Before heading off on summer vacation, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods spoke to the media, giving a good amount of insight into what he wants to do with various aspects of the team's defense heading into 2021.
Woods began by not looking for any excuses or giving any explanations regarding last year's defensive struggles. He also embraces the challenge and the pressure on him to produce a better unit this year.
Not surprisingly, Woods likes his defensive line group and is excited about what they can do, both schematically as well as in terms of sheer numbers, keeping guys fresh to maintain pressure throughout the game.
The three safety look is one that has come up quite a bit ever since Woods noted in 2020 that he aspired to run that as a base defense. In addition to the fact he's simply referring to it as dime, he is excited to have it at his disposal, but suggested it might not be as prevalent as it was when he was with the Denver Broncos.
“Yes, dime package is a big part of what I was involved in in (former NFL defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips system in Denver. You are always trying to put yourself in a position where you have favorable matchups. When we go dime, we are putting more cover guys on the field, and we are putting more speed on the field. It probably will not be as much as I ran in Denver, but it will definitely be a lot more [than last year], especially on third down and maybe two-minute situations.” - Browns DC Joe Woods
The immediate reaction this brings a question to mind that was not asked. What dictates him thinking this in June. Is it based on the personnel the Browns have or is this an eye on the schedule and perhaps the division?
The Browns nominally have three talented safeties that could play on the field with John Johnson, Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit. In fact, Woods would single out Harrison for praise later when he was asked about him.
“It is very beneficial to have him here. Last year, you do not really try to change guys at that point. You try to really install the defense, teach them the defense and let them be themselves because you did not start the whole offseason process with him. Now, it is kind of like with everything we are doing with players and with the scheme, it is kind of like we pulled it all apart and we are trying to build it from the ground up again.
With Ronnie, I was watching film yesterday, I said, ‘Who is that guy in the post?’ ‘They were like that is Ronnie.’ ‘Ronnie?’ Just in terms of what he has done so far working on his movement skills and bending more in his backpedal, he looks like a different guy, and he has a natural feel when he is in the box. I think he is set up to have a really good year for us.”
Because the Browns have added so much talent this offseason and gotten Delpit back in the same position group, it can easy to forget Harrison, who was hailed as an impact player in the defense last year, giving them a huge lift when he got into the lineup.
This may simply be a case of Woods being cautious with his expectations of Delpit. The Browns and Woods love Delpit and he's made great progress from the ruptured Achilles' injury he suffered last August. Still, given the nature of the injury, there has to be some sense of tamping down expectations for the benefit of the player, who still has to prove himself, both in terms of his recovery as well as his talent in year two.
One of the answers that really stood out was regarding the team's second round pick, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Woods said he felt like the team came away with two first round picks getting Greg Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah.
“Things are going well with him. A very smart player, very athletic. You can see the speed, the quickness and the change of direction. He will be able to match up well against tight ends. The thing we have to be careful of and I have to be careful of is you look at him, and you want to do a lot, but coming in as a rookie, you do not want to put him in those situations. You want to gradually bring him along, and as he gains experience and understands the defense more and more, then you will start to expand it. There are some things drawn on the whiteboard I want to do, but we probably will not get to all of them this year.”
The way he answers this question is really smart, whether it was intentional or not. On one hand, it's easy to understand Woods saying to himself that he needs to be careful not to try to have Owusu-Koramoah too much, so he can build his confidence and let him create a role within the defense. On the other, even as he's talking about it from his perspective, it humanizes Woods and provides an avenue to reduce expectations from outside sources without taking any of the excitement with him.
Woods also answered a question about Newsome playing in the slot.
“Yeah, so far, it looks that way. During the offseason is when you really want to put guys in those positions to see what they are capable of doing in terms of playing inside and outside so we expose him to it so he knows the coverages and the techniques we are asking him to play. When we come back in training camp, we will see how he progressed and for him to keep moving in that direction or just focus some more outside at corner. Right now, I believe he is capable of playing both positions.”
There is an aspect of this where the more a player can do, the more they can do. Additionally, if Newsome can play both in the slot as well as the boundary, it creates additional options for how the Browns can matchup with opponents. He offers more length than most of their corners, so being able to potentially slide inside against a bigger target could be valuable.
Woods addressed the idea of being too small on defense.
“I do not think so. I think that a lot of those questions pertain to JOK, but when you look around the league, the league is becoming more of you see teams spreading you out and quick throws. It is becoming more matchups and space. (LB) Malcolm Smith was really the first guy, he came out and he was about 225. You look at (Falcons LB) Deion Jones down in Atlanta, he was in the 220s. Even we had (free agent LB) Kwon Alexander in San Francisco, he was in the 220s. Just more of a premium on speed, but there is enough size where those guys can play physical, and we have to be smart in terms of how we use him, as well.”
None of what Woods is saying is wrong here, but two things stand out with this defense entering this year. Their safeties are big. Harrison and Delpit are two of the bigger safeties in the NFL. Beyond that, the Browns defensive line has gotten bigger this offseason.
The Browns released Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. They were both sub 300 pound defensive tackles. In their place, they have Andrew Billings, who opted out last year, but is the thickest defensive tackle on the team. Marvin Wilson, the rookie free agent out of Florida State, also provides added beef.
Combined with the signing of Jadeveon Clowney to replace Olivier Vernon, who suffered the Achilles' injury at the end of the 2020 season, the Browns have size up front, both in terms of length as well as sheer size. So long as that group can impact the line of scrimmage, it will enable their smaller defensive backs to fly around and make plays.
Speaking of Billings, Woods did answer a question about his... shape?
“He is a grown man. He is strong. Obviously, he has size, but he is very strong. I think he was powerlifter in high school. I have talked to him, he said he is not as strong as he could be, but he said give him a month and he will be back to squatting 900 pounds. I do not think he is in the ideal football shape that he wants to be in. Again, that is why you go through OTAs, summer working out and come back in training camp just to get yourself where you need to be. He is definitely part of our plans. Definitely a first and second down run-stuffer type of player. I am excited about him. He has a great personality and fits in great with the guys. He will definitely play a role for us this season.”
Despite the extra baggage, Billings displayed a pretty good first step and low pad level working through drills. The team did some competition in terms of pass rush moves and first step quickness. Billings was able to beat the rookie Wilson.
The Browns defense may be stylistically smaller in its approach, but the overall roster is either the same size or bigger than it was las year. Anthony Walker is bigger than B.J. Goodson for example. Woods is right in that the question is really only about Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and doesn't think he's too small.
Woods was asked about the possibility of being on the hot seat and embraced it. More importantly that speculating on his own job status, he was asked about communication as a potential hurdle for the defense gelling.
"Everything we do on the field, guys have to work together. That is why having guys here and in practice is critical. To have guys who are not here, they are missing that element in terms of the camaraderie building in their position rooms, getting on the field and seeing how each other works, and for us, building the different combinations with the right players. Communication is definitely a part of it and just having guys around each other. You can see the benefits of that already.”
Although it was not asked in connection to his job status, this a glaring problem with the defense last year. Even late in the season, there were communication breakdowns that led to blown coverages and easy scores for the opponent. Maybe as much as anything this year, that element has to be improved significantly if the defense is going to take a meaningful step forward.