Through two games, the Cleveland Browns defense has malleable personnel to match what opponents are doing, but issues with getting stops on third down and a pass rush not capitalizing continuously stick out regardless of who is on the field.
Much will be attributed to lack of familiarity with the scheme as the Browns overhauled their defense this offseason. The Browns have nine players playing in their scheme that were not part of the team last year.
Some of the issues the Browns have result in a lack of players simply doing their job and trusting their teammates to do theirs. That should come with time.
When asked about it from a defensive line perspective in the post game presser, Myles Garrett said, “A little bit. D line is pretty much new except for me and (DE) Porter (Gustin). It’s tough to get that chemistry right away. It’s inspiring to go into that film room and see something we have been working on and it work cleanly. It just didn’t get there in time”
One consistent issue the Browns defensive line has shown is an inability to stay in appropriate pass rushing lanes. The worst offender through the two gams appears to be Jadeveon Clowney.
Both against the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, Jadeveon Clowney has rushed up the field too far on the offense's right, opening up space for the quarterback between the guard and tackle to either step up in the pocket to throw or simply run.
It's allowing the quarterback to effectively eliminate the pressure chasing from the left side. If the quarterback cannot step up in the pocket, the pressure from the opposite defensive end, often Myles Garrett, continues to be a threat.
In the game against the Chiefs, the Browns defensive line was disruptive, putting a ton of pressure on Patrick Mahomes throughout the game. Gap integrity let him off the hook at times while he simply made a handful of plays only he can make, but the defensive line had an impact.
Conversely, playing the Texans at home, the defensive line was simply not as effective as it needed to be. Takkarist McKinley was invisible. The interior did not offer much. Garrett was quiet. He was doubled much of the day, but by his standards, which include competing for the Defensive Player of the Year, he had a poor game.
This was at the heart of the Browns issues on third down, which has been the single biggest issue on defense through two games. 3rd-and-long, the down and distance, the situation this defense has been specifically built to excel, has been the single worst aspect of the the team's performance. In their two games, the Browns are stopping opponents just 37 percent of the time on third down.
Garrett was caught off guard when asked if it was fair for defensive coordinator Joe Woods to be taking heat, responding, "For what?"
The reporter, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal continued, "The fans are up in arms saying the defense doesn't look like you're playing up to your potential."
"It's on both of us. We gotta play to the best of our ability whatever calls that he gives us. If we don't make the play, that's not only on him. That's on all of us. So, no, you can put the blame on everyone on the field, all 11 of us and him as well. It's on all of us. We're a team and we're in this together."
The Browns defensive line clearly has the ability to play far better than they did against the Chiefs, but some of the issues they are having, including chemistry and gap responsibility must improve as well.
The linebacker position is in flux as a result of injuries, but Mack Wilson continues to play. He was downright awful against the Chiefs. His run defense has improved this year and against the Texans, he was often where he was supposed to be, but simply a little late.
The problem is that Wilson is the worst coverage linebacker on the team, which is particularly problematic as he plays WILL. The one adjustment the Browns have made is to try to have him on the field for situations teams are more likely to run the ball, then get him off the field for obvious passing situations.
Wilson is playing less overall. The presence of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is certainly a major reason for that. To this point, Of the 43 defensive snaps JOK has played, only 11 of them were run plays. He's blitzed four times and been in some form of coverage for 28.
Sione Takitaki has been arguably the team's best linebacker to this point, but he only plays SAM, so he's not on the field all that much. Takitaki has played MIKE in the past, though the results have been less than stellar. After a productive training camp and offseason, they might feel compelled to find more reasons to put him on the field without playing a third linebacker on the field.
The secondary is the most interesting aspect of the defense right now because it's the one that is always changing. Against the Chiefs, the Browns largely operated in zone, trying to keep their prolific offense in front of them, forcing them to take longer drives and potentially make mistakes.
Outside of the 75-yard touchdown on a broken play, the Browns were reasonably successful in their goal. They were also able to force a pair of field goal attempts and a pair of punts.
Against the Texans, the Browns played man. They allowed Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome to play the outside receivers and dared the quarterback to beat them. Unfortunately, in part because of some effective play by the Texans and a lack of a consistent pass rush, the Texans had success going after Ward and drew a big defensive pass interference penalty against Newsome.
Ultimately, this seems to be where the Browns want to be on a regular basis. Be able to effectively man up opposing teams in an effort to force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer while freeing up defenders to either blitz or provide extra help somewhere else. The results were by no means a disaster, but they need to keep improving. Brandin Cooks turned in 9 receptions for 78 yards. Not an unreasonable day for their best weapon to have, but hardly ideal for Ward, trying to make the case he warrants a significant contract extension.
The issue that bit the Browns was a combination of failing to get home with the pass rush, opening up rush lanes for the QB while the defense was playing man. Tyrod Taylor's 15-yard touchdown exploited this issue as he was given a wide open running lane with no one looking at him. He was presented with a wide open lane to the end zone and he didn't waste it.
The other notable change was the debut of Grant Delpit. After missing last year with an Achilles' injury as well as week one against the Chiefs, he made a handful of impact plays, including a sack fumble. Delpit was often used as in the role of a second level defender. Often attacking the line of scrimmage, he made a handful of key stops. Delpit was able to capitalize on blitz opportunities including a blind side hit on rookie quarterback Davis Mills that resulted in a fumble.
Delpit still has a tendency to dive at opposing ball carriers, which can have some feast or famine results. On the sack, he was utilized as a blitz threat not unlike he had often been at LSU during his collegiate career. They also sent him downhill blitzing the offensive interior.
The Browns did offer a sneak peak of what they hope will become a regular feature for this defense, having JOK and Delpit on the field at the same time. They get two fast, rangy players that have demonstrated excellent instincts and a knack for making plays.
Against teams like the Baltimore Ravens or the Buffalo Bills and Chiefs if they see them in the playoffs, that combination could be extremely valuable against teams that offers a quarterback that can make plays with their legs as well as their arms. The Browns get added coverage ability, but the range and closing speed becomes critical to track down ball carriers or to catch quarterbacks before they have a chance to escape the pocket.
With both playing the first snaps of their career, it's going to be a process to get them fully up to speed, but the early results and timely use of their abilities has provided a nice boost for a defense always looking for more help, particularly at the second level.
Last but certainly not least is Joe Woods, the defensive coordinator.
Woods' DNA dating back to his time with Wade Phillips is to win with the defensive line and drop guys into coverage. That is who he wants this defense to be. And while he does blitz, it's not unfair to ask if he does it enough. Further to that point, the Browns have players like JOK and Delpit that can specifically offer that as a skill.
The goal is to have their defensive line simply play better and dominate the line of scrimmage, so they don't need to blitz, but Woods can do more to incorporate the blitz and continue to keep teams off balance, attacking more rather than entirely working in terms of trying to play a prevention style of defense.
Just like the players, Joe Woods needs to grow along with the talent this team has amassed to most effectively utilize it, a process that is going to continue for the entirety of this season. Right now, his most immediate focus needs to be on improving on third down.