Coming into the 2021 season, one of the biggest goals for the Cleveland Browns was to get their defense to improve enough over the course of the year to be ready to make a playoff push. Unfortunately, the offense has not held up their end of the bargain but the Browns defensive personnel has made significant improvements that may continue the rest of this season.
Joe Woods, the defensive coordinator, has taken a beating locally due to inconsistency as well as some methodology that largely comes down to preference and aesthetics rather than being right or wrong.
12 games into the season, his unit is the best on the team as the other two phases of the game have gotten worse over the course of the year. Regardless of how critics feel about the acumen of Woods to design a defense or make calls within a game, there's no question he knows exactly what type of players this defense needs to operate.
With Olivier Vernon on the roster, it seemed strange and a little disrespectful for the Browns to go so hard after Jadeveon Clowney only to fall short, then resort to Vernon. After Vernon ruptured his Achilles' at the end of the 2020 season, wiping out his 2021 season and the Browns once again pushed to get Clowney, this time able to get him to sign on the dotted line.
Seeing how impressive Clowney has been in this defensive scheme, it has justified every effort the Browns put into getting him. Injuries have slowed him down in some games, but when he's right, he's a force, constantly disrupting the line of scrimmage.
Myles Garrett is one of the best players in the NFL. The last two seasons have been the most dominant of his career and with a strong finish this year, he could eclipse 20 sacks. Nevertheless, Clowney has shown he is a superior player when it comes to defending read and potential option plays, which paid significant dividends against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.
Clowney is scheduled to be a free agent after the season, but given the amount of effort the Browns put into getting him to Cleveland, it seems unlikely they are in a hurry to let him leave.
Takkarist McKinley's season has been a mixed bag due to an ongoing issue with his groin, the same part of his body that was even more debilitating in 2020. When on the field, his speed off the edge is valuable and harmonizes beautifully with the rest of the defensive front, but he's only been on the field for 256 plays (32.7 percent of defensive snaps) so far this season.
The Browns may see an opportunity to keep McKinley's skill set at a reasonable cost while McKinley may continue to view the Browns as a good path to build up his value. His contract was worth $3.66 million in 2021.
John Johnson III was the first big acquisition the Browns made and his season has been a rollercoaster, but Johnson fits right in with this defense and where it wants to go. At times, he's everything the Browns were hoping for like against the Ravens and the Denver Broncos. Others, it can prove difficult to figure out how he could play so poorly with his track record.
As much as the Browns want to be able to utilize Johnson in multiple roles to keep the opponent off balance, the lack of another consistent option that can play deep has limited them. That's not the reason Johnson has struggled at times.
If Johnson simply regresses to where his averages have been throughout his career, he could have a nice run to finish out the season and certainly should be much better in 2022.
Nothing has been more gratifying to watch than the growth of the young players on this side of the ball led by rookies Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
It's still remarkable just how both players were able to find their way to the Browns in the NFL Draft, since it seemed as if both might be gone before the Browns had the chance to grab either one of them, let alone being able to get both.
The early returns on the rookie corners from this year's class across the league are impressive, but Newsome's at least solid at all facets of the position. He's proven capable in all types of coverage, shows excellent eye discipline, separates the ball from the receiver and has been a terrific tackler.
There's every reason to believe he's going continue to get better and better.
Meanwhile, JOK has been a revelation. Ankle injuries have limited his overall snap count this year, but for a player that seemingly shouldn't have needed to have a major role for this defense this year, he's been an impact player.
When the Browns drafted him, it seemed odd they were going to have him operate almost exclusively as a WILL linebacker. And there are times when he's not really a linebacker, but the Browns saw a Fred Warner type player and he's more than lived up to it..
It's not just that JOK is fast. He processes information quickly and reacts with little hesitation. Over the course of the year, he's gaining confidence, trusting his instincts and being patient when the situation calls for it.
The Ravens were a test to see if the defense could hold their water in waiting out meshes and diagnosing where the ball was truly going. JOK excelled in this area and just as the Browns can't truly prepare for Lamar Jackson's otherworldly athletic ability, opponents including Jackson will have trouble preparing for JOK's.
Joe Woods is fitting these two into a framework of talented players trying to learn and improve in a defensive scheme rather than anchor a team devoid of talent or starting a new scheme. That doesn't mean these two don't look like they can quickly ascend to becoming cornerstone type players.
If JOK keeps improving, the Browns will have a star player at every level of the defense.
Grant Delpit hasn't enjoyed the meteoric rise that JOK and Newsome have, but he is improving as he gains experience. He's showcasing more of his ability while still being inconsistent. The further away he gets from the Achilles' injury, the better he will be.
Ronnie Harrison's season has been a massive disappointment to this point, though the last two weeks have been a significant departure from the downward trend. Being utilized closer to the line of scrimmage, he's been a terrific run defender and his athleticism pops in that capacity.
The Detroit Lions with a backup quarterback and the Ravens are a good fit for that role. Harrison will likely continue in that role in the rematch with the Ravens, but that's far less realistic against teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers who will spray the ball all over the field.
Another pending free agent, Harrison may well have cost himself the big payday anyone in position would be hoping for, but playing better after the bye only helps him and may have the Browns opt to retain him for at least another season.
As was the case last year, the linebacker position may be frustrating in general, but it's overperforming for the season. Save for JOK, they aren't likely to make too many plays that the rest of the group doesn't enable them to make, but that's more than adequate for this defense.
The injury to Jacob Phillips was a pretty big setback in terms of trying to find long-term fixtures in that group, but the combination of Malcolm Smith and Anthony Walker may be not be terribly inspiring, but they do their jobs. The Browns have also found a niche for Mack Wilson to be effective, which is all anyone could ask from him at this point.
Since being drafted fourth overall in 2018, Denzel Ward has often been good but not quite great leading to questions about whether or he could live up to a lucrative contract extension. He misses about a month each year due to injuries which likely hasn't helped his development or his potential value in contract negotiations.
Between his own work to improve and the additions made to the defense that have enabled Woods to put Ward in the best position to succeed, the results have shown a corner able to break through and play at an incredibly high level.
Particularly when it comes to defending the boundary, the Browns can legitimately go four deep this year at corner. Ward has been great, Newsome is impressing and then both Greedy Williams and A.J. Green have been productive when called upon in relief.
Unquestionably, the worst position on the defense and arguably the entire team is defensive tackle. Andrew Billings, waived, provided a big fat nothing and Malik Jackson has been rendered almost completely ineffective by an injured knee.
Behind them was a story that has proven too good to be true at least this year in Malik McDowell. Combined with a second year player in Jordan Elliott who is still struggling. and rookie Tommy Togiai, who was drafted with the hopes he wouldn't need to play at all this year, the Browns don't have a hole so much as a chasm in the middle of their defense.
McDowell possesses intriguing upside, but after he looked like an unstoppable force in the preseason, his dominant play lasted just one snap into the regular season. It shouldn't be a surprise given the fact he had recently been released from prison before signing with the Browns. He was trying to add a large amount of weight on the fly and had been out of football for three years while not being able to properly train.
None of that changes the fact McDowell has an NFL body and flashes some remarkable ability at points, but it was unrealistic to expect him to really sustain anything in 2021. A productive offseason where he can work on improving his body and technique could lead to substantial improvement.
McDowell, Elliott and Togiai are virtual certainties to be back on the roster in 2022 with the hope they can grow into the role. As a result, improvement the rest of the regular season would be encouraging.
There are improvements the Browns can make on the defensive roster, especially when it comes to the depth of the defensive line, but as long as they retain Clowney and avoid catastrophic injuries, the Browns should have a defense that can contend in 2022 with the flexibility to sustain far longer.