Browns defensive players emphasize shortening the ‘menu’ in wake of Joe Woods’ firing

BEREA, Ohio — As Browns players packed up their lockers and went through their exit meetings on Monday, change and disappointment lingered in the air.

For the second straight year, Cleveland failed to make the playoffs. For the second straight year, defensive breakdowns and a slow start to the season were a problem without an obvious remedy. So the Browns fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods after Sunday’s season finale loss against the Steelers that dropped them to 7-10.

“Anytime you don’t have success, somebody gotta take the fall for it,” safety John Johnson III said. “Like I said after the game, everyone on this staff, they’re good people, good coaches, so I know he’ll land on his feet. As far as if he takes people with him or whoever comes in, are they going to keep the guys over? I have no idea. But like I said, everyone’s good people, they’ll land on their feet.”

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There’s a lot in limbo as to what the staff will look like in the hours after Woods’ firing became public.

The Browns will interview Steelers assistant Brian Flores, Patriots LB coach Jerod Mayo, Seahawks associate head coach and defensive assistant Sean Desai, and Titans senior offensive assistant Jim Schwartz, who was also interviewed for Cleveland’s head coaching job in 2020 when the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski. .

Stefanski said on Monday that he hasn’t had a chance to talk to his other assistant coaches yet. He also said he hopes to retain some of the current defensive assistants, but won’t interview any of them for the defensive coordinator job.

Whoever takes over, though, the hope is to remedy the disconnect that’s been prevalent throughout the year on defense — with both players and Woods throughout the season talking about a need to simplify the system.

“I honestly just think it’s just keeping things more vanilla,” Greg Newsome II said. “When you got the talent that we have on the defense, just calling base stuff, just allow us to go out there, keep our eyes on the quarterback and just play ball. So I feel like Joe did a great job in the second half of the year with just realizing ‘You know what, alright, maybe we don’t need to call everything, let’s just shorten the menu down and just let those guys go out there. and play.’ And I think when we did that you can kind of see how the take over started.”

On the surface, the desire for Woods to shorten the menu was slightly surprising. For most guys, this was at least their second year — and for some, their third year — in his system.

Early in the 2022 season, the Browns’ communication issues in the secondary were glaring with crucial blown coverages. They led to Cleveland’s late collapse against the Jets in Week 2 and would have cost them their season-opening win against the Panthers if not for Cade York’s 58-yard, game-winning field goal.

But for most of the season the biggest weak point became the run defense. Atlanta opened the floodgates in Week 4, rushing 202 yards in a 23-20 win. The Chargers (238 yards), Dolphins (195 yards), Bills (171 yards), and Saints (152 yards) are four other examples of teams that followed up with run-heavy game plans of their own to successfully beat the Browns.

While their passing defense numbers improved slightly over the course of the year, they were aided by the fact that they faced quarterbacks like Kyle Allen, Tyler Huntley, Andy Dalton, Carson Wentz and Kenny Pickett — hardly the explosive passing attacks the defense would have. to compete with in the upper echelons of the postseason.

But when it comes to simplifying things on the defense, players elaborated that it isn’t the scheme itself that was too complicated.

“Certain moments in the game, yeah, maybe we didn’t need to trick ourselves trying to trick the other team,” Johnson said. “Maybe we could just line up, get our cleats in the ground and make plays, ’cause that’s when we’re at our best. When we’re panicking and stuff like that, that’s when you see you guys running wide open. When we got our cleats on the ground we’re a pretty good defense. I don’t think it’s a schematic thing, I just think it’s a pose thing, like a calm thing. We need a calm out there.”

While it’s clear that most players expected there to be some kind of big change coming on the defensive side of the ball, it’s still a jolt to the system once that change hits.

It’s a necessary — but still often uncomfortable — part of the business when staff turnover happens.

“I appreciate the man that he is, the coach that he was for us,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. “Definitely helped me become a better player as far as knowledge of the game and all that stuff. So anytime — like I said, it’s a business — but anytime someone’s not here that you’ve grown a relationship with, it’s always tough.”

At the very least, the change could help change some attitudes on a unit that seemed defeated and searching for answers by the end.

Whoever the Browns hire next at the position, it has to be a guy who can not only translate his system — but inspire the guys on his side of the ball.

“I don’t like talking about the scheme too much because I think anything works,” Johnson said. “I think getting your players to play is like the bottom line. And that’s in football period. When your little kids all the way up through high school, college, getting your players to play and go to battle with you, run through a brick wall for you. I think that’s what I’m looking for.”

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