Cleveland Browns Defensive Line Is, as Expected, Falling Apart Without Myles Garrett

Cleveland Browns Defensive Line

Even when the Cleveland Browns win, they still lose. After dominating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday Night Football in Week 11, superstar defensive end Myles Garrett was suspended indefinitely for striking Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph with his helmet. The Browns were back in the playoff race, but without Garrett, their path to the postseason was much more difficult. In the two games without him, Cleveland’s defensive line has played poorly, which isn’t a surprise.

The first game Garrett missed was against the Miami Dolphins, who have one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took five sacks and was pressured a total of 27 times. Defensive end Chad Thomas finished with a great Pro Football Focus grade of 89.9, although it was skewed by a 90.6 mark in coverage – his pass-rush grade was average, at 62.4. New additions Porter Gustin and Bryan Cox Jr. rotated opposite of Thomas, as starter Olivier Vernon sat out with a knee injury suffered against Denver.

Yesterday presented an opportunity for the Browns to seize control of their own destiny. A win against the Steelers would even up the teams’ records at 6-6, but Cleveland would be 2-0 against Pittsburgh, giving them a massive advantage in the playoff race. Undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges replaced Rudolph as the starting quarterback, the second time this season the Browns would face a first-time starter. Things went about as well as the first time, when Cleveland lost to Brandon Allen and the Broncos.

The Browns lost 20-13, for a multitude of reasons. But one of the main issues was that Hodges simply wasn’t pressured. He was able to sit in the pocket and pick apart the Cleveland defense. The Browns managed just one sack and nine total pressures. Vernon did return but played only 10 snaps before aggravating his knee injury. Thomas, Gustin, and Cox all finished with pass-rush grades under 60.

The hope was that Thomas, after doing nothing as a rookie in 2018, would start to show some improvement this season. While he does have four sacks, the majority of his pressures and hits are cleanup jobs, where Thomas isn’t the player actually generating the pressure. He’s a very average player at this point, which is disappointing for a player selected at the top of the third round.

Losing a player of Garrett’s caliber would devastate any team. But it’s still shocking to see just how ineffective the Browns defensive line is without him. Cleveland generated 34 pressures, four sacks, and seven quarterback hits against Pittsburgh in Week 11 with Garrett. Without him, those numbers fell to nine, one, and three. And Pittsburgh was without starting center Maurkice Pouncey for this game. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both had their worst days as pros. That’s not a coincidence.

It’s hard to blame the defensive line for not playing well without its two starters, but it’s apparent that the depth there must be improved over the off-season, especially since Garrett is not guaranteed to be back for the start of the 2020 season, and Vernon’s injury history.

Cleveland is all but eliminated but the playoff hunt, in no small part to its inability to create pressure apart from its starting ends. The cornerbacks are talented, but they cannot be expected to stick with their man for the duration of a play. If a defense can’t get to the quarterback, that team cannot win. It’s that simple.

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