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Browns defense looks to build from improved performance in Week 7

The defense turned in their best outing of the season Sunday in Baltimore, and another strong showing is much-needed again in Week 8


It might not seem like it after a fourth consecutive loss, but the Browns defense took several big strides toward improvement Sunday against the Ravens.

QB Lamar Jackson was contained. All-Pro TE Mark Andrews was completely eliminated in the pass game. The run game was mostly bottled up, too. Cleveland held Baltimore to a season-low 254 total offensive yards, which by all means qualified as the defense's best performance this season.

The game was exactly what the defense needed after a sluggish start that saw them drop to 31st in the league in points allowed per game. The Browns had struggled to contain both the run and the pass in the previous six games, but those trends came to a temporary — and hopefully, permanent — halt in Baltimore.

"After watching the tape, I felt like we did a great job of containing some of those superstar weapons, Lamar (No.) 89 ( Andrews)," LB Sione Takitaki said Monday. "But it's kind of one of those things where we did a great job, but we have to do a little bit more to get that W."

Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Ravens by the Browns photo team

The most telling stat of how well the defense played is perhaps best told by Andrew's stat line.

It's empty — literally. Andrews, a two-time Pro Bowler who entered Week 7 tied with Kansas City's Travis Kelce for the most receiving yards among tight ends this season, was held without a single catch for the first time in his career since 2018. He was targeted twice, and his only production on the day came on a 4-yard rushing play. 

The credit belongs to the linebackers — Jacob Phillips, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Sione Takitaki and the newly-acquired Deion Jones — as well as the safeties for keeping Andrews under wraps. Without Andrews, Jackson struggled to find other open receivers, leading to a season-low nine completions on 16 attempts.

"We know he's one of Lamar's favorite targets," S Grant Delpit said. "Just try to take him away, if anything. Just key on him and know they're trying to give him the ball."

The defense also created a turnover in the final minutes to give the Browns a chance to win, which is the type of timely play they've been searching for all season.

Owusu-Koramoah punched the ball loose from Ravens RB Justice Hill with three minutes left when Baltimore advanced down to Cleveland's 24-yard line. The strip was his second this season and fourth of his career and would've been highlighted as a more important play if the Browns managed to find the end zone or kick a field goal on the next drive.

The offense did both, but an offensive pass interference penalty on Amari Cooper brought back what would've been a 34-yard touchdown, and a false start called on the Browns turned a 56-yard field goal attempt into a 60-yard attempt from Cade York that was blocked.

"It's frustrating," Takitaki said. "I know we did some great things out there. We just have to find a way to finish."

The defense moved ever-so slightly from No. 31 to No. 28 in the league in points allowed, and they'll have to continue to make strides without one of the aforementioned linebackers.

Phillips, a third-year veteran, suffered a pectoral injury that will likely end his season. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said the injury happened when Phillips was attempting a tackle near the sideline. He tied for the team-lead with seven tackles Sunday and is the Browns' leader with 46 this season.

It's a tough blow for the defense and Phillips, who also missed all but four games last season due to a biceps injury he suffered in training camp.

"I feel for all of our guys when they are going through these," Stefanski said. "It's not fun to be hurt. It's not fun to be in the training room. It's not fun to go get surgery. It's not fun to go get surgery. Unfortunately, Jacob has had to do that. I know this, he responds when he has to do this. He works like crazy. I know he will work like crazy to get back out there."

Fortunately, the Browns should be set at middle linebacker depth after a decent debut from Jones, a seventh-year veteran whom the Browns acquired from the Falcons on Oct. 10. Jones totaled five tackles, including one for a loss, in 33 snaps (52 percent).

"He's a good veteran linebacker for us," Stefanski said. "He hasn't played football in a little while, so I think it was just natural that he's playing himself into – he's in good shape – football shape, if you will, just because of when you haven't played in a while and you are thrust out there. I think he will only get better because of that. Has a very good understanding of what we are doing. We will see how the role carves out as we move forward."

So how can the defense build from Sunday? There are a few glaring areas of improvement.

The first is third-downs. The Browns allowed the Ravens to go 7-for-15 in that area, and they maintained possession for nearly 10 minutes longer than Cleveland.

They could also still use more takeaways. Owusu-Koramoah's play was huge, but it was only the sixth steal the Browns have had this season. They're tied for 26th in the league in that category.

The Browns will need to improve in those areas ahead of Monday night's battle against the Bengals and QB Joe Burrow, who has thrown 12 touchdowns and one interception in the last five games. Cincinnati has won four of them.

More strides and needed, but after a rough start, the defense at least has a performance they can build from.

"Nobody likes losing," Delpit said. "You build off of everything. Games have been really close. We lose four games by what, three points? And so, we've got to do better."