Browns didn't just add talent to their revamped defense; They injected big-game experience at every level

The additions of Malik Jackson, John Johnson III, Anthony Walker and more give the Browns a roster full of players who have shined under the brightest of spotlights

Talk to Malik Jackson and John Johnson III, and the first thing they do is start naming names.

For Jackson, the 10-year veteran and second-oldest member of the Browns defense, it starts with players like Elvis Dumervil, Kevin Vickerson and Peyton Manning. For Johnson, the biggest headline maker of Cleveland's free agent class, it's names like Aqib Talib, Clay Matthews Jr. and Ndamukong Suh.

Both players were blessed with fantastic situations when they entered the NFL and each played in the Super Bowl in their respective second seasons. Jackson, after falling to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, capped his fourth season by scoring a touchdown and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after a victory in Super Bowl 50. Johnson, who appeared in the postseason in three of his four years with the Rams, played nearly every snap in Los Angeles' Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

Both Jackson and Johnson were young and green at the time, but their big moments were eased by all of the seasoned veterans who surrounded them. They saw how they prepared, saw how they focused and, most importantly, saw how they didn't build up the biggest of games to something that would affect their on-field performance.

"Being in the situation the first time, everyone is watching the vets," Jackson said. "It's high stakes, it can be a little bit overwhelming. But you understand the process is done throughout the week and the game is the game. It's not about being big, it's not about being great. It's just another game. It's just football."

Now, Jackson and Johnson want to be the names — the players their younger teammates point to as the shepherds of a 2021 season filled with high expectations.

"We've been to the Super Bowl and made those playoff pushes," Johnson said. "I think that will rub off on guys who have not had that opportunity."

The first opportunity comes Sunday, a season opener in Kansas City that pits the Browns against the team that knocked them out of last year's AFC playoffs. The venue is the same, most of the players on Cleveland's offense are the same, but the defense is most certainly not.

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Kansas City Chiefs

Jackson and Johnson are among the four veteran defensive free agent signings penciled in to start Sunday's showdown at Arrowhead Stadiums. Two others — Troy Hill and Takkarist McKinley — also figure to play prominent roles Sunday and beyond. All six came to Cleveland with some form of significant playoff/big-game experience — something that wasn't in high supply on the Browns' young roster the last time they faced the Chiefs.

It wasn't by accident.

"That is critical," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "Part of the free agent process, we wanted to bring some guys in who had veteran experience. If you look at John Johnson, Troy Hill, I was with Malik Jackson and Anthony Walker (Jr.), all of those guys have played in big games. You feel that comfort because you know they have that leadership, and they have been there and done that."

Jackson, Johnson, Hill, Jadeveon Clowney, Walker and McKinley come to Cleveland with a combined 33 games of postseason experience. Jackson has the most with 11, including 10 starts, and two Super Bowl appearances, while Johnson and Hill each appeared in six playoff games and one Super Bowl during their respective tenures with the Rams.

When Cleveland faced the Chiefs in last year's playoffs, just five of the defense's starters entered the postseason with playoff experience. Those players combined for 14 playoff games of experience and no Super Bowl appearances.

Now, the only projected contributors on both sides of the ball who enter the year with no significant playoff experience are the rookies.

"They're guys who have seen a lot of football and have won football games in different programs," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I think it is invaluable to bring that veteran leadership to a bunch of these young players."

That leadership is present at all three levels of the defense.

On the defensive line, there's not only Jackson and Clowney, but also perennial Pro Bowler Myles Garrett, the ultimate lead-by-example player who has grown more and more vocal during his five years with the Browns. 

At linebacker, the Browns brought in Walker, who will navigate the defense as the on-field play-caller and was revered for his leadership in Indianapolis. He joins veteran Malcolm Smith, the oldest Browns defensive player who was the MVP for Seattle in the Super Bowl that Jackson lost as a second-year player.

And at defensive back, the Browns have Johnson, who talks so much on the field he can't wear a mouthpiece, and Hill, a savvy veteran who has taken first-round rookie Greg Newsome II under his wing. Both have the poor taste of Super Bowl LIII — a game in which the Rams' defense allowed just 13 points but still lost — fresh in their mouths.

"Losing that game might have been more significant than winning," Johnson said. "You get all the way to that point and know what it takes, knowing what it takes not to have enough. It's just a testament to the professionalism of the guys on the team. You've got to stay healthy, you've got to put your best work out there every single week because you're going to get everyone's best shot. 

"I've been to the playoffs a few times but that Super Bowl year was one I can spread to the defense about how exactly we did it."

Leadership may seem like it comes naturally to players like Jackson and Johnson, and to some extent it does. But for both players, as they arrived in a brand new setting with brand new teammates, establishing themselves as leaders on this version of the Browns defense started with what the vets of their past showed them.

It's all about the work.

"I follow this line that says you can't ask of somebody else something you wouldn't do yourself," Johnson said. "I just try to go out there and be a professional, do the dirty work, put in the extra hours, show guys I'm really about my work and that comes first before I lead anyone."

Johnson and Jackson were drawn to the Browns, in part, because of what they saw in 2020: A young team with their best days ahead of them. And the Browns, in part, were drawn to how Jackson, Johnson and the other defensive signings could not only inject talent into the roster, but also guide it down a path that should feel a little more familiar this time around.

It begins Sunday in Kansas City.

"They already had a fire," Johnson said. "They made the playoffs, won a playoff game, that fire was there. Bringing in those extra guys is like gasoline just to add to that fire, be the fuel to push us over the top and create a big explosion to where we can actually do it this year."

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