The Cleveland Browns defense has looked improved the last three games. Well, it would be more accurate to say they played well in the first half against the Buffalo Bills and then played at a high level in back to back games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans. No, the defense is not fixed and won't be until they make some upgrades to the defensive line, an offseason issue. Nevertheless, that side of the ball has been better and the reasons behind the improvement are important, especially as it relates to embattled defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
Woods, who has been heavily criticized since he took the job, has been a marked man this season due to the performance of the defense, which ranks near the bottom of the league. Much of it is contrived, such as suggesting he can't develop or maximize players, that players have quit on him and that his scheme doesn't work. These arguments are largely made by critics who have come to the conclusion that Woods isn't the right man for the job and have worked backwards in an attempt to justify that stance.
However, there are legitimate criticisms to be made about ruts in play calling as well as predictable fronts and looks. These issues are not related to talent and do make a compelling argument that Woods is not adapting to trends in the NFL and therefore isn't the long-term answer for that role.
The past few games, however, Woods has made significant changes to how the defense attacks opponents and is making the case that he can indeed adapt his defense and make them more difficult to discern.
Starting with the Bills game, the Browns came out firing with blitzes and line stunts to try to free up defenders to attack quarterback Josh Allen. The disjointed week of practices caused by illness and a Buffalo blizzard almost certainly made an impact on the Bills ability to prepare for the game as did Allen's lingering elbow injury. Nevertheless, the Browns defense was able to catch the Bills offense off guard at points and was able to free up defenders to attack Allen and swarm the football.
No one can deny the speed the Browns have at their disposal and Woods has leaned into it, even at the risk of leaving exposed running lanes, something the Bills were able to exploit. Rather than try to hold up at the point of attack and clog blockers in an effort to protect the linebackers, something this group has proven incapable, Woods opted to utilize his defensive tackles like a pure rush package.
Slant or stunt them, try to get them to play fast and force the opponent to figure it out. At times, it's impressive what the Browns are able to achieve, putting the opponents on their heels. There are also times when it's complete chaos with players flying around and only a few are going where the ball is.
The Bills were able to figure out how to run the ball effectively in the second half. It is worth noting they never got in the end zone. They had to settle for six field goals, all of which Tyler Bass made, propelling him to special teams player of the month for the AFC.
Against the Bucs, Woods had a simple game plan. More gap sound, the Browns largely played the Bucs straight up. The Bucs offensive line has struggled due to injuries and attrition, their running game hasn't been ineffective and Tom Brady isn't a threat to move. The biggest threat on the Bucs offense was their wide receiver, so the Browns focused their resources there so Brady would be forced to hold the ball longer and enable the pass rush to get home.
Even though the game plan was simpler and involved far less line movement, the philosophy remained the same. Try to put the players in a position that enables them to play fast and be more aggressive.
Against the Texans, the Browns stunted constantly. They brought pressure and they played closer to the line of scrimmage, a sign of their confidence against an overmatched opponent. They switched up their fronts, utilizing some odd front looks with defensive linemen standing up, floating around and then showed some six-man fronts with linebackers walked up.
There's more for the offense to think about, more to account for and provides more options in how the defense can operate. Woods is a coach who loves to send pressure early and then utilize simulated pressure and this is change that adds a wrinkle to how he does both.
The question is why now? What took so long?
Three reasons stand out.
First, the Browns suffered a brain drain on their defensive roster this past offseason. They got younger, trading or letting veterans go while acquiring Deshaun Watson. On top of that, players have been calling out a lack of preparation on the part of their teammates. It limits what the defense can do when the coach isn't confident they can execute. To paraphrase Grant Delpit from earlier this year, guys don't know what they're doing.
It seems like enough players have figured it out, which is allowing Woods to be more flexible with his gameplanning.
Second, Woods is leaning pretty heavily on his corners. With a rookie in Martin Emerson and Greg Newsome transitioning to the slot, the Browns ran into their share of problems early in the year. That has improved, which is making the defense look better. Emerson emergence as a rookie, improving almost by the week, has accelerated the process.
The third reason may simply amount to desperation. The Browns defensive tackles have been the worst in the NFL. It's not going to get fixed this season. So rather than continually ask players to do something they can't, they opted to do something they can even if it's going to get gashed at points. Getting beaten some of the time is an improvement over getting beaten all the time.
With five games remaining including rematches with all of their divisional opponents, it will be interesting to see if these trends continue. Wins and success are important, but just as critical for Woods is continuing to show his adaptability in how he can not only put his players in position to succeed, but also keep opposing offenses off balance. The talent can improve, but unless Woods continues to evolve as a coordinator, they will always be left wanting more.
Should the Browns decide to move on from Woods, they will almost certainly be targeting a more forward thinking defensive coordinator. Maybe they find an older coach who has evolved the way Dan Quinn has, now running one of the best defenses in the league. Failing that, it's likely to be someone younger, an up and comer that might be getting his first coordinating gig. They would hope to find their own version of DeMeco Ryans or Ejiro Evero, coordinators of the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos respectively.
There were three individual performances that stood out against the Texans. And yes, it's important to preface everything with the fact they performed against the Texans, the worst team in the NFL. However, they aren't established stars. One has switched positions and the others have yet to truly accomplish anything at this point in their careers, so they do matter.
The Tony Fields Game
A fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Tony Fields II hasn't done much as a member of the Browns. His rookie year, he missed time with a foot injury and he's largely been relegated to some special teams contributions. However, injuries have created opportunities to get on the field.
Occasionally, Fields has made a play here or there in limited opportunities. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he came up and made a nice play against the run for example.
Sunday was simply his day. Fields forced the fumble that Denzel Ward recovered and scored. Fields was the recipient of the tipped ball from Chase Winovich on an attempted screen pass. He took that in from 16 yards for a touchdown. Not done, Fields was also in the right place at the right time when Jordan Kunaszyk forced a fumble on a punt, able to make the recovery.
It's a terrific performance by Fields, who noted after the game, "Every game is about playing complementary football and sometimes another man has to step up, next man up and today was my day and took that chance."
It would be great if this is a launching pad for the second-year linebacker. In a similar mold as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, he plays fast, can demonstrate good instincts and find his way to the ball, which occurred three different times against the Texans, producing a total of 17 points off of turnovers.
It just goes to show that when the Browns can compete for the line of scrimmage and are able to play down hill, they can cause problems. It helps that they played against the worst team in the league against the Texans, but the same held true against the Bucs the previous week.
Perrion Winfrey's Best Performance
There's no getting around the fact that Winfrey's rookie year has been a mess, largely due to self-inflicted wounds stemming from a lack of maturity. Problems that dogged him in college have carried over into the NFL.
That said, Winfrey played his best game against the Texans. His 37 snaps were the highest number he's played in a game all season and accounted for nearly 57 percent of defensive snaps overall.
Winfrey was consistently explosive off the ball showcasing the initial get off and power that stood out coming out of college. The way defensive coordinator Joe Woods utilized Winfrey, often from a tilt, helped highlight that skill set. The tilted alignment can be useful in making it difficult for opposing blockers to get hands on off the ball. As a result, Winfrey was often able to get into opposing linemen with momentum, occasionally driving blockers backward. The tilt is also an easy way to go into slants and stunts. Winfrey did both including some loops where he ended up on the outside trying to attack the quarterback.
There was still a double team in which Winfrey was driven back, but he was able to spin off a block and had to help tackle Texans running back Dameon Pierce, a player who was outstanding with his contact balance and power throughout the game. Overall, he gave up less ground than he has in past games.
Winfrey wasn't great and he still has plenty of work to do in his development. Nevertheless, for a player who was trending as poorly as Winfrey has, raising questions as to whether or not he'd even make it to year two in Cleveland, it was apparent why the team drafted him. It's a positive step.
Greg Newsome gaining confidence in the slot
Newsome was noticeably more comfortable in the slot against the Texans. More aggressive, anticipating what the opposing offense wanted to do and being in position to make plays on the ball. The near interception was the product of a great read followed by a good break on the ball. His four solo tackles in the game match a season-high mark as well.
In the second season under Woods, the Browns often utilized three safeties on the field. The more comfortable Newsome gets, the more they are likely to live in three corner sets to put their best 11 on the field.
Newsome's transition and development in the slot is arguably the most important issue on this team outside of Deshaun Watson. If successful, it can provide the Browns a massive tactical advantage and increase their flexibility on that side of the ball.
The Texans aren't a great team, but Newsome missed two games with the concussion and the Browns now must prepare for their rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals. Getting a good game under his belt off of the injury at a position he's still developing a feel for is a good thing, even if it's against an inferior opponent.