Schwartz built a game plan that the players executed to perfection to limit the Bengals to just three points; quarterback Joe Burrow to just 82 passing yards; and wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins to a combined seven receptions and 49 yards.
From defensive end Za’Darius Smith hitting Burrow on the first offensive play of the game to defensive end Myles Garrett essentially ending the game with a fourth-down sack on Burrow in the fourth quarter, Cleveland’s defense put the league on notice that this year things might finally be different.
Time will tell if the rest of the league was paying attention, but the Browns clearly caught the attention of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who will have an up-close look at the revamped defense when the Browns face the Steelers in Week 2 on Monday Night Football.
While Tomlin can’t be feeling good about the prospect of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett’s chances against Garrett, Smith and the rest of the defensive line after watching Burrow struggle, it was Cleveland’s secondary that caught Tomlin’s eye.
Specifically, Tomlin credited the work of cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson Jr. and Greg Newsome II during his Tuesday news conference (quote via The Beacon Journal):
“To be blunt, I thought the corners won the game for them for them last week. Their ability to stand on the line of scrimmage and challenge the Cincinnati Bengals I thought was really impressive. They stood up time and time again. It allowed their safeties and linebackers to get focused on (Bengals running back Joe) Mixon and some of the run game. I thought that was the catalyst for the performance.
“I thought if you wanted to summarize the game is a smaller number of words, their corners’ ability to stand up man-to-man on the line of scrimmage against Cincinnati’s receivers was the story of the game. On either side of the ball.”
Tomlin’s comments highlight how all the pieces matter on defense. Because the defensive line was able to bring pressure on Burrow quickly, and the cornerbacks were able to hold their own in man-to-man coverage, it freed up the rest of the defense to do their jobs, which they did effectively and entertainingly.
This week’s game against the Steelers may present a step down as Cleveland’s defense will be facing Pickett instead of Burrow, and the Steelers will be without wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who will miss the tilt with a hamstring injury.
But nothing is ever easy for the Browns when they travel to Pittsburgh as they have only beaten the Steelers twice on the road in the regular season since 1999, with the last victory coming in 2003. If the Browns want to break that 19-game losing streak then the defense will need to play with the same intensity and focus they showed against the Bengals.
Do that, and anyone who was not paying attention after Week 1 will have no choice but to take notice of what Schwartz and the defense are doing in Cleveland.