New year, same old Browns doesn't really feel applicable anymore to this Cleveland squad. Well, except for the defense. There's no question this Browns team has what it takes to compete for a Super Bowl berth next season. But, like last season, there are questions on whether or not Cleveland's defense will be either a boon or a bust for the Browns.
Last year Cleveland defensive coordinator Joe Woods planned to draw inspiration from his stops with the Denver Broncos, the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings and that he would stick with a 4-3 scheme. Then he lost Mack Wilson, Grant Delpit, Kevin Johnson and Greedy Williams in training camp. He never got Delpit or Williams back, and he had to work in late additions like Ronnie Harrison and Malcolm Smith.
Cleveland's defensive backs led the league in games lost to injury and the second half of Myles Garrett’s season was slowed by COVID-19. Woods’ defense finished ranked 25th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), including 25th against the pass, 19th vs. the run and 21st overall.
Thankfully, Cleveland general manager and executive vice president of football operations Andrew Berry made focusing on the defense a priority for next year. During the offseason, here are the moves Berry made to improve the Browns' defense:
- Signed John Johnson, SS
- Signed Troy Hill, CB
- Signed Jadeveon Clowney, DE
- Signed Takkarist McKinley, DE
- Signed Malik Jackson, DT
- Signed Anthony Walker Jr., ILB
- Signed Malcolm Smith, OLB
- Signed Damion Square, OLB
- Drafted Greg Newsome II, CB
- Drafted Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB
- Drafted Tommy Togiai, DT
- Drafted Tony Fields, LB
- Drafted Richard LeCount, S
As you can see, Berry and the Browns front office were laser-focused on improving the team's defense. In fact, since the beginning of the NFL offseason on April 4, eight of the twelve roster transactions Cleveland has made have involved the team's defense in some capacity, according to ESPN. Now it all falls on the shoulders of Woods to put all the pieces together in order to uplift last season's middling defense.
More than anything, the added depth will help the Browns immensely. Last season Cleveland lost 45.8 games to injury in the defensive backfield, according to Football Outsiders. Ward missed four games and Woods repeatedly had to search through his depth at slot corner, where Tavierre Thomas and M.J. Stewart had to play. Robert Jackson was also thrust into a starting role on the outside. Thomas had 20 career defensive snaps and Jackson had just one before last season.
Cleveland still doesn't boast much depth at slot corner, but the additions of Hill and Newsome give Woods options. Hill can also play outside, and having Newsome and Williams battle for a spot opposite Ward means the defense comes out a winner either way. The Browns also have significant depth at safety with Johnson, Harrison and Delpit, and at the edge with Garrett, Clowney and McKinley. At defensive tackle and linebacker, the Browns have decided to take a lot of swings at finding the right combination. Both position groups will have training camp battles worth watching – just like the wide receiver battle on offense.
These new additions prove safety nets against injury and poor play, something the defense definitely lacked last season. It also should allow Woods to be more versatile with his scheme, especially at safety. Cleveland’s base defense is 4-3, but it will look more like 4-2-5 if everything goes as planned. Those five defensive backs could include three safeties, allowing the Browns to put three of their best and most versatile players on the field together. The coverage and run-stopping abilities of Johnson and Harrison together with the coverage ability of Delpit could give Cleveland a dime package that’s difficult to deal with.
Last season the Browns only faced 26 pass attempts against dime (ranked 22nd), which means they weren’t in it very much. For comparison, when Woods was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2018, his unit faced 199 pass attempts against dime. The Browns spent most of last season in nickel packages and faced 460 pass attempts, ranked fifth.
But, the versatility in the secondary isn't the only wrinkle in Woods's scheme heading into next season – it will be all over. The Browns have added players who can move inside and outside, to the defensive backfield where players can play deep, in the box or in the slot, Woods will have counters to offenses trying to create mismatches.
Garrett has transformed into an edge who plays mostly on the right to one who can switch sides and also move to tackle. Clowney can also do that, and Jackson has the ability to rush from the outside as well. Woods wants that versatility to impact the opponent's game plan, which is something he saw first-hand when he had Von Miller, Shaq Barrett and Bradley Chubb while with the Broncos. On the back end, Johnson, Delpit and Owusu-Koramoah have the ability to track tight ends, an area where the Browns have struggled for years. Having Owusu-Koramoah and Delpit on the field would add a lot of speed to the defense, which was an offseason objective for Berry, and will help Woods craft the defense to his vision.
The next step for Cleveland is to get everyone on the same page for Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes and company are one of the scariest and most lethal offenses in the NFL and the most versatile to boot. It will be a great test for Woods and this new look Browns defense. If everything clicks, then Cleveland can make a statement that they really are a Super Bowl threat and can hang with the best on both sides of the field.