Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel knows his defense has to play better for Cleveland to force its way into the playoffs. The Browns couldn't do it a year ago despite winning 10 games for the first time since 1994 and that was largely the result of being unable to get after the quarterback.
The Browns managed only 19 sacks in 2007, so they went out and traded starting corner Leigh Bodden to the Lions for former Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers. Nose tackle is the key position in a 3-4 defense and Rogers was once one of the best defensive tackles in the game. However, losing wore him down in Detroit and he did not look good last season. He hopes for a rebirth with the Browns at a new position and they need nothing less.
The Browns also dealt for Packers defensive tackle Corey Williams, whose seven sacks last season were nearly half as many as Cleveland's defense produced. He's being shifted to defensive end to team with incumbent Robaire Smith. If the three jell, it would give Crennel the best front three he's had since his arrival in Cleveland. It also should provide enough of an improvement in the pass rush that opponents cannot simply double team LB Kamerion Wimbley in every passing situation and take their chances elsewhere. The more pressure the Browns get on the quarterback, the less stress they will put on a young secondary.
On offense, they figure to score as long as quarterback Derek Anderson stays healthy and proves his 3,787 passing yards and 29 touchdowns (with a high rate of 19 interceptions) was no fluke. The Browns made it clear that any thoughts of Brady Quinn coming in and competing for the job were not to be entertained by signing Anderson to a new three-year deal in the offseason.
Anderson has game-breaking targets in receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow and picked up another deep threat in former Patriot Donte' Stallworth (46 receptions for 697 yards last year) in free agency. He also has a power running game again now that Jamal Lewis looks like a new man, coming off his best season in five years (1,304 yards, 9 TDs).
On the hot seat
Brandon McDonald steps in for Bodden after his original replacement, Daven Holly, blew out his knee in the spring and was lost for the season. A fifth-round draft pick a year ago, McDonald has little experience and a big load of responsibility on his shoulders. The recent signing of 12-year veteran Terry Cousins as insurance shows how little depth there is behind McDonald.
Edwards scored 16 touchdowns last season and was second only to Randy Moss as a feared deep threat. After a slow start to his career, Edwards blossomed last season and is the key to the wide-open Browns' offense.
Hard road to hoe
More than likely the division will come down to another stretch run battle between the Steelers and Browns. Cleveland has to survive four tough games to end the year in which it has three road games at Tennessee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as well as a home game against Cincinnati. It's no scheduling accident the season ends, one way or another, in Pittsburgh.
Browns will be better than you think if ...
Stallworth's speed opens up more room for Winslow and forces teams to reduce its double coverage on Edwards. He'll have to make some plays early to do that, but he has the ability and will be given the opportunity without the pressure of being a No. 1 receiver.
Browns will be worse than you think if ...
The defense does not improve markedly from a year ago, when it finished 30th in the league in yards allowed, surrendering 359.6 a game. The offense can't be expected to cover for that again this year.