Browns' early defensive struggles not surprising, or reason to panic

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns offense had a disastrous debut to begin last season.

Following the arrival of a new coaching staff, the addition of several new starters and the installation of a new scheme, the Browns offense looked completely discombobulated in an embarrassing 38-6 loss at Baltimore.

But from there, the offense gradually improved. And by the end of the season, it was among the best units in the NFL, finishing sixth in efficiency to fuel Cleveland’s first playoff appearance in 18 years.

Likewise, on the heels of a complete offseason overhaul, the Browns defense is off to a similarly slow start.

Sunday against a whittled down Houston Texans roster, Cleveland’s defense struggled to get off the field, and only began to find its footing after the Texans had to turn to their third-string quarterback, rookie Davis Mills.

Cleveland ultimately won the game, 31-21. But a defense that is featuring eight new starters didn’t impress.

Not that it should be any surprise. Or at this point, reason for panic.

Just like last year’s offense, this Browns defense has the goods to develop into a top-tier unit. Just like last year’s offense, it just might take some time for the defense to get there.

“It’s tough to get that chemistry right away,” said defensive end Myles Garrett. “It’s cleaning up (mistakes) each and every time we play, each and every time on the practice field. I’m really looking forward to when we really click and start to get after guys.”

That would start with a little better luck, and maybe better finishing, up front.

So far, the Browns pass rush featuring Garrett and prized offseason acquisition Jadeveon Clowney has combined for only three sacks, which ranks 20th in the NFL.

Cleveland, however, ranks fifth in the league with a pass-rush win rate of 55.6%. That suggests the sacks could soon be on the way, especially in games where the Browns face quarterbacks less mobile than Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s Tyrod Taylor, who successfully danced away from Cleveland’s pass rush before leaving the game with a hamstring injury at halftime.

“It’s inspiring to go into that film room and see something we’ve been working on, work clean, it just didn’t get there in time,” Garrett said of the Browns pass rush. “We’ll start getting there a little bit more.”

Getting healthier should help the Browns get there, as well.

Nagging injuries plagued a series of defenders throughout training camp. Cleveland is still without starting inside linebacker Anthony Walker, who is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. But the Browns finally are whole again in the secondary, headlined by the return of safety Grant Delpit, who had battled his own hamstring injury. Sunday in his first NFL appearance, after missing his entire 2020 rookie season with an Achilles tear, the former second-round pick out of LSU showed why he could become a force.

Delpit was strong in run defense, finishing with five tackles. He also hammered Mills’ blindside off a blitz, which effectively ended any hope for a late Texans comeback.

“I thought that was great,” coach Kevin Stefanski said of Delpit’s debut. “It was good to see for him to get some reps and first time out there playing to make a big play when we needed it. I thought he did a nice job. We'll have to grow that role as we go.”

Delpit’s emergence will allow defensive coordinator Joe Woods to finally play more of his three-safety “big dime” defense alongside Ronnie Harrison Jr. and John Johnson III. And better and more versatile coverage packages figure only to give Garrett and the pass rush a boost.

Despite that, more bumps on the road for this defense likely lie ahead. But like the offense last year, the Browns' defense is showing signs through its struggles that it could be well on its way to giving Cleveland the dominant defense to finally match its overpowering offense.