BEREA, Ohio -- Here we go again.
Members of the Browns' defense are talking that talk. The declarations about showing the football world they have dynamic playmakers, a potential top-ranked unit and the ability to carry the team to the playoffs are nothing new. We heard them last year in training camp, where the boasts rolled off their tongues as routinely as sweat fell from their faces beneath an unforgiving sun.
But unlike last season, when the words rang hollow as they tried to break in as many as nine new starters, there is greater reason for optimism because every key performer returns to a unit that found its rhythm over the final two months of 2021. That continuity might not sound like a big deal, but it is significant in their minds because it means they have familiarity with not only the play calls and responsibilities, but also each other.
"You can never take for granted unity and familiarity with your teammates, with the system, with the playbook, whatever it is," said linebacker Anthony Walker, who is embarking on his second season in Cleveland after being one of those new starters last year. "As much as you say you should be able to plug-and-play this guy from this system and put him in your system, it's not the same. We had the guys who could do that, and we had flashes where we were really, really good, but we also had stretches where we were really, really bad."
The unit likely will need to be at its best from Week 1 due to the pending six-game suspension of quarterback Deshaun Watson. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods briefly addressed the matter at the start of camp, but the focus was on the expectations for the group, not who lines up under center.
"If Deshaun was playing, do we not have to play as well?" he said. "Whoever is playing, wherever we're playing, whoever we're playing has no impact on what we want to do defensively. Our standard is our standard, and we want to go out and play winning football."
A fast start would be a change from a year ago, when the Browns surrendered 33 points to the Chiefs in Week 1, then 47 to the Chargers and 37 to the Cardinals in back-to-back games a month later. They played as if they had just met for a pickup game rather than as a group that had put in long hours together during the week. Their frustration reached its zenith in mid-November in a devastating 45-7 loss to the Patriots and rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
New England gashed them for 24 points in the first half and 14 more in the fourth quarter. The Patriots kept going back to the same plays, ostensibly daring Cleveland to stop them. Afterward, All-Pro end Myles Garrett didn't limit his critique to the players, saying: "We never had a chance just because we didn't make any adjustments on the sideline or when we had time to."
While dangerous to draw a direct line between cause and effect, the fact remains that Cleveland's defense went to another level thereafter, holding four of its final seven opponents to 16 points or fewer while not allowing more than 26 in any game.
"I think it was necessary," Garrett said of his comments that afternoon. "I said what I meant and shined a spotlight on some of our weaknesses and what we needed to improve on. I'm not here to call anyone out or make anyone feel bad, but at the same time, we have a job to do, a standard to uphold. I'm trying to get the results out of my team just as much as the coaches are and the players are. I want to see everyone shine, however I can do that. I'm going to try to maximize everyone's potential, not just mine."
Said Woods: "Our process from Game 1 through Game 17 wasn't any different. We always try to adjust and address issues on the sideline as a defensive staff and then transfer it to the positions on the field. That particular game was just rough on everyone. I don't have any hard feelings for Myles. We have a great relationship. I never talked to him about it. I addressed it briefly with the team and moved on."
Woods is in a more enviable position entering his third year on the job. In 2020, Kevin Stefanski's first as head coach, the team focused its attention on offense and trying to find complementary playmakers for then-quarterback Baker Mayfield, who had been drafted No. 1 overall in 2018. The Browns signed right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper to big multiyear deals in free agency, then used the 10th pick in the draft on offensive tackle Jedrick Wills.
In 2021, Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry turned their attention to the defense. They signed ends Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley, safety John Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, tackle Malik Jackson and Walker, the linebacker, in free agency, then used a first-round pick on cornerback Greg Newsome II and a second-round selection on linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
While all talented, it took time for them to function as a unit. They were like five fingers instead of a fist.
"It's night and day where we are now versus last year," said Johnson. "We know what we're doing, we know each other. It's like we're mastering things, not being introduced to things. That continuity, especially on the back end, being with different people, it takes time to get adjusted. Now we have a grasp of the defense, a grasp of how each other plays. If we can limit the explosive plays, we can be one of the best teams in the league."
"No excuses -- that's where we are," said Newsome. "Last year, you could say there were a lot of new faces, and they're going to have to learn each other, they're going to have to jell and learn what each other likes -- like, where is my safety going to be in certain situations? This year, there are no excuses. We've had a whole year to play with each other. We've had an offseason to grow and another year of OTAs and training camp to grow. Our goal is to be the No. 1 defense, and we have to prove that every day."
McKinley, Jackson and Hill are no longer with the team, but there is talent at every level of the defense. Garrett and Clowney are among the league's top edge combinations. Walker and Owusu-Koramoah are sure-tackling linebackers, with Jacob Phillips being an X-factor if healthy. Newsome, Johnson, Greedy Williams, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison are part of a loaded secondary led by two-time Pro Bowler Denzel Ward. The Browns spent three of their first four draft picks on defensive players, but they can afford to let rookies Martin Emerson, Alex Wright and Perrion Winfrey provide depth and upside rather than leaning on them to start right away.
No wonder Woods seems to be smiling more this year. His unit is far ahead of where it was in previous seasons, which means he won't have to hold back for fear of overloading players trying to adjust to a new system and verbiage. He can build on what's already in place and be confident that everyone will be in sync if he fully opens his playbook. He can dive into the details of situational football, including short-yardage, red-zone and third-and-long scenarios.
"The great teams have continuity across the board," said Garrett. "Maybe they'll add a piece or two, but they have the foundation and chemistry pretty much already set, along with a standard that has been set. They know what to expect and what they're trying to get from everybody who comes in. That's where we're getting to at this point in time, but we're a long way away from being where we want to be. We've got a while before training camp ends, and I think we're going to need all that time."
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