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Browns defense aims for better results on 3rd downs

The defense is focusing on 3rd-down improvements as one way to take a big step forward

When Kevin Stefanski was asked Wednesday which area of the Browns defense needed to improve most following two inconsistent performances to start the season, he didn't need much time to think of one specific topic at the root of the unit's problems.

"You have to get off the field on third down," Stefanski said. "Third down is a really important down. It's really important that we get the offense into some non-advantageous third down distances, and then get off of the field and force the punt."

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods echoed that sentiment Thursday. 

The Browns have allowed opposing offenses to convert on 63 percent of third-down attempts this season, which ranks last in the NFL. That's far behind where they hoped to be after overhauling their defense with numerous veteran free agents and a few bright draft picks this offseason.

Woods pointed to one 16-play drive from last Sunday in particular that symbolized the third-down struggles. The Browns allowed the Texans to convert on five third-downs in that sequence, including a third-and-13. The drive ended with a touchdown and slimmed the Browns' lead to 24-21 in their eventual 31-21 win.

"You look at each one of them, and if we play a little bit better, we're off the field," Woods said. "It's what happened. It's on tape. You have to fix it."

That's what the Browns have worked to accomplish this week as they prepare for their Week 3 battle against the Chicago Bears. Third-down success is one of many things the Browns are looking to improve after allowing 699 yards, 19th-most in the NFL, through their first two games, and they believe that as their defense continues to get better, so will their ability to get off the field on a down that matters most.

"It's progressing," Woods said. "It's the NFL so they are not going to wait for us. We're working hard to get better in areas that we are not playing well right now. That was the emphasis we have had all week. It really comes down to all of us just really playing together as a unit.

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Chicago Bears

Improvements are certainly on the way. 

DEs Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, for example, are leading a pass rush that ranks fifth in the NFL with a 56 percent pass rush win rate, according to ESPN. But the group has only totaled three sacks so far — with just one coming from Garrett. More sacks are coming, and it's a safe bet a chunk of those will come on third down.

The group also has yet to play a full game at full strength following the ejection of S Ronnie Harrison Jr. five plays into their first game, while LB Anthony Walker Jr. missed all of Week 2 with a hamstring injury and will miss at least the next two games after being placed on Injured Reserve. Both players are key catalysts for Woods' coveted dime package — Harrison is one of three safeties needed to fulfill the six defensive backs needed to complete the formation, while Walker would be the lone linebacker, one who's capable of making plays in pass coverage and serving as a reliable tackler.

The Browns haven't been able to fulfill that scheme to its fullest potential yet. When they can, it likely will be among Woods' favorite third-down formations. The dime formation is supposed to keep offenses guessing and provide the defense with plenty of playmakers who excel in pass coverage.

"The possibilities are endless," safety John Johnson III said Thursday about the formation. "Hopefully each team presents a different opportunity for us to go out there and mix it up." 

The main solution for third downs, however, will come as the defense continues to build its on-field chemistry. Those characteristics weren't expected to be perfect after just two games, but the Browns have been committed to learning from their mistakes and showing strides each week.

Not every play has gone the Browns' way, but Woods has still seen progress made.

"There are moments where guys execute, we're making plays and we're doing what we're supposed to do," he said. "We're doing it. You see it. We just need to do it more often and better."

That trend has to continue, and the third-down conversion rate is one way to monitor it.

The Browns are committed to getting it lower, and they know they must do it soon to fulfill the vision the defense created when it completed its offseason overhaul.

"You just have to understand the situation," Johnson said. "I think we really just have to lock in on what the team is trying to do to attack us that specific weekend. I think as we move on we will get better with that and I think we ultimately will be great at that."