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Documenting the Defense

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Chris Kiffin has variety of plans ready for defensive line full of talent

When Chris Kiffin first examined the players he inherited for his first season as the Browns' defensive line coach, he knew the playbook possibilities and schemes could be immense.

At defensive end, Kiffin has Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, two Pro-Bowl players capable of reaching the backfield every play. In the interior, he has Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, who combined for 102 tackles and 8.5 sacks last season. Behind them all are young players who might be on the verge of breakout seasons if they crack the 53-man roster with impressive training camps.

Kiffin has no shortage of weapons in his first season in Cleveland, and he plans to use them all in a variety of formations and play designs, depending on the scenario.

"When you are game-planning, when it really dives into game planning and scheming things up as far as third down rushes and putting your guys in the best position to have success, you are always making it to the individual," Kiffin said Tuesday in a video call with local reporters. "We have some different combinations where we can move guys around and put them in their best position to have success. What do we look like on first down? What do we look like when we have a lead? What do we look like in a short-yardage situation?"

Those were all questions Kiffin masterfully answered last season with the San Francisco 49ers, who made Super Bowl LV with a dominant season from Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.

Kiffin's defensive line recorded 44 sacks last season, 12th in the NFL. Bosa made 13 of those sacks and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, while Armstead built a breakout season and made 10 sacks — he previously had just nine sacks in his first four seasons. Ford and Buckner, meanwhile, combined for 14 sacks.

Kiffin believes the Browns have players capable of similar production.

"If we get all these guys playing together, then the sky is the limit," he said. "That is when you really gel — when you come together as a group."

The Browns returned the same group of projected defensive line starters from last season, which fell short of expectations after injuries and suspensions to the defensive line hampered the overall defense. Garrett, who was on pace to potentially break the franchise sack record and make a run at Defensive Player of the Year, only played in 10 games. Vernon, who had a significant impact in the first half of the season, was injured for most of the second half.

Kiffin is excited to see what can come from a full season's worth of top defensive line talent, but he's also optimistic about the depth.

The Browns added DT Jordan Elliott with a third-round pick in the 2020 draft, and Kiffin had high praise for how Elliott has handled his training camp workload despite the unusual offseason. All rookies are essentially playing from behind after the cancellation of rookie minicamps and a late start to training camp due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Elliott has wowed Kiffin so far with his relentlessness to absorb as many reps as possible and ask questions.

"I've been more than pleased with Jordan from the time we drafted him until now," Kiffin said. "We had those rookies for extra days starting training camp, and he just works his tail off. I said, 'Look we got a lot of time to get these reps in,' and he said, 'We can't waste any time right now.' He is always trying to get it in. He is asking the right questions. He is a guy that we are very excited about, and he is talented enough to get in there and play right away so he is definitely part of the plan."

Eli Ankou and Daniel Ekuale are competing alongside Elliott, while Chad Thomas, Porter Gustin and Robert McCray are competing for roles at defensive end. The absence of Garrett, who's nursing a tweak in his hamstring, has given Kiffin an opportunity to provide some otherwise rotational players with first-team reps.

Sure, some roles are more solidified than others, but there's still plenty of competition going on at the defensive line, and Kiffin believes a big season lies ahead.

"It is a wide-open competition," Kiffin said. "I want to see guys work with different people and with different groups out there. Now is the time to show out. Rent is due every single day."

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