On a short week where the Cleveland Browns offense is still likely to be limited due to injuries, the defense has to step up, eliminate the mental mistakes and play consistent football to come away with a victory against the Denver Broncos, who have lost three in a row and some of that may mean moving up the schedule from which defensive coordinator Joe Woods had seemingly been operating.
The offense for the Browns has real challenges outside of their control. They are dealing with injuries that are stacking up at positions, leaving with significant holes on that side of the ball. The team could be without both of their starting offensive tackles as well as their top two running backs.
The defense is dealing with nagging injuries, but it's not preventing the vast majority of guys from playing and their issues are entirely within their control. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is out for for a significant portion of the season, but their secondary is out there playing at full strength and their issues are the most glaring.
Coverage busts are plaguing this team. Players are pretty matter of fact about how they simply need to communicate and do their assignments, but media and fans are pointing the finger at defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Regardless of how much blame anyone deserves, everyone needs to come together to eliminate these breakdowns.
The major offender for the Browns is their safety position where two things are clear to this point. John Johnson III is not yet being maximized and Ronnie Harrison, who was effective in coverage last year, is making far too many mistakes in terms of assignment this year (something Cory Kinnan also touched on)
Johnson's problems are in part his own doing. Unfortunately, Johnson and Harrison are not delivering the way the Browns had hoped at this point. Johnson was utilized more in the role he had been with the Los Angeles Rams in the game against the Arizona Cardinals and it enabled him to make a few important plays. That's a trend that will almost certainly continue.
Harrison has struggled at strong safety. Some of this is about usage. Harrison was often used in the box last season when he was acquired, but did play some deep safety as well and the results were much better. He's far more comfortable in man coverage than he is in zone, which is where he's getting exposed because.
It seems like he's trying to make a hero play by freelancing, reading the quarterback's eyes, who are moving Harrison out of the way, leaving a receiver wide open. Harrison has not shown good judgment in these areas. If he can't stop doing it, the Browns may have to alter their personnel.
The most likely option for the Browns, who like often like to show two high as a means to disguise their coverage, is to have Delpit and Johnson play those two spots. Strong and free are largely unimportant labels as they do the same things, but putting a player in front of Delpit may help him, so they make make him the strong and Johnson the free.
The hesitation with Delpit isn't difficult to understand. He's coming off an Achilles' injury and dealt with hamstring issues, limiting him to virtually zero reps throughout training camp and the preseason. It was a legitimate question how much the Browns could realistically get out of Delpit this season under the circumstances. Thus far, he's been able to outperform those expectations and make a few impact plays, but overloading him from a physical standpoint might be a concern.
If Delpit and Johnson are the two high safeties in a split look, they can both perform the same roles. One can drop into the deep middle while the other comes down to help in man coverage, play a robber or even blitz. They can also split the field in half, one of the areas where the Browns are performing their worst.
That then enables Harrison to have a more focused role in the slot. He's more likely to be utilized in man coverage from there and he has a good track record with tight ends. The drawback for Harrison is he's not quite as athletic as Delpit, but he does have a little more length and heft. He has shown to be capable on the blitz as well.
Delpit was being prepped to play free safety last year and was penciled in as the starter before suffering the season-ending injury. He hasn't had a chance to go out and prove it, but that is the role the Browns had prescribed for him. They may not love feeling rushed into that move, but circumstances may dictate it.
If it works, Johnson can play a role more akin to the one he did with the Rams, getting to play more of a mix of man and zone coverage, able to make plays underneath as well as over the top.
Harrison might be more effective, but he won't be thrilled with a move that is likely to cost him playing time and potential bargaining power as a free agent. It would certainly bode well for Delpit's present and future.
This seems like something the Browns ultimately wanted to do, but on their own time when they were confident in Delpit's recovery, both physically and mentally as well as his grasp of the role. It's possible this is something the Browns didn't want to have do until 2022.
Given the short week, the Browns may stick with their current lineup and potentially make an adjustment in the week and a half they will have to prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With JOK out, the Browns will likely have to move Malcolm Smith back to the weak side, his natural position, leaving Anthony Walker in the middle, occasionally spelled by Elijah Lee. Smith was unable to go against the Arizona Cardinals, so if he out against the Broncos, the Browns would be going with Mack Wilson in that spot.
The fact that losing JOK would have such a big impact is a credit to how well he's been able to acclimate as a rookie. It not only forces Smith to move, but highlights how questionable the options are outside of him. Unfortunately, the Browns are worse without him, slower without him and it will likely lead to more problems in pass coverage from that unit.
Issues in the secondary will always stand out the most and the Browns have to get them cleaned up and play assignment sound defense. When they do, they are often able to make the stops the team needs to win. It needs to start this week with a strong performance against a Broncos offense that has struggled over the past three games, but if not, changes may be coming.