The Cleveland Browns defense in 2021 was a tale of two halves.
In the first half of the season, the unit struggled more often than not in giving up 30 or more points four times through the first 10 weeks of the season.
But once the Browns hit mid-November, the defense settled down and started playing like a unit that can make a difference on game day.
There are still some questions that will need to be answered during training camp and the preseason, most notably how the defensive tackle rotation will work itself out, but one area that is not a concern is the secondary.
Led by Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, veteran safety John Johnson III, second-year starters Greg Newsome II (cornerback) and Grant Delpit (safety), and cornerback Greedy Williams, the unit is ranked as the third-best in the NFL, achieving Tier 1 status in Pro Football Focus’ secondary rankings (and that is before adding in rookie cornerback Martin Emerson):
This unit not only has proven studs in Ward and Johnson, but also three ascending top-50 draft picks who have all played two or fewer NFL seasons. What this unit could be is scary to think about, as we already saw quality play from Newsome, (Greedy) Williams and Delpit down the stretch in 2021.
Pro Football Focus is big on valuing defending the pass over rushing the passer as “nothing on the defensive side of the football translates better to points allowed than a secondary’s performance in coverage. That means if a team expects to field a top-three defense in the NFL, it better at least end up as a Tier 1 unit on this list when we revisit after the season,” according to PFF’s Michael Renner.
If true, that bodes well for the Browns this fall, especially when you flip over to PFF’s rankings of the league’s top wide receiving groups. A run through that list shows the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 1, Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 2, Miami Dolphins at No. 3, Buffalo Bills at No. 8 and the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 9 - all teams that are on Cleveland’s schedule this fall.
Having another year in defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ system should also help eliminate the blown coverages that were a common sight last season, Johnson said during minicamp (quote via clevelandbrowns.com):
“Absolutely. Just like the stuff we wanted to do last year, we had mistakes and blown coverages. The harder stuff to master, that is what we are working on. The simple stuff is easy. We have been doing that since Day 1 last year. Well, at least I have. Guys before me, they have been doing it for three years now. Just the stuff we had trouble with last year, we are trying to master the more complex stuff.”
Woods may have his hands full this season dealing with some issues at defensive tackle, but if things play out as expected, he won’t be losing any sleep over the performance of the defensive secondary.