Despite a troubling start to the 2022 season, which has now featured back-to-back games with opponents rushing for over 200 yards, Joe Woods hasn't lost any confidence in what the Browns defense can achieve this season.
The defensive coordinator gave a token of confidence in his players and coaches in his news conference Thursday four days after the Browns surrendered a season-high 465 total yards in a 30-28 loss to the Chargers — and three days before they welcome a Patriots offense with no shortage of power in their run game.
Woods knows the Browns defense needs to show an immediate turnaround. He believes they will.
"I do believe we have the talent to be a top five defense," he said. "I've said that from the start. It's my job to get us there. We're addressing issues and trying to fix it. Part of it is fundamentals and scheme, and part of it is guys doing their job. It's a little bit of everything."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the New England Patriots
The Browns feel a sense of urgency to dramatically improve their defense with Cleveland now sitting at 2-3 and facing a daunting schedule for the next two months — four of the next six opponents possess a winning record. The Browns should have a winning record, too, after carrying a fourth quarter lead in every single game this season, but they've blown it in three of them, and the problems on defense were highlighted last Sunday in a messy display against the Chargers.
RB Austin Ekeler rushed for 173 yards, his highest single-game total in his six-year career. The Chargers entered the week ranked last in the league in rushing offense, yet they totaled 238 yards on the ground. After Week 5, the Browns have allowed a league-high 192.4 rushing yards per game and are 29th in the league with 396.4 total yards allowed per game.
No one on the defense expected them to be in this position with the continuity they carried over from a year ago with nine of 11 starters retained for 2022. The Browns finished last season fifth in the league in total defense and were expecting to be one of the best groups again, but it's clear after five games that a lot of improvement is needed for them to climb back to the top tier.
"When we have the talent that we have on that defense, it's frustrating when you aren't putting it to show so the world can see it every Sunday," CB Greg Newsome II said. "It definitely is frustrating obviously, especially coming from last year where it felt like we ended the season on a high note to now, 'I'm not playing so well right now.'"
Head coach Kevin Stefanski said Wednesday the Browns were going to place "extra emphasis" on tackling after poor technique plagued the defense all afternoon against the Chargers. The accentuation has come in the form of a tackling circuit to open practice Wednesday and a video reel Woods compiled of all the missed tackles the defense has had this season.
Woods reviewed the tape with the entire defense and said the reel was about 15 plays long.
"I think we have to understand that you have to have a tackling plan and understand what type of tackle you need to make," Woods said. "Do I have the guy in the hole, and he has nowhere to go? Or is he in the open field, and I've got to put myself in position and get the guy on the ground."
The Browns know they can't afford to have another rough day against the run at this point in the season, and it's critical for them to solve their issues before they welcome the Patriots to FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday.
New England RB Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for a career-high 161 yards last week against the Lions, and it's a safe bet that head coach Bill Belichick will give him an ample load of carries against the Browns, who remember Stevenson well from when he totaled 100 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-7 loss in Week 10 last season.
"The coaches are able to put him in the places that he needs to be in reference to the runs, the schemes, how the linemen pull and how the offense is just set up," LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. "They will be looking to run the ball, and we will be looking to execute on our responsibilities."
The Browns could receive some help in the middle Sunday from newly-acquired LB Deion Jones, who practiced with the team for the first time Wednesday after Cleveland traded for him in a deal with Atlanta. Jones had 137 tackles last season with the Falcons and had yet to play this year due to offseason shoulder surgery, but the Browns are working to bring the seventh-year veteran up to speed with the playbook and ready for action.
"It's really day to day," Woods said. "We know he understands the scheme, but it's the terminology and it's getting the reps. We're going to take it day by day and make a decision at the end of the week."
Woods knows, however, that one player won't spark a massive shift in the defense — that needs to come from the leadership of the coaches and the talented players the Browns already carry.
And Woods is confident the Browns have it in them to perform better.
"I just believe in what I'm doing," he said. "I believe in the coaches I have around me, just because of stuff that we have done. I believe in the players. I feel like if we all just work together to correct the issues that we will get it headed in the right direction."