With the loss of starting safety Sean Jones for four to six weeks for knee surgery, the Cleveland Browns have been dealt yet another blow to their depleted secondary. The focus has been on the Browns’ defensive backfield since cornerback Daven Holly was lost for the season during offseason OTAs.
That, combined with the youth of starting cornerbacks Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright (both second-year players), has left the Browns wafer thin at corner. The loss of Jones for an extended period, combined with Brodney Pool’s struggles with his third concussion in four years, leaves the Browns even more depleted.
The development of these young players is important, but it is not the defensive piece that will determine the Browns’ fate in 2008. That burden falls on the Browns' linebacking corps. The Browns’ secondary may be young, but they should improve. Their linebacking core is a mix of underperforming veterans and young players who have failed to develop.
In the 3-4 defense it is up to the defensive line to occupy blockers, thereby freeing up the linebackers to make plays. Shaun Rogers looked formidable at nose tackle in his Browns debut. Corey Williams has taken some time to adjust, but I feel he will be able to fit in after a few weeks. Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith were effective last year and will only benefit from their pairing with Rogers and Williams.
That leaves the onus to make plays on the Browns' linebackers. In the three plus years that the Browns have employed the 3-4, the linebackers have failed to do so. Andra Davis is a smart player, but his lack of speed leaves him a step—or two—behind when attacking the line of scrimmage. Willie McGinest is in his last season in the NFL and is frequently hampered by injuries.
The younger linebackers have failed to step up as well. D’Qwell Jackson appears to be too small to be an effective inside linebacker and just doesn’t make enough big plays. He, like Davis, is the king of the tackle four yards downfield. Leon Williams is a physical specimen but seems to struggle mentally, which has kept him off the field. Rookie draft pick Beau Bell has been out since training camp due to knee surgery.
On the outside, the Browns were hurt by the loss of Antwaan Peek for the season as he was supposed to take the heat off of Kamerion Wimbley. But this was the year Wimbley was supposed to showcase a new repertoire of pass rushing moves. After one week, he still only has one move, the speed rush from the outside. Until he adapts, the Browns are lacking that pass rush from the outside the 3-4 defense needs.
Look at the linebacking corps that the successful 3-4 teams employ. The Pittsburgh Steelers have LaMar Woodley, James Farrior, Larry Foote, and James Harrison. The Baltimore Ravens utilize Ray Lewis, Bart Scoot, Terrell Suggs, and Jarrett Johnson. The New England Patriots have a mix of youth and experience with Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Jerrod Mayo, and Adalius Thomas.
All of these linebackers make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage on a regular basis. The entire list is playmakers that can alter the outcome of the game.
The Browns may have some depth concerns in their defensive backfield, but in the end it is the linebackers that must make the plays. Until the Browns’ linebacking corps can consistently do that they will hold the team’s success back accordingly. That, and not the secondary, will be the biggest factor in determining the team’s fate in 2008.