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Most Important Questions

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Most Important Questions: No. 3 – How will the Browns defense look under new coordinator Joe Woods?

Training camp can't get here soon enough. By then, we'll have plenty of answers to all of the loose ends surrounding the 2020 Browns.

For now, we simply have some questions.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be discussing those queries and analyzing the variables that accompany them. We've narrowed our list to 10, but there are certainly many more that will need to be answered by the time Cleveland opens the season against the Ravens in Baltimore.

We're continuing today with a look at the Browns defense from a big-picture perspective. Just how good can it be?

The 2019 season was a roller coaster for the Browns' defense.

It started with a thud, when the unit collapsed in the second half of a lopsided, season-opening loss to the Titans. One week later, the Browns, led by their ferocious defensive line, absolutely dominated the Jets. They looked similarly strong a couple of weeks later against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens but then couldn't stop anything the 49ers did one week later. The defense paved the way for three straight home victories, including a dominant effort against the Steelers, but then the bottom fell out thanks to a lethal mix of injuries and absences — none bigger than Myles Garrett’s.

The final numbers: Cleveland ranked 22nd in the NFL in total defense (361.6 yards per game), 7th in pass defense (216.9), 30th in rush defense (144.7) and 20th in scoring defense (24.6 points per game).

That's what make expectations tough for a Browns defense that returns its entire defensive line — perhaps the unit's top strength when fully intact — and its top cornerbacks from last year's squad. But there are new faces at linebacker and safety and a new set of defensive coaches, led by coordinator Joe Woods, guiding a group that will meet in-person for the first time when training camp opens.

Woods, who came to Cleveland after a Super Bowl appearance with the 49ers, said he's excited to put his own stamp on the Browns' defense. In a sense, it will be a tribute to those who have inspired him most throughout his coaching journey.

"I have been on some good defensive staffs the last couple years, going back to my time in Minnesota, my time in Denver, with Wade Phillips and then last year in San Francisco," said Woods, who was the 49ers' pass game coordinator/DBs coach. "What I am really putting together is a combination of what I feel like have been the top defenses of the last basically 10 years. It is really a combination of the things that I have done in Minnesota, Denver and San Francisco, and they all fit together. We are almost through our whole install so I feel like it is going to be a really good defensive package that is simple where the guys can play fast, but I think it will cause some problems for the offenses."

Cleveland's defense will cause the most problems if it sees two of its cornerstone players, Garrett and Denzel Ward, continue their ascent and a number of young faces emerge as reliable, solid starters.

Garrett, of course, has plenty to prove after a season in which he racked up 10 sacks in 10 games but was suspended for the final six. His absence was felt in a massive way, as Cleveland simply couldn't generate much of a pass rush without him and the rest of the defense suffered as a result of it.

The Browns believe Garrett's best football is still in front of him. His goals are even higher and more specific. Either way, a fully healthy and available Garrett makes the Browns a completely different defense than the one that finished the 2019 season.

"Myles' skillset, I think, is still scratching the surface," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said earlier this month. "He's young, and I can't wait to get our hands on him and put him in this scheme and let him loose."

Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie, was similarly missed when he was sidelined for four games with a hamstring injury during the first half of the season. When he returned, he resumed his role as the team's top cornerback. A full season of Ward would do wonders for a Browns secondary that will feature a brand new set of safeties and Greedy Williams, who will look to take a big leap in his second season.

There are a handful of players on this defense who fit in the same category as Williams — likely starters who could easily take their game up another level in 2020. That applies plenty at linebacker, where Mack Wilson is looking to build off a solid rookie campaign and B.J. Goodson is hungry to establish himself as a leader at middle linebacker. There are players such as Kevin Johnson and Karl Joseph, both of whom were former first-round picks who have been dogged by injuries during the first part of their respective careers. And there's a veteran such as Olivier Vernon, who had his previous season sidetracked by a knee injury.

The pieces and potential are there. Seeing how it comes together at training camp will further guide the expectations.

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