BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns are preparing for their matchup with the Detroit Lions on Sunday, and after their loss to the Patriots last week, they've got a lot of areas to improve upon. Currently at 5-5 on the season, a .500 team is not what anyone expected of the Browns this year, especially the team itself. With their hopes of the playoffs hanging in the balance, the Browns are on a mission to quickly turn things around.
Here's how they're planning to do it.
It's no secret the Browns defense has struggled throughout the season. With low lows and high highs, the consistency is just not there.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who is currently on the hot seat with fans after Sunday's dysfunctional loss that saw the defense give up 45 points to the Patriots, said that a point of emphasis moving forward is improving on third downs. Last week, the Browns defense allowed the Patriots to make seven of their nine third down attempts.
"For myself, as a coordinator, you want to put the players in a perfect call. I look at tape and just study, study, study, but in reality you just try to put them in the best call and rely on them to make plays. I think for me I just have to realize that because I feel like I can do a better job just in terms of our third-down menu. Because going into it we had the little mini-bye and I think the last three games were our best three games in terms of third down – Denver, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati," Woods said. "For us to drop off like that just caught me. I feel like I can definitely do a better job."
Woods said that he and the team went back and studied what went wrong on third and fourth downs on Sunday and in past games this season, seeing what they did well and what needed to be adjusted, starting with the plays he calls and the positions he puts his defensive players in each game.
"I always start with myself as a coordinator. I believe that, ‘How can I fix myself? How can I put the guys in a better position?’ So, from that standpoint, down to what we’re calling, down to the players eliminating penalties, executing better, we looked at it all and just made some slight adjustments in terms of what we’re going to do coverage-wise," Woods said.
While they're putting a point of emphasis on third down stops and getting the defense off the field, Woods said that he's going to continue being multiple in his scheme, running a mix of man and zone coverage and switching up the pressure, which he doesn't think will prevent the defense from establishing the consistency they've been desperately missing.
"I think in general just over the years I’ve been in different schemes, you want guys to see the ball, but how much zone do you play compared to let’s get tight and rush guys. Because you may have more PBUs [pass breakups] than interceptions when your back’s to the ball, so that’s why I try to mix both. So we can see the ball and then we get in tight coverage and force them to make a tight throw," Woods said. "Whatever you’re doing, you might present a look to a team, but you might run three-deep, you might run quarters, you might run man or zone pressure. So it’s all within the system. It’s not like it’s 4-3 going to 3-4. So it’s within the system, it’s we want to be multiple in what we’re doing."
With some of the players getting healthier, like linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who played just 21 defensive snaps Sunday, Woods is hopeful the lineup will be stronger and less limited against the Lions as it was against the Patriots.
Woods said they'll let Owusu-Koramoah go longer against the Lions and see what he can do, while the linebacker said he's ready, like his teammates, to get to work fixing the mistakes and staying united as a team.
"It's just correcting mistakes. I told somebody earlier, it's just about correcting those things we did wrong and when we key in on that, we'll get better," Owusu-Koramoah said. "That's always been the goal is to have that unity and to be that team, so each and every day we're working to improve that and working to improve our team chemistry every day. That's been the goal and that will always be the goal."
Woods is aware fans are not happy and says he's putting pressure on himself and making sure he works on his efforts, too, not just his players.
"First of all, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure the game plan’s right. So I’m not saying I blame myself, but I always look in the mirror first. And then whenever I grade the tape, as I’m grading the players, I grade myself. So, number one, I always look at myself and what can I do better? From a players standpoint, it’s the NFL, there’s good players on both sides of the ball. The guys are going out there and trying to execute, but you’re not going to make every play," Woods said. "So, as coaches—and I have a really good coaching staff—we try to address all the issues that show up, correct all the mistakes. We look at ourselves, we self-scout ourselves every week and then we try to run those plays in practice that we’ve gotten from teams where we haven’t had success."
As the defense has had its struggles, so, too, has the offense, which only managed to score a touchdown on the opening drive against the Patriots but stalled out on the next drive could not get running as the game continued.
Offensive lineman Joel Bitonio has been on the Browns through it all, from the misery of the 0-16 season to the excitement of the 2020 playoffs. Bitonio said that they've also identified third and fourth downs as an area to focus on and improve offensively.
The Browns are 22nd in the league in percentage of third down conversions made, 44-for-118 this year, and 25th in the league in percentage of fourth down conversions made, 9-for-22 this year.
"Third and fourth down have been really bad on both sides of the ball, so we’re trying to figure that out, just little things like that where we’re trying to be again, more consistent. We looked at it this week and we’re like, ‘Hey, we’re not doing enough on third and fourth down, pretty much all season, but that’s something we’re going to focus on this week and try to really improve," Bitonio said.
Executing the plays that are called across positions—from the offensive line protecting Baker Mayfield or create running lanes, to receivers running their routes correctly, to Mayfield going through his progressions and reading the defense correctly—the Browns are working to make sure everyone is on the same page come Sunday.
"We have to execute, and we have to convert when it is manageable [situations]. If it is third and 10 or less, we feel like we need to stay on the field. We did dive down and do a good study on third down early in the week, so we feel like we have addressed some areas there to hopefully make some improvements moving forward," said offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
Bitonio said he and his teammates are really harping on execution each day at practice to bring those improvements to game day.
“We’ve really tried to focus on it in meetings, in practice," he said. "We’ve talked about having the best week of preparation of practice, of focus all year, and like I said, you focus on the little details because they become big things. If you run bad routes in practice, a bad twist-off in practice, you have to find time afterward to redo it so that correction is in your head. You’re really just focusing on those little things and each player has things because even though the score is 45-7, not every play every guy is getting destroyed. A lot of times it’s one guy on each play or two guys on each play, and those things add up, so if everybody can focus on those little things you can turn it into a little better execution.”
Another area that has been impacting the Browns on both sides of the ball are penalties. The Browns have the fourth most penalties in the league called against them this season, showing lack of discipline in games throughout the season and losing 644 yards on 70 penalties.
Bitonio described how the team is working to correct that.
"A few weeks ago, we started starting the period over if we have a penalty in practice. You got on the third play, you go back to the first play and try and do it right," Bitonio said. "So we’re really trying to focus on the details and just get things right because those are things you can control. I know we’ve been one of the worst penalized teams in the league, and that’s not something we want to be."
The Browns are also focusing on their passing game, with consistency being the point of emphasis in getting things back on track.
"The biggest thing is we just have to be more consistent – more consistent and the production. We have up games where we look great and a lot of explosive plays and things work for us, and other days, it doesn't," Van Pelt said. "When we're rolling is when we're play-action, run-action and keeper game, and it all ties in together. We have to be more consistent. We really do, across the board. We have to find ways to get the ball to the guys who need to touch it more. That's been addressed, obviously. We have to be more consistent as a group.”
With a run game as the central identity of the offense and head coach Kevin Stefanski running 13-personnel, with three tight ends on the field at a time, the receivers on the team have not been seeing the ball much at all. The Browns are 26th in the league in average passing yards per game with 209.7. Tight end Austin Hooper leads the team in targets, with wide receiver Jarvis Landry second and tight end David Njoku following former Brown Odell Beckham Jr. with the fourth highest targets.
Van Pelt said they are aware they need to get Landry involved more, as well as their other receivers, while also continuing their success with their tight ends.
“Find ways. Just find ways, whether it's quick throws, double moves or get him involved in the run game. Whatever it is, but he needs to touch the ball more, and we're aware of that," Van Pelt said. “We have to get them involved for sure, but we definitely like our tight end groups. They present some match-up problems.”
Special teams efforts
Of all three phases of the ball, the Browns special teams unit has been the most consistent of them all. Still, there are areas in which they are working to improve too.
Last week, with Demetric Felton on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, the Browns made some changes at punt and kick returns. JoJo Natson fielded a punt, but rather than catch it, let it bounce and gave up 23 yards, pinning the Browns in their own 20-yard-line.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said that Natson lined up incorrectly on the play, and he is working to correct those mistakes so they don't happen again.
"He has to get to that ball. What happened was we always talk about where to align them. [Special teams assistant] Coach [Doug] Colman, my assistant, he does a great job of lining those guys up. He told him where to line up, and he just kept backing up and backing up. We actually thought it was going to be a line-drive kick. We went over all of the punts the night before on Zoom meetings because we were still in those protocols. We had a really good meeting. We thought we had it set up right," Preifer said. "If he's where he's supposed to be, at least fair catch it at 43 yards, but it rolled 23 yards for a 66 net, and that killed us. We put our offense in a bad situation, so I was really upset about that. That will be corrected, and hopefully, that will not happen again.”
Punter Jamie Gillan had a rough patch this season but has seemed to bounce back and has performed well over the past few weeks. Priefer joked about what they did to fix him before detailing what really went into the improvements.
“We had an exorcism," Priefer said. "Jamie, he had a couple of really nice punts on Sunday, and one that went out of bounds at the end of the game with 1:30 to go in the game and was not that big of a deal. His consistency is going to be key. I think when Jamie’s back's against the wall, he really does respond well. I think he's been like that probably his whole life. Knowing his story and his background, that's kind of how he's always been. I'm proud of the way he has responded. These next several games will be huge for us. You guys keep mentioning the weather at FirstEnergy Stadium. He's done a good job there in the past. He has to do it every rep. If he punts four times on Sunday, we need four really quality reps, and that has to be key for him.”
That same mentality is being used to work on the Browns kicking, too, which has been strong all season with Chase McLaughlin leading the way. As the weather gets nastier, Priefer said that he is working on ensuring that their kicking remains on point and detailed how he's doing that with McLaughlin.
"He hit [a hurry-up field goal] from 63, and it was really windy yesterday. I think he was 12 for 12 and hit one from 63 and a couple others from 50-plus. He really hit the ball well. He hit them with the wind, but the wind was swirling. That is how you prepare," Priefer said. "You prepare by practicing in that type of weather. You guys know I send the punter, snapper and kicker down to our stadium. When it gets really bad, we can’t practice out here because of the snow or whatever the case may be, we will send them down to the stadium, and we will keep doing that. He has a lot of confidence right now.”
Now we see if it pays off
Last Sunday's game against the Patriots was a slap in the face for the Browns and their fans watching their team play perhaps the worst game in Stefanski's tenure. With all areas of the team on high alert and focused on fixing their mistakes and quickly bouncing back from such a devastating loss, Stefanski has all of his coaches, staff members and players aware that the work has to start on the practice field.
"We again are trying to be problem-solvers, find ways that we can improve, find things that we're good at and continue to do them," Stefanski said on Wednesday. "Talked to the guys this morning about how important your work week is and how important meetings are, the walkthroughs and these practices because, ultimately, you can’t wait until Sunday to be ready to play. You have to get ready today.”
The work being put in this week will be put to the test against what should be one of the Browns easier games on the schedule as they face the winless Lions. We'll see how things shake out on Sunday, but until then, the Browns have some more work to do.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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