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Documenting the Defense

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Browns D confident in depth as roster shuffle hits key positions

Joe Woods believes all active players will be ready for action

The Browns' defensive depth chart has already contained plenty of scribbles and X's this week as a result of injuries and positive COVID-19 tests.

Some of the changes are not what defensive coordinator Joe Woods hoped to see before the final regular season game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cornerback Denzel Ward was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, and safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo and linebacker Malcolm Smith were placed on the same list earlier in the week.

But some of them are moves Woods will welcome. Safety Ronnie Harrison Jr., who has been out since Week 12 with a shoulder injury, was activated off injured reserve. Linebacker Jacob Phillips, who missed Sunday's game after being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, was activated as well.

It's still quite a bit of shuffling, but Woods is confident his defense is well-equipped for any combination of personnel.

"Throughout the whole year we have been playing multiple guys," he said, "so I feel like we are ready for this and I think guys will step up and we will be fine."

The last six days for the Browns defense have been among the most challenging stretches of the season.

It started Saturday, when the team announced that Phillips and linebacker B.J. Goodson were going to be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and were unable to play Week 16 against the Jets. 

Then, the Browns lost 23-16 and missed an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. The defense allowed three touchdowns, all through the air, and struggled to prevent the Jets from making big plays. Goodson, who has carried the earpiece connected to Woods in his helmet and has relayed plays to the defense all season, was not with them, but Woods said his players were prepared to play without him. The execution needed to be better.

"It's disappointing," Woods said. "Obviously, I'm not going to make excuses for failure to execute, but I showed those plays to the defense and it is just fundamentally we have to be better. That's on the players, that's on me as the coordinator, and on the coaches getting the technique right. Very simple mistakes that we can easily correct."

Those corrections will have to be made before Sunday's regular season finale against the Steelers, who scored 38 points against the Browns in Week 6. The Steelers will have different personnel in at least two key positions, though — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey are expected to sit out as Pittsburgh rests its top veterans for the playoffs

But the Browns defense still will be going full throttle. The roster fluctuations certainly aren't ideal, but Woods believes his defense will still be just as prepared, no matter who is able to play.

"I just try to steer them in a direction of just playing to the best football they can at their position," he said.

The Browns defense has utilized different combinations in practice all season in preparation for scenarios like this.

When Ward was injured and absent from Weeks 12-14, the Browns received contributions from Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson, who has primarily played as a slot cornerback this season but is capable of playing on the outside in any capacity. That duo likely will be asked again to step up and make plays Sunday against the Steelers.

Nearly all Browns linebackers have spent the season practicing in multiple positions in case of injury, too. With Goodson and Smith currently inactive and Sione Takitaki and Tae Davis battling injuries, that preparation could become integral.

At the safety position, second-year safety Sheldrick Redwine has shown spurts of solid play in flashes of playing time this season. His role could grow in Week 17 as the Browns await news on the status of Joseph, and Harrison — who has become one of the Browns' top safeties after being acquired via trade before the season — continues to progress his workload in practice.

"We'll be fine," Woods said. "All the guys have played, that is the good thing, and they all have experience. We may not have a lot of depth, but I am confident in the guys that are going to play."

The Browns are ready to roll with whoever will be active. After 16 weeks of the regular season and a long year full of unique challenges toward building the defense, Woods is full of confidence that the Browns have a chance to win with whoever is out there.

"The focus is really just go out and do your job and play to the best of your ability," he said, "and whatever happens will happen."

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers

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