BEREA, Ohio – Through the primary three quarters of a game, the Cleveland Browns’ defense has been among the many NFL’s best.
But within the fourth quarter, Cleveland’s defense has been perhaps the very worst.
Defensive fourth-quarter collapses are the largest reason why the Browns are only 2-2, despite playing one in all the league’s easiest schedules up to now.
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Now, with five of the highest 10 teams in ESPN’s power rankings coming up on the slate before December, Cleveland’s season could approach a breaking point if its late-game issues on defense aren’t fixed — and fast.
“Obviously, you’re attempting to play 4 quarters of football. … Unfortunately, we’ve had some issues within the fourth quarter which have led to points,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We unfortunately [have given up] up big plays that basically can’t occur and shouldn’t occur. I believe we’ve gone a great distance in working on those variety of things. We just must proceed to play sound football, get lined up No. 1, play the defense and execute.”
Cleveland has yet to face a top-18 offense, based on ESPN’s Football Power Index. But in the primary, second and third quarters, the Browns defense has still been solid if not stout.
In the primary three quarters, opposing offenses are averaging just 4.93 yards per play which is seventh-best within the league.
But within the fourth quarter, the Browns are surrendering a whopping 7.83 yards per play. That ranks last by a substantial margin. No other defense is giving up greater than 6.61 yards per play.
The Browns are also giving up more points within the fourth quarter (12.5 points per game) than they’re in the primary three quarters combined (11.25 points). They’re giving up more points within the fourth quarter than any team within the league as well.
Only the Seattle Seahawks (-14.94) and Detroit Lions (-15.46) own a worse defensive EPA (expected points allowed) than the Browns (-13.26).
The Browns are surrendering a whopping 7.83 yards per play within the fourth quarter, which ranks last within the NFL by a substantial margin. Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire
“Just must play 60 minutes of football. Must tighten it up within the fourth quarter,” said safety Grant Delpit. “We’re pretty bad within the fourth quarter right away. That’s not what great teams do.”
Defensive miscues in coverage have been the first – though not only – wrongdoer.
In Sunday’s loss, Cleveland had the Atlanta Falcons pinned inside their very own 10-yard line with 3 minutes left to play and the sport tied 20-20.
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But off play-action, slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus found a wide-open hole in Cleveland’s Cover 3 coverage. Drake London cleared out cornerback Denzel Ward and safety John Johnson III with a go route. And with Cleveland’s linebackers not playing deep enough, Zaccheaus was capable of generate 9.9 yards of separation, based on NFL Next Gen Stats. A 42-yard completion, combined with a 15-yard face-mask penalty on Ward arrange Atlanta’s game-winning field goal.
“That was a long-drawn out play,” Johnson said, “and we just lost a man.”
Losing track of opposing receivers at inopportune moments hasn’t been the one issue.
Cleveland’s linebackers were attacking the road of scrimmage in Atlanta since the Falcons ran the ball at will within the fourth quarter.
“What happens whenever you run the ball that over and over and you might be pondering, ‘Run, run, run,’ you might be pondering the identical thing goes to occur, but you could have to read your keys and execute your responsibilities. We weren’t clean on that play, and that is how we got hit,” said Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
The Browns gave up 7.5 yards per rush within the fourth quarter in Atlanta. And on its fourth-quarter touchdown drive, the Falcons handed the ball off 10 straight times while marching 75 yards for a rating.
The Browns were down three defensive starters along the road in Atlanta, including star pass-rusher Myles Garrett. However the Falcons were without standout running back Cordarrelle Patterson, who sat the second half with a knee injury. A running back committee of Caleb Huntley, Tyler Allgeier and Avery Williams gashed the Browns as a substitute.
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“They got theirs, which goes to occur, however it’s at all times a mixture of things,” Stefanski said of the run defense falling apart late. “It’s at all times one guy here, one guy there. You mostly query, ‘Could I even have put them in a greater position on the playcall?’ All of those things. There’s not one answer to that.”
Because the Browns seek for answers, the degree of difficulty is about to get much tougher.
Of their next seven games, the Browns play six of the highest 11 ranked offenses, based on FPI, starting Sunday with the Chargers (1 p.m. ET, CBS), who put up 47 points on Cleveland last season.
A barrage that included 26 points within the fourth quarter alone.
“Each play, we have now to be locked in, or we’re going to get torched,” Johnson said. “They’ve been doing [it] to everybody, dating back to last 12 months, too. We’d like our greatest effort.”