The struggle is real

CLEVELAND – Even the volunteer workers at training camp realize the major weakness facing the 2014 Browns.

While not busy keeping fans inside the ropes, one astute volunteer who has watched plenty of the practices stated the obvious: “How are we going to score?”

Coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan might have similar thoughts as the season opener nears. As they watch the defense have its way throughout camp, both must be wondering if the defense is that good or is the offense that bad.

At the same time, defensive players shouldn’t be criticized for thinking their jobs might be more demanding simply because the offense probably isn’t going to score many points.

“I guess that’s a credit to our defense,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said of the offensive struggles in training camp. “I don’t know. I’m not sure.

We’re playing some good football now. We’re playing sound, and we’re not there yet. The offense is struggling because we’re putting some pressure on them.”

Dansby then went on to credit the offense for putting stress on the defense. His verdict is that the offense might surprise critics when the regular season starts.

“I don’t think the offense is having trouble at all,” Dansby said. “I think they’re very efficient. They’re putting a lot of pressure on us, day in and day out.”

The fact remains that there are obvious signs of concern as the Browns prepare to play three exhibition games in a 10-day period. Pettine still hasn’t decided on a starting quarterback, although that should change after Monday’s game against the Washington Redskins. A larger concern is the possible suspension of receiver Josh Gordon, who accounted for about 30 percent of the offense in 2013.

Losing Gordon for an appreciable amount of time will rob the offense of its best playmaker and put stress on the ground game. The problem then is that defenses will soar in like a hungry vulture, swirling around a one-dimensional offense.

The stress would be squarely on the defense, which has been the case since the expansion year of 1999. That’s where first-year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil enters the picture. The baby-faced O’Neil needs to take a talented group of defenders and upgrade on a 2013 performance in which the unit was ninth in average yards allowed per game (332.4).

The ingredients are there for a possible run at being among the top five in the NFL. The missing link is quarterback pressure. The Browns and Baltimore Ravens tied for 16th in the league in sacks last season at 40.

“Everyone goes into the year in this league wanting to be dominant,” O’Neil said. “We have the scheme. We have great individual players, and we have great coaches. We just have to put it all together and perform.”

The Browns, despite being ninth in overall defense, were 23rd in points allowed (406) last season. That could be due to a lack of a dominant pass rush. It also could be a result of wearing down under the strain of an inefficient offense.

O’Neil is looking for ways to take the defense to the next level.

“We’re going to build it around what our guys do the best,” O’Neil said. “It all starts with stopping the run, and our guys have bought into that. We have to stop the run on early downs to earn the right to rush the passer on later downs.”

It would help immensely if the offense would be so kind as to start pulling its weight.