Browns defense's resurgence ignited by a relentless D-line

After four games, the Browns rank second in the NFL in total defense, third in rush defense and fifth in pass defense

When Kevin Stefanski was asked about the transformation his defense has taken in the last two weeks, he highlighted one position group in particular.

"I think there are probably a bunch of answers to that," Stefanski said in his Monday Zoom call with local reporters after the Browns' 14-7 win over the Vikings. "I would just tell you in terms of jelling, one of the main things I would (point out) is up front."

"Up front" is the big men on the line of scrimmage. Myles Garrett. Jadeveon Clowney. Takkarist McKinley. Malik Jackson. Malik McDowell. They combined for seven quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks Sunday against the Vikings. 

Those numbers are good considering the Vikings entered the game with only five sacks allowed and the eight-best offense in the NFL, but they still don't come close to showing how much the group has done to surge the Browns defense from middle-of-the-pack to the top of the league in the span of 14 days. 

"I thought those guys provided consistent pressure, whether we were rushing four, five or six, and even at the end of the game — we rushed three and we got pressure," Stefanski said. "That was an outstanding job by those guys."

Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Vikings yesterday by the Browns photo team

After four games, the Browns rank second in the NFL in total defense, third in rush defense and fifth in pass defense. The 266 rushing yards are the fewest the team has ever allowed in the first four weeks of a season, and no Browns defense has held opponents to single-digit scores in consecutive games since 1995.

Those numbers are even more impressive considering how the Browns started the season. They allowed 33 points to the Chiefs in Week 1, 21 points to the Texans in Week 2 and appeared to be under-performing based on the goals the group had when it arrived in training camp with one of the most rejuvenated rosters in the NFL.

Now, the group is living up to the hype as one of the best defenses in the league. That's because the D-Line has throttled opposing linemen in trench battles for the last two weeks. 

The Browns recorded nine sacks against the Bears in Week 3, which was their most in a game since 2015. In Week 4, Pro Bowl RB Dalvin Cook was limited to just 34 yards on nine carries — he left in the middle of the game due to an injury but returned in the second half — and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. They might not have put up the same eye-popping sack totals in Week 4 as they did in Week 3, but their pressure certainly affected the Vikings game plans.

Head coach Mike Zimmer admitted it early in his postgame press conference.

"I thought they did a really good job of pressuring us today," he said. "They didn't allow us to get the run game going very well, so that played a part into it, as well."

The D-Line is confident it can sustain that success the rest of the season. The presence of Garrett, who matched his 2019 total and franchise-record of six sacks through four games, is an obvious reason why, but the rest of his defensive line teammates are surging upward, too.

Jackson led all Browns defenders with two passes defensed Sunday. McDowell, one of the best stories from training camp, has plugged the middle and has been a major reason why the Browns have been so stout against the run. McKinley has registered 1.5 sacks in the last two games, while Clowney has two (both from Week 3) and has amassed eight quarterback pressures already, just two lower than his 2020 total when he played in nine games.

"I think it's us just growing," Jackson said. "The first few weeks we had to take time and learn from each other, understand how we want to do it and what we personally want to look like for each other in all these different games. 

"Once we learned that, now you're starting to see the product of us jelling and getting to the quarterback."

Their success has allowed the rest of the defense to flourish. A speedy pass rush will force a quarterback to speed up his timing and be more likely to make a mistake, and there have been plenty of examples of the Browns doing just that in their last two games.

The Bears were held to just one net passing yard, the lowest the Browns ever recorded against an opponent in franchise history. Cousins, meanwhile, only completed 20 pass attempts and 203 passing yards, both his lowest totals of the season. 

"(It makes our job) a lot easier," safety John Johnson III said. "We definitely felt it. We don't have to cover for long. I felt like we had pretty good coverage all game long, but just watching that tape just now, we see guys just mauling people off of the ball. We're in the backfield and offensive linemen are on the ground. It's just awesome."

The Browns bet on themselves after Week 3 to prove their one game of dominance wasn't a fluke. They knew they needed time to mesh, and once they did, it would be obvious.

Well, it's obvious now. The Browns defense is capable of bringing a weekly thrashing to an opponent each week, and no area of the defense has made that apparent more than the D-Line.

"I think we showed a lot," Garrett said. "We're hoping we can make this a trend."

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