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Browns defense has market corner-ed

Cleveland’s cornerbacks have put a modern twist on the classic saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

“We want all smoke. We want every receiver. I feel like that’s what makes us us,” Greg Newsome II told The Chronicle-Telegram. “We don’t double anybody, we’re going to go play our side and we’re going to win.”

Newsome is joined by Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson Jr. to form arguably the league’s top cornerback trio. New coordinator Jim Schwartz has loaded them with smoke — pressure and responsibility. They’ve responded by being fire — exceptionally good — all season.

The Browns have had the top-ranked pass defense throughout the season, starting by holding Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow to 82 yards in a Week 1 win. They kept four opponents under 100 net yards and ended the season allowing a league-low 164.7.

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They’ve repeatedly proclaimed themselves the world’s best secondary and aren’t backing down after a dominant regular season and with the playoffs starting Saturday in Houston.

“Say what you want, but it’s the actions that mean the most,” Emerson told The Chronicle. “I feel we stood on what we wanted to accomplish this year. We still have everything we want ahead of us, and that’s winning the Super Bowl, and that’s what we’re working toward one game at a time.”

The success hasn’t come easily. As Schwartz is quick to point out, the amount of zone coverage he calls ranks near the bottom of the league. He loves the freedom man coverage gives him with the other defenders.

“I’m really proud of our corners,” Schwartz said. “We put a lot of pressure on our corners. Those guys all relish the one-on-one. You can’t play corner if you’re trying to hide.

“I wouldn’t trade our corner room for anybody in the NFL.”

The challenge from the Texans is rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who threw for 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He can extend plays and throw downfield, and his top target is receiver Nico Collins, who caught 80 passes for 1,297 yards and eight touchdowns. Injuries have robbed the Texans of much of the depth behind him.

“Big guy, great at the catch point, can run a bunch of routes,” Newsome said of Collins. “He’s just a big target so he’s a guy you got to be in phase with. You got to play physical with him. Him and C.J. are one of the better duos in the league for sure.”

The Texans know it won’t be easy. Stroud didn’t play in Cleveland’s 36-22 win Dec. 24, and the Browns limited backup Case Keenum to 62 yards with two interceptions and three sacks before he was yanked in the second half.

“Their secondary is sticky in coverage, so with their defense, there’s not a lot of space,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “They’re on guys and are going to make you earn it, and that’s what makes them good.”

The cornerbacks were solid last year. They’re at another level this season.

“Just our work ethic,” Emerson said. “Obviously our play, you can cut the tape on and obviously you can see that. But it’s the things people don’t see, that the camera don’t see, that the naked eye don’t see, those things that we do together just to be great. And I feel like that’s what made us take this leap this year.”

Ward was selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his six seasons. The Browns were annoyed he wasn’t joined by Emerson and/or Newsome.

“Definitely made me mad,” Newsome said. “But it’s a lot of great corners. I mean, those corners on that list are some of the best in the world, as well. But I just feel like being a focal part of this defense, being the No. 1 secondary, that at least two, honestly, if M and Ward had got in and I wouldn’t have, I’d have been OK.

“So I just felt like we deserved a little bit more respect from that.”

Ward is No. 1 among the three in experience and skill. He was the No. 4 pick out of Ohio State in 2008 and is having arguably his best season despite missing three games with a shoulder injury. He has two interceptions, 11 passes defensed and a forced fumble.

He was listed as questionable after his knee was injured Thursday in practice but is expected to play.

“It’s definitely a blessing,” he said of the Pro Bowl nod. “It’s just a testament to the team and I wasn’t able to do it by myself and they just been putting me in great positions all year to make plays.”

Emerson was asked his favorite thing about Ward’s game.

“Just God-given ability, just being Denzel,” he said. “Going out there, making plays and bringing guys along with him.”

Emerson, a third-round pick in 2022, was a revelation as a rookie and has taken another step this year. He has four interceptions, 14 passes defensed and 59 tackles. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he has special size for a corner and fears no one.

“He’s had a great year. It’s been impressive to watch,” Schwartz said. “Pro Bowl didn’t agree, but we’re really glad to have him.”

Newsome, a first-round pick in 2021, starts on the outside then shifts inside in the nickel and dime packages. He gave up some big catches to Courtland Sutton while taking Ward’s spot in the loss at Denver but has responded with the best five-game stretch of his career.

He got his first two interceptions this year, returning one 34 yards for a touchdown in the comeback win in Baltimore, and has 14 passes defensed, 49 tackles, four for loss, and a half-sack. He said he’s been at an “elite” level since the Broncos game and credited a shift in mindset.

“Knowing that each snap means something,” he said. “My team needs me out there, especially when one of our best corners, one of the best corners in the league is out. I knew the team needed me to patrol out there outside a little bit more and play to my ability. So that was pretty much the biggest difference.”

Newsome always brings the energy, and with him playing with confidence and aggression, the trio has been further elevated.

“Greg, he’s a very smart, accountable teammate,” Emerson said. “When you’re out there on the field with him you know he’s going to be a big speaker, he’s going to make sure everybody is in order and keep everybody calm and that’s his job as the nickel. Communication and execution.”

Newsome (6-0, 192) and Ward (5-11, 190) have good size, and none of the three is afraid to tackle. As the stakes get higher and the lights shine brighter in the playoffs, there’s no indication they will shrink from the challenge.

“It was a special moment just to bring the playoffs to the city of Cleveland,” said Ward, who went to Nordonia High School. “We didn’t get this far just to get this far, so we’re looking to make something happen in there and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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