The Defense Remains a Work in Progress
Perhaps our expectations were unrealistic. In fairness, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain standard since Zim arrived on the scene. The 2017 defense, of course, was the climactic moment of his tenure as our HC/DC (certain ex-players may place more emphasis on the “DC” portion of things), but we’ve routinely had impressive defenses.
Last season was an anomaly. We finished the year allowing, on average, 29.7 points per game. That was 29th in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, that kind of defensive performance largely contributed to our pedestrian 7-9 record.
Collectively, we were hoping for quite a bit more heading in the 2021 season. So far, we’ve had to deal with somewhat underwhelming play on defense.
Head over to ESPN and see where we stand in the major categories. We’re fifth-worst in yards per game, allowing just under 410 yards to the opposition. We’re closer to the middle when it comes to points allowed, but an average of 26 points against a game is nothing to brag about. Let’s not forget that our offense hasn’t really struggled with turnovers, so it’s not like we’ve given up some touchdowns on short fields. Nay, the unflattering numbers are almost exclusively the responsibility of the defense.
As I’ve previously noted, everything on our defense begins with shutting down the run. Doing so forces the opposition into predictable passing scenarios. We all saw what happened when Seattle was put in that position. It was a flawless second half for our defense. Defensive coaches will tell you that you need to earn the opportunity to rush the passer. If you want to pin your ears back and get after the QB, you need to begin by shutting down the run. Offensive coaches (John DeFilippo being the notable exception) will be more than happy to just run all day if it leads to success.
Cleveland looks a little banged up along the OL; they’ll still give us all we can handle. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the league’s best pair of backs. They are PFF’s #2 and #3 RBs. We’ll need Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce to be really stout. Of course, getting Barr back into the fold will make a difference. His size/speed combo creates legit issues for other teams, especially since those physical attributes partner with his high level intelligence. I expect the run defense to take a noticeable step forward if/when Barr comes back healthy.
It’s entirely possible that the identity of our team is changing. Last year, we were obviously an offensive team, but many of us (such as yours truly) assumed that was mostly because of the ridiculous amount of injury issues on Zim’s side of things. Well, we’re mostly healthy and we’ve brought in a ton of free agent talent. The offense is still leading the way.
The key, at least from my perspective, is going to rest in continuing to raise our floor on defense. Eliminating the backbreaking big plays does wonders for a defense. From there, we must recommit to shutting down the run early. Having Everson getting back into his groove will help. Barr’s return will also be a boost, and the coaching staff ought to seriously consider re-inserting Dantzler into the lineup.
These talent infusions will help us. Will it be enough for us to get back to our once-dominant selves? Time will tell. The next test will come against Kevin Stefanski’s Browns. Our former OC will surely have some special plays designed specifically for us.
We’ll soon find out how far our defense has come.