The Cleveland Browns and, by extension, their fans, are enjoying a much-needed break this weekend as one of four teams on a bye week.
It has been a long first four weeks of the season for the 2-2 Browns, with dominating wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans, and demoralizing losses against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
There is still a lot of football to be played, naturally, and with the overall play of the defense, the sometimes good things from the offense, and a schedule that is not necessarily daunting after next week’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, there is time for the Browns to right the ship before the rematches against the Ravens and Steelers in mid-November.
In the meantime, here are three players who deserve some love for their contributions to the defensive effort.
Martin Emerson Jr. has the lowest allowed completion percentage of any player targeted at least 10 times (26.7%) pic.twitter.com/mtKgLy3uhQ— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) October 5, 2023
Cornerback Martin Emerson Jr.
The third cornerback in Cleveland’s talented triumvirate that includes Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II, Emerson has proven tough to beat in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Emerson has allowed the lowest completion percentage of any defensive player who has been targeted at least 10 times.
Following the season-opening win against the Bengals, when the secondary helped limit Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow to just 82 passing yards and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to 39 receiving yards, Emerson said that the best was yet to come for the cornerbacks (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“Honestly, I feel like we have the best trio in the world in our cornerbacks and I feel like we just have to keep improving every day and just keep building because I feel like we don’t have a ceiling. Honestly, I feel like we started all right, and we just got to keep making positive steps, just one play at a time.”
With a few exceptions, the cornerbacks have lived up to their expectations, which in turn has helped the defense be one of the league’s best through the first month of the season.
Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst
General manager Andrew Berry took his annual swing at fixing the defensive tackle position in the offseason with the signing of Shelby Harris and Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency and drafting Siaki Ika in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
But it was the signing of free agent Maurice Hurst that has made the biggest impact so far.
Hurst is currently ranked at No. 6 out of 121 qualifying defense tackles by Pro Football Focus, with an overall defense grade of 89.9 - second only to defensive end Myles Garrett on the team. Hurst has been stout against both the run (82.0) and the pass (79.1), and has quickly become a key member of defensive tackle rotation for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Spending the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where he was coached by defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who was on Schwartz’ staff with the Detroit Lions, gave Hurst a leg up among the rebuilt defensive line, he told cleveland.com prior to the season:
“It definitely can be a scheme that it’s difficult to break out old habits, so just helping each other kind of grow from that. And just piggybacking off of some of the techniques that we’ve all learned across the years. So things like using my hands and things like that — like Dalvin has been really influential in helping me progress and using my hands more and not just jutting up field without hands and not really knowing how to control the man with my hands.”
There may have been other moves that drew more attention in the offseason, but so far the signing of Hurst has paid off the most along the defensive line.
Safety Grant Delpit
Grant Delpit’s NFL career got off to a rough start as he missed his rookie season after suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon in training camp.
Delpit has steadily improved his game since returning to the field in 2021, and now that he is out of former defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ baffling defensive scheme, his play has taken off.
Entering the bye week, Delpit is ranked at No. 4 out of 85 qualifying safeties by Pro Football Focus, with an overall defensive grade of 85.1 and a team-best coverage grade of 87.9.
Like everyone else on the defense, Delpit is benefitting from the switch to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, as Delpit pointed out prior to the game against the Ravens (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I think (Schwartz) knows what I can do. He knows what we all can do. He’s done his homework and he’s been around the game for a while, so I don’t think it’s too much I could tell him, but if I see something or point out something that I like to do or disguise a certain way or do this and that, he’s going to for sure listen.
“I think the communication has been better. I think that guys are playing fast. Everybody’s on the same page and the in-game adjustments have been on par so far. We got to keep it going, man. I don’t think it’s anything too crazy different, but I think that guys are just playing together and we have a certain connection that we can be on the same page every day.”
The defense has made a major turnaround through the season’s first four games and Delpit has likely made the biggest improvement of them all.
What has stood out to you about Cleveland’s defense through the season’s first four games?