In the aftermath following the disaster that was Johnny Manziel’s first start...
Could the Cleveland Browns Secondary be the Best in the AFC North?
For the past few seasons, the statistics have revealed that teams have begun transitioning their offense around aerial attacks. In short, the popular phrase that “the NFL is now a passing league” has rung true time and time again. Quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford have perennially lit up score boards the past few seasons, routinely topping the 4,500-yard mark and rendering the rushing game to a mere complement.
With that happening, the defenses have had to adapt. The secondaries have had to become bigger, taller, faster and stronger to keep up with the wide receiving cores around the league.
Seattle has been the model for that with taller players like Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell, but with the NFL being a copycat league, they are certainly not the only one. In fact, in the Seahawks own division, each team boasts at least two starting defensive backs over six feet tall.
Across the country in the AFC North, there are no exceptions to that trend, with each team trying to get bigger, faster and stronger in their respective secondaries.
In Cleveland, new head coach Mike Pettine has put a strong emphasis on that factor by drafting a pair of tall cornerbacks in Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir to help bolster a secondary which already features Pro Bowl defensive backs Joe Haden and Donte Whitner.
Whitner, who the Browns acquired in free agency from the San Francisco 49ers, brings a level of toughness to the secondary that they have not seen since the days of Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. Unafraid of drawing a personal foul, Whitner leaves wide receivers terrified of crossing the middle of the field, knowing he is waiting for them to do so. With a safety in the middle of the field drawing hesitation from receivers, it leaves the opportunity for turnovers, whether it be from jarring the ball lose or interceptions.
With that piece to the puzzle cemented in place, the Browns have done a great job of surrounding their defensive leader with ball hawks and playmakers. Of course, there is Haden, who is capable of locking down any No. 1 receiver in the National Football League. Last season, he made Bengals’ star wideout A.J. Green a mere afterthought, making him look out of place on the field through his physicality and ability to jump routes. The only receivers Haden had any sort of struggles with at all seemed to come from speedsters like Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Fortunately, the Browns addressed that. Gilbert runs a 4.37 forty yard dash time, notably faster than Brown’s 4.47 time at the NFL Combine. While it is uncertain if he will be ready by the start of the season in Pittsburgh, by all indications, Buster Skrine will be. Currently slated to be the starter opposite of Haden, Skrine officially ran a 4.48 time at the Combine, but many felt it was a disappointing and inaccurate time, believing him to be much faster on the field.
The Browns have the physicality in Whitner, they have the shutdown prescience in Haden, they have the speed with Gilbert and Skrine, and they have the ball-hawking ability with free safety Tashaun Gipson. An undrafted free agent out of Wyoming, Gipson exploded onto the scene last year, being sent deep into centerfield for the Browns while T.J. Ward was free to roam the line of scrimmage. As the last line of defense for Cleveland, Gipson excelled with five interceptions and 95 tackles.
Entering his third season in the NFL at just 23 years of age, Gipson will be relied on even more this year, as Whitner’s skill-set allows him to play up on the line just as well as he can drop into coverage. It is likely that Pettine and Jim O’Neil will utilize Whitner as a linebacker in certain looks, as well as allowing him to rush the passer off the edge. When that happens, the Browns’ young free safety will have to stay disciplined in his assignments, something he had struggles with at times last season.
With Pettine and O’Neil in town, anything less than the best out of their secondary won’t be tolerated. While Cleveland’s secondary might not get confused with Seattle’s Legion of Boom this season, there is a very good chance that the Browns’ secondary could boast about a Lockdown on the Lake this season when the competition rolls into town.
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