The Cleveland Browns’ defense is hurting.
Considered somewhat of a strength last season (at least in the passing game — it ranked second in the NFL), the defense has betrayed a decent offense in 2012, continuously gashed for big gains and crucial late-game drives. There are plenty of reasons for this, ranging from injuries to a general lack of talent.
But one thing sticks out in this early stretch of games, and that is the four-game suspension of CB Joe Haden.
Haden was suspended by the league after testing positive for the stimulant Adderall, though he was able to play in the Browns’ regular-season opener as he filed an appeal. In that game, the defense intercepted Eagles QB Michael Vick four times to go along with two sacks. The Browns made Vick and the Eagles uncomfortable all day, getting constant pressure from the defensive line and yielding only 17 points (with the last touchdown being a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter).
Haden had one of the four interceptions, and helped keep WR DeSean Jackson in check. Despite the loss, it appeared that the younger, faster Browns defense was looking to make a respectable name for itself this season.
Then Haden’s suspension came down, and the defense — specifically the secondary — has been in a free fall ever since. In Haden’s absence, the Browns promoted CB Dimitri Patterson to a starter’s role, along with second-year CB Buster Skrine. Veteran CB Sheldon Brown has dealt with a stinger in his neck and an apparent demotion to nickel back, making him unreliable. The safety position is in its own state of flux, with the Browns throwing together any combination of players to see what sticks.
The importance of a shutdown corner like Haden cannot be underestimated. If you need further proof, just ask the Jets. CB Darrelle Revis has been lost for the season to a torn ACL, completely altering the look of their defense. Without having to account for Revis, an entire half of the field has been opened up to opponents. Do you think having RB Joe McKnight fill in at corner won’t have a major impact on the Jets’ secondary?
For the Browns, the loss of Haden carries the same impact. For the next two games (against the Ravens and Giants), quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Eli Manning will never have to think twice about throwing the ball to any part of the field.
That has already happened with quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who victimized the Browns’ secondary at will without Haden in the mix.
A big knock against the Browns — and there are many — is that the team lacks true leaders. However, it should be obvious by now that Haden is one of them. His abilities make him an essential cog in the machine, and without his presence on the field, the defense is simply a floundering unit desperately hoping to stay afloat.
But a true leader wouldn’t get himself suspended for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. As Haden surely knows, he let both himself and the team down at a critical point in the season, where cautious optimism can quickly turn into familiar disappointment.
It’s impossible to say whether Haden would have made enough of a difference to give the Browns victories in the last two games, but having him on the field certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Now, the young Browns will play two incredibly tough games on the road, staring at a potential 0-5 start to the season.
When Haden does return, only time will tell how many wins it might bring, but the damage already could be done. It’s impossible to pin a terrible start on one player, but Haden’s suspension has surely helped put the organization on a collision course with massive changes in the offseason.
Steve DiMatteo is a freelance writer based in Cleveland who currently serves as the editor/lead writer of Dawg Pound Daily. You can follow him on Twitter at steve_dimatteo.