The performance of the Cleveland Browns defense can often be traced to how they perform on third and increasingly fourth down, but a pair of massive coverage breakdowns and a litany of injuries also contributed to the defense giving up 47 points on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers.
On third downs, the Chargers were six of 13, which wouldn't be bad for the Browns defense if not for the fact they were were three of three on fourth down conversions, which proved backbreaking. They all led to Chargers touchdowns, including one that took place after a controversial pass interference play on a fourth down earlier in the drive.
Injuries did not help the situation. With Greg Newsome already out, Denzel Ward came out due to a neck injury early in the game. The Browns were quickly on their heels at corner. Greedy Williams played pretty well, but he ended up playing through an injured shoulder and the team announced he will be having an MRI as will Ward on Monday.
Second year corner A.J. Green had to step in and play for Ward. Coming into the game, he had played just one defensive snap this season. He didn't fare all that poorly in coverage. Unfortunately, along with Grant Delpit who is playing his fourth NFL game, the Chargers appeared to be able to cause confusion in terms of assignments for the Browns secondary, leading to a pair of touchdowns; one in each half.
John Johnson III, the leader of the Browns secondary has been surprisingly inconsistent this year and he didn't appear to help with communication issues on the back end.
Injuries or not, these issues raise some important questions for defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Particularly prevalent in this game, coverage issues have been present in their other games, even when they had their front line players on the field and when the defense was wildly successful.
The Browns are looking at this as a process over the course of the season, but it had stinging consequences in this loss.
The absence of Jadeveon Clowney also looked to be a more significant loss than the Browns would like to admit. In combination with Myles Garrett, when they are able to contain the opponent and limit them to playing between the tackles, the resulting bottleneck is a major tactical advantage for the defense.
The other game where the Browns were really bad on the edges was against the Kansas City Chiefs. Clowney and Garrett were impactful, but they weren't able to effectively contain the Chiefs offense and Patrick Mahomes was free to roll out of the pocket, extend plays and find receivers down the field.
Against the Chargers without Clowney, quarterback Justin Herbert was often able to extend plays outside the pocket, which was a major part of the problem defensively. Both coverage breakdowns down the field were on plays where Herbert was able to roll out with time to throw.
The defense is being tasked with covering far more ground both on the defensive front as well as in the secondary. It allows the opponent to utilize their entire playbook. Both of those proved problematic in this game.
Woods then attempted to throw just about every coverage look at the Chargers as well as multiple blitz and stunt looks. The Chargers kept finding ways to move the ball and the Browns were unable to capitalize on situations to get stops, get off the field.
The Browns hope they will get Clowney back quickly, so they are able to re-engage that bottleneck effect, but they have to be able to find a way to operate when he or Garrett is out of the game as injuries do happen.
The larger concern the Browns need to address going forward, beyond simply getting their defense healthy, is how they can correct their ongoing issues in the secondary to eliminate breakdowns in coverage and just find ways to get off the field more consistently.