Cleveland's defense took a step back in 2012, but there is a foundation there to build from in 2013.
In 2012, the Cleveland Browns defense ranked 23rd in yards per game allowed, at 363.8, a major step back from their 10th-overall ranking in 2011. They ranked 18th against the run and 24th against the pass, and gave up an average of 23 points per game.
While those statistics are certainly illuminating when it comes to how the Browns' defense performed in the 2012 season, they don't tell the whole story. Here's an in-depth look at Cleveland's defense and what they accomplished over the course of the year.
The Defensive Line
In 2012, nine Browns defensive linemen played at least 149 snaps. Clearly taking a cue from their division-mates, the Cincinnati Bengals, who have had a great deal of success building depth on the line and rotating their players in and out of games, the Browns decided to emulate that approach, and with it, have a more fearsome front four.
Though this isn't a terribly revolutionary approach—in a 4-3 defense, the line is a more specialized creature, one that requires substitution to be effective except in the rare cases the roster is full of men who can do it all—the Browns embraced it to the fullest in 2012. All nine men who saw time on the defensive line made important contributions on situational bases.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard played the most snaps of any Browns defensive lineman, with 1,050; Hall Davis and Brian Sanford split 28 snaps between them at left end, spelling him near the season's end, but generally speaking, the position was solely his for the year.
As such, his seven sacks led the defense, and he ended the year with 54 total tackles, the most of any member of the line. He also notched 38 defensive stops and graded out the best against the run of any Browns defender.
Rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn had the second-most snaps among Browns defensive linemen, with 761—269 in run defense and 434 in the pass rush. He had seven games at left tackle and nine at the right, including 10 starts in Weeks 1 through 9 and again in Week 12, taking over the injured Phil Taylor, who tore his pectoral in the offseason and didn't return to on-field action until Week 9 and alternating time and position with Ahtyba Rubin.
Winn was one of two rookies who spent significant time on the defensive line in 2012. The other was John Hughes, who played 530 snaps, also at right and left tackle. Hughes had two starts at right tackle, in Weeks 6 and 8 and played a third to a half of all defensive snaps in games he did not start.
It's quite a bit to ask for two rookie defensive linemen to contribute as much as they did, but neither was a particular liability. They combined for four sacks, six quarterback hits and 18 hurries and had 19 defensive stops apiece, but neither man would have had as much playing time had Taylor had not been injured in the offseason.
Taylor played just 273 snaps in 2012 after returning in Week 9. Though technically a starter in all but one of the games he appeared in, he ultimately played fewer snaps per game than his rookie counterparts. Even with the time off and limited snaps, Taylor was still effective, with over a dozen tackles as well as a sack. However, had he been healthy all season long, his presence would have helped both their pass rush and ability to stop the run.
Rounding out the defensive line was Rubin, who started in 13 games at either right or left tackle and played 691 snaps, and starting right defensive end Frostee Rucker, who came to the team as a free agent from the Bengals in the offseason and put up four sacks on the season.
Another free agent, Juqua Parker, had snaps at right end in all 16 games as a situational pass rusher and performed well in that limited capacity, with six sacks, eight quarterback hits and 30 hurries. Ishmaa'ily Kitchen joined the team to add help at defensive tackle, playing 212 snaps and defensive end Emmanuel Stephens had 149 snaps on the right in Weeks 1 through 8 before landing on IR with a neck injury.
Clearly, the Browns had much more stability at the defensive end position than at tackle. Five of the nine players who had at least 149 snaps on the defensive line were tackles and none of those five men—including starters—stayed on one side of the line for the entirety of the season. Taylor's injury sent the line into a bit of confusion, with no one player able to provide the kind of pass rush assistance and run stopping skills that a fully healthy Taylor brings to the field.
Cleveland ranked 11th in sacks in 2012, with 38, primarily thanks to the free agent additions at defensive end. Hughes and Winn, their biggest contributors at tackle, ranked near the bottom of the league when it came to pass rush at their position. And though the Browns improved to 18th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 118.6 per game compared to 147.4 in 2011, they had to go to great lengths to get there, considering how many players rotated in and out of the line every week.
There's an advantage to a rotational approach on the defensive line, but the Browns ended up lacking stability by moving players in and out of the lineup so often. No one player was able to be comfortable at either left or right defensive tackle before having to move to the other side. Taylor's injury had much to do with this, as well as the fact that circumstances forced two rookies to play major roles; this shouldn't end up being the case in 2013.
For the second straight season, Browns middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was the team's leading tackler, with a combined 118. He also had four sacks and 42 total defensive stops, the latter number also tops on their defense.
His 1,154 snaps played were the most of any Browns defender, with 469 coming against the run, 103 in pass rush and 582 in coverage. He had two interceptions, including one for a touchdown and and two forced fumbles and two recoveries. In coverage, Jackson allowed receptions on 41 of 58 passes thrown his way, for 374 yards and two touchdowns. Along with the two picks, he also had five defensed passes on the year.
The weak and strong side linebacker positions saw as much instability as the defensive tackle in 2012. The majority of the snaps were split between Craig Robertson, Kaluka Maiava and James-Michael Johnson, with Robertson getting time at strong side linebacker in the first two weeks and then switching over to the weak side for the rest of the year, earning two starts.
Maiava worked on the weak side for the first half of the season, with eight starts, and then moved to the strong side for the final seven games with five starts. Johnson, another rookie, didn't take the field until Week 6, getting the start at the strong side through Week 9 before starting at the weak side in Weeks 11 and 13 through 15.
The midseason shuffling between these three outside linebackers was in response to what the Browns coaching staff saw as being their strengths and weaknesses. Robertson spent the majority of his 628 snaps in coverage, while both Maiava and Johnson had more snaps against the run.
Among the three, Maiava was the most consistent—he ranked seventh overall among 4-3 outside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus, and was the best pass-rushing 4-3 linebacker despite playing just 25 snaps in that capacity. He also ranked fourth in coverage and gave up no touchdowns on the season.
Johnson led the Browns outside backers in tackling efficiency, with 25 made tackles for every one miss, while Johnson was the best in run-stopping, ranking 18th in the league. Only Robertson gave up a passing touchdown in the group, but he also led the outside linebackers in interceptions, with two.
Scott Fujita added 126 snaps on the strong side before landing on injured reserve with a neck injury. The linebacking corps also was assisted with 98 snaps from L.J. Fort, who showed up at weak, strong and middle linebacker on a situational basis over the span of seven games, and Tank Carder had 30 snaps on the year, seeing action starting in Week 11 primarily on the weak side.
In total, the Browns linebackers were a pretty unsung group. They handled their coverage assignments well and generally did a better job containing running backs than the defensive line.
Cleveland's secondary also did not escape reshuffling over the course of the 2012 season. With starting cornerback Joe Haden serving a four-game PED-related suspension in Weeks 2 through 5, the Browns needed to find an appropriate fill-in.
For Weeks 2 and 3, that person was Buster Skrine, who eventually appeared in all 16 games and had a total of six starts on the season, giving up five touchdowns and having no interceptions. In Weeks 4 and 5, Dimitri Patterson was brought from nickel corner to starter, but he then sprained his ankle and was later waived only to land with the Miami Dolphins.
Eventually the starting jobs belonged to Haden and and Sheldon Brown. Brown led all Cleveland defensive backs with 903 snaps. He allowed 52 of the 90 passes thrown his way to be caught, for a total of 655 yards and four touchdowns. Brown also had three interceptions in 2012, defensed 10 passes and quarterbacks targeting him had just an 81.5 passer rating.
Haden's year wasn't quite as strong as it was in 2011, when he was ranked 13th overall among cornerbacks. This season, he ranked 20th, just one spot above Brown, with the four missed games taking their toll when it came to his preparedness to play. Though Haden also had three interceptions, he gave up six touchdowns in 2012.
Cleveland's safeties were almost as unsung as their linebacking teammates. Their starters—T.J. Ward and Usama Young—were in Pro Football Focus' top 12 this year. Each had a sack, Ward had 68 combined tackles and Young, 53. Young also added three interceptions and the two only gave up a touchdown apiece.
Safety wasn't a stable position, though. While Ward started in the first 14 games at strong safety, Young didn't get the start at free safety until Week 3, taking over for Eric Hagg. Hagg saw time at both strong and free safety over the season, appearing on defense in eight games. Tashuan Gipson also had three starts at free safety and had 377 snaps at the position in Weeks 1 through 4 and 11 through 15 and Week 17, with one interception and one touchdown allowed over that time.
The biggest concern for the Browns secondary in 2012 was generating turnovers. The Browns ranked 11th in interceptions on the season, with 17, which was a major improvement over the nine they had in 2011. Hopefully that number will only go up with Ray Horton as their new defensive coordinator.