Although it now seems like years ago, the Browns' run defense once resembled a team strength during a more optimistic point of the 2010 season. However, the past month of games has seen the likes of Mike Goodson, Fred Jackson and Cedric Benson gouge an injury-depleted and worn out defensive front line.
Entering Sunday's game against Baltimore, it was obvious that the Ravens' strong rushing attack would offer more of the same. And of course, they did. Baltimore's combination of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee ran for 126 yards against the Browns' battered defensive front.
However, you can't fault the Browns' coaching staff for not trying to fix a problem that has become crippling late in the season. Against Baltimore, David Bowens was shifted inside to replace Eric Barton, while a relative newcomer found a playing opportunity at left defensive end.
Perhaps best known for volunteering to carry all of his defensive linemate's pads in the wake of Cowboys' rookie Dez Bryant's refusal to be hazed during training camp, rookie Travis Ivey's road to the NFL has been a rocky one.
Despite his best efforts to win over the Dolphins' coaching staff, Ivey was released early in training camp. Signed by the Browns and then released before the start of the regular season, Ivey found his way back to Cleveland, where he has languished on the team's practice squad for most of 2010.
Ivey was promoted to the team's active roster in advance of the Baltimore game and had the feeling that he might see some live action.
"I sort of knew," Ivey said. "The coaches prepared me for it."
Early in the game, Ivey was outmuscled by Baltimore's right tackle Marshal Yanda and driven back on a few plays. The veteran tackle's hands appeared to be too quick for Ivey, as the rookie was easily engaged and pushed around.
However, as the game wore on, Ivey appeared to become more comfortable and managed to hold his ground. His hands became a bit quicker during the second half of play and his 325-lb. base allowed him to become more rooted. Ivey also showed some mobility moving laterally down the line, which was reflective of his college experience playing defensive tackle in a four-man front at Maryland.
Evidence of Ivey's potential was clear during a Browns' third down stop early in the third quarter. Ivey pushed off his blocker and managed to clutter up the A-gap, which allowed Bowens room to make a stop from his inside position.
While not exactly the most revelatory of moments, Ivey's performance on this play hinted at the possibility that he could be an intriguing prospect at a position ravaged by a lack of depth. In the simplest terms of the Browns' defensive scheme, Ivey managed to occupy a blocker and helped to cave in the interior of Baltimore's line, freeing up a linebacker to make a play.
As for an evaluation of his performance, Ivey offered the following:
"I think I fit in pretty well. I got trained it in training camp with Miami all the way until now playing nose. The coaches here told me I was good enough to play both positions. They gave me a chance to show what I can do and I appreciate them for it. I think I played pretty well. You know, you can always play better – first NFL game - but I think considering the circumstances, I played pretty well."
As for those circumstances, the Browns' current run defense clearly needs a spark in order to finish the season on a positive note. While Ivey is not a cure-all for the defensive line's multitude of problems, at least he offers the team some versatility.
As Browns' fans have witnessed over the past half-decade, finding linemen to play within the unique challenges of a 3-4 scheme is a very difficult task. Most NFL 3-4 defensive ends have very little prior experience playing the position. In this sense, Ivey is no different. However, the rookie lineman seems to understand the importance of bring some flexibility to the position.
"I just think that whenever you're in the league, you have do more than one thing to be valuable to a team," Ivey said. "My skill set suits both nose and end. It's just whatever you need me to do."
As for now, the Browns simply need Ivey to keep improving.