Pump the brakes: Browns defense is good, but maybe not THAT good

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I am usually Mr. Optimistic. Rather than being the driver of the bandwagon, I am more akin to a homeless looking gentleman taking up residence in the back, knick-knacks arranged in varied orders, every changing so as to attempt to muster up the juju needed to secure a victory. “All it takes is moving the Elf bobblehead 47 degrees to the left, and the Sports Illustrated cover of Tim Couch needs to be flipped around and I’m sure we will win this Sunday.” As much of a fan of baseball as I am, football has a way to get me energized. I am surprised I have a voice after screaming “BAKER” approximately 87,000 times last Thursday.

However, this is me calling for a step back into rationality. Earlier this week, a tweet made its way around the ole #BrownsTwitter innerwebs and caught my eye to go looking into it further. NFL insider Benjamin Allbright went out and said there was a “strong argument” that the Browns have the best defense in the NFL currently. As much of a homer I am and can be, this perked up my BS ears. Allbright went further into looking at the points per game in Cleveland’s three tilts, showing that they were holding teams far below their averages on the season.

Now, this is not me crapping on the team. The Browns do have a very talented, top to bottom, inside and out, defense. Myles Garrett shares the league lead in sacks, and Larry Ogunjobi isn’t far behind, with Emmanuel Ogbah only having played in one game. Denzel Ward doesn’t look like a rookie, Terrence Mitchell is mastering the strip tackle, Damarious Randall has played great at free safety, allowing for Jabrill Peppers to play like he’s back at Michigan. The linebacking corp has kept churning despite an injury to team leader Christian Kirksey and the cutting of admitted felon Mychal Kendricks. One of the big keys to the defense’s ability to hold opposing teams to low point totals is turnovers.

The Browns are currently sitting at a +9 in turnover differential, which leads the league. With 11 takeaways and only two interceptions thrown by Browns quarterbacks this season,1 it comes as no surprise that the gameplan of limiting giveaways and targeting picks has worked. However, looking deeper into the fumble stats paints a different picture as well. I’ll let a tweet of mine explain most of what I found.

Limiting giveaways on offense is a great plan, but the Browns turnover differential is a bit of smoke-and-mirrors. Yes, the team is doing better this year than last in forcing fumbles. To have six in three weeks when you only had 14 all of last year is fantastic. What it means is you have players and coaches that are playing at a higher level than previous seasons: players going for the strip as opposed to tackling, linemen and blitzers surprising the quarterback in the pocket when he isn’t being protective of the football. However, recovering 10 of 12 fumbles, whether they be on offense or defense (six of each to be exact) equals out to be 83.3%2 of all the fumbles a team recovers. Last season’s turnover differential victor was the Baltimore Ravens with a +17, and they were able to recover 19 of a possible 25 fumbles for a 76%.

When looking at turnover differential, and seeing the Browns +3 over anyone else in the league, you have to look at opponents. I will give all credit to Gregg Williams’ attacking-from-all-angles defense for holding Drew Brees, known highly for being one of the best quarterbacks ever, to 243 yards and two touchdowns, that’s a great performance. Nothing more or less can be said about that.

Week 1 against the Steelers was a rain-soaked affair, however, and Ben Roethlisberger put on his best DeShone Kizer impression with five turnovers in and of himself, throwing three interceptions and losing two fumbles. It’s hard to go full Milli Vanilli and blame it on the rain, but it would be disingenuous to say that Roethlisberger’s performance was completely on the defense. Tyrod Taylor, he of the no-risk football, only had an interception and a fumble in that game himself, playing in the same weather.

A short week game against a rookie quarterback in Sam Darnold is what dreams are made of, and the Browns feasted on Darnold, who looked rattled most of the game. The Jets game plan was to limit his exposure, which worked until the endgame began and they were forced to try more downfield action and come back against Cleveland. The Jets six second-half drives ended thusly: punt, fumble, punt, field goal, interception, interception.

Is it possible that Allbright is right? Absolutely. Is it wrong to have doubts that the Browns are the BEST defense in the NFL? Of course not. None of this was to discredit Cleveland for having a great defense. Gregg Williams, flaws and all, has a game plan each week that has helped put the Browns in a position to win all three of the games they have played this year. Let’s hope that trend continues as the season rolls along.

  1. Looking at you, Tyrod Taylor. []
  2. Repeating of course. []