There are Cleveland Browns fans who blame their team’s defense for 2021’s subpar won-loss record.
This is despite the fact that Joe Woods’ unit gave up the 2nd-fewest yards per play in the NFL.
Their season-opening game versus Kansas City turned out to be a microcosm of their season.
First sack for #Browns comes without Myles Garrett on field. Joe Jackson swallows Patrick Mahomes on 2nd down. Pivotal play that eventually results in Chiefs field goal.
Huge stand for Joe Woods' defense. Browns lead 22-20 nearing 4th quarter.
— Ellis L. Williams (@BookofEllis) September 12, 2021
Cleveland gave up 4 touchdowns and a field goal to Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs.
But they also had 3 important stops, none of which were followed by scores.
The defense gave up a late 75-yard touchdown that took the life out of the offense.
Browns punt blocking on this play was excellent. He could have got that punt off still. Jamie Gillan just panicked.pic.twitter.com/G87L5cUdjZ
— Tim 🤙 (@optimusfb) September 12, 2021
But it was a fumbled punt snap on the subsequent 3-and-out that let the Chiefs take the lead for the first time.
And 2 more chances around the defense’s final stop resulted in another 3-and-out and a game-ending interception.
So which unit is at fault for the loss: the offense that faltered in the clutch or the defense that yielded 33 points?
The Convoluted Tale of the Tape
Before deciding who is more responsible for the Browns’ 8-9 record last year, let’s look at more stats.
Despite the low yards-per-play, Cleveland allowed a mediocre 22 points per game, good for 14th-best.
Some things that might create the yards-versus-points discrepancy include penalties and takeaways.
Cleveland finished in the middle of the pack (#15) with 98 defensive penalties.
#Browns Myles Garrett is excited about Cleveland signing Jadeveon Clowney. Together they teamed up with 52 QB hits last season. 🥊
— NFL Rumors (@nflrums) May 23, 2022
But those penalties yielded the 11th most first downs to the opposition, indicating short-yardage or late downs tendencies.
And Cleveland’s defense took the ball away only 19 times all season, tied for 21st in the league.
But their pressure rate (#17) and hurry percentage (#22) were unimpressive.
To improve in 2022, the defense needs to get more pressure, more turnovers, and fewer late-down penalties.
What Changes In 2022?
Cleveland’s defense enters the third season of Joe Woods’ system.
With the majority of last season’s starters returning, there should be a chance for some growth and flexibility.
But the team turned over quite a few rotational players, especially on the front line.
Besides the penalties, Cleveland racked up the 10th most missed tackles in the league last season.
Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas combined for 14 sacks for @OU_Football last season…
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 5, 2022
With half the line rotation replaced, we’ll soon see if that was more of a player issue or a coaching problem.
None of the new veterans, with the possible exception of Chase Winovich, is expected to add many sacks.
And it could be that the Browns roll the dice on their rookie draft class to get after the quarterback.
But rookies don’t often improve a team’s penalty or missed tackle counts, so we see the choice Woods faces.
Even with the return of key veterans, the Browns’ young defense could still have some aggravating moments.
Fair Expectations For 2022
There is one other stat that could push Cleveland’s defense to new heights in 2022.
Last season, the Browns’ defense gave up the NFL’s second-worst 9.4 points in the 4th quarter of away games.
While the defense was respectable at home, the 4th quarter offense was miserable where ever the team played.
Kevin Stefanski’s revamped offense in the hands of Deshaun Watson could be the Browns’ best defensive tool.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 12, 2021
Just one or two additional 4th-quarter first downs can keep the defense off the field late in a game.
And fans won’t mind watching the offense nurse a lead any less than watching the defense defend it.
That makes us optimistic about the turnover numbers, and hopeful about quarterback pressure.
And it is a fair expectation Cleveland lops 2 points/game off their scoring average and is a top-10 defense in 2022.