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Browns defense confident better performances are ahead

The Browns’ new-look defense hopes to take another step forward to a fully-finished product Sunday against the Bears and rookie QB Justin Fields

Myles Garrett admitted Sunday after the Browns' 31-21 win over the Texans that the defense was still working through kinks following an offseason full of big changes at nearly every position.

"It's tough to get that chemistry right away," said Garrett, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end and outspoken leader of the defense. "It's cleaning up every time we play and every time we step on the practice field. I'm really looking forward to when we click and start to get after guys."

The Browns are confident that's coming soon.

It's not surprising the defense might need more than two games to reach their fullest potential. In Week 1, the Browns allowed 33 points, 23 of which were scored in the second half, to the Chiefs. In Week 2, they struggled to contain Texans QB Tyrod Taylor, who was 10-for-11 for 125 yards and a touchdown before exiting the game for good at halftime with a hamstring injury.

The Browns are carrying three guys — Garrett, CB Denzel Ward and S Ronnie Harrison Jr. — who were starting players carried over from the 2020 season. They always knew time was needed for their new-look defense to click even though plenty of proven veterans were added in DE Jadeveon Clowney, S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill and LB Anthony Walker Jr.

The group needed experience together — experience that went beyond the practice fields.

"I mean, you want to be a finished product tomorrow," 10-year veteran LB Malcolm Smith said. "You want to click right now. It takes 11 guys to do it. We just have to execute. We have to play the techniques perfectly. If we get beat on something we didn't plan on … then that's the stuff where you get up and you play it again. 

"But the stuff that we know that we need to do, we need to get it right. That's what we'll continue to work on. That's how you become a great team, and you can win for a really long time doing that."

The group also has yet to play all its starting top starting pieces for an extended portion of its first two games.

S Ronnie Harrison Jr. was ejected five snaps into Week 1 after an altercation with a Chiefs coach. Walker, meanwhile, was ruled out of Week 2 with a hamstring injury. Walker is a reliable cog at linebacker and held the vital role of relaying play calls to the rest of the defense. Harrison is a key piece of defensive coordinator Joe Woods' dime scheme, which needs three talented safeties to operate efficiently.

The benefits of that formation were on display Sunday, when second-year safety Grant Delpit recorded his first career sack and finished with five tackles in his NFL debut. Delpit, who played 26 snaps in his debut and was primarily used as the third safety to complete the formation, missed all of his rookie season with an Achilles injury, but his strong Week 2 performance was one promising sign that improvements within the defense are ahead.

"We have a lot of calls where we open up and play dime package," Delpit said. "With three safeties on the field, there is a lot of speed, so it allows us to do some more things. Any call, we should feel comfortable with the personnel out there, but it's a good package."

Then, there's the pass rush, which could be perhaps the biggest strength of the Browns' defense. The unit has recorded three sacks so far but ranks fifth in the NFL with a 56 percent pass rush win rate, according to ESPN. 

As the overall defense improves and pass coverage tightens, the sacks only figure to increase.

"We want to make sure we're playing good, sound defensive football," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We've done that at a bunch of moments, and there's some moments we have to clean up. We recognize that and the players and coaches are working hard to make sure we get better as the season goes on."

The defense will have a new challenge in Week 3 against the Bears, who announced Wednesday that first-round rookie QB Justin Fields will make his first career start at FirstEnergy Stadium. Fields has only been used in relief of QB Andy Dalton through two games and started the year 8-of-15 for 70 yards and one interception in addition to 11 rushes for 35 yards and one touchdown.

It's a change of pace from the veterans the defense saw in their first two games in Patrick Mahomes and Taylor, and they're expecting the Bears to use Fields in ways they haven't revealed yet through two games.

"(He's) dynamic," Stefanski said. "He made plays with his arm. There's no shortage of things they can do with him, and I'm sure that after a full week of practice, they can expand on that."

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