BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns have just one game left on the schedule, a big rivalry matchup against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, before they enter the offseason with playoff hopes squashed three weeks before the season ended. With the end of the season approaching, question marks about who will return in 2023 are front and center, and two coordinators in particular have drawn eyes to them as their future in Cleveland remains to be seen.
Since the first week of the season, the Browns defense has faced struggles. From faltering communication to blown coverages, missed assignments to untimely injuries, the defense has been riddled with issues. While things have improved in the second half of the year, a slow start on that side of the ball was what the Browns dealt with last year as well. The repetitive issues have seen many fans calling for defensive coordinator Joe Woods' job as a result.
Woods, who has been the defensive coordinator in Cleveland since 2020, has tried to take the backlash all in stride.
“You just have to be tough minded. Things aren’t always going to go your way, but as long as you are confident… You have to be that way with the players because if you doubt yourself, they are going to doubt themselves. The one thing I will say is I was in this situation as a position coach in 2019. When I went to San Francisco, I think (49ers Head Coach) Kyle’s Shanahan) first year, they were 6-10 and then they were 4-12 the second year. When I got there, there were a lot of people calling for (former 49ers defensive coordinator and NY Jets Head Coach Robert) Saleh because they regressed a little bit defensively. Kyle made some changes, and we went in and they were 4-12 in last place in the division in 2018. We had a couple key additions in the offseason, and we went from last to first in the division, 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl. I feel like that is something that is possible here just with the roster we have. I think again the guys will be better next year.”
Unlike last year, there are far more changes across the defensive side of the roster in question. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney did return for a one-year contract last year, but would he sign again, and would the Browns try? The young answers at defensive tackle did not immediately answer themselves this year and bolstering that position will likely be a point of emphasis this offseason, bringing in new faces across the line. All of the injuries to the linebacker corps will likely see some new faces in orange and brown next year to address the need for bodies. The Browns are loaded with depth at cornerback, but safety could use some help.
In fact, defensively, there are 17 players facing free agency at the end of the year:
- DE Jadeveon Clowney (unrestricted)
- DE Chase Winovich (unrestricted)
- DE Stephen Weatherly (unrestricted)
- DE Chris Odom (restricted)
- DT Taven Bryan (unrestricted)
- DT Ben Stille (exclusive rights)
- LB Deion Jones (unrestricted)
- LB Anthony Walker Jr. (unrestricted)
- LB Sione Takitaki (unrestricted)
- LB Jordan Kunaszyk (unrestricted)
- LB Reggie Ragland (unrestricted)
- LB Jermaine Carter (unrestricted)
- LB Tae Davis (unrestricted)
- CB Greedy Williams (unrestricted)
- CB A.J. Green (exclusive rights)
- CB Thomas Graham Jr. (exclusive rights)
- S Ronnie Harrison (unrestricted)
Will the Browns give Woods the reins for another year as the defensive coordinator? He hopes so.
"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," Woods said. "And again, through the end of the season, I think we are playing better. It is the guys out there getting experience playing together. 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."
It's not just Woods with question marks around his job. After some rookie struggles at kicker and some regression at times in punting and coverage, many fans have lost confidence in special teams coordinator Mike Priefer to be able to get the job done next year.
Priefer has been with the Browns since 2019, returning to his hometown of Cleveland to coach the special teams unit. The injuries to the defense have also impacted special teams this year and presented challenges for Priefer and his unit, but challenges he said he has found joy in.
“Like any other year, when you take young players and like you guys said, we have had injuries and you have guys going in and out, it is not easy. It is very difficult. It is time consuming. That is what I love about my job. I get to teach young guys who are very enthusiastic about the game of football, love the game of football and want to get better and want to continue to improve. We have guys calling me up every day. ‘I need some extra work here. Can I get extra work here?’ Even the guys like D’Anthony Bell, like I mentioned him earlier, he comes up for extra work, and he has been a special teams standout for us the entire year as a college free agent safety for us. I love my job. I love what I do. I love the challenges that it presents every week. I think those challenges are fun for me. I think every special teams coordinator in the league goes through those type of challenges, but I actually love it. When you have some adversity and you go out and you play well when guys who just are activated on Saturday morning and they go out and play well for you, that means you have done your job and that they have done their job to prepare.”
While there have been shining moments, like punter Corey Bojorquez and kicker Cade York having some very strong games and winning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Awards, as well as some developments like Donovan Peoples-Jones at punt returner and Jerome Ford at kick returner—there have been blunders, too.
Blown kick and punt coverage have led to explosive returns for opposing teams, York has had moments of struggles, missing eight field goals and two extra points this season.
Still, Priefer believes that there are all the right puzzle pieces on the roster and wants to help assemble the final picture.
Priefer enjoys his role with the Browns and has no plans to go anywhere anytime soon.
“No. I love it here. I am under contract. I don’t plan on going anywhere else. I am from Cleveland. I want to help Cleveland win a world championship. That is why I am here, and that is my focus," Priefer said when asked if there was any uncertainty about his position with the team.
Woods and Priefer have some struggles in common and with those struggles prompts uncertainly from those outside the organization about what their futures may hold. But the two also share a desire to fix their mistakes this offseason and turn their units around in 2023 as the team hopes for much more than a sniff of the playoffs with Deshaun Watson under center for a full year.
"We will look back on this year and we will do all of the reports and all of the studies, reflect on the year and then go from there. I am excited about the future. I think that there are some good pieces to the puzzle, and we are going to keep getting better," Priefer said.
"Long story short, I hope I get the opportunity, but that is not my decision," Woods shared.
Will they both get that chance? Will either? After the Steelers game, those questions will begin to be answered. Until then, the Browns have work to do in order to beat the Steelers and try to spoil their playoff dreams as they attempt to sweep them for the first time in a regular season since 1988.
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