- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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BEREA, Ohio -- Too many teams the past three seasons ventured into a 3-4 defense with their noses out of joint.
Of the six worst run defenses in terms of yardage allowed last season, three of them ran 3-4 schemes. That mediocrity is incredible when you think about it. An average 3-4 defense should rank among the top 15 in stopping the run because of its alignment, because four linebackers are free to rush to the ball carrier. But if the nose tackle doesn't draw two blockers, the 3-4 scheme has problems.
The Browns are among a handful of teams that failed the past few seasons in making the conversion to a three-man line because they didn't have that type of nose tackle. (The Browns ranked 27th against the run in 2007.) But after an astute offseason trade, Cleveland believes it has remedied that problem. In fact, former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers has many Browns front-office execs seeming snobbish.
Rogers has the looks of a great nose tackle even though he's never played the position. On one play in Tuesday's minicamp practice, he drove center Hank Fraley 6 yards into the backfield with his sheer strength. Minicamp practices aren't like those in training camp, when shoulder pads are on and hitting is live. Minicamps are rehearsals with minimal contact, but it's clear from watching these daily dancing sessions that Rogers has all the skills to be a good nose.
In Detroit, Rogers was a dominating defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. At times, he was unblockable. But as seasons progressed, years of losing diminished his enthusiasm. The trade to the Browns has given him a new start and a huge challenge.
"I'm excited to be here learning my new role,'' Rogers said. "It's different going between the 4-3 and the 3-4 to be a noseguard. Being a noseguard takes a lot of the aggressiveness away when you are making your first step getting off the ball. There is a more 'read and react' feel to it. You have to be patient and unselfish in this defense, so I'm working on a few character flaws.''
As a Lion, he was considered the team's best defensive player for years. Though he endured seven losing seasons with the Lions, Rogers has been to two Pro Bowls. The Lions' scheme allowed him to just fire off the line of scrimmage and attack, hoping to dominate those in front of him. In the 4-3, he had one gap and one responsibility -- get to whoever had the ball.
Guards and centers will tell you Rogers and longtime defensive tackle Sam Adams had two of the best first steps in football. A 350-pound defender with a great first step is almost impossible to block. In Detroit, Rogers was like a quick-draw gunfighter.
"A lot of my game is to get on people quick and sort of maul them and take control of the line of scrimmage early in a down,'' Rogers said.
But nose tackles in a 3-4 scheme aren't gunfighters. They are like sumo wrestlers in a carnival. They charge into a guard and a center if they are good. It's a two-gap job: Nose tackles must read the play and be responsible for blocking the holes around the center.
Looking at Rogers in practice brings visions of Jamal Williams in San Diego. Williams also has a good first step and was able to use it when the Chargers went from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2004. In the past four years, the Chargers have made the easiest transformation to a three-man line, and Williams was the main reason.
Where Rogers resembles Williams, at least in minicamp, is how he can use that first step to drive back the interior of a blocking scheme. Nose tackles are successful if they simply occupy two blockers and aren't moved off the line of scrimmage. The good run-stopping nose tackles prevent a guard or a center from getting to one of the four linebackers.
"I think it's been better than expected," Browns general manager Phil Savage said of Rogers' conversion to nose tackle. "He's done some good things on the field.''
Savage acted like a two-gapping nose tackle in making the Rogers trade in the sense he read and reacted. Savage traded a second-round choice to Green Bay for Corey Williams, who is making the transition from a 4-3 tackle to left defensive end. Rogers was all set to go to the Bengals in a trade, but the Bengals backed out at the last minute. Savage reacted and traded a third-round pick and cornerback Leigh Bodden.
For the first time in head coach Romeo Crennel's four seasons in Cleveland, the Browns have the right bodies for a three-man line. Corey Williams is an ideal 320-pound run-stopping end on the left side. Robaire Smith can provide penetration at right defensive end. He's also 320 pounds. Shaun Smith, a 325-pounder who made the transition from a 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 nose tackle last year, can be the top lineman off the bench. Ahtyba Rubin, at 315 pounds, is an interesting sixth-round pick who has nose-tackle potential.
The Browns ranked 30th, 29th and 30th in run defense the past three years. If Rogers and Williams pan out, the Browns can start thinking about becoming a top-10 run defense.
"Our defensive line for the first time looks like a Romeo Crennel defensive line,'' Savage said. "Everybody is well over 300 pounds and they have the movement skills you need. I would hope the additions of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams will do for the defense what Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach did for the offensive line.''
The additions of Thomas and Steinbach in 2007 ended years of blocking woes and allowed the Browns' offense to reach new plateaus. Finally, running backs had solid holes on the left side. Quarterback Derek Anderson had time to throw. The Browns went from an offense that averaged 14.5 and 14.9 points a game in 2005 and 2006 to averaging 25.1 points per game last season.
"We were doing a two-on-two drill the other day, and we had Thomas and Steinbach blocking on Rogers and Kamerion Wimbley,'' Savage said. "Those are four legitimate blue-chip-caliber players. We're getting there as a team. We have almost one guy in every group who is a bona fide upper-echelon player. That's exciting for us. We haven't had that for a number of years.''
What's also important for the Browns is how Rogers meshes with his teammates. So far, he appears to be fitting in just fine. He dines with the defensive linemen after practice. He and Corey Williams challenge each other in learning the new techniques of the 3-4.
The more Rogers learns, the better the Browns' run defense likely will be in 2008.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With Shaun Rogers flashing the ability to become a formidable nose tackle, the Browns are optimistic they'll finally field a top-10 run defense in 2008, writes John Clayton.