The performance of the Cleveland Browns defense in their game against the Baltimore Ravens was equal parts heartening and frustrating. The defense had its best performance since the second half of their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is encouraging, but it proves the this unit was underperforming and speaks to concerns that it lacked investment from some of its younger players. Clearly, this group is capable of playing better, but questions about their professionalism are valid.
Whether he simply took it upon himself or it was part of a plan by the Browns leadership council, safety John Johnson III made the decision to raise questions about whether young players were putting in the work necessary outside of what is required on Wednesday, a year to the day when former Browns defensive tackle Malik Jackson raised similar concerns in 2021. Johnson's a talented player, but his inconsistency might not make him the best player to deliver such a message. All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio brought more legitimacy to Johnson's concerns.
By Friday, when Myles Garrett spoke to the media, there seemed to be a renewed energy and focus on the week ahead. Sure, the Ravens are a division foe and a rivalry. Having both Garrett and fellow defensive end Jadeveon Clowney available was a nice boost, even if Clowney was on a pitch count.
But when the game started, the Browns looked like a completely different team on that side of the ball. They looked prepared, confident and fast, ready to meet the challenge the Ravens offense led by quarterback Lamar Jackson posed. They still had their share of issues both in tackling and making stops in the running game at points, but they didn't get discouraged and played through them.
Players that hadn't been able to play dead all year were suddenly contributing. Tommy Togiai and Jordan Elliott, arguably the worst two defensive tackles in the entire NFL had a pulse, holding up better on the interior and occasionally moving the line of scrimmage. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah looked like a player rejuvenated, causing a picture perfect pass break up in the first half and forcing a fumble by punching the ball out of Justice Hill's hands in the fourth quarter.
Grant Delpit will likely receive criticism for a dubious holding call and a sail route that was caught in his zone, but he was better after having what he deemed the worst game of his career against the New England Patriots. Mark Andrews, the all-world tight end who has thrived against the Browns throughout his young career did not record a single reception in the game.
Even without Denzel Ward, out for a second week as he recovers from a concussion, the secondary was effective in defending the Ravens. Jackson had just 120 passing yards on the day with his top three targets available to him, including Rashod Bateman who was back from an injury. Three sacks dropped that total to 94 net yards as the Browns were able to generate far more pressure than they had been in previous weeks.
Rookie defensive end Alex Wright was able to record a few splash plays including one of the team's eight tackles for loss. Fellow rookie Martin Emerson was able to sack an unsuspecting Jackson on a delayed corner blitz.
This was in many way the defense people were expecting to see this season. Fast, aggressive and disruptive. This was the type of game most Browns fans expected to see from the team overall. The defense does enough to give an underpowered offense led by journeyman quarterback Jacoby Brissett a chance to come away with the victory.
This group has plenty of young talent and room to continue growing and becoming the elite unit they hope to be if they keep adding pieces. The defensive line needs more proven talent for example.
All the reasons to be excited about this performance are the same reasons to be exasperated. This was expected to be the unit that was the strength of this team and outside of a strong first half against the Carolina Panthers and a strong second half against the Steelers, it's been a group that hopes to just keep the opponent out of the end zone rather than one that creates stops. A unit where success has too often been defined by just avoiding a catastrophic mistake rather than making plays.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has been under fire almost since the moment he was hired. People have been calling for head since the 2020 playoffs when the Browns lost in the AFC Divisional Round to the Kansas City Chiefs, despite having a defense comprised of spare parts outside of defensive end Myles Garrett and corner Denzel Ward.
Even if Woods is replaced, it's clear that if this young Browns defense puts in the effort to be great, they can be and the coordinator, while important, is secondary in that equation. It's maddening that this wasn't effectively solved last year when the Browns dealt with the exact same issues before playing better football on defense in the second half of the season. They shouldn't be this naïve.
The embarrassment of being outed in public, even if specific names were mentioned, had an impact. That's largely because no one needed to name names to understand exactly which players were being called out for being unprofessional. Suddenly, the group performed better as a whole.
Confidence is also something that shouldn't be ignored. With a defense so young, it's probably a group that has lost some confidence as they've experienced so many letdowns. With this performance against the Ravens, they should have more of it as they prepare to face off against another familiar foe in the Cincinnati Bengals.
Maybe this will spur some badly needed leadership on the defensive side of the ball. Myles Garrett thinks of himself as a leader, perhaps the leader, but he's noted that he's not always going to be a vocal one. Even if that was his sole focus, they still need more players to set a standard and live by it, ensuring it proliferates through the locker room.
No football team with aspirations of sustained success can operate on the premise that they need to be called out publicly to perform. It might work for a week or two, but it's temporary. Repeatedly going to that well will do more harm than good, resulting in division rather than unity. It's on this group, a unit that has potential to be a good defense to decide how badly they want to stick together and build something that can potentially lead to a championship.
The Browns defense has to prove they are a professional outfit, which shouldn't be a big ask. Against the Ravens, they showed they could be. That needs to continue with their game against the Bengals and be the last time there's any question about whether players are invested enough in the team's success.