Browns defense most upgraded among AFC North competition

We've heard it all before: The Cleveland Browns always win the offseason! But this year the defense has added so much talent that it is difficult for even the most cynical among us to ignore.
Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout
Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout / Nick Cammett/GettyImages
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The AFC North has traditionally been known for tough defense, but the Cleveland Browns defense gave up a division-worst 381 points in 2022. The Steelers were next worst with 346 points allowed. The Bengals were respectable with 322 points allowed, and the Ravens had the best total with 315 points allowed.

We could probably argue that the Bengals were helped by their monstrously good Joe Burrow-led offense, which posted 418 points last season while controlling the ball and denying opposing offenses a favorable field position.

Complementary football is real and ball-control offense really does help the defense. Thus, the margin between the Ravens and Bengals was probably a little wider than the points allowed margin would suggest. For their part, the Browns actually outscored the Ravens and Steelers: 361 points for the Browns, 350 for the Ravens, and a pathetic 308 points for Steelers. That would imply that the Browns defense really was as bad as the numbers suggest.

Let’s start by analyzing that 2022 defensive Browns squad and see how they have changed for 2023. Then we can compare them to the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers.

The 2022 Browns had Major Holes on Defense

The 2022 Cleveland Browns fielded a defense with two defensive tackles who were ranked lower than most teams’ second-string players. You can use Pro Football Focus or Madden or whatever system you like, but it was generally obvious that the Browns got pushed around a lot at defensive tackle. They gave up 4.7 yards per carry on the season and a total of 2295 yards on the ground. Taking the top four guys from each position group, they looked like this:

DE: Garrett, Clowney, Winovich, Wright
DT Bryan, Winfrey, Elliott, Togiai
LB Owusu-Koramoah, Takitaki, Jones, Walker
CB Emerson, Newsome, Ward, Ford
S JohnsonIII, Delpit, Harrison, Bell

Myles Garrett is ranked in the Top 5 among defensive ends. Clowney was graded top 30 by PFF, but for a starting right defensive end to generate only two sacks while never being double-teamed, sad to say, has to rank among the weakest performances in the NFL.

Cleveland paraded several undersized linemen at defensive tackle and yet none of them were in the top 64 (i.e., the nominal group of first-string NFL players at that position). However, since-departed Taven Bryan did generate a whopping 3.0 sacks last season, good for second place on the team. This was so impressive that the Haslams were rumored to be considering sponsoring a ticker tape parade in his honor at the end of the season. It's not that Bryan was so good, but the others were so bad.

At linebacker, everyone wound up on IR, possibly because the Browns linemen consisted of Myles Garrett and a bunch of Matadors. The Matadors were quick to spin out of the way to allow oncoming offensive linemen to impale Browns linebackers with their horns, so no wonder the linebackers wound up injured.

The linebacking corps actually had excellent depth, one through six, but only Tony Fields survived the season. By the last game of the season, Fields, Reggie Ragland, and Jermaine Carter were the starters. It got so bad that there was talk that Clay Matthews might have to come out of retirement to fill in.

Adding to their problems was regression by Denzel Ward, the highest-paid third corner in the NFL. They say there's no gambling allowed in the NFL, yet Ward seemed to be gambling on far too many plays, attempting to generate high-risk interceptions. It usually didn't work. Was this a feature of the 2022 coaching staff, or was Ward guilty of too much freelancing?

The Browns didn't have a true free safety on the roster in 2022. Instead, they asked strong/box safety John Johnson III to play free safety and the result was a gutty performance, but the results were commensurate with second-string performance. It was not fair to the player or the team.

So what has happened to make us believe 2023 will be any different?