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Browns Mailbag: What can be expected from a healthier Browns defense?

It's another home game week in Cleveland, and we're answering three of your questions to carry us into the Week 3 weekend.

What impact will returning players Greedy Williams, Mack Wilson, and Kevin Johnson have on our overall defense? — Brooks P., Cincinnati

It's a big one, though let's not get ahead of ourselves with this upcoming weekend. The Browns will make decisions on each player closer to game time and will do it in the best interest of each player's long-term health. We'll find out soon enough, and it was encouraging to see Johnson get upgraded to "full participant" status at Thursday's practice. Wilson and Williams, meanwhile, continued to be limited.

As for their impact, it's significant. No question about it. All three players are slotted as first-team players, when healthy, on the team's depth chart. And while the Browns have made no excuses about the missing players, it's certainly hard to ignore, especially at positions like linebacker, where the Browns were already young and light on experience before Wilson's injury. The secondary, too, could simply use a few more bodies in the wake of last week's game, when the starting cornerbacks and safeties were on the field for just about every one of the 88 plays Cincinnati ran.

Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods on Thursday hesitated to call it a "sense of relief" that he'd soon have a healthier group at his disposal. He did, however, acknowledge the potential impact.

"I just feel like you are getting back to where you have more bullets," Woods said. "There are more things we can do. We can be more versatile and create some different packages that we want to create. I think that is the biggest boost. For the guys that have been playing, I think now they are gaining confidence. They are out there on the game field. They are making some plays. 

"Overall for the whole defense, it gives us more depth and more confidence at each position."

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Washington Football Team

Why is Hollywood Higgins not getting more playing time? He's a good receiver. — Bryan S., Canton

Through two games, KhaDarel Hodge has assumed the role as the team's third wide receiver — playing a little more than half of the snaps in each of the first two games — and the Browns have rarely deployed more than that. Higgins played 16 snaps in the opener, when Cleveland threw the ball more than it ran, and five snaps against the Bengals, when the ground game took over in the second half. 

Hodge, whom the Browns acquired via waivers before the start of the season, had an impressive training camp and has already made a handful of plays, including a 26-yard catch on Cleveland's opening drive last week against the Bengals. He's also an ace on special teams and a physical player who has helped pave the way for RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to pick up big gains on the ground.

Asked if Hodge had won his role because of his blocking ability, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said it went beyond one facet of his game. Wide receivers coach/pass game coordinator Chad O'Shea indicated in August that Hodge was poised to play a significant role this season.

"KhaDarel Hodge is somebody that I have been extremely impressed with," O'Shea said. "I have a great deal of respect for the way he plays the game. The one thing that he has done is he has given himself an opportunity to play multiple positions because he studies hard and he knows what to do. He is very good mentally. Whenever you are a player that is trying to compete for a role on the roster that is a down-the-line receiver, I think it is very important that you can function in a multiple-position role and add value to the team in several different ways."

The AFC North is one of the best divisions in the NFL. The Steelers identity is physical defense that puts key players out of games and explosive passing attack of Big Ben. The Ravens identity is the speed of Lamar Jackson and a slew of good running backs. The Browns are building their identity around ball control with a great rushing game with potential big plays from Beckham and an entertaining defensive line. How can they put the game away early? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

The formula is simple: Do what you did the previous week against the Bengals — with some exceptions.

The Browns never trailed after their first offensive possession against the Bengals, and repeating that formula becomes even more important this week against a Washington defense you don't want to face with a deficit. There's nothing a daunting pass rushing attack likes more than playing with lead, and Washington has struggled a bit to contain the run. 

"You would love to jump out, get a lead and protect that lead if you can," Stefanski said. "These teams are really good so both teams are trying to do that. Sometimes the game is in the balance into the 60th minute, and then sometimes you have success early. You just have to play the game as it unfolds." 

The one thing Cleveland will need to change from the previous week is getting off the field on defense. The Browns D logged 88 plays against Cincinnati, which had a bunch of success on third and fourth downs, and that kind of clip is not sustainable in the NFL. Toughening up on third and fourth down will be big against a Washington offense that has struggled a bit to start the season.

"That's football," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. "It is always about winning individual matchups. It is just, 'can you do it consistently?'"

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