The Cleveland Browns got just about everything they could have wanted from the offense during the 2020 season. Cleveland finished the year, 11th in yards per drive, 12th in points per drive, and ninth in offensive DVOA.

That offensive production helped carry a defense that ranked 22nd in yards per drive, 23rd in points per drive, and 25th in defensive DVOA to 11 wins and a playoff berth.

With so much of the offense returning for the second year under Kevin Stefanski, the focus turned to improving the defensive side of the ball. That was clear throughout the offseason from free agency to the draft. The Browns added significant talent in safety John Johnson and slot corner Troy Hill, both from the Los Angeles Rams, in free agency. Then Cleveland’s first two picks in the draft came on defense with cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

How good can the Browns defense be in 2021?

It’s hard to overstate the talent upgrade, especially at safety — a position that has been key to constructing a modern defense to combat the offensive innovation spreading around the league. Last year, Andrew Sendejo led Cleveland safeties with 85% of the defensive snaps played. Karl Joseph was second with 61.2% and Ronnie Harrison, acquired in a midseason trade, was third at 30.2%.

This year, that position will feature Johnson, Harrison, and last year’s second-round pick Grant Delpit, who suffered a torn Achilles in offseason workouts last season. That clear improvement opens up the playbook for what defensive coordinator Joe Woods can call. Woods, the former secondary coach for the San Francisco 49ers under Robert Saleh, has already alluded to how he would like to get more defensive backs on the field.

In an interview on the team’s YouTube page, Woods called out how the safeties can change the structure of the defense:

“The thing with having those three guys, I’m used to running a lot of dime. In the past where I was at, we ran over 400 snaps of dime a year. Last year, we only ran 16 snaps. So you can see the impact we could have and it’s really about putting more speed on the field, about creating matchups where you feel like you have the advantage. It’ll work out once we get them all together in terms of where they’re at, but I feel like all those guys have the versatility to play either safety position or the dime.”

Getting The Most Out Of The Secondary

That versatility was big for when the Browns were at their best in the secondary during the 2020 season. There were flashes of pre- and post-snap rotations from the safeties that could hint toward the potential of the defense in 2021. Those jumped out on two interceptions of Philip Rivers in Week 5.

On the first, the Browns came out in a two-high look before Harrison (33) crept down to the box. Harrison controlled the flat, broke on a late throw on a mesh concept to T.Y Hilton, and returned the interception for a touchdown.

The second came on one of those rare snaps in dime personnel. The Browns again came out in a two-high look but after the snap
Sheldrick Redwine (29) rotated down. Rivers avoided early pressure but as he stepped up in the pocket and believed tight end Mo Alie-Cox (81) had a step on Terrance Mitchell (39), Redwine was able to jump in front of the pass for an interception.

Woods should feel more comfortable calling these types of rotations without the fear of getting burned. There is more depth at corner with the additions of Hill and Newsome to go along with
Denzel Ward and a potentially healthy Greedy Williams. That should give even more freedom for the safeties.

Johnson, the biggest addition, was a key piece to the Rams’ defense in 2020, one that ranked fourth in defensive DVOA. His versatility allowed the Rams to play dime on a quarter of the defensive snaps (eighth-most in the league) and run a number of three-safety looks. Johnson didn’t come off the field (100% of the snaps played) and called the plays for Brandon Staley’s defense. Woods said they would consider using Johnson as the primary playcaller on the defense, but during training camp Johnson told reporters linebacker Anthony Walker will have those responsibilities.

What makes the talent addition even more appealing is how those players fit with what Woods wanted to do on defense last season, but couldn’t consistently pull off. But even given that, there is still a lot to like about what Cleveland did on defense last season.

Per Sports Info Solutions, the Browns ranked eighth in EPA per play allowed against the pass on first and second down. That dropped to 21st on third downs. Part of Cleveland’s problems stemmed from big plays. Only early downs, the Browns were one of the best defenses at preventing big plays but were one of the worst at creating their own. On third downs, the Browns struggled to stop the big play.

The table below shows where Cleveland’s defense ranked in positive play rate (percentage of plays that produced positive EPA), Boom% (percentage of plays that produced over 1 EPA), and Bust% (percentage of plays that produced less than -1 EPA). On the defensive side of the ball, the goal would be to have low positive play and Boom rates with a high Bust rate.

Browns Defense Splits, 2020

DownPositive Play % (rk)Boom % (rk)Bust % (rk)
Early48.6% (13)15.8% (8)6.6% (23)
Third41.6% (16)36.0% (21)33.5% (17)

Defensive performance is less stable than offense from year-to-year and among the most unstable of those metrics are big plays and third downs. Given that Cleveland played fairly well on early downs, especially with the talent at hand, there should be some optimism about what the unit could accomplish in 2021 with better players available.

Much of that comes from Woods’s desire to play Quarters coverage. No team had more pass snaps in Cover 4 than the Browns in 2020, who edged Woods’s former team, the 49ers. Nine teams faced at least 100 pass attempts in Cover 4 last season and the Browns ranked fourth among them in EPA per play allowed. The three teams ahead of them were some of the best pass defenses in the league: the Washington Football Team, Los Angeles Rams, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Cleveland had another interesting big play split on deep passes against quarters coverage. 17 teams saw at least 10 deep passing attempts against Cover 4 in 2020. The Browns had the fifth-best positive play percentage but they were just one of two teams (along with the Las Vegas Raiders) to not create a big play the other way with zero “Bust” plays.

With the overhaul of the secondary and a few additions to the pass rush that provide Myles Garrett with meaningful complementary rushers, the Browns should have the ability to play a little more aggressively and turn those successful plays into big ones.

The foundation of a solid defense was in place for Cleveland last season, but the talent wasn’t consistently there to execute. The Browns made sure talent wouldn’t be an issue for 2021. With everything in place, Cleveland’s defense could be another reason the team wins games instead of a unit the Browns’ own offense has to overcome.