BEREA, Ohio — Early in the third quarter of the Cleveland Browns‘ first shutout victory in 16 years, defensive end Myles Garrett powered through a double team and barreled in toward Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Clayton Tune.
Garrett was too late. Defensive lineman Shelby Harris had beaten him to Tune and knocked the ball out of his hand. But before the ball could hit the ground, Garrett reached down and made a shoestring grab to secure his first fumble recovery of the season.
Cleveland’s unmatched defensive dominance this season was on full display in Sunday’s 27-0 shellacking of Arizona. The Cardinals finished with 58 yards of offense on 48 plays. That wasn’t just the lowest yardage total any offense had recorded in a game this season, it was the fewest yards the Cardinals had gained since 1955 — when the team played in Chicago — according to ESPN Stats & Information.
For this Cleveland defense, it was just another day. The Browns had already held opponents to the two other lowest yardage totals of the NFL season: Week 4 against the Tennessee Titans (94 yards) and Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals (142 yards).
“It’s not a one-man show,” Garrett said of the unit.
In 2016, the Browns won one game. But that gave them the No. 1 pick in the draft and the opportunity to select Garrett. Cleveland wouldn’t win a game in 2017. But Garrett would soon become an All-Pro.
Today, Garrett is one of the NFL’s most dynamic defensive players and among the favorites to win Defensive Player of the Year, according to ESPN BET odds. And with him as their anchor, the Browns boast what is arguably the NFL’s top defense.
“It’s been a long progression. Hasn’t always been trending upward every year,” Garrett told ESPN. “But that’s not how life is. You go through some ups and downs. But it’s slowly become something reminiscent of our imagination, what we had in mind early on — the idea we had for the defense.”
After finishing no higher than 11th in defensive efficiency in any of the past five seasons, the Browns now own a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Cleveland ranks No. 1 in defensive EPA (expected points allowed) and yards per game allowed (234.8). The Browns also lead the league in a host of other categories, including third-down conversion (26.0%) and three-and-out (37.7%) rates.
Garrett, meanwhile, is having his best season yet. He’s tied for second in the league with 9.5 sacks. In an Oct. 22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, Garrett became the first player this millennium to finish a game with two sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal.
But this year, Garrett has also had plenty of help. An overwhelming complementary pass rush, stout run defense and tenacious secondary has turned Cleveland into an imposing defensive unit without weakness. The arrival of Schwartz’s aggressive schemes, combined with Garrett’s individual dominance, has helped unlock it all, putting the 5-3 Browns in position for a second-half push for the postseason.
“We still have some goals we want to reach and things we want to do,” Garrett said. “But it’s finally, finally almost here.”
Here’s a breakdown of what the Browns have done with their personnel to go from 1-31 in 2016-17 to arguably best defense in the NFL.
The second foundational piece
Player (1): CB Denzel Ward
The Browns started their rebuild by drafting a preeminent pass-rusher in Garrett. Since, they’ve focused on adding blue-chip prospects to the secondary. That began with the previous regime under general manager John Dorsey and the fourth overall selection in 2018 of Ward, who has been one of the top corners in the league this season.
Ward was already a Pro Bowl performer, earning the honor in 2018 as a rookie and then again in 2021. But after battling injuries in the past, he’s elevated his performance to another level. Ward has allowed a -24.3 EPA (expected points allowed) when targeted, according to Next Gen Stats, fourth best among outside corners. Ward also has two interceptions, including one in Sunday’s win.
“He’s come to compete,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We’ve put him in some tough spots. He’s responded every single time. I think he’s tackling well, playing the ball well. He’s playing at a high level.”
The other first-round hit
Player (1): CB Greg Newsome II
Newsome was enjoying a resurgent season before suffering a groin injury that kept him out of Sunday’s game. Last year, he struggled transitioning from outside corner to slot corner. But in 2023, he’s rebounded and given up just 189 receiving yards on 19 targets while operating as Cleveland’s third corner in nickel sets.
The Day 2 draft steals
Perhaps Cleveland’s best draft decision under current general manager Andrew Berry, who assumed the role in 2020, Emerson is rapidly becoming one of the NFL’s top corners himself. Rangy and physical at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, the former third-round pick out of Mississippi State is the ideal complement to the speedy Ward. On Oct. 15, Emerson became the first player to intercept San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy this season (it was also Emerson’s first career pick). He had another interception two weeks later at Seattle, which wiped out a Seahawks scoring opportunity just before halftime.
Emerson is second in the league in lowest completion percentage as the nearest defender in coverage (minimum 20 targets) among cornerbacks (38.9%), and No. 3 in opponent passer rating when targeted (38.5).
Emerson’s emergence is a big reason why Cleveland has been able to rely on its man coverage so often — 53.6% of the time, sixth-most in the league — and so successfully; Cleveland’s opponent QBR (18.2, on a scale of 0-to-100) in man coverage ranks No. 1.
“From day one, he had the right mindset,” Stefanski said. “And playing that position, you better have that mindset. Excited for where he is. … He will continue to get better.”
After ups and downs, Delpit, Owusu-Koramoah and Takitaki have all found their strides simultaneously this season.
Delpit tore his Achilles during training camp as a rookie in 2020. He struggled the following year and halfway through last season. But the former second-round pick out of LSU surged late in 2022 and has carried that over to this year. He leads the Browns with 53 tackles and has an interception and fumble recovery.
Cleveland admitted it considered drafting Owusu-Koramoah with its first-round selection in 2021 before opting to take Newsome instead with the 26th pick. When JOK fell to the second round, the Browns traded up to grab him with the 52nd overall selection. The multi-purpose linebacker was an all-rookie performer but couldn’t hold up against the run last year. He has since added more weight to his 6-foot-2 frame and seems to be in the right place at the right time all the time, with the highest stuff rate (11.3%) of any NFL Player with a minimum of 50 run snaps, per Next Gen Stats.
“We’re attacking in waves and playing off the guys in front. … I think those things fit Jeremiah,” Schwartz said. “He’s been consistent this year. There are little things that we can iron out that can get him even better. But I like what we’re seeing with him so far.”
Takitaki is one of the few holdovers from the Dorsey era, a third-round selection in 2019. He was mostly a backup until last season, when he finally got an opportunity to start at inside linebacker following a rash of season-ending injuries at the position. Takitaki proved he could be a productive part of a winning defense, and not just a depth piece, and thrived before his own season-ending torn ACL injury in Week 13. Back in the rotation, Takitaki has two sacks to go with an interception against the Cardinals on Sunday.
The high impact free agents
Cleveland’s No. 1 priority in free agency last offseason was landing an interior defensive lineman who could shore up what was arguably the worst run defense in the NFL last year (-23.11 defensive total rush expected points allowed). According to sources, the Browns pursued Javon Hargrave, who wound up signing with the San Francisco 49ers. But Cleveland ended up with the ideal addition for Schwartz’s scheme in the 325-pound Tomlinson, who signed a four-year deal worth $57 million, with $27.5 million guaranteed.
“Such a leader for us,” Schwartz said. “You’re just so impressed with his demeanor, his experience, his intelligence. All those things mean an awful lot. We’re really lucky to have guys like Dalvin.”
With Tomlinson plugging the middle, the Browns run defense has made dramatic improvement, ranking ninth in defensive total rush EPA (21.77). Tomlinson doesn’t always fill up the stat sheet with sacks, though he had 2.5 sacks Sunday against the Cardinals. But as Schwartz points out, “what the tape shows” underscores Tomlinson’s value, including in the pass rush. He’s been doubled-teamed 67.8% of the time on passes (10th most among interior players), which has eased pressure on Garrett and Cleveland’s other edge rushers.
“Dalvin eating up them double teams makes it a little bit easier when I don’t have to face the guard when I’m making an inside move or I counter back,” Garrett said. “They’re focused on him because he’s a load to handle. As strong as they come and he’ll walk right through one guy, so [offenses] got to make sure they have two on him. … he’s just a lot of man in the middle.”
Okoronkwo’s impact has also been significant. Several inside the organization have noted his leadership and energy in practices, especially leading into the dominant defensive performance in Week 6 against the 49ers. Okoronkwo has 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. He’s also played 58% of the defensive snaps, allowing Cleveland to deploy three edge rushers often.
“When we talk about effort, doesn’t take long for you to put tape on and see great effort come from Ogbo,” Schwartz said. “You talk about physicality. He’s made some big plays and he’s not the biggest guy (6-2, 250) but he’s made some big plays and some physical plays for us. And he’s also brought some passion and some personality to it.”
The home run trade
Players (1): Za’Darius Smith
Berry capitalized on his relationship with his protegee, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who left Cleveland last year to become general manager of the Minnesota Vikings. The Browns flipped a pair of fifth-round picks to the retooling Vikings for Smith, who’s easily the most accomplished end that Garrett had teamed with. Smith had 10-plus sacks in three out of the last four seasons. Though Smith only has two sacks this year, he’s created plenty of pressure, lowering the pass rushing onus on Garrett.
Last year, Garrett was the most double-teamed edge rusher in the league (31.1%). Before Sunday, Garrett was double-teamed just 27.9% of the time this year. Smith’s strength and power has allowed the Browns to get away with playing three edge rushers at once, and his versatility has given Schwartz the tools to deploy Garrett from different striking points along the line of scrimmage, creating more favorable matchups.
For the fourth season since 2018, Smith is also generating a pressure rate above 14%.
Said Schwartz: “Z’s’ been outstanding for us.”
The leadership additions
The Browns have rounded out the talent upgrades on defense with professionalism and leadership in Walker, Thornhill and McLeod.
Last year, Cleveland desperately missed Walker’s calming presence in the box after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. Cleveland’s run defense completely fell apart without him. The captain has returned this season to call Schwartz’s plays on the field.
“Extremely hard worker, very well prepared, super smart in the classroom,” said Browns special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, who was in Indianapolis with Walker, a Cleveland free agent signee in 2021. “He’s coaching up the younger players and bringing them along. … truly a great leader. … a guy that understands football and just gets it.”
The same goes for Thornhill and McLeod, who in their first seasons with the Browns have helped steady a talented, though otherwise young secondary that committed too many breakdowns in coverage last year.
“Those guys definitely come with knowledge,” Delpit said of the two veteran safeties, “and a winning mentality.”
The other indispensable signings
The Browns were in such bad shape at defensive tackle last year, they had to sign Ben Stille off the Miami Dolphins practice squad to start for them. The arrivals of Harris and Hurst have put Cleveland in a far better place up front this season. The two combined for 82 career starts coming into 2023. With them, Tomlinson and Jordan Elliott, the Browns finally have a viable four-man tackle rotation.
Two games ago at the Seattle Seahawks, Hurst produced one of the NFL’s defensive plays of the year. Dropping back into coverage, Hurst batted Geno Smith‘s pass into the air, turned around, then corralled the interception with one hand.
Harris is coming off his best game with the Browns, notching a sack, a pass deflection and that forced fumble against Arizona, leading to Garrett’s recovery.
The TBD draft picks/undrafted pickups
Elliott, a third-round pick in 2020, has seen his playing time drop from 66% of defensive snaps last year to 43% this season. But in a more limited role, he’s also having his best season. Elliott ranks No. 1 among the league’s interior linemen with a run stop rate of 48.8%, just ahead of Tomlinson (No. 2 with a 46.7% stop rate).
The Browns are also excited about the development of Wright (a third rounder in 2022) and McGuire (a fourth rounder this year), who will be counted on to flank Garrett in future years.