland’s Special Teams

Barkevious Mingo and Tank Carder lead the Browns’ in special teams’ snaps with 86.2% of them overall. Jonathan Bademosi and Marlon Moore appear to be the team’s starting gunners.

Campbell is the team’s upback on punts. They have not faked a punt or field goal this season nor last. They did have two punt fakes in 2012 and 2013, one coming against the Steelers. One came on 4th and 5, the other on 4th and 1. One came on the Browns on 25, another on their 38. So no real tell. Both were direct snaps to the upback.

They also ran a fake field goal, though that was in part to a blown coverage that left a receiver wide open along the sideline. That was thrown by punter/holding Spencer Lanning, who is no longer on the team.


There’s no kind way of putting this, so I won’t try. The Browns defense, in basically any and every aspect, is pitiful. I know that seems harsh, and I realize that playing inept defensive teams often presents mountainous issues for the Steelers offense for some bizarre reason, but the statement is nevertheless true.

Cleveland currently ranks 26th in points allowed per game at 27.4, 29th in total yards allowed per game at 401.6, 21st in pass defense giving up 254 yards per game, and dead last in rush defense permitting a whopping 147 yards per game on the ground. They allow offenses to convert third downs 43 percent of the time (26th), have given up nine pass plays of 40+ yards (29th), and have recorded just 15 sacks this season (23rd).

Disclaimer before I get into the details, the Browns are the most difficult defense to scout from an individual perspective that I’ve looked at this season. I kid you not when I say that 23 different players have played major roles in their defense this season from one game to another. Injuries and an incredibly rapid rotation at almost every position make them a tough team to break down from player to player. When I write these reports, I typically like to watch a player over the course of one game, note their tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, then go into as much details as I deem necessary. With Cleveland, you might see each player 20-something snaps a game and thats it. For example, against Cincinnati last week, the Browns had 19 different defenders play 20 or more snaps. The week before it was 20 players with 18 snaps or more against Arizona. By comparison the Steelers had 13 defensive players at 30 or more snaps against Oakland. Tough to evaluate much based on such a small sample-size for so many players. So bear with me this week.

Just two defenders play over 84 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, cornerback Tramon Williams and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Joe Haden has struggled this season and been hampered by injury, and neither he nor Donte Whitner practiced at all on Thursday. Looking like both players will be out again this week with concussions. For a Browns team that relies more heavily on rotation than maybe any other defense in football, hard to tell what the impact will be.

That leaves Dansby in charge of a struggling defense that doesn’t always reflect his play. The veteran linebacker isn’t what he once was, but he’s still a solid coverage linebacker who play smart consistently. Dansby just doesn’t have the movement skills he used to.

The team will do different things with defensive end/linebacker Armonty Bryant, who plays 53.4 percent of the time defensively. Saw them drop him from a three-point stance into coverage against Marvin Jones vs. Cincinnati. That ended how you would anticipate, in a 29-yard catch-and-run for the wide receiver.

Bryant does have 3.5 sacks this season, which leads the team. Paul Kruger, last year’s sack leader with 11, is dropping into coverage a good bit this season, one of Mike Pettine’s many unusual personnel moves. Kruger is still the team’s best pass rusher in my opinion, a great speed-to-power conversion guy with an excellent bull rush.

Puts backup right tackle Eric Winston on skates before ripping past him for the sack. Kruger is a physical dude who wants to go through you for sacks, not around you. His get-off and athleticism are average though.

Christian Kirksey is the other inside linebacker, although painfully Craig Robertson still sees the field 27 percent of the time. Kirksey is a solid athlete who can cover and tackle, but is slight of frame and isn’t ideal in traffic. Robertson is a poor athlete with limited movement skills and average instincts, but somehow has re-gained his starting spot since returning from injury in Week 8. Browns fans are no doubt enraged.

Barkevious Mingo still exists, and did play 22 snaps last week, but has just 152 on the season, playing over 24 percent of the time. The third-year former first round pick started the first two games of the year, but quickly lost that spot to Bryant and rookie Nate Orchard. Orchard has played a lot recently, and while I don’t like his fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he doesn’t look totally overmatched. I just don’t think Orchard is a great athlete in space, as situational pass rusher was my ideal role for him in his first year. Instead Pettine has him dropping into coverage a bunch, which rarely happened at Utah. Orchard has done a solid job on the edge, but I want to see him rush the quarterback more if I’m Cleveland.

The Browns corners are long and physical, and will press at the line of scrimmage a good bit. A.J. Green excels at getting off press coverage, but Tramon Williams battles him tough here to throw off the receiver’s release and get inside the slant route.

Williams has always been a tough competitor who will battle hard at catch points. He and second-year corner Pierre Desir will start on the outside, with second-year nickel corner K’Waun Williams playing in sub-packages. Watched Williams play a good bit this year and last, and he’s the real deal. Extremely quick feet with great short-area movement skills. Looks like a nice part of the solution in Cleveland, and has three forced fumbles on the season. All three corners will tackle, although K’Waun is likely the weakest of the trio. No cornerback on the team has an interception yet this season.

Safety Ibraheim Campbell got his first start against the Bengals in place of Whitner, and played admirably, showing off his excellent closing burst and strong tackling skills. I liked Campbell a lot pre-draft because of his burst to the ball and ability to play in the box and in coverage. Made a nice diagnosis and stop against Cincinnati’s Emory and Henry formation last Thursday night.

Campbell breaks down in space well as a tackler, with great form and hitting power. Happy to see him getting a chance in Cleveland’s defense.

Tashaun Gipson is back in the lineup after missing three games this season due to injury, but being banged up has clearly slowed him down this season. Hasn’t been able to get into any kind of a rhythm, like much of the Browns talented secondary.

Justin Gilbert, last year’s top first round pick, has played just 31 defensive snaps this season, but 23 came last week. Johnson Bademosi has played a decent amount of corner this year too, and Jordan Poyer served as Gipson’s replacement at free safety for three games. Cleveland’s defensive backfield is ridiculously talented, they just need to stay healthy and get more time together as a cohesive unit. Too much change on a snap-to-snap, game-to-game basis.

Up front the Browns have a steady rotation, with Randy Starks the only defensive linemen to play over 50 percent of the unit’s snaps at 52.3 percent. Rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton, and defensive ends John Hughes and Desmond Bryant all play between 44 and 47 percent, while Xavier Cooper and Jamie Meder have worked into the rotation heavily as well. Snap count breakdown against Cincinnati and Arizona (respectively) the past two weeks:

Bryant: 39, 45
Shelton: 38, 37
Starks: 33, 29
Cooper: 28, 32
Hughes: 27, 34
Meder: 24, 34

So yeah, pretty ridiculous rotation. As a general rule I’m not a fan of such practices for two reasons. First, it typically means you don’t have anyone you trust enough to be on the field consistently, and the players realize that. Second, it doesn’t allow your personnel to get into any type of a rhythm, especially as pass rushers trying to set up opposing offensive linemen throughout a game. Nevertheless the rotation has worked at least on paper, with every player notching at least one sacks this season except Shelton, who typically is off the field on more obvious passing downs. Desmond Bryant needs to play even more, as he is the team’s best pass rushing defensive lineman and is solid against the run.

Cooper’s first step is explosive and problematic for offensive linemen, but he need works technically at the point of attack. The Browns will put him on the interior on third downs a lot of the time, while Kruger and Armonty Bryant put their hands down on the edge. Starks is probably their best three technique due to his experience and excellent physicality at the snap, but for a guy who is supposed to be a veteran leader, had some really dumb moments against Cincinnati. Taunting penalty to kick off one Bengals drive, then a 4th-and-goal offsides flag that negated what would have been a big 4th down stand for Cleveland, and instead turned into a Cincinnati touchdown.

Punter Andy Lee was acquired via trade from San Francisco (yes, a punter was traded for) this offseason, and for good reason. Lee is hands down one of the best punters in the NFL, and is showing that fact again this season by averaging 48.5 yards per punt, tied for 4th in the league. Lee’s dropped 16 of those inside the 20 too. One pass and one rush for Lee on fakes during his 12-year career. Rush went for -18 and the pass fell incomplete.

Thanks to the Browns need to have a rotation for every position under the sun, the gunners over the past two games have been some combination of Bademosi, safety Don Jones, wide receiver Marlon Moore, and even Gilbert on one snap. Gilbert made a great tackle on Patrick Peterson on that lone rep, but he looks like he’ll be seeing mostly defensive snaps with Haden likely out. Bademosi is the best of the bunch, really hustling to get downfield and evading blocks with some tricky maneuverability.

The Browns special teams have not allowed a punt return since 2012, and have not allowed a kickoff return since 2011. It has been over one year now since they allowed their punter to get drop-kicked in the face by Antonio Brown. Lee undoubtedly desires to fare much more favorably on Sunday.

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