BEREA — As new coordinator Joe Woods watched his defense allow 48.3 percent (14-for-29) of third downs to be converted, and all five fourth downs, he felt handcuffed. In the 1-1 start in which the Browns gave up 68 points, he didn’t have his Nos. 2 and 3 cornerbacks and No. 1 linebacker.
That should change Sunday against Washington after cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson and linebacker Mack Wilson returned to practice this week. They are three of the team’s best in pass coverage.
“I just feel like you are getting back to where you have more bullets,” Woods said Thursday. “There are more things we can do. We can be more versatile and create some different packages that we want to create. I think that is the biggest boost.
“For the guys that have been playing, I think now they are gaining confidence. They are out there on the game field. They are making some plays. Overall for the whole defense, it gives us more depth and more confidence at each position.”
Wilson hyperextended his left knee Aug. 18. He was limited again Thursday in practice and wore a brace but would be a big help to an unproven linebacking corps also missing rookie Jacob Phillips (knee).
“Mack is a highly competitive player,” Woods said. “He just brings that toughness to the defense. When he is out there, he is just going 100 miles an hour, and I think guys feed off of that energy.
“Getting him back in the fold will be critical for us defensively just because of what he brings to the entire team, not only the defense.”
Johnson (lacerated liver) was a full participant in practice Thursday and should replace Tavierre Thomas as the nickelback. He’ll get an immediate challenge with Washington receiver Terry McLaurin, who has 12 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown.
Williams (shoulder) was limited for the second straight day after getting injured Aug. 24 in practice. The coaches must decide whether to put him back in the starting lineup right away or stick with Terrance Mitchell.
“We just have to be smart moving forward with those guys not trying to put everything on them from the beginning and just kind of ease them back into it,” Woods said of the corners.
No. 1 corner Denzel Ward (groin) appeared on the injury report Thursday for the first time this season and was listed as limited.
Defensive ends Olivier Vernon (abdomen) and Adrian Clayborn (hip) joined Phillips working on the side.
Baker Mayfield extended his streak of games with an interception to eight with an ill-advised fourth-quarter throw Sept. 17 against the Bengals. He’s thrown 11 picks over the span.
“We never want to throw interceptions, ever, ever,” coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “When they do come up, like the tipped pass in Baltimore, those are ones that you can stomach, but as he grows in this system and learns that if we call a shot play and it is not there, it is OK to check the ball down. You do not have to throw it.
“We are still learning each other, and we are still learning the system. I think you will continue to see that growth. That streak will end soon.”
Even with the interception, Mayfield was much better in Week 2 than the opening loss. He was 16-for-23 for 219 yards, two touchdowns and a 110.6 passer rating against Cincinnati.
“It is just consistency and stacking successes,” Van Pelt said. “I thought he was extremely focused and locked in during the week. He had a great understanding of the plan, and we challenged him to find completions all over the field. We actually put some numbers on him, and he hit those numbers.”
Rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills will get a tough test Sunday when Washington and rookie defensive end Chase Young visit. Young was the No. 2 pick out of Ohio State and has 2.5 sacks, and Wills was the No. 10 pick out of Alabama.
“He has really stepped up. I am really proud of his progress he has made through training camp,” Van Pelt said. “He had some rough days there with those guys rushing him on that left side. Just his ability to fight back and the toughness that he shows.
“Really, you forget he is a rookie when you watch him out there during the game. He is playing really well right now. This challenge will be a good one for him, but we expect him to step up to it.”
IN HIS HEAD
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer didn’t want to make the quick kicking change but felt it was necessary.
Austin Seibert, a fifth-round pick in 2019, was cut after missing an extra point and a 41-yard field goal in the opening loss at Baltimore.
“I was very disappointed,” Priefer said. “We had to make the change. It was a change that was necessary because it was more mental than anything with Austin.
“I think Austin’s still an NFL kicker. I think he’ll kick in this league for a long time if he can get the mental part of it figured out. Because he’s very, very talented.”
Seibert went 25-for-29 on field goals and 30-for-35 on extra points as a rookie.
He was replaced by veteran Cody Parkey, who began the season on the practice squad. The Browns signed Matthew McCrane to the practice squad Tuesday.
“The thing about Cody is he’s very smooth, he’s very accurate,” Priefer said. “He’s a veteran guy that’s been there before. That’s why we brought him in on the practice squad to give us that stability.”
The special teams have had a brutal start through two games. In addition to the kicking problem, a fake punt failed in the opener and the coverage units have given up big returns in both games. Opponents are averaging 37.8 yards on kickoff returns and 13.0 on punt returns.
“It’s not even close,” Priefer said of the start he wanted. “We’re not playing at the expectation level that obviously I had set for this unit, or the guys set for themselves. We take a lot of pride in special teams with the Cleveland Browns and we obviously haven’t covered kicks anywhere near like we covered them a year ago.”
He said they haven’t covered with the same speed, tenacity and leverage from a year ago, and also haven’t tackled as well.
“There are some things that we can do schematically and there are some things that we can do personnel-wise, and we need to do it,” Stefanski said. “I think we have the people to do that.”