Entering the 2021 season, the Cleveland Browns defense under Joe Woods has always had a goal of being able to morph itself to match up with opposing offenses as exemplified by a defensive line made up of players that could fit specific roles, but in addition to players acquired in free agency, the team has gotten better from within and found unexpected contributors. The result is a flexible defensive front that can counter teams that want to pound them with the run, attack them through the air and everything in between.
When the Browns made the decision to sign Jadeveon Clowney to replace Olivier Vernon, who suffered an Achilles' injury at the end of last season, and then released defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, the organization shifted to a defense spending their financial resources on defensive linemen that could play up and down the line. Everyone around them has a prescribed role.
The Browns signed Andrew Billings ahead of the 2020 season with the expressed intent to be a run stuffing, two-gap nose. Takkarist McKinley was signed to add speed and pass rush ability off the edge to help them better deal with quarterbacks who can extend plays with their legs. Malik Jackson could theoretically line up as a big end, but he was signed predominately to play the three.
Meanwhile, Clowney and Myles Garrett could line up anywhere on the defensive line.
The Browns would seemingly line up with a defensive line of Garrett and Clowney on the edges with Billings and Jackson inside, at least on running downs. Then perhaps Clowney would slide inside with McKinley coming in to rush off the edge.
That could still happen particularly for heavier run teams, but the Browns have added some new wrinkles along the way between the emergence of Malik McDowell and the the make up of their practice squad.
McDowell's surge up the depth chart has been just as unexpected as his arrival in Cleveland in the first place. A career that seemed to be over before it started with an ATV accident he suffered as a rookie that has included challenges to his health and may have started a downward spiral that landed the 2017 Seattle Seahawks second round pick in jail, he was granted an opportunity by the Browns to try to turn it around.
Finding new life in football could give the Browns new life in how they want to set up their defensive line.
McDowell has largely operated at the nose and has provided an ability to not only make an impact defending the run, but he has consistently generated pressure against opposing passers. He has yet to face the best the league has to offer, but no one on the team, let alone the defensive line, was as dominant in the preseason as McDowell.
He could be an impactful role player for the Browns in every game, but with how Joe Woods has designed his defense, he could end up being a featured player against heavy passing teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, who the Browns face off face in week one. The Arizona Cardinals could feature a similar approach as could the Buffalo Bills, though the Browns wouldn't see the Bills until the postseason.
The Browns will be significantly more concerned with the Chiefs passing game, especially since there have been games, including the playoffs, where Kansas City stopped even pretending they were going to run the ball. In an effort to better defend Patrick Mahomes, they can utilize a more athletic front to try to generate as much pressure as possible, not unlike how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers attacked him in the Super Bowl.
Against teams like the Chiefs, the Browns could utilize Clowney and Garrett on the edges with McDowell and Jackson in the middle, rotating players like Jordan Elliott and Takk McKinley to keep attacking the quarterback. It certainly shouldn't be a surprise if they were to move Clowney inside to bring in McKinley to send off the edge because he's fast enough to chase down Mahomes.
McDowell could give the Browns a dynamic they sought last year when they signed Billings in the first place. He was signed with the intent to have him operate as a hulking, two-gapping nose that could penetrate in the run game while protecting the linebackers at the second level. Larry Ogunjobi would then come in and give them a more well rounded player that wouldn't be an awful run player, but could generate pressure as a pass rusher. This was the role he played in his most successful season, his rookie year, when Danny Shelton was the team's primary nose.
When Billings opted out due to concerns over COVID-19, that dynamic went with it and the Browns had put Ogunjobi back into the starting role, taking a ton of reps, reducing his effectiveness. Potentially, McDowell can take on the role the Browns hoped Ogunjobi would have played last season.
Given how poorly he has looked in the preseason after a year out of football, it's not unreasonable to be concerned with Andrew Billings. However, the Browns may not need him for a few more weeks as the Browns play the Houston Texans after the Chiefs. The Texans are a heavy favorite to be the worst team in the league this year, so Billings could get reps, but the game shouldn't hinge on his contributions.
As a result, the Chicago Bears in week three may be the first game of the regular season where the Browns would seek a meaningful contribution from Billings as part of their gameplan, which gives him additional time to get in better shape and hopefully closer to the form he had in 2019 with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he was a difference maker.
A heavy run defense from the Browns would feature Billings at the nose and continue to have Clowney and Garrett on the outside, who not only provide size, but length, making it difficult for opponents to reach them, forcing them back inside to their help. McDowell could potentially contribute on short yardage situations as the other defensive tackle, but this could also be a spot where Day gets the call. Because he can potentially play all three spots, the Browns get an extra big body to put in as needed to reinforce their front.
For teams like the Baltimore Ravens, which the Browns play in back to back games flanking their bye starting at the end of November, Billings should be featured as part of an a heavy emphasis on getting penetration into the backfield to clog running lanes and cause issues for their meshes, limiting the space they have to operate.
The Browns can also bring in additional depth from the practice squad, depending on the matchup as well. Since the Browns can activate two players each week to play from the practice squad, the Browns could call up Sheldon Day, Ifeadi Odenigbo or Porter Gustin for a given game.
Day's a player that can line up anywhere from nose to defensive end as illustrated by the final preseason game. He's a reliable, professional player that can provide some quality reps even if the Browns wouldn't want to feature him. Gustin is another speed rusher in the mold of McKinley that could give around ten snaps per game when called upon.
The newest member of the practice squad, Odenigbo, might have the most to offer to the Browns immediately, giving them another athletic option off the edge. He has 10.5 sacks in 31 games over the past two seasons, so as a fourth or fifth option depending on where Joe Jackson falls, he may provide an extra spark.
The defensive line can set the tone for everyone else. The rest of the defense can make similar adjustments to more effectively matchup against opposing offenses, but it's a group that features a number of players the Browns never intend to come off the field, including Denzel Ward, John Johnson III, Ronnie Harrison and likely rookie Greg Newsome. Even a player like Anthony Walker is going to be difficult to take off the field given the fact that at least currently, he's the guy making the calls on that side of the ball.
Nevertheless, utilizing using three linebackers on the field at the same time is more focused on stopping the run than the pass. Going with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Malcolm Smith and Grant Delpit could completely change the complexion of the defense on a given play or series.
Should the Browns defensive front live up to their potential, both in terms of ability as well as flexibility, in addition to staying healthy, it could go a long way in determining just how far the team can go both in trying to capture their first AFC North division title as well as their viability as a Super Bowl contender.