At least two members of the Cleveland Browns secondary believe that the unit is among the NFL's very best. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson have said in recent months that no secondary—maybe save the Seattle Seahawks'—rivals what the Browns have built.
Whitner said in May, per Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
You're going to look at the stats and I'd say we were No. 1 or No. 2 in every category in the [NFL] that really distinguishes whether you are a top secondary. So I'm not going to say top-five or top-six, I'm going to say top-three, and that's based on men lie, women lie, stats don't. I would have to say us [and] I would have to say Seattle and then based on the players the New York Jets picked up I'd say you have to put them up there but they haven't collectively done anything together so I would say the Cleveland Browns and the Seattle Seahawks.
And Gipson backed that statement up in June, telling ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, "The reason why you throw Seattle in there is because they got the pedigree, they have the stats, they have the All-Pros and things like that. I feel like besides them, I feel like our secondary is second to none. Including them actually."
But is Whitner right, that the stats don't lie as far as the Browns secondary is concerned? Is Cleveland's secondary really as good as Whitner and Gipson claim?
Last season, the Browns gave up the eighth-fewest passing yards, with 3,592 on the year. They were tied for sixth in passing touchdowns allowed (22), second in interceptions (21) and tops in the league in opponent quarterback rating (74.1). Quarterbacks also had the league's lowest completion percentage when throwing against the Browns defense, at 57.1 percent.
|Cleveland Pass Defense Stats, 2014|
|Opp. Pass Yds.||3,592||8th|
|Opp. Pass TDs||22||T-6th|
|Opp. QB Rating||74.1||1st|
Unsurprisingly, these numbers led Pro Football Focus to name the Browns defense the best in coverage last season, while Football Outsiders ranked them second—behind the Buffalo Bills. The Seahawks' pass defense came in third based on their metrics. Cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Joe Haden ranked within the top 30 players at their position, according to Pro Football Focus, while safeties Gipson and Whitner were ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, at their position.
The Browns defense had 97 passes defensed last year, compared to just 79 for their opponents despite Cleveland's quarterback play steadily declining in the second half of the season. They were led by Haden with 20 and cornerback Buster Skrine (now with those Jets, about whom Whitner is skeptical) with 18. Gipson, Williams and Justin Gilbert each had eight passes defensed and Whitner, five.
So far, everything pans out. Whitner and Gipson don't seem to have been exaggerating.
|Opponent Rush & Pass Attempts, 2014|
|Opp. Total Rush||Opp. Rush/G||Rank|
|Opp. Total Pass||Opp. Pass/G||Rank|
One easy knock against Whitner's and Gipson's claims is that the Browns secondary was so successful last year because teams could so easily run the ball against them. After all, Cleveland's defense gave up the most rushing yards in the league last year, and offenses totaled 500 rushing attempts against them, the second-highest total in the NFL.
But offenses actually didn't drastically limit their passing attempts against the Browns because of their weak run defense. Cleveland's defense actually saw the seventh-most passes thrown against them last year—a total of 587.
In fact, it looks like offenses woefully underestimated Cleveland's secondary last season. If the Browns' run defense had played half as bad as they did last year, the Browns could have easily come away with an overall top-10 or even top-five defense. That's how good the secondary really was.
And even if it turned out that opponents did opt to steer away from passing against the Browns secondary, two stats serve to prove that Cleveland did have a top-tier passing defense last year regardless of the passing volume it saw: opponent quarterback rating and opponent completion percentage.
Whether teams threw 40 times per game against the Browns or 20, completions allowed—and thus, the quarterback ratings that result from that—would be the same. And no secondary made things harder for opposing quarterbacks than Cleveland's.
So maybe Whitner and Gipson were wrong after all. They aren't part of the second-best secondary in the NFL, but rather the very best. And with the band staying mostly together in 2015, a repeat performance wouldn't be a surprise.
If Cleveland can get their run defense (and their offense) performing better this season, the Browns could actually field a sneakily dangerous team in 2015. And if not—having the league's top pass defense is still something worth bragging about.