What would a Cleveland Browns season be if there was not a call for a coach or front office member to be fired? Historically, it was deserved. It is the cycle in which we Browns fans have lived for nearly two-and-a-half decades since the team returned. Two playoff appearances, with only one win, in the 23 seasons since returning to the league have caused uneasiness and frustration amongst the fan base, and justifiably so. Other teams have turned around their perennially losing franchises (the Rams and Bills, for example) to become winners. The Browns, though, have not had such luck.
Like most years, there was optimism coming into the year. The team re-signed Jadeveon Clowney, signed Taven Bryan and Isaac Rochelle, and drafted Martin Emerson, Alex Wright, Perrion Winfrey, and Isaiah Thomas to boost a defense that had a decent showing last year. Unfortunately, through five games, this investment has not brought the team the desired results: wins.
Joe Woods is now in his third season as the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. While they have excelled at times, they have largely struggled and are currently 30th in defensive efficiency and tied for 24th in points allowed (25.0 points per game). This is a nightmare scenario for an analytics-driven team that has invested high draft picks (Newsome, Owusu-Koramoah, Delpit, Williams, Emerson, Wright, Phillips, and Elliott) as well as long-term and/or high-salary contracts for John Johnson III, Denzel Ward, Jadeveon Clowney, and Myles Garrett.
That type of investment should result in a large increase in production. That has not manifested itself so far and, frankly, the team seems to have taken a step back despite retaining most of their team.
Woods has spent almost the entirety of his NFL career coaching defensive backs. He spent two years as a defensive quality control coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004-2005, then 11 years (8 with the Vikings, 1 with the Raiders, and 2 with the Broncos) as a defensive backs coach. He was promoted in Denver to defensive coordinator prior to the 2017 season and served two years in that role. In 2019, he returned as a defensive backs coach for the San Francisco 49ers. He also served as the 49ers’ passing game coordinator. Finally, in 2020 he joined Kevin Stefanski, whom he spent eight years with in Minnesota.
Joe Woods’ defense had a strong end to the season in 2021, allowing just 18.9 points per game over the last seven games. While the team had a 3-4 record in those games, it would be hard to argue that the defense was the issue, and they finished the season 5th in the NFL in yards allowed per game. Earlier in the season, however, the defense was clearly a liability. In just five games (against the Chiefs, Texans, Patriots, Chargers, and Cardinals), the Browns gave up 183 points or 36.6 points per game.
The same issues that led to those five horrible games have carried into this year.
Through five games the Browns are giving up 25 points per game, including 53 points in the 4th quarter alone. Those points have cost the Browns all three of their losses and nearly lost the game against the Panthers. The Browns have struggled to stop the run for years, but the last two games have been devastatingly bad. In the last 78:06 of game time (back to 3:06 left in the 3rd quarter of the Falcons game), the Browns have given up 390 rushing yards.
This defense was talked about as being the top defense in football this year. At this point, that just does not look like a possibility. Pro Football Focus has them as the 28th best defense in the NFL, they are 17th in total yards allowed per game, 28th in rushing yards allowed per game, 14th in passing yards per game, t-24th in points per game, t-23rd in sacks, and t-23rd in interceptions. In no way do these rankings make me think there is a chance this team will have a good defense, let alone a great defense.
Discussions have been had on all forms of media and social media about what the problem is with the defense. Some say it is on Joe Woods and his scheme. Others believe that the team just does not have the personnel to play well, particularly at the linebacker and defensive tackle positions, concerns dating to the end of last season. In recent weeks I have seen and heard concerns about the Browns’ star players on defense like Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and John Johnson III. I believe it is all of the above. I also believe it is none of the above. Let me explain.
Is the scheme to blame? The scheme can always be questioned because it isn’t working, as shown by stats above. Joe Woods has put the scheme in place and calls plays, but it is more than just the plays that are called.
But why isn’t it working? Players are not performing well. They are missing tackles, blowing assignments in the secondary, getting dominated one-on-one at the line of scrimmage, and making big mental mistakes. There are also communication issues in terms of calling plays and everyone knowing what the plays are.
But whose fault is it? It is everyone’s fault from the coaches to the players to the personnel department. The coaches have not ensured that the players understand their assignments, are in their assignments, use proper technique, and communicate with each other.
The players not being in the right spots, missing tackles, getting beaten physically and mentally, and not communicating are all failures on their part. This is also in penalties like John Johnson III’s where he let his anger get the best of him. Some have had plays where they clearly give up if they don’t think they can make a play.
The personnel department has not made sure that the team has people in all positions that can play at a high enough level to provide a positive impact to the team. This is most notable at the defensive tackle position, where none of the four at that position have made game-changing plays in the passing game and have not been stout against the run. They are consistently being blown off the ball, creating gaps for the running backs, which often leads to longer runs.
But why aren’t they fixing the problem? Every player, every coach, and every defense makes mistakes. These are humans on the field, not robots, and they are going to make mistakes. The mistakes that are occurring are happening over and over. It took several weeks to correct the communication issues in the secondary. The missed tackles keep happening over and over. The defensive tackles are losing their one-on-one matchups each and every week no matter who the opponent is. The repetition of these mistakes are signs of a lack of mental focus, preparation, coaching, and discipline of both their emotions and their techniques.
Whose responsibility is it to fix the mistakes? The players should be fixing their own mistakes. The leadership on the team should be ensuring that these mistakes go away. Then next are the position coaches, who are to teach technique and scheme. This leads to who the person truly responsible is: Joe Woods.
Joe Woods’ responsibility is to hold accountable every player and every coach under him. In successful teams, a player who is not performing to the best of their ability is sat on the bench, has their playing time reduced, is called out for their mistakes, and many other forms of being held accountable. There is no need to go to the Gregg Williams model of screaming and swearing, but the passion for winning and doing things the right way has to be present. As of right now, it is not happening, or there are no signs of it happening.
Without accountability, the players are going to sink to the level of the person putting in the least effort, and the least preparation, simply because they know they can get away with it. If Woods benches Johnson, Ward, Garrett, etc., people expected to lead this team, he sends a clear message of what the expectations are. With the coaches, it’s about who is holding their players responsible, how they are teaching, and how they are addressing the issues. That goes for the strength and conditioning coaches as well.
This is the third year of this coaching staff and not one person has been fired. Some have left, but not one coach has been fired. That means there is an accountability issue across the board. There needs to be a clear message sent to the defense and it must come from Joe Woods. If he isn’t going to hold his people accountable, then Kevin Stefanski must hold Woods accountable.
Update: Since this article was written, the Cleveland Browns have traded for Deion Jones, a linebacker previously with the Falcons. Jones should be a huge asset to the Browns’ run defense. You can read about him here.