A major reason for high expectations with the Cleveland Browns on defense entering the 2022 season is also contributing to inconsistency through three games. The Browns are counting on a number of young players on the defensive side of the ball, which is leading to lapses and uneven play, but could result in a surge of improved play over the course of the year, a repeat of what occurred in 2021.
The Thursday night matchup against the Steelers put a spotlight on the inexperience of the Browns defense outside of a few key players. With defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on the shelf entering the game, safety Ronnie Harrison getting injured in warmups, a hamstring injury to defensive tackle Taven Bryan and what would be revealed to be a season-ending injury to linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., the Browns were counting on nine players with two years of experience or less.
The defensive line featured Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai and two rookies in Alex Wright and Perrion Winfrey. Jacob Phillips stepped in for Walker and the secondary includes Grant Delpit, Greg Newsome II and rookie M.J. Emerson. The Browns hope to have Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah back from a groin injury quickly, but he's only a second year player.
That entire group has a total of nine years of NFL experience plus the first three games of this season. It doesn't excuse coverage busts or defensive failures, but it does help to explain why this group can be a rollercoaster in terms of results. From dominating the first half against the Carolina Panthers to hanging on for dear life for that victory to allowing the New York Jets to rally and beat them. They also struggled in the first half when the Steelers punched them in the mouth with their inside running game before taking control in the second half.
Clowney and Myles Garrett are the most consistent pieces of the defense. Walker was having a great start to the year before his season-ending injury. John Johnson III has been the steadiest coverage option in the secondary and while Denzel Ward's 2022 hasn't started the way anyone would have hoped, he can be a great cover corner.
Contrast that with an offense that is loaded with veterans and it can explain their level of consistency, especially in the running game. It helps they are blessed with talent including two All-Pro guards and the best running back in the NFL, but the group has been steady with new players added into the mix including quarterback Jacoby Brissett and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Jedrick Wills has played more football than any of those nine defenders mentioned earlier and he's still considered a young buck on the offensive line. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Harrison Bryant are also third-year players that have talent, but lack consistent roles offensively. Some of that is a matter of targets, but the point remains the same.
The Browns have gotten next to nothing out of players like Anthony Schwartz, David Bell and Demetric Felton. They aren't even using reserve running backs D'Ernest Johnson or Jerome Ford on offense to this point. The offense also has the benefit of being able to hide skill players while the defense is almost always going to be judged by its weakest link.
The Browns wish they could hide their weakest link, the defensive tackle position, a problem that has carried over from last year. It's better than it was in 2021, but the Steelers game showed how vulnerable it still is against a team with the ability to sustain an inside running game. That is also helping to cause some of the instability on the defense overall. The Browns tried to minimize the issue with a scheme that funnels play inside where they can try to win with numbers, but the Steelers simply bullied them inside and Najee Harris ran over linebackers and safeties in the first half.
Because the Browns are so young on defense, the coaching staff takes on more of the onus for their performance especially early in the year. They have to be certain players know where they are to be aligned and the assignments they are supposed to be executing as a result. When things go wrong, the players responsible take their share of the blame, but questions immediately go to the coaching staff as to who was in charge of making sure specific players are prepared. That has resulted in heat from the public, but undoubtedly comes up in coaching meetings.
With Myles Garrett's availability in doubt for the upcoming road trip against the Atlanta Falcons due to a car wreck, the Browns defense could get even younger. If they can come out with a victory, that provides be experience banked that could prove valuable down later in the year.
The Browns are getting promising early returns from rookies M.J. Emerson and Alex Wright, players who are proving they can be trusted to operate within their scheme. As Greedy Williams gets close to returning from his hamstring injury, it bears watching if the Browns put him back out there or if they are content to let Emerson continue to play in three corner sets. It might be determined by matchup since Williams has more speed while Emerson has size and physicality.
Greg Newsome and JOK are players that shined as rookies, so the expectation is they would be consistently good in 2022, a feat easier said than done. JOK started the season red hot before he had a lackluster game against the Steelers and the injury. Newsome has been more uneven with his play to start this season.
Grant Delpit played well in the second half of the 2021 season and had an outstanding summer, leading many (myself included) to project him to have a breakout season. Despite a start that has included some high profile mistakes, that's still a good possibility for the third-year safety. For those three players, 2021 doesn't come off as a fluke. It's simply a matter of getting back into the rhythm they found last year.
For players including defensive tackles Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai and Jacob Phillips, there isn't any meaningful success to be found at this point. Limited by injuries, Phillips is up to just 16 regular season games with the three games this year as a third-year linebacker, he struggled in the first two as a role player. He played better against the Steelers and came up with a few impact plays that helped seal the victory.
Defensive tackle is relying on three players that really haven't done anything in the NFL. Three games in, it's not quite as bad as 2021 was, but they still have done little as the position continues to be in the conversation for the worst in the league. In the case of rookie Perrion Winfrey, he is making the team question if he can be reliable as a professional before he even tries to make an impact on the field.
The good news is the season has barely gotten underway and teams across the league are still figuring out who they are. For as bad as the defense has looked at times, if they can avoid being broken by injuries, the group should be able to create some momentum and improve. Having their mini-bye this early in the year could prove valuable as the team gets the opportunity to take a breath and have time to address and try to eliminate some of the mistakes they've been making on the defensive side of the ball.
Given the number of players the Browns could be down against the Falcons, it's going to be a difficult test for these young defensive players. Should they be able to get out with a victory, that group should gain confidence as the group gets healthier which could spur that side of the ball at the time when the schedule ramps up in difficulty.
Now, they just have to go out and do it.