Jul. 30—The defense is ready, figuratively, to carry the ball for the Browns this season while the offense sorts things out.
Nine of 11 starters on defense are back from the unit, which finished the 2021 season on a high note. The Browns were just 3-4 after being humiliated, 45-7, by the Patriots on Nov. 14. But in most of those seven games the defense either led the way to victory or made enough plays to give the offense a chance to win at the end.
"It's a lot different (this year), like the vibe is way better," safety John Johnson III said. "I don't know if it's just me, but everyone feels that same vibe like we got a lot of guys back. That continuity is huge, especially on defense, so it's fun and we're enjoying it and we can't wait to get out on the field."
The Browns must find two new starters at defensive tackle to replace Malik McDowell and Malik Jackson. Aside from them, every other defensive starter is back.
The Brows made eight of their 13 interceptions in the seven games after losing to the Patriots. Third down defense is something Johnson and his teammates want to improve in 2022. But that important statistic from last season also picked up at the end. The Lions were 3-of-10 on third down in a game the Browns won, 13-10. The Ravens were 1-of-12 in a game the Browns lost, 24-22. Even the Packers were just 3-of-10 on Christmas Day in a game the Browns lost, 24-22. The Steelers were 5-of-18 on third down when they beat the Browns, 26-14, and the Bengals 5-of-14 in the final game of the season in a 21-16 Browns victory.
"When you can bring back the same staff and the majority of players, you feel like you can do more defensively because the guys understand the system," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "I put more on the guys in the offseason and put more on them right now in training camp just in terms of the amount of defenses that we're installing.
"Now we can get to another level of what we can do defensively. Just bringing guys back, it's just continuity and everybody understanding the schemes and the techniques that we're asking them to play."
Last season, the offense returned intact. The assumption was it would pick up where it left off in 2020. That did not happen for a variety of reasons. Woods did not want to speculate on what went wrong nor use it as a warning for his defense to avoid regressing.
"I couldn't answer that," Woods said. "I pay no attention to that, to be honest with you."
The more games quarterback Deshaun Watson misses if he is suspended for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, the better the defense will have to be. Or so it would seem. Defensive end Myles Garrett doesn't look at it that way.
"It doesn't change regardless how that situation works itself out," Garrett said. "We're going to hold ourselves to a higher standard no matter what happens and our defense is going to do what we do. Last time I heard, they can't win if they don't score points."
A shutout is a tall order. The Browns held opponents to fewer than 17 points nine times last season.
—Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin is living proof You Can Go Home Again, contrary to what the classic novel by Thomas Wolfe — "You Can't Go Home Again" — says.
Kiffin left the Browns after the 2021 season to join the staff at Ole Miss where his brother, Lane Kiffin, is head coach. Three weeks later, Kiffin was back in his office in Berea.
"For me, it was a decision (to leave the Browns) based on the wrong reasons," Kiffin said before practice July 30. "At the end of the day, I really missed it here. I didn't want to move my kids, to make a long story short. I was very, very fortunate to get my job back here.
"It's a great job, a great opportunity. So once I got back I don't take a single day for granted. I'm happy to be back."
Head coach Kevin Stefanski was equally happy to say "yes" when Kiffin realized Ole Miss was a mistake and asked for his old job back. Kiffin was on Stefanski's first coaching staff with the Browns in 2020.
"That was a unique opportunity that came up with his brother down there. But we're very excited that Kiff is back," Stefanski said.
Kiffin said the year-round recruiting at a major college would have robbed him of family time. He likes the atmosphere Stefanski has created at Browns headquarters.
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