With starters nearing return, Browns thankful for quality depth in secondary

As media members and the general fanbase spent the offseason getting to know new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, one desire of his continued to rise to the surface: individual versatility.

After six games, it seems as though his wants and those of general manager John Dorsey have been in line since Wilks’ arrival.

Dorsey and head coach Freddie Kitchens have repeatedly emphasized the importance of creating competitive depth among their 53-man roster. On the surface, it seems obvious that a team would want to have quality players listed behind its starters. In practice, though, it’s much more difficult to attain.

Dorsey made a great stride toward such a roster in one position during his first offseason when he added veteran corners Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie, who each contributed in 2018 before finding themselves as key reserves in 2019. Their roles increased rather quickly in 2019, though, when starters Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both suffered hamstring injuries in the same Friday practice before Week 3’s meeting with the Los Angeles Rams.

Since then, Mitchell and Carrie have manned the starting roles. And they’ve done a commendable job, helping the Browns’ defense remain viable on the back end. 

It’s exactly what Dorsey and Wilks both envisioned, with their versatility — Carrie moving from slot corner to the outside, and safety Eric Murray shifting to slot corner — becoming incredibly valuable. Consider the competitive depth achieved, and when blended with the versatility desired by Wilks, the Browns didn’t miss a beat defensively.

“I thought it was great for us to have two veteran guys to hold down the position fairly well,” defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker said while speaking with reporters during the bye week. “I know this last game they were a little hot and cold. All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job of holding it down.”

Through the first three games after Ward’s and Williams’ hamstring injuries, the Browns allowed less than 255 yards passing in each game. Only one passer — San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo — broke 100 in passer rating, which came as part of a blowout loss for the Browns.

Carrie’s leadership was a big boost for the secondary according to Walker, who credited the veteran’s quiet leadership and tireless preparation for the unit’s reliable performance.

“He leads by example,” Walker said of Carrie. “He is very anal with his studies. I always try to tell the young guys to try and emulate his approach to the game. Definitely, when he decides to speak up, guys listen.”

Week 6 was the cold game Walker referred to, when NFL MVP candidate Russell Wilson tallied 284 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and a 117.6 passer rating. It was the first time in which the Browns clearly missed their starting cornerbacks.

Now that they’ll likely see both return in Week 8, the staff is thankful for those behind the starters and their contributions in a time of need. Even if Ward and Williams return to starting roles, which pass game coordinator and secondary coach Joe Whitt did not say was certain, he’s more concerned with the strength of the entire unit. The Browns will need more than just two young, talented corners to starting stacking wins after going 2-4 in their first six games.

“I do not think the absence of those two guys has led us to being 2-4. We are a secondary,” Whitt said. “Everybody that goes out there and plays, we are expecting to win football games. I am looking forward to having a healthy room and then we will put the group of men for that week that gives us the best chance to win.  

“If someone says that when they come back that they will get right back into the same roles that they had, there are no guarantees in anything. They might. They might not. We are going to put the men out there each week that give us the best chance to win that game, and then the next week, we will do that for the next week.”

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