The Cleveland Browns defense was not exactly up to speed during the 2020 season.
Injuries, COVID-19, and general manager Andrew Berry realizing that he could not fix all the problems in one offseason meant that defensive coordinator Joe Woods had to make do with what he had on a weekly basis.
That changed this year as Berry used the draft and free agency to transform the defense to the point where the Browns will open the 2021 regular season with three new starters on the defensive line, two new starters (most likely) at linebacker, and three new starters (depending on injuries) in the secondary.
Those changes will now allow Woods to run a proper defense, and when he was asked about it during a media session on Thursday, Woods had no problem putting into words what he is looking for (quotes via a team-provided transcript):
“We want to be a fast, aggressive team. We want to be able to take away the ball. We really want to dictate the way the game is played. I want to be aggressive with our game planning, aggressive in terms of getting after the quarterback with blitz packages and not really worry about what they are doing – make them worry about what we are doing. That is the hope.
“(Also) points allowed. I think that is the most important stat because obviously, if the team is not scoring, you are giving yourself a chance to win. We always talk about points allowed. We talk about turnovers and taking the ball away and then all of your situations of getting off of the field, third downs and having success in the red zone. Anything that has to do with getting the ball back for us or getting off of the field.”
The changes, especially along the defensive line where Myles Garrett is the only significant returning player, should provide the Browns the opportunity to create mismatches with the offense that were not there last season, Woods said:
“It does give us some options based on the type of team that we are playing. We have the ability to get really fast and put a bunch on ends on the field, and we have a chance to get really big if there is a team that is really trying to run the ball. Week to week, we will make that decision, and we will have different packages with our front four in terms of who we put out there.”
While the Browns obviously need all three levels of the defense to improve from last season, the biggest jump could come in the secondary.
Rookie Greg Newsome II appears ready to take over the starting cornerback position opposite Denzel Ward, Troy Hill is well suited to playing the slot, Ronnie Harrison Jr. will be with the team from the start, and John Johnson III is one of the game’s best at his position.
The only missing piece is second-year safety Grant Delpit, who is dealing with a hamstring injury after coming back from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for his rookie season in 2020.
Delpit’s return is key to Woods being able to unleash his big dime package of Johnson, Harrison and Delpit, he said on Thursday:
“We are going to have a dime package. We may have to get to it maybe a little bit later in terms of the whole package, but we are repping it in training camp. We are keeping alive, but once he (Delpit) gets back, there are some other things I will be able to do.”
The Browns need the defense to show improvement this season as a repeat of 2020 will hamper their Super Bowl ambitions. The good part is that as long as the offense plays to its potential, the defense just has to be decent and things should work out in Cleveland’s favor.
Woods wants his defense to be fast and aggressive, and the pieces are in place for the defense to achieve that goal. Do that, and the Browns offense won’t be the only unit on the team capturing the headlines.