Solution to the Browns' Cornerback Problem Can Be Found in Their Front 7
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The Cleveland Browns were criticized for not finding a starting-caliber cornerback in the early days of free agency, but it seemed to only indicate it would be a position they would address in the draft.
Though the Browns did draft a corner, the one they did take—Leon McFadden in Round 3—seems best suited for a slot or nickel cornerback job in the NFL and not to join Joe Haden on the outside.
So who joins Haden? It's the big offseason question in Cleveland—well, at least the biggest one that doesn't involve the quarterback situation—and none of the answers feel entirely comfortable. Buster Skrine, who spent 2012 bouncing between the slot, left and right receiving jobs, appears to be a front-runner based on his level of experience.
Trevin Wade could also be in the running, and free-agent signings Chris Owens and Kevin Barnes could also play snaps on the outside. Johnson Bademosi played just 24 defensive snaps (subscription required) last year, which makes it seem like he still has some developing to do before he becomes a starter in the secondary.
But really, the answer to this question isn't any of these cornerbacks. What will really help out Cleveland's passing coverage is their defensive front seven. Playing well up front will make it matter less who joins Haden on the outside, whether it's Skrine, McFadden or a combination of players.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton comes to the Browns from the Arizona Cardinals via the Pittsburgh Steelers. He trained under Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is known for his complex blitzing schemes and other aggressive tactics to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
During and since his tenure in Pittsburgh, the priority there hasn't been to find stud cornerback talent—current starter Ike Taylor is good, to be sure, but there have been no future Hall of Fame-type corners in Pittsburgh for quite some time. The Browns will likely take the same approach, and, if done successfully, there should be little worry that Haden doesn't have a clone starting opposite him.
The way the Browns have chosen to improve their defense this offseason is by improving their front seven. Horton's 3-4, which echoes Pittsburgh's, is all about creating havoc up front and not leaving the quarterback with time to make an accurate, game-changing throw. Less is thus required of the cornerbacks.
Since Horton came in, the Browns have added free agents Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant and Quentin Groves, and took Barkevious Mingo in Round 1 of the draft. All four will have a major impact on the Browns defense this year, and most will do so in a pass-rushing capacity.
In 2012, the Browns had a combined 38 sacks, the same as the Cardinals. Looking at the teams with top-10 regular-season sack totals as compared to the 10 teams that allowed the lowest completion percentages to opposing passers, you can see that there is a statistically significant amount of overlap.
While high sack totals don't always cause lower completion percentages, many teams that successfully get at opposing quarterbacks don't give up a lot of completions, because those quarterbacks don't have time to throw an accurate pass. This theory is clearly what is driving the Browns' defensive philosophy this year.
Last year, the Browns' sack leaders were Juqua Parker (now a free agent) and Jabaal Sheard, with six and seven apiece, respectively. Kruger had nine regular-season sacks in 2012, Bryant had four despite playing only 645 snaps (subscription required), Groves had four as well and his snap count was even lower than Bryant's, and though Mingo had only 4.5 sacks in 2012 with the LSU Tigers, his presence as a source of quarterback pressure was felt far more often.
Combined, that's 21.5 more sacks than the Browns had before the signings. And if their snap counts are as they were in 2012, the Browns could actually expect an uptick in sacks close to that number. If the Browns successfully get to opposing quarterbacks that much this year, they could easily have 60 team sacks, and their average completion percentage allowed will go down significantly, taking pressure off of whoever may start alongside Haden.
So it's not a red alert in Cleveland when it comes to their cornerback situation, after all. Whether it's Skrine—whose 2012 numbers don't engender a ton of confidence (73.1 completion percentage, 751 yards, 255 yards after catch, five touchdowns allowed, 10 passes defensed)—or someone else, the better the Browns are at bringing pressure to quarterbacks, the less passes those quarterbacks throw and even fewer the number that are caught.
If it works, no one will be wondering about the man starting next to Haden.
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