'We're reaching the height of our abilities': Surging defense fueling Browns playoff push

CLEVELAND -- Even after the Baltimore Ravens recovered the onside kick late in the fourth quarter, Baker Mayfield said he “truly wasn’t worried.” That’s how much trust the Cleveland quarterback has in the Browns defense, and the way it’s playing of late.

Sure enough, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sacked Baltimore backup quarterback Tyler Huntley for a 10-yard loss. Then on fourth down, Denzel Ward corralled Rashod Bateman well short of the first-down marker to finally finish off the Ravens for a critical 24-22 victory.

Despite a season full of drama and adversity, the Browns are firmly back in the AFC North Division race. And a Cleveland defense finding its stride is the biggest reason why.

“The standard is being set,” said defensive end Myles Garrett, who scored his first career touchdown while breaking the franchise season sack record on the same play Sunday. “We’re reaching the height of our abilities and talent.”

The overall numbers on the season still might not look great. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) says the Browns only have the league’s 23rd best defense. Cleveland also ranks just 14th in defensive efficiency.

But after a third consecutive dominating performance, including a second straight against the division-leading Ravens, Cleveland’s defense seems to have overcome its early-season inconsistencies to peak at the right time.

Up front, Garrett and Clowney are wreaking havoc, combining for 20 sacks on the season, as Cleveland now ranks fourth in the league in pass-rush win rate.

“It’s been a one-two punch,” Garrett said of he and Clowney both coming off the edge. “I tee off on run, and he goes off on pass and it interchanges. To have someone you count on on the other side and really on the whole [defensive] line, it’s beautiful to see.

“And when they try to take us out of the game, trying to go quick or trying to double team, we have guys in the secondary to rely on.”

That’s because Ward and the surging secondary around him has finally found its footing after giving up a series of big plays during the first half of the season. In fact, dating back to Week 7, Cleveland’s defense has allowed the fifth-lowest QBR (31.6) in the league, intercepting as many passes (nine) as touchdown passes it has given up.

“You always want to find your groove at the end of the season,” Ward said. “I feel like we’re coming on strong as an entire defense.”

This was always the hope of general manager Andrew Berry, who boldly revamped Cleveland’s defense in the offseason, bringing in eight new starters around Garrett and Ward.

Second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been a swarming addition to the linebacking corps and should be in contention for defensive rookie of the year honors. In two games against the Ravens alone, “JOK” piled up 18 tackles and a sack.

Behind him, prized free agent signing John Johnson III has fortified the back end of the defensive backfield despite a few rough moments early in the season. Johnson now has three interceptions and one forced fumble over Cleveland’s last seven games.

Clowney, meanwhile, has proved to be the perfect complement for Garrett, who has emerged as the favorite to be NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The 7-6 Browns still have work to do. And with the offense still sputtering along, Cleveland is going to need its defense to continue coming on strong.

But this is a defense now playing up to its potential. And spearheading the Browns’ late playoff push.

“It’s win or go home,” Clowney said. “We don’t want to be going into the building these last four games for nothing. We know we have something to play for. We just want to keep playing well.”