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Making a case to keep DC Joe Woods. Or, maybe not?

The Browns’ defense was earmarked as a weakness in 2021

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

At the conclusion of the 2020 season, a year in which the club finally finished with both a winning record and a playoff berth, the lead analogy was that the offense was absolutely fine, yet the defense had many issues.

So, GM Andrew Berry brought in a bunch of new players, fired others, let contracts simply go without offers, drafted some young players and off the new Browns defense went into 2021.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski had just been named NFL Coach of the Year. So, obviously he knew his stuff, right? They just don’t give away awards like that to just anyone ya know. These guys are professional coaches who get paid quite handsomely to do their jobs. Most have decades of experience from the minuscule college internship to now the big leagues.

Cleveland Browns Off-Season Workout Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

And the reigning Coach of the Year had chosen Joe Woods to lead his defense when he was hired as head coach in the spring of 2020. See, this is how it works. You get on a staff with a team whether it be college, Arena, the CFL, NFL or the AAF before it folded, and you get to know other guys. You recognize who works hard, who shows up late, who has similar philosophies of the X’s and O’s as yourself, then catch a few brews after work and basically figure out who you get along with. And then when you get your opportunity to be a head coach, you already know these dudes from way back. Or maybe, from just yesterday.

And in this case, it was just the other day that Stefanski and Woods had worked together on the same staff.

Woods’ resume stated he had been on the staff of seven college teams and five NFL clubs beginning way back in 1992 when Stefanski was just 10-years old and playing with his new 16-bit Super Nintendo. Stefanski on the other hand, was a rare breed in the avenue of football coaching circles in that after one year working at Penn (where he was twice named All-Ivy League as a defensive back), he landed a job with the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.

And......he just stayed. And climbed the coaching ladder on the offensive side of the ball.

Vikings connection

From 2006 to 2013, Woods was the Vikings’ defensive backs coach. For three of those seasons, Stefanski was the assistant to the head coach; which meant he had constant interactions with every other assistant coach continually.

Houston Texans v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Later, Woods gained even more experience as the DC and passing game coordinator with the Denver Broncos as well as the San Francisco 49ers. Suddenly, Stefanski needed a guy to head his defense.

“Mr. Woods. Mr. Stefanski on line two please.”

The 2020 season did not go so great for Woods and his defense. GM Berry thought that by bringing in two veteran safeties that this position would be solved along with the carry over of Sheldrick Redwine. Except Andrew Sendejo could not cover, Karl Joseph was slow, and Redwine could not tackle his grandma.

Veteran MLB B.J. Goodson was signed as a red-letter athlete. The Football Giants had drafted him in the fourth-round then traded him to the Green Bay Packers before his rookie contract was up. The Packers gave up on him and just quit playing him altogether. The news was that Goodson came on the cheap. His play was just as cut-rate. DT Larry Ogunjobi regressed every year while the often injured and high-priced Olivier Vernon was, well, high-priced and oft-injured.

Remember how that defense had allowed backup QB Chad Henne to run for that unlikely first down to secure the Kansas City Chiefs’ win in the divisional playoff game last year in a game that Cleveland might have taken otherwise?

In the end, the Woods-led defense finished ninth against the run and 19th against the pass. They allowed 4.3 yards per carry and allowed the seventh most TD passes (31) and were 21st in interceptions (11).

The popular quote at the time was, “Well, if they had better players on defense.....”

With those lessons learned, Berry made it his mission to improve the defense exponentially in 2021. He signed 10 defensive players in free agency. Tendered three veterans. Exercised the 5th-year option on Denzel Ward. Used his first two draft picks on the defense and five of his eight total draft picks. Then over the course of the next few months rounded out his 90-man training camp roster with five more defenders.

Now the defense had “their guys” instead of players they simply inherited. Fast-forward to the end of 2021. What changed? Did the defense finally have the Joe Woods stamp on it? Was it still evolving? Was there improvement - or more regression?

For 2021, the Browns’ defense was 12th against the run and 13th against the pass. They allowed 4.2 yards per carry on running plays and allowed the 11th most touchdown passes (29) with the 16th lowest interceptions (13).

Were there improvements? Yeh, well, sorta kinda.

With Woods’ last gig as DB coach and passing game coordinator with San Fran, they ended up the Number 1 passing defense in the league. Oh sure, that unit was aided by a relentless pass rush, but numbers are numbers.

Scroll back on the job Woods had with Denver as the DB coach in 2015-2016 and then the DC from 2017-2018. The Broncos had a name for their secondary – the “No Fly Zone.” That defense was also ranked first in the NFL for two seasons.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

So Joe Woods has the credentials. He really does.

Yet, how many games did Cleveland play this year where a receiver was just wide open? DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals looked absolutely shocked on a touchdown catch underneath the goal post in their 37-14 beat down of the Browns in Week 6. Is there even a statistic for that? In fact, after the bye week it was almost a mainstay in games.

However, as the season rolled along, the defense did get better although Najee Harris torched the run defense for 188 yards in the second Steelers loss.

Shortly after losing 35-7 to the New England Patriots in Week 10, the gloves came completely off. Fans on social media were screaming for Woods to be canned. In that embarrassing loss, the defense appeared unprepared and devoid of a game plan.

2021 was supposed to be Woods’ redemption year. You know, bring in “your guys” and make the necessary changes and access blame on the dudes you let go?

“It’s good to be back in this role,” Woods had said when he accepted the Cleveland DC position. “I felt like I learned a lot from my time in Denver. It’s really about managing people, game-planning and how to call a game, so I feel like I’m more prepared now than I was then. When you have pieces in place and with the additions we’ll make in free agency and the draft, I feel like we can really get something accomplished here this next season.”

2020 vs. 2021

In 2020, the offense was viewed as the catalyst that would bring this franchise to the promised land.

The defense? Not so much. The back end of the defense was horrible in pass coverage. The safety play was especially disastrous with Sendejo and Joseph. Ronnie Harrison did a good job and was a terror with tackling opponents. But the deep back just could not stay with receivers especially if the quarterback was flushed and was now improvising; which meant receivers were also in improvising mode. The defense must recognize this and continue to blanket their man from getting open. Wide-ass open was more the conclusion.

Argument to let Woods go

There are several reasons that every Browns fan might point to and say, just get somebody else in to run the defense.

Here are 5 reasons:

  1. Deep coverage. Where do you start? How does a guy like Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers, ranked ninth in the league going into the Week 5 game, just run on by and catch an uncontested 42-yard touchdown? Fans in that end zone were closer than Cleveland defender John Johnson. The Chargers’ first touchdown was TE Donald Parham all by himself. On their second touchdown Williams was again all by himself for a 72-yard score. Against Arizona, how does one of the three best receivers in the game DeAndre Hopkins get so wide open not one, but twice? The latter was a touchdown where the kicking net guy was closer than any safety when Ward let Hopkins go long and no safety help.
  2. Defense gave up way too many points. 45 points to the Patriots and a rookie quarterback is where to start this contention. 47 to the Chargers. Chiefs put up 33. Cardinals had 37. The Patriots had a 99-yard drive for a touchdown.
  3. Myles Garrett at some point had his fill. He said that the defense didn’t make adjustments on the sideline or when they had time to. Might have been when the Baltimore Ravens went 5-7 on fourth down plays in two games. Woods was not altering things on the field when his original game plan was not successful. And that was Garrett’s main contention.
  4. #firejoewoods. Yeh, that was actually a thing that happened this year.
  5. One of the worst third down defenses. Part of what the defense needs is to get off the field and rest. By allowing teams to constantly get first downs, even a lot of third and long situations, isn’t cutting it. 5-10 against the Raiders, 7-11 versus Kansas City, Chargers went 7-15 (plus 3-4 on fourth down plays), Cardinals 9-14, Patriots 7-9. Cleveland allowed third down conversions on 39.27% of attempts.
Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

Often, the run defense was just horrible. New England ran all over this group. RB Rhamondre Stevenson was a man on a mission to find open holes and did frequently. He finished with 100-yards with two touchdowns. Most of the yardage gained was up the gut with an occasional scoot to the outside. DC Joe Woods did not have an answer.

Garrett said about the run defense:

“I think we didn’t counter like we are supposed to. We didn’t stop the bleeding and they kept attacking where we were deficient.”

Why weren’t linebackers situated in the running lanes more? Or at the very least bring down a safety and sit him in a gap. You know – adjustments.

Going forward

Will Stefanski seek out a new DC before training camp begins? Doubtful. Should he? Depends on what the hashtag flavor of the day is.

One thing we do assume: with Woods’ track record of transforming a defense – especially a defensive backfield – into elite level status in this league not once but three different years, for 2022 Joe Woods will be on a short leash.

For one-and-a-half seasons, Woods received harsh criticism. Then miraculously in the second half of 2021 the defense began to round into form and the #firejoewoods talks became less and less a topic.

Cleveland Browns Off-Season Workout Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Woods has a rich history of coaching defensive backs into elite units. Ward went to his second Pro Bowl this year under Woods’ tutelage. M.J. Stewart made great strides and was a tenacious tackling machine. Greedy Williams had his best season to date.

Beyond that, the Browns really have to figure out if Woods is the right man to carry this young defense forward. The vast majority of players are in their prime so it may appear that this unit must gel quickly if they are going to be a dominant force in this league.

Going forward, GM Berry must be very selective during free agency with the defensive players he brings in. Then he must address the obvious holes in the April NFL draft.

The defense has to improve this year. Woods did more with less in 2020, improved in 2021, and his unit is expected to flourish in 2022 with the right pieces.

Garrett’s take:

“I feel like certain games might require some tweaks or some type of little, small nuances that, you know, got to adjust to meet the standards of the other team. I feel like [teams] did a much better job than us at that.”

Or else there will be new hashtags created sooner than later.