When the Browns and 49ers met Week 5 of this past season, Joe Woods was on the right side of a dominant victory. Still, even in the midst of San Francisco's win, Woods thought highly of the prospects of Cleveland's defense, especially when it pertained to its potential.
Little did Woods know at the time, months later and days removed from coaching in Super Bowl LIV, he'd be tasked with leading that unit as its new defensive coordinator. And to top it off, he'd be doing it under the guidance of Kevin Stefanski, whom he worked alongside for eight seasons in Minnesota.
"You could definitely see they had some pieces in place, some talented players that I've evaluated over the years," Woods said. "I was definitely excited to have an opportunity to be a coach here.
"Just from tradition, pride and the fanbase, I know they're craving for a winner and I know we're very close. I feel like if we can get it done, the whole city will erupt. I look forward to that challenge."
Woods and Stefanski arrived together in Minnesota in 2006 when Brad Childress took over as head coach. Woods, who was coming off a two-year stint as assistant defensive backs coach with the Buccaneers, was tasked with coaching the defensive backs under then-coordinator Mike Tomlin while Stefanski was assistant to the head coach.
While Stefanski continued to rise the ranks in Minnesota from 2013-19, Woods did the same with a handful of other teams. After a season with the Raiders, Woods joined the Broncos as defensive backs coach in 2015 and promptly won the first Super Bowl of his career. He was elevated to defensive coordinator for the 2017-18 seasons before joining the 49ers as pass game coordinator/DBs coach in 2019.
The 49ers defense held opponents to 169.2 passing yards per game, ranking first in the NFL in 2019, and the lowest total allowed by an NFL team since 2009 (New York Jets 153.7). San Francisco also led the league with 21 forced fumbles. In addition, the 49ers ranked among the NFL leaders in passing first downs allowed (150, tied for first), total yards per game allowed (281.8, second), average yards per play allowed (4.66, second), red zone trips allowed (40, second), defensive touchdowns (five, tied for third), sacks (48, tied for fifth), total takeaways (27, sixth), opposing passer rating (83.0, seventh) and points per game allowed (19.4, eighth).
"Absolutely worth the wait," Stefanski said. "It's good to see when you're taking a coach from another team it's good to see that team having success. It was fun to watch those guys. They had an incredible season. Joe's impact on that defense was very real.
"I'm going to spend a lot of time with the offense but it doesn't mean I won't spend time with the defense. To be able to have somebody in there that I trust, that I know is a good coach is huge. Just sitting with him this past day and talking football, it just aligns with the vision with the type of defense we want to play. I think we've got a really good defensive coordinator."
Denver's defense didn't miss a beat after Woods took over for Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator in 2017. The 2017 Broncos finished third in the NFL in total defense and joined the Minnesota Vikings as the only two teams to rank in the top five in run defense (89.4 yards per game) and passing defense (200.6 yards per game) that season. Woods' defense also held each of their opponents to less than 300 net yards passing. In 2018, LB Von Miller and rookie LB Bradley Chubb combined for 26.5 sacks as Miller's 14.5 were the second-most in a single season in his career and Chubb's 12.0 set the Broncos franchise record for the most sacks by a rookie.
"It's good to be back in this role," Woods said. "I felt like I learned a lot from my time in Denver. It's really about managing people, game-planning and how to call a game, so I feel like I'm more prepared now than I was then.
"When you have pieces in place and with the additions we'll make in free agency and the draft, I feel like we can really get something accomplished here this next season."
Woods, who has experience coaching both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, said he'll look to build a defense that best suits the team's personnel. Right now, that means the Browns will continue to operate out of a 4-3 base.
"I think you want to make sure that you're putting the guys that you have in the right position to make plays," Woods said. "I know the personnel here is tailored toward a 4-3 scheme, which I'm very comfortable with. We'll stay with the 4-3 system here and focus on putting the guys in the right positions to make plays."
Woods grew up outside Pittsburgh and has extended family in the Cleveland and Akron areas. He's lived the rivalry between the Steelers and Browns, and now he'll be tasked with coaching against his longtime mentor, Tomlin, twice a season.
That's just a small part of the excitement he carries into his new role as the leader of Cleveland's defense.
"When the Vikings hired Mike as the defensive coordinator in 2006, Mike wanted to bring Joe along as his defensive backs coach, which should tell you what kind of coach Joe is," Stefanski said. "Joe is somebody Mike trusts, they're very close to this day and I think Joe's looking forward to facing him two times a year."
Said Woods: "I know they're a division rival and I was on the other side of it my whole life because I grew up in Pittsburgh but now it's about business."
Joe Woods' Coaching Background:
1992: Muskingum College, defensive backs coach
1993: Eastern Michigan University, graduate assistant
1994: Northwestern State University, linebackers coach
1995-96: Grand Valley State University, defensive backs coach
1997: Kent State University, defensive backs coach
1998-2000: Hofstra, defensive backs coach
2001-03: Western Michigan University, defensive backs coach
2004-05: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, defensive backs coach
2006-13: Minnesota Vikings, defensive backs coach
2014: Oakland Raiders, defensive backs coach
2015-16: Denver Broncos, defensive backs coach
2017-18: Denver Broncos, defensive coordinator
2019: San Francisco 49ers, defensive backs/passing game coordinator
2020-: Cleveland Browns, defensive coordinator