This is not the same old Browns.
All it takes is one series to see that Cleveland has vastly improved from the team that went 0-16 a year ago.
In fact, their 2-2-1 record isn’t even indicative of how well they’ve played thus far as they easily could be 5-0.
“They’re a few plays away from having won them all this year,” Philip Rivers said. “They probably feel they should have. (They’ve) certainly had the opportunity to win them all, so it will be a heck of a challenge for us.”
Rivers left last year’s game against the Browns impressed by their defense, so he isn’t surprised to see them take it to the next level in their second year in Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams’ system
“I just remember last year leaving the game thinking it was a heck of a group, really,” he said. “They’re even healthier than they were then, and they’ve added some pieces…Obviously, I think the longer they’re in that scheme together with Gregg Williams, the better they’re going to be because he’s very multiple and does a ton of different things. (He) never lets you get comfortable. If you can keep a group together defensively, then the better and better they’re going to get at doing it, and that seems to have shown up this year.”
Rivers isn’t alone in lauding the Browns defense as both Head Coach Anthony Lynn and Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt stressed how it’s become a force to be reckoned with.
“Cleveland is a good football team,” Lynn said. “Very good, young football team. We knew they were good last year when we played them. We struggled to get points on the board against that defense. So it's going to be a dog fight.”
“We've played them for the last two years,” added Whiz. “This will be the third time in three years, (and) they've just gotten a lot better. They've got a scheme there that's very complex. Coach Williams does a great job with that. And you can obviously see that he's had some guys that have been there now for a couple of years that are getting it. They have some talented players (and a) pretty good defense.”
A key factor to the Browns’ success this season has been the play from their opportunistic defense. Their 15 takeaways are by far the most in the NFL, four more than the next closest team, as they’ve recorded eight interceptions and seven fumble recoveries.
Meanwhile, the Browns’ 14 sacks are among the most in the league, led by Myles Garrett whose 5.0 sacks are ranked fifth. They are also pressuring the quarterback at an alarming rate as Whisenhunt noted their pass rush numbers are “through the roof.”
A big reason for their success is the complex, detailed system put in place by Williams.
“He has a huge play book,” Lynn said. “You never know what defense you're going to get from Gregg. It's like a rolodex, and they're very good in their execution.”
It also helps to have the weapons they have on defense.
“Jamie Collins, I thought at one time he was one of the better linebackers in the game in New England,” Lynn said. “So he's still there. He's still a young player. (Jabrill) Peppers in the back. I liked him coming out of school. Myles Garrett, you know, he has (five) sacks already. So, he's got a lot of tools.”
Then there’s Denzel Ward.
As good as Derwin James has been for the Bolts, Cleveland’s first-round pick has been equally impactful as the cornerback leads the league in interceptions (three). He also ranks seventh with six passes defensed, which is only one less than the league leaders as six players have seven. In addition, according to Pro Football Focus, Ward ranks second in coverage (83.1) among all cornerbacks to play at least 100 snaps.
With a ballhawk-like Ward leading the most opportunistic defense in the game, Lynn stressed how the team must continue to take care of the football.
“We haven't given it away, so we have to keep doing what we're doing (securing the ball),” he explained. “That speaks to the toughness of the football team when we go in there. How we protect in the crowd (and) how we hold up. How we respond. They're going to make some plays (on defense), but we've taken care of the football (so far).”