Good day, Browns fans!
This article will continue the postseason review of the 2003 Cleveland Browns. This is part 2 of 3, looking at the defense. Part 1 covered the
offense. Part 3 will cover the special teams and other team-related issues.
Going into 2003, everyone expected setbacks on defense. The top four
linebackers from the 2002 team were either released or had retired. A vocal
leader and starter at cornerback had been released. The team’s top defensive
end was coming off a serious injury. Several players in the secondary had
shaky seasons in 2002. On top of all this, the team replaced its defensive
coordinator, forcing the returning players to learn a new system. All of these
factors combined did not bode well for the Browns in 2003.
For the most part, though, the 2003 defense was a pleasant surprise. Some
players on the defensive line began to play to their potential. The young trio
of linebackers drafted in 2002 stepped in and played at least as well as the
veterans had in 2002. The secondary faced a schedule full of some of the top
receivers in the NFL and they did a pretty good job shutting them down. The
defense continued its stingy ways in the red zone. New defensive coordinator
Dave Campo did a good job with his young charges, and for the most part, the
defense played well. Certainly it played well enough to win in more games than
But no evaluation of the defense can overlook some truly horrendous
performances against the run. While the defense shut down runners like
Edgerrin James of the Colts and Jerome Bettis of the Steelers, it gave up 200
yards to a single back three times, including twice to Jamal Lewis of the
Barneys. One of those was a 295-yard performance, the most ever for a running
back in a game. These failures came on big runs. LaDanian Tomlinson of the
Chargers had a 70+ yard run. Lewis had a big run in the second meeting, and
had five big runs in the record-setting game, including both an 82-yard run
and a 63-yard run. While people don’t like to hear talk about things like “gap
integrity”, these are the failures of a young, over-aggressive defense where
individual players either did not hold their responsibility or missed tackles.
As with the offense, let’s look at each of the players.
Courtney Brown successfully returned from controversial microfracture
surgery on a knee. Some people said his career might be over. Instead, he
played the best football of his career. Before missing the rest of the season
with a detached bicep, Brown might have been on his way to a double-digit sack
season. As it was, Brown had a career high in sacks with six and was a
consistent force against the run. Brown was more active than he had ever been,
disrupting many plays. He manhandled defenders at times. It was a terrible
shame for yet another freak injury to kill his season. Will Brown return in
2004? He faces yet another rehab and is scheduled to make $6 million. I can’t
see the Browns paying him that. I hope he will return.
I was not a huge fan of the Kenard Lang signing. In 2002, he had one big
play on a gift from the Bengals, but otherwise had a quiet season. This year,
Lang wasn’t a Pro Bowler, but he made a lot of plays. He had six and a half
sacks and made several tackles for loss as well. Lang did a good job overall.
Maybe he can even build on this in 2004. At the level of play he showed this
year, he is sold.
Mark Word earned a spot in the end rotation based on leading the team with
eight sacks in 2002. In 2003, Word made few impact plays, especially
considering he saw a serious amount of playing time. I had hoped he would
improve his anemic play against the run. Instead, Word charges the
quarterback, run or pass. While I would expect the Browns to give him another
look next summer, I would not be surprised if Word did not make the roster if
a better rounded player can be found at end.
Felipe Claybrooks saw some playing time early in the season. He played some
on defense, but largely played on special teams. After several penalties,
especially on kickoffs, Claybrooks was released and eventually re-signed but
was inactive. Claybrooks made a play here or there, but the question is, has
he topped out? Is there any potential remaining here? If not, Claybrooks may
also not be on the 2004 team.
Tyrone Rogers was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1999. Despite the
lack of pedigree, Rogers remains on the team. In the first half of the season,
Rogers was inactive every week, and this despite playing quite well when
Courtney Brown was injured in 2002. When Rogers got a chance to play down the
stretch, once again he made plays in both the running and passing games.
Rogers is no starter, but he is one of those veteran backups that are valuable
to have around. He is a free agent and may not return. He would be a valuable
role player to retain.
If the team did not have the amount of money invested in this position that
they do, you might say that they have gotten very good production. But given
the cost and draft status of the starters, is twelve and a half sacks enough?
Did you get enough plays against the run? It’s a tough call, but I’d have to
say “no”. Even so, the production was the best this unit has had since The
Gerard Warren had some good games in the late going. He got double teamed
at times, though I don’t believe as much as some people like to claim. Many
times, he was just ineffective, being easily rerouted away from the play. He
finally had some sacks late in the year. But given his cost and draft status,
Warren isn’t close to fulfilling his potential. After telling everyone he was
changing his partying ways this year, he said at the end of the season that he
never said he would stop, only that he would cut down. He was benched for
missing a team meeting. I am baffled at how Warren achieved “team-related
incentives” to escalate his 2004 salary to $5.5 million. Did he have a clause
for a 5-11 season? I’d be more encouraged about Warren if we hadn’t seen a
late season run in 2001 that did not carry over into 2002. Warren disappeared
for games at a time. Rumor has it that Butch Davis had some words for Warren
after the season. I can’t imagine that the Browns would pay him his scheduled
money, nor should they. Warren needs to be held to the same standard as other
players (Kevin Johnson?) and if he is not going to consistently produce, it’s
time to consider alternatives. The best alternative would be for him to
suddenly decide to play to his level of talent. I’m not going to hold my
Orpheus Roye had another great year. He busted up plays, both against the
run and pass. He batted down balls all season long. The man pursues well to
the outside and shows consistent hustle. I am glad to hear Butch Davis say
that the Browns intend to pay his scheduled roster bonus. Too bad he played on
a bad team, because I think Roye had a Pro Bowl quality season.
Alvin McKinley had his year cut short by injury, but the guy makes plays
when he is in the game. I don’t see McKinley as a starter, but he makes a nice
third man in the tackle rotation, and he contributes on special teams,
especially by blocking kicks. After he was injured, McKinley was missed.
Michael Myers was picked up after injuries hit the line. Since he played in
Campo’s system in Dallas, he was able to come in and contribute quickly. He
only got limited playing time, but his game against the Bruises is enough to
warrant another look. I do not believe he is signed for next year, though.
Antonio Garay played sparingly, and then was injured. I liked what I saw in
the preseason. Problem is, Garay has had injury problems in college and it
might be tough to overcome yet another injury setback. If he can get healthy,
I’d like to see more.
If the Browns do not bring back Warren, they might need to look at another
tackle. Warren has said he will renegotiate, so I suspect he will get one more
year and no more rope. I wonder if Roye, McKinley, and Myers as a rotation
could hold their own.
Andra Davis stepped up in a big way. He led the team in tackles and made a
lot of plays throughout the year. Except for a brief period just before the
bye, Davis was solid game in and game out. He made hard hits and made plays in
the passing game as well. Davis was overaggressive at times and was out of
position on some of the big running plays that hurt the Browns. But for his
first season seeing extensive playing time, Andra Davis did well. I don’t know
that the departed Earl Holmes would have done as well. Davis is no Ray Lewis
and may never be, but he could be a solid player in the middle of this defense
for a long period.
Ben Taylor had some minor injury problems, but unlike 2002, he managed to
be on the field a majority of the time. I had seen little that gave me a lot
of confidence in Taylor last year, but this year, he made some big plays.
Taylor struggled more with being out of position than Davis, but still,
comparing Taylor’s play to Dwayne Rudd or Darren Hambrick, I’d take Taylor
every time. In particular, Taylor showed heart and hustle. He had games where
he made tackle after tackle. It would be nice to see this be a little more
consistent. The only question is whether he can stay healthy.
Kevin Bentley had a great preseason in 2002 followed by a good first part
of the regular season. Bentley was then injured and he has yet to regain his
prior form. Bentley had a great interception against the Colts, and from time
to time, he came up with a big tackle. But there were whole games where you’d
question whether Bentley even played. He is still young, gained valuable
experience, and was still learning the Campo defense. However, Bentley will
need to improve or he will face a challenge for his position in 2004.
Brant Boyer is the type of player that it is easy to overlook. He doesn’t
have the size or speed to be a prototype NFL starter at linebacker. This cagey
veteran still finds ways to make plays. Even in games where he played only as
a substitute, Boyer usually made some impact play, even if it was on special
teams. When Taylor was injured, Boyer got a chance to start and played very
well. I think Brant Boyer reminded Butch Davis just what veteran leadership
means to a team. Though his contract is up, I will be surprised if Boyer does
There was a lot of brash talk from Chaun Thompson following his holdout
last summer. The linebacker from a small school that went 0-11 in his senior
year boasted that he would come in and start. Instead, he rarely saw action,
even on special teams, and when he did, he committed penalties. For a second
round pick, Thompson had scant more than zero impact in 2003. It remains to be
seen if he can challenge Kevin Bentley for his starting spot, or even become a
Jamir Miller-like pass rusher. While Thompson may yet be a productive player,
would Mike Doss have looked good in those games where the Browns gave up
whopping numbers to opposing runners? The Browns could have had Doss with the
pick they used on Thompson. Or will Thompson’s name go down with Mike Junkin
and Clifford Charlton as draft busts at the linebacker position?
Barry Gardner was the Browns lone free agent pickup. They hoped he would
contribute on special teams and perhaps challenge for a starting linebacker
position. Gardner gives a lot of effort, but he just isn’t good enough to play
defense. I’m not even sold on him on special teams. At least he has
Sherrod Coates made some nice plays on special teams. Keep your eye on him
next summer. Mason Unck was released at the end of the preseason and
eventually found his way back onto the team, but he saw very little action.
With another year of experience, this unit looks to be solid. Assuming
Boyer returns, the Browns can stand pat here unless they find someone outside
the team who might be an option at outside linebacker to challenge Bentley.
This team has a lot of areas that are higher priorities than this.
Cornerback was an interesting position. After releasing Corey Fuller, the
Browns looked to be in trouble. Daylon McCutcheon plays well but his size is a
liability. Anthony Henry followed up a fantastic rookie season by struggling
in 2002. Lewis Sanders has shown good ability but has had a lot of injury
problems. The rest of the players at corner were rookies. Given a schedule
stacked with top flight receivers, this looked to be a major area of concern.
As it turned out, the corners played quite well, and even the injury bug
forcing inexperienced players onto the field did not turn out horribly.
McCutcheon is underrated. He covers well. He is by far the best tackler in
the secondary. Sure, another five inches of height would help his game, but
receivers don’t consistently go up over McCutcheon to make catches. Given the
receivers he had to cover this season, I thought McCutcheon did very well. He
also played hurt at the end of the year. Butch Davis says they will pay the
roster bonus he has coming, and I think it would be a mistake to let
McCutcheon go. He is developing into the veteran leader of the secondary.
Henry had such a remarkable rookie year that 2002 was bound to be a
disappointment. The work he put in following the 2002 season paid off. Henry
covered extremely well. In the game against the Colts in 2002, down 16-0 at
the half, the Colts moved Marvin Harrison to match up with Henry and toasted
him. The Colts roared back for a 28-23 victory. This season, the Colts got
Harrison nine receptions, but he racked up a paltry 44 yards and was
noticeably frustrated. Henry shut down or at least controlled some of the best
receivers in the game in 2003. His tackling needs serious work, and he will
still be caught out of position at times, but the improvement over 2002 was
drastic. People are already banging the drum to replace Henry. I can’t agree
with that as yet. With his size, Henry could have a future at safety, but he
would really have to pick up his game in terms of tackling.
Sanders played well as the third corner. He would typically enter the game
on the outside and force McCutcheon inside on passing downs. Sanders seems to
cover well and he has historically shown a nose for the ball, especially in
terms of forcing or recovering fumbles. His biggest issue is staying healthy.
While Sanders shows a lot of potential, I question his future just because of
his injury problems. He is also a liability in the running game, though that
may not be enough to bump a corner off the team.
Among the young players, Michael Lehan stands out to me. He made plays on
the corner. He covers well, and even when he is faked out, he has excellent
quickness in recovery. I know people will point to the bomb Lelie caught over
him in Denver, but that was a case where he was stride for stride with the
receiver and his feet got tangled up. It was a mistake in a meaningless game
which he owned up to and hopefully he will learn from. Lehan also made
numerous plays on special teams. Once again, injuries are already a concern
here. If he can stay healthy, the Browns may have found a player in Lehan.
Leigh Bodden came from a small school and was somewhat of a surprise to
make the roster. He made a few plays but was also seriously toasted by
starting NFL receivers in the preseason. Bodden may be a special teamer at
best, but he will undoubtedly get a look at corner next summer. I havemy
doubts about whether he will be a viable option on defense, but he needs some
playing time in preseason to make that determination.
With injuries in the secondary, the Browns picked up Roosevelt Williams. A
former third round pick of the Bears, Williams was released. In his first
action for the Browns, he was caught holding right in front of an official on
a punt return that went for a touchdown. As the year wore on, the Browns were
forced to use Williams on defense, and eventually, they gave him sort of a
tryout in games versus St. Louis, at Denver, against the Prunes, and at
Cincinnati. Williams made some plays here and there. I am not sold on him just
yet. I am left wondering why a team like the Bears let this guy go? Is there a
problem here that has not yet surfaced? Or is it that they were simply unhappy
with his play? Whatever the reason, Williams still has a lot to prove.
Overall, the Browns could use a true shutdown corner. However, with other
more pressing needs, if the players already on the roster can get healthy, the
team would probably be fine in sticking this group of players, even if they
lose Lewis Sanders.
It’s hard to find anything to say here but that this group was a
disappointment. I don’t think the team got the production in terms of tackles,
coverage, or interceptions they would like to have had. Overall, the number of
impact plays from this player group was few. You certainly have to put a lot
of the blame for surrendering numerous runs of 40 yards or more right here.
Robert Griffith played better in 2003 than 2002, but that isn’t saying
much. His best play of the year might be the interception in the end zone at
Denver that allowed the Browns to get back into the game. He also clinched the
game in Cincinnati with a late interception. Other than that, my memories of
Griffith are diving to make a hit and not even coming close to the ball
carrier, not wrapping up on numerous tackle opportunities, seeing him blitz
and come nowhere near the quarterback many times, and getting absolutely
burned by Marvin Harrison and Chad Johnson on pass plays. The first didn’t
cost the Browns when the pass was badly thrown. The second allowed the Bengals
to tie the game going into halftime in a game the Browns eventually lost. This
play in my mind was a turning point for both the Browns and the Bengals. Given
his salary, his ties to the departed Foge Fazio, and his level of play, it is
hard to imagine Griffith returning in 2004.
Earl Little is an interesting player. The Browns plucked him off the scrap
heap midway through the 1999 season. He eventually developed into a starter.
Little doesn’t have all of the talent some have, but he is a ball hawk. In the
past, he has shown himself to be a playmaker. This season, while he did lead
the team by a wide margin with six interceptions, Little was invisible in many
games. He never seemed to come up with the big play. Little really got burned
on some of the big runs and desperately needs to work on tackling. After being
burned by Jamal Lewis in the next to last game, you could see that Little
really made a conscious effort to improve his play against the run in the
final game. That gives me some hope for improvement in 2004, but Little is
pretty much what he is and probably doesn’t have tons of upside. If he could
play credibly against the run, I would be OK with sticking with Little. He
would be very solid as a third safety.
Chris Crocker floated between being a nickel corner and eventually became
more of a third safety. Crocker was said to be a reach in the third round, and
after 2003, I have to agree. His coverage is so-so at best. I don’t recall any
great plays against the run. His best play of the season was a
touchdown-saving special teams tackle at Kansas City. Given the injuries in
the seconday, it speaks volumes that the Browns played Lehan and Williams over
Crocker. I’m not sure Crocker will ever be much more than a special teamer,
but it’s still early in his career and you never know. When you consider
Crocker versus Lehan taken two rounds later, Lehan showed far more than
Crocker did in significantly less playing time.
Michael Jameson missed his entire rookie season, then played primarily on
special teams in 2002. In 2003, he was given a chance to play quite a bit in
the preseason due to an injury to Robert Griffith. He did OK. During the
season, Jameson played on special teams and rarely played on defense. While
some are suggesting that he is ready to step in and replace Griffith, this is
nothing more than talk. Jameson has yet to show starting-caliber play on the
field. This summer, he can show whether he can be a factor or not. This is
probably his last chance to prove himself.
Of all the positions on defense, this is the weakest. Griffith needs to go.
I would not even consider bringing him back for a pay cut. The question is
whether there is a strong safety available through free agency that can fit
the bill or if a playmaker can be obtained through the draft.
When Dave Campo was selected to replace Foge Fazio, Dallas fans said that
while Campo had problems as a head coach, he was a “top five” defensive
coordinator. After this year, I can’t argue with that assessment. Campo took a
pretty young defense playing a new scheme and got them to keep an anemic
offense in most every game. The only chink in the armor would be the numerous
big running plays that plagued the defense. Funny thing was, the Browns really
struggled against one-dimensional running teams like Baltimourge and San
Diego. Against more balanced teams like Indianapolis, New England, and
Pittsburgh the Browns controlled the run well.
It seems to me that when you get killed against the run like this, you
really have to look at your defense up the middle. Gerard Warren’s problems
are well documented. Andra Davis played well for the most part, but a tendency
to be overly aggressive caused him to get out of position and allow some of
these runs to get rolling. Robert Griffith and Earl Little were a major
liability in the running game. The other problem I noticed consistently was
the inability for defenders to shed blocks. Andra Davis needs to work on this.
Gerard Warren often looks as if he isn’t even trying to come off a block.
Orpheus Roye is one of the best players on defense at this, and both Courtney
Brown and Kenard Lang showed a lot of improvement in this area in 2003.
The defense did not generate many turnovers. Some of it seemed to be luck.
Whenever there was a fumble, it bounced away from the Browns defenders.
However, I think some of it is an issue of not enough comfort in the defense.
The players are thinking too much about what to do. When they are comfortable
with the responsibilities, they can pay more attention to generating
With a year in the system, I would think the players can spend this
offseason working on some of the finer points of Campo’s defense. It would
seem to be some work on fundamentals like tackling and getting off blocks
would help along with a lot of work and maybe even film study about what
happens when you abandon your gap. Campo can also encourage his players to
keep doing what they have been doing in the red zone and in pass coverage and
just get better. If a couple of weak links can be fixed, this could be a very
good defense in 2004.
The defense generally did very well against the pass and in the red zone.
It kept the team in games. Its biggest failing is surrendering huge plays in
the running game, and that seems like a problem that can be corrected, even
though somehow it wasn’t during the 2003 season. This season provided valuable
experience for a lot of young players that should pay dividends in the years
to come. A good core group of players is here. A few upgrades would really
Suggestions For Improvement
- Resolve contract
situations of Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren to determine if replacements
are needed. If retained, revoke his free pass and light a fire under
- Find a run stopping strong
- Re-sign Brant Boyer for
- Add a cover corner, if
- Upgrade OLB spot held by
Kevin Bentley by either improved play or replacement.
- Continue to coach and
train players to cultivate increased familiarity with the defense and
The conclusion, including a look at the special teams and a review of
overall coaching and organizational issues.
The season is short. Bark hard!