CLEVELAND -- Yes, it was rainy. And sure, quarterback Joe Burrow hardly looked right coming off a calf strain that saw him miss almost all of training camp. But new Cleveland defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz -- and the Browns’ aggressive, new-look defense -- sent a message in a dominant, season-opening victory Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“In Coach Schwartz we trust,” said Browns defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. “He was dialing it up, calling perfect plays. We all believe in it.”
Schwartz was calling the defense when Philadelphia beat New England in Super Bowl LII. And in their 24-3 win against Cincinnati, the Browns had the look of a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
Moving around All-Pro pass-rusher Myles Garrett and his Pro Bowl cohort Za'Darius Smith, Schwartz brought a barrage of blitzes after Burrow, who completed a career-low 25% of his passes against the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Smith hammered Burrow on the game’s first snap -- which “set the tone,” said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski -- and the Browns never stopped pummeling Burrow.
“I think it was a good rush plan,” said Stefanski, who handed Schwartz the game ball in the postgame locker room. “I thought we got some good rushes versus some single opportunities, one-on-one rush-type things. We mixed it in, which I thought [Schwartz] did a really nice job of. But they applied constant pressure.”
Early in the first quarter, on a key third-and-5 on the Browns' 47-yard line, Schwartz lined Garrett up over the center with Smith, Anthony Walker Jr., Maurice Hurst II and Okoronkwo occupying the other Cincinnati linemen. The Bengals looked unprepared for such an exotic look and Garrett easily knifed through the Bengals offensive line, setting up Okoronkwo for yet another sack.
In the first half, Schwartz blitzed Burrow 53% of the time, the highest rate the NFL's highest-paid player had faced in his career.
Myles really hit the center with the crossover hesi 😵💫😵💫😵💫 pic.twitter.com/a094ix0px8
— ESPN Cleveland (@ESPNCleveland) September 11, 2023
“[We] just have so many athletic and talented guys, skilled rushers coming at them from different angles,” said Garrett, who had six quarterback pressures. “Just a lot of different points of attack and guys with different skill sets, it’s just a lot for any offense. … We really showed what we can do.”
With the pass rush constantly in his face, Burrow failed to finish with more than 100 yards passing for the first time since he entered the league in 2020. The Browns knocked him down 10 times and created 13 QB pressures.
“We can keep O-lines on their toes. They gotta plan for a bunch of different body types and different speeds and different techniques,” said Okoronkwo, while pointing up to Garrett and Smith, who were standing on each side of him in the locker room. “We’re just assassins. Whatever Coach Schwartz says to do, we do.”
Okoronkwo, listed as Cleveland's third-string defensive end, played almost 60% of the snaps Sunday, underscoring Schwartz’s commitment to rushing the passer.
The other end of Cleveland’s defense executed Schwartz’s plan to perfection as well. Burrow completed only two passes when the Browns were in man coverage, according to Next Gen Stats. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson Jr. blanketed Bengals star wideouts Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase, who both struggled to generate space, with Higgins failing to catch one pass in eight targets. Chase's longest reception went for just 12 yards.
“I thought our corners played really, really well,” Stefanski said. “They took a lot of one-on-one shots, and the guys were right there.”
With little time to throw -- and Ward and Emerson locking up his receivers -- Burrow averaged just 2.6 yards per passing attempt. He’d never had a game averaging less than 5 yards per attempt in his career.
“We kept on sending different looks and kept [Burrow] off balance,” Garrett said, “and the back end always had our back.”
It was only one game. But the Cleveland defense has new playmakers, new schemes and a new coordinator who’s implemented a new mentality that Burrow and the Bengals had no answer for. As linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. noted, the Browns still have “a long ways to go” to get to where they want to go. But after one game, they appear to be well on their way.