Browns fire defensive coordinator Joe Woods after third year following breakdowns during 7-10 season

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Browns barely waited for the bus to drop them off from the 28-14 loss Pittsburgh Sunday night for a 7-10 finish before they fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods.

Woods, the Browns’ third-year coordinator, took the fall early Monday morning for an underperforming and injury-ravaged unit that failed to live up to expectations all season.

“I’d like to thank Joe for his hard work and dedication in his three seasons as our defensive coordinator,” head coach Kevin Stefanski, who will address the media this afternoon, said in a statement. “I will always have the utmost respect for Joe, the person, and the coach. Unfortunately, we did not perform up to our standards enough this season, and we all share in that responsibility. We all wish Joe and his family the best in the future.”

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The new defensive coordinator, who will likely come from outside the building, a league source told cleveland.com, will have input on the 2023 staff. Some of the current assistants will be retained. It will be a thorough and deliberate process.

Two possible early candidates are Jerod Mayo, inside linebackers coach for the Patriots, and former Browns assistant Jim Schwartz, a senior defensive assistant for the Titans. The Browns must interview at least one minority candidate from outside the organization to be in compliance with the NFL’s Rooney Rule.

Browns players will clean out their lockers and meet with the media Monday morning on getaway day, and then Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry will address the media in the afternoon.

As of early Monday morning, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who has also been under scrutiny, still had his job.

Woods’ firing came the morning after the Browns surrendered 148 yards rushing to the Steelers — their 10th yield of 130 yards rushing or more — and lost to a rookie quarterback in Kenny Pickett (13-of-29, 195 yards, 1 TD , 79.0 rating), whom they only sacked once.

They were without Pro Bowl defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, benched for venting to cleveland.com, and Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, who aggravated his shoulder injury early in the game.

The Browns, who lost four starting linebackers to season-ending injuries and did not invest in a premier defensive tackle to stop the run, also lost to unheralded quarterbacks this season such as the Jets’ Joe Flacco, the Falcons’ Marcus Mariota, the Patriots’ Bailey Zappe and the Saints’ Andy Dalton.

The defense had come on strong over the past six weeks, forcing 12 turnovers in that span, but it wasn’t enough to save Woods’ job. The Browns averaged 331.5 yards allowed per game this season, which ranked 14th in the league. They were fifth in the league in passing defense (196.2 yards allowed per game) and 25th against the run (135.2 yards allowed per game).

During his regularly scheduled press conference on Thursday, Woods — who’s known all season he was on the hot seat — said he hoped he’d be back.

“I hope that’s the case,” he said. “Right now, I am still focused on the Steeler game. It’s a big game for us. I hope I have the opportunity to come back. I know things haven’t gone the way we would like them to go this year, but I feel like the first season going to the playoffs and winning a game for the first time in 26 years or something like that; the next year, we didn’t win a lot of games and that is what it is all about, but we did improve defensively to No. 5; and again, through the end of the season, I think we’re playing better.”

He walked out of his press conference saying with a smile, ‘Hopefully I get to talk to you guys again.’

Woods attributed the woes on defense — the early blown coverages, missed assignments and poor run defense — largely to youth on the unit.

“It’s the guys out there getting experience playing together,” he said. “I feel like the guys we have on our team because we have a young team, they are all coming back next year and we will have a full offseason. Long story short, I hope I get the opportunity, but that is not my decision.”

Woods, who had to dial back his game plans early on to minimize mistakes, said he had no regrets.

“You have to work through issues,” he said. “You never know. There are some things that I am not doing pressure-wise that I’d like to do, but when I’m looking back over, I just think it’s a learning process because you get new guys, and you’re trying to figure out who they are as players and what you’re capable of doing defensively. I think we learned that throughout the season, but there’s nothing that I go back and regret.”

Defensive end Myles Garrett, who finished with 16.0 sacks to tie his team record set last season, supported Woods, but was ready to accept whatever came.

“I’m always ready to roll with the punches and I have no idea what the future will look like,” Garrett said after Sunday’s loss. “That’s above my pay grade and I don’t make those kind of decisions, so I’m trying to do my best to recover in the offseason and be ready when the time calls.”

Garrett, the undisputed leader on defense, said he’ll weigh in on the defensive issues this offseason.

“I don’t make too many decisions up there, but if they want my opinion on things I’ll certainly give it,” he said.

Garrett wasn’t sure the presence of Clowney, at least the fourth defender who missed snaps this season for disciplinary reasons, would have resulted in a different outcome Sunday.

“I’m sure if (Clowney) comes in, he makes some big run plays, but they’re also chipping away at most pass plays on both sides,” Garrett said. “So that’s tough to deal with for anyone. And I know he was going to do his thing regardless and it’s tough not seeing him out there, but we gotta roll who we got and I think the guys who did play definitely stepped up and made a difference.”

Did the issues with Clowney affect the team the past few days?

Joe Woods congratulates Myles Garrett after a sack against the Bucs in November.John Kuntz, cleveland.com

I don’t think so,” Garrett said. “I think everyone kept their head down and really kept it in this circle of trying to be focused on the task at hand and I don’t think anyone was too (caught up) with that situation. We knew we had a big game ahead of us.”

Other defenders benched for some or all of the games this season were rookie defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey, safety Grant Delpit, Garrett and possibly Greedy Williams. Winfrey was benched for the Jets game in Week 2, Delpit sat out the first play of the Dolphins game, Garrett was benched for the first series of the Saints game, and Clowney was suspended for the Steelers game.

Clowney refused to play on first and second down in Baltimore, a 23-20 loss, after the Browns flip-flopped him with Garrett before the game and put him over All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley. After the game, loud yelling about leadership could be heard coming from the locker room before it was open to the media, but it may have been coming from the secondary area, where there were also issues this season.

But Garrett believes the attrition on defense was to blame for the poor performance throughout the season. In the finale, the Browns were without key injured players such as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Anthony Walker Jr., Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki.

“We’ve got the injury bug right now,” Garrett said. “We’ve been plagued with it and it’s hard to have that kind of chemistry and make those big plays. There’s a lot of guys going in and out there, different guys playing with each other and it’s a whole lot of uncertainty with all the injuries around. So we’re just trying to do the best with who we have out there and make the plays we need to make, and we didn’t make enough.”

It’s why Garrett thinks the future on defense is bright.

“We’ll get a lot of guys back,” Garrett said. “When you go through stuff like this and especially young guys, you see what it takes to be a good team. You see what it takes to really get over that hump. We got there once and we’ve had some staff changes and some new players come onto the team and I mean it’s not easy.

“We play in a tough division. It’s scrappy, it’s hard-nosed, and now everyone really gotta taste for it. Now you’re ready for it. Now you’re ready to make that leap.”

Safety John Johnson III had no inkling after the game whether or not Woods would be back.

“I think every season you go to assess that,” Johnson said. “Take a step back from the game. Obviously you don’t have a game the following week, so you can really get a good look at things, but I’m not sure, I guess we’ll see.”

Was he hopeful Woods would return?

“Regardless of what happens, they’re good people, they’re good coaches, and everything is meant to be what happens,” Johnson said. “So I guess we’ll see.”

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