2003 Season Review: The Defense

2003 Season Review: The Defense

It's the elephant sitting in your living room. You can try to ignore it, but it has to be dealt with. Joe Brownlee, in the second part of his three-part series recapping the Browns year, says that you can't look at the Browns defensive performance in 2003 without reckoning with the huge rushing numbers put up by Jamal Lewis and LaDanian Tomlinson. Check it out, and see why Joe is one of our most popular and respected fan commentators...

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.

Overview

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 the offense.

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.

Defensive End

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 Return.

Defensive Tackle

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 breath.

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.

Linebacker

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 not return.

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 experience.

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

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.

Safety

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.

Coaching

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 turnovers.

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.

Summary

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 help.


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 Warren's behind.
  • Find a run stopping strong safety.
  • Re-sign Brant Boyer for veteran leadership.
  • Add a cover corner, if practical.
  • 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 turnovers.

Next Up

The conclusion, including a look at the special teams and a review of overall coaching and organizational issues.

The season is short. Bark hard!

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