All the national draft experts, and some of the local ones too, were fixated by the Cleveland Browns needing a wide receiver. That position is the current sexy one, outside of quarterback of course, in the NFL.
They all had either A.J. Green or Julio Jones coming to Cleveland to team with Colt McCoy to become the next lethal passing combination in the league.
The Browns’ front office didn’t think that way. They remembered that defense wins in the NFL, especially in the AFC North, were every team, including the Browns and Bengals, have a bruising running game.
The front office looked at the numbers and here’s what they saw. They saw a unit that gave up 129.4 yards on the ground last season, ranking 27th in the league. In 2009, orange and brown defenders allowed 144.6 yards rushing, 28th best out of 32 teams. Three years ago, the total was 151.9 yards given up, again ranking among the worst in the NFL (28th).
So they decided to do something about it.
Here are the top five teams against the rush in 2010: Pittsburgh, Chicago, the Jets, Chargers, and Ravens.
For the record, that is three teams that played in conference championships and another team that reached the second round of the playoffs.
See any connection?
The point is this, you simply cannot play good defense in the National Football League without being able to stop the run. Want more proof?
Here are the leaders from 2009: Green Bay (11-5), Minnesota (12-4 conference finalist), Pittsburgh (9-7), Dallas (11-5), and Baltimore (9-7). Beside the Vikings, both Dallas and Baltimore reached the second round of the playoffs, and the Packers lost in the first round.
in 2008, it was the Vikings (10-6), Steelers (12-4 Super Bowl champs), Ravens (11-5 AFC runner-up), Eagles (9-6-1 NFC runner-up), and Bears (9-7) at the top of the list.
Notice two teams that keep showing up on this list? Yes, the Browns two division rivals, Pittsburgh and Baltimore can stop the run.
And they like to run the ball, usually up the middle with guys like Rashard Mendenhall and Ray Rice.
GM Tom Heckert and new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron looked at these numbers and said this has to end if the Browns are ever going to stop their losing ways. Several different methods have been tried, but still, since this franchise returned to the NFL in 1999, they haven’t been able to stop teams from running the football effectively.
That’s why Heckert went defense first (and second) and took DT Phil Taylor from Baylor. Taylor was ranked in several places as the best run stopper in the draft, and together with Ahtyba Rubin should give Jauron a basis to stop teams have shoving the ball down the Browns’ collective throats.
Could Cleveland have used a wide receiver? Sure, it’s not like they have Jerry Rice and Paul Warfield manning the position now. But the glaring need for this football team was on the defensive side of the ball. They addressed the secondary last year, but they needed to take steps to stop the run. That’s what they addressed.
Good defense will keep you in football games. That’s what former coordinator Rob Ryan did last season with all his exotic looks and bag of tricks. Mostly though, that was because the personnel wasn’t there. If Jauron’s unit can stop the run, it forces teams to throw into the best part of the Browns’ defense, the secondary led by second year pros Joe Haden and T. J. Ward.
Wide receivers are pretty things to have, and Heckert did take WR Greg Little, big physical receiver (6’3″, 220) with the second pick in round two, after taking a pass rusher (another big need) in Jabaal Sheard at #37.
Heckert is building this team the right way. Defense still wins in the NFL, but it’s been several years since the Cleveland Browns had a decent one, so perhaps some people have forgotten that fact.