The Cleveland Browns defense fancied itself as one of the NFL’s better units heading into the 2022 regular season.
But five games into the campaign it has mostly been hard times on that side of the ball.
Early in the season, it was communication issues in the secondary that led to long touchdown receptions in the Week 2 loss to the New York Jets and the narrow Week 1 victory against the Carolina Panthers. After much talk and reflection, the secondary figured out how to communicate more effectively and the coverage breakdowns stopped being a weekly thing. (Just ignore that 42-yard pass completion they allowed on the game-winning drive in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons.)
Believe in the gameplan and execute pic.twitter.com/rd18DRfUPo— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 13, 2022
Related: It’s all about perspective: On Joe Woods, Andrew Berry and the Browns
Once the defense cleared up the coverage issues, the run defense took over as a concern with the Browns giving up 202 rushing yards to the Falcons and followed that up by allowing 238 rushing yards to the Los Angeles Chargers last week, which almost match the Chargers season total heading into the game.
That has left the defense, once so eager to show the rest of the league how good they are, among the bottom of the league rankings, according to Pro Football Focus, which has the Browns at No. 30:
The Browns are far more talented on defense than this No. 30 ranking suggests. But for whatever reason, they can’t stop giving up big plays in the passing game, and they might just have the worst run defense in the NFL. Cleveland has surrendered the fifth-most yards per reception (12.5) and rookie Martin Emerson is the team’s highest-graded defensive back (72.7) among a stable of established players — John Johnson III (50.3), Denzel Ward (39.8) and Ronnie Harrison (56.6) among them.
Of course, there is still hope that the defense could improve if it gets healthier, but this has been one of the most disappointing units in the NFL this season, especially when considering that they have the second-worst run defense by EPA allowed per play (0.093), behind only the Lions (0.094).
To sum it up, if you are being compared to the Detroit Lions then you know you are doing something wrong.
The man tasked with fixing the ongoing woes is defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who on Thursday said the problems are a combination of small things adding up to a bigger issue: (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“We are addressing issues. We are trying to fix it. Part of it is fundamentals. Part of it is scheme. Part of it is just guys doing their job. It is a little bit of everything. We all have to get on the same page, give them a good plan and then we have to go out on Sunday most importantly and execute. Believe in it and execute.”
It is not just up to Woods and the coaching staff as the players need to come through as well. As for how to do that, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said on Thursday that execution is the key (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“It is about just wrapping up, tracking and being able to run your feet through the tackle. Making sure that we execute and get more hats to the ball, gang tackling. It is just doing our job. It goes back to that. It goes back to fundamentals. We have been talking about that through now. That is really what it goes back to.”
"we're going to work everyday" @gnewsii pic.twitter.com/w4erW5okjK— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 13, 2022
Another area to focus on is, well, focusing on just doing your job, according to cornerback Greg Newsome II (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I think that is the biggest thing. Like I said, if your job is especially for me like secondary contain, play secondary contain. If your job is to set the edge and hold the edge, hold the edge. I think it is just everybody doing their job and not trying to make any superhero plays. At the end of the day, stay in your gap and stay wherever you are supposed to be, and the ball will come to you. Don’t try to make a play that somebody else is supposed to make.”
The coaches and players on the defensive side of the ball continue to say all the right things, but when they fix one problem another one surfaces on gameday in a vicious circle that they seem unable to break.
The Browns will find out pretty quickly if the work they put in this week has made a difference when they host the New England Patriots on Sunday. When the two teams met last season, New England running back Rhamondre Stevenson put up 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns and comes into this week’s game fresh off a 161-yard game against the Lions.
Talk of being a top-five defense is nice in the summer, but reality has been harsh for the Browns so far this season and the time has arrived to put that talk into action before the season gets away from them any further.