The Cleveland Browns defense has been a bit of an enigma through the first five weeks of the NFL season.
The Browns had issues in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs (understable) and the Houston Texans in Week 2 (a bit more puzzling), before putting together consecutive dominant performances against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings.
Then came last week against the Los Angeles Chargers when the defense gave up 493 yards of offense and 26 of the 47 points in the fourth quarter alone.
The long and frustrating day was highlighted by a pair of long touchdown receptions by Los Angeles wide receiver Mike Williams on plays where he was left wide open.
Many have pointed out that the defense was missing starting cornerbacks Greg Newsome II, who missed his second consecutive game with an injury, and Denzel Ward, who left the game after just nine plays with a neck injury.
Of course while not as talented, their replacements did a solid job as Greedy Williams posted a coverage grade of 82.9 (per Pro Football Focus) and A.J. Green had a run grade of 73.3 and held up OK in coverage with a grade of 66.9.
Rather than blame injuries, the problem appeared to lie with the safeties and nickel back Troy Hill, as John Johnson III had a PFF grade of 56.8 against the pass, Ronnie Harrison Jr. was at 40.7 and Grant Delpit was at 28.5 in coverage, while Hill checked in at 39.2 overall.
That group is supposed to be the backbone of the defense, so what went wrong?
According to head coach Kevin Stefanski, it was all about poor communication (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“Obviously when guys get that open, the answer is it always is a miscommunication. That is what happened. We had poor communication out there a couple of times. We have to get lined up, get the calls and execute the defense. You never know when it is going to hurt you, and it was unfortunate that we had some miscommunication back there. We have to work real hard to make sure it does not happen again.”
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods - who has yet to make a misstep if you listen to certain corners of Browns Twitter - had a different explanation, however (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“Technique. It was a technique of how we were going to play it off of what they did. That is what happens when you do some things, like you want to take advantage of what you see on tape so you are repping a certain defense versus a couple different routes and then you call a defense on gameday, and it is something different. That always happens, but we were just a little bit off in terms of execution.”
Whatever the problem, Woods needs to figure it out as the defense will be facing another test on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, who are averaging 31.4 points per game, are tied for second in the league with an average of 9.2 yards per pass attempt, sixth in passing yards, tied for 10th in passing touchdowns, and quarterback Kyler Murray is completing a league-best 75.2 percent of his pass attempts.
Reinforcements appear to be on the way for the Browns, however, as Woods is “hopeful” that Wards, Newsome and Williams will all be available to play against the Cardinals.
Perhaps with a full secondary in place, the issues that plagued the Browns against the Chargers, be they miscommunication or technique, will not be on display against the Cardinals.