BEREA – The Browns secondary is in a state of emergency.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers threw for three touchdowns, 246 yards and a near-perfect 155.4 rating Sunday. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger put up 417 yards and two touchdowns the week before.
The Browns (1-6) rank 24th in the NFL against the pass, allowing 244.3 yards a game. They’ve intercepted three passes.
The tackling has been so bad coach Eric Mangini made improving it his top priority this week — on a team that has scored just four offensive touchdowns all year.
Safety Abram Elam, the key piece in the draft-day trade with the Jets, wasn’t on the field in passing situations against the Packers. He played in base defense, but was removed for the nickel and dime packages. Mike Adams took his spot, while receiver Mike Furrey assumed the nickelback role previously held by Adams.
That isn’t a misprint. The Browns coaches determined they’d have a better chance of stopping the pass with a converted receiver rather than a safety once billed as a future Pro Bowler (Elam), or a rookie sixth-round pick who’s been inactive for the last three games (Coye Francies).
“Some things we felt we could do a little bit better with somebody else,” said Mangini, who coached Elam in New York. “It’s not a knock on Abe.”
The secondary play always starts with the cornerbacks.
Brandon McDonald was benched for the first series against Cincinnati for allowing big plays and still gives up a long catch or gets called for a significant penalty every week. Eric Wright has been solid in coverage, but his tackling could fill a blooper reel. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson literally threw him out of the way in Week 1, Correll Buckhalter carried him into the end zone in Denver and Green Bay’s Donald Driver held him off for the final 20 yards Sunday.
“We give up missed tackles in the back end, miss an assignment, it ends up in big plays and game-changing moments,” McDonald said. “We just got to try to get that a little more sound.”
Wright and McDonald are in their third years and the coaches seem content to live through any growing pains. Plus, their options are limited.
The consistent substitution for Elam raises larger questions. He arrived with a reputation for being susceptible to play-action fakes and the long completions that would follow. It’s clear he hasn’t erased those doubts.
“We’re putting different guys in different spots to find out the best group we can have,” coordinator Rob Ryan said. “I know we ought to know as coaches, but, heck, you never know until they’re under fire.”
“Being a competitor, you always want to be on the field,” Elam said. “But I understand the game plan and know what we’re trying to execute, and the most important thing is trying to get a win.”
Elam has had an impact against the run, totaling 45 tackles. He’s a big hitter who can be effective on run blitzes, but most starting safeties are able to handle both job responsibilities.
The extensive use of Furrey as nickelback against the Packers raised more eyebrows. He played safety with the Rams in 2005, starting 11 games and intercepting four passes, but didn’t rekindle that role until Week 4 against Cincinnati.
The time at nickelback against the Packers was a first. He was assigned man-to-man coverage on Driver, a Pro Bowler, in the slot. Furrey allowed a third-down catch for a first down, but held his own.
“A lot of people have been beaten by Donald Driver in the slot,” Mangini said. “It’s a tough duty. Overall I thought he did pretty well.”
When Furrey debuted in the defensive backfield against the Bengals, McDonald dismissed him as a receiver called upon because of injuries. McDonald has changed his tune.
“Mike’s obviously a versatile player and he can help this team in many ways,” he said. “That’s a positive for us, regardless of what position he’s supposed to play. We put him back there just because we know what he can do for us. I don’t take it personal.”
Furrey splits practice time and meeting time between offense and defense. Ryan said his role on defense will continue to grow and that it’s not an indictment of the secondary.
“I don’t think it’s a negative reflection about the defense, it’s us willing to use whatever talent we have to help,” Ryan said.
“We could use all the help we could get,” Adams said.
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