The Browns defense has too many players with a Pro Bowl on the resume — not to mention guys who like to talk — to fly completely under the radar.
But with the lion’s share of the attention being paid to quarterback Baker Mayfield, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the offense, the defense has been overshadowed, if not overlooked, during the preseason.
“It’s cool, it’s cool, it’s cool,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said during training camp. “Defense wins championships, everybody knows that. It’s Sundays, getting on the field, doing what we do. The credit will come when Sunday comes.”
Coach Freddie Kitchens is an offensive guy. He played quarterback at Alabama, then spent his time as an NFL assistant coaching tight ends, quarterbacks and running backs.
He’s in charge of the entire team now and repeatedly called out reporters for not asking about the defense — even if they had. He was sending a message.
“Freddie came in the first day of training camp, said football games are going to be won with this room on defense right here,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “I think everybody in the building has gotten the message and is backing it. With Coach Wilks leading the way, everybody expects to be one of the better defenses in the NFL.”
Steve Wilks was hired as defensive coordinator to replace the bombastic Gregg Williams, who spent two years with the Browns and went 5-3 as interim coach last season after Hue Jackson was fired. The defense ranked 30th overall last year, 28th against the run and 25th against the pass.
Wilks is more measured than Williams — and doesn’t mind fading into the background — and won over the players by giving them the freedom they craved but were denied under Williams.
End Myles Garrett felt stifled, complaining Williams limited him to a pair of pass rush moves. The No. 1 pick in 2017 doesn’t plan on being overlooked for long, with the goal of being NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think we’re underrated right now, not many people are looking at us as a defense because we have such a spectacular offense and the guys that we have,” he said. “Our defense, it’s going to creep up on people and they’re going to start to understand, but we have to put the work in and we have to put our money where the mouth is.”
The defense more than held its own during the physical training camp practices and totaled 19 sacks in four preseason games. Center JC Tretter, a Cornell graduate, said Wilks makes it tough for the offense to recognize what’s coming.
“They throw a lot at you. And that’s going to be tough for other teams to figure out what they’re doing,” he said. “They do a great job of disguising and moving around and getting in different positions.
“They’re not a team that’s just going to sit in their base defense and just going to rotate three calls over and over again. They’re going to keep throwing stuff at you and find where your weak spot is.”
Opposing coaches might pull out their hair searching for the weak spot on the Browns defense.
Kitchens insists the line is the strength of the team with Garrett and Olivier Vernon at end, Sheldon Richardson and Ogunjobi at tackle and plenty of quality depth. Garrett, Vernon and Richardson have been to the Pro Bowl, and Garrett predicted Ogunjobi is headed for one this season.
“They definitely could be one of the most chaotic causing defensive lines in the history of the NFL,” Schobert said. “If everybody stays healthy up there, there’s a lot of powerful dudes. There’s a lot of dudes on that D-line past the top four who are going to be disruptive. If they all stay healthy and they get a good pitch count and everybody gets reps and is fresh during the game, there’s no telling how good they can make the rest of the defense look.”
The secondary is led by cornerback Denzel Ward, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year, and free safety Damarious Randall, who had four interceptions and belonged in the Pro Bowl discussion. Terrance Mitchell and TJ Carrie are experienced veterans joined by second-round rookie Greedy Williams at cornerback. Morgan Burnett, Jermaine Whitehead and Eric Murray enable Wilks to use the three-safety packages he prefers.
The linebackers are considered the weak link by some, but Schobert was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and Christian Kirksey has been a tackle machine when healthy. All three levels have talent.
“I feel like we can be very dominant,” Ward said. “I feel we’ve got a great defensive line and we’ve just got to go out and show it and prove it day in and day out once the season gets started.”