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Jim Schwartz laments defense ‘chasing plays’ in playoff loss, sees plenty of room for improvement in Year 2

The end was an unmitigated disaster.

The defense that had been so good in the regular season — earning the NFL’s No. 1 ranking — was embarrassed in a 45-14 wild card loss in Houston. The Texans averaged 8.1 yards a play for the game and racked up 286 yards in the first half. Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns before halftime and finished with a near-perfect 157.2 passer rating.

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Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz spent a chunk of the offseason studying the ugly game film to identify the cause for the collapse.

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“We chased plays in that game, instead of letting the plays come to us and making the plays that were there,” Schwartz said Thursday during organized team activities, his first time talking to reporters since the playoff loss Jan. 13. “We missed an interception fairly early and it just seemed like we were pressing and guys played a little bit out of character instead of just doing their job with physical toughness and effort and some personality.

“Hopefully that’s a great learning experience for us the next time we’re in that situation. And I think the message is, ‘when you get in those games, it’s who can be themselves the best.’ You could see it on film quite a bit. Guys were pressing, guys were trying to make the play of the game and we learned a very hard lesson and we paid a dear price for that.”

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He was ready with examples.

“It’s a quarterback scramble and you drop your coverage to try to get to the quarterback, or you jump the first move of a receiver trying to make an interception, or you run under a block because you’re trying to make a tackle for a loss,” Schwartz said. “You’re playing a deep zone and you get a little bit antsy because you’re trying to play tight and make a play that maybe isn’t yours to make.

“We have an expression on defense, we call it ‘don’t farm land that’s not yours.’ And we made that mistake.”

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He included himself on the blame list.

“There were a couple times in there that even as a play caller I started pressing,” he said. “A lot of times it just makes things worse.”

The terrible last impression didn’t erase the high level of play throughout the regular season. The defense led the league in yards allowed (270.2 yards per game), passing yards (164.7), first downs (14.9) and third-down conversions (29.1 percent).

“Coming off of a pretty good year of defense, when you look at the film there was a lot of room for improvement, not just in the red zone, but a lot of different areas,” Schwartz said. “We can’t get complacent, we can’t think that last year is going to mean anything. Everybody’s right down to the bottom of the hill again and you got to climb it again. We have to stay hungry that way.”

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The heaping helping of humble pie in Houston should help, and players are already talking as if they get the message loud and clear. Cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. focused on the desire to improve in the red zone, where the Browns ranked last in touchdown percentage (71.4), allowing 30 touchdowns in a league-low 42 trips inside the 20-yard line.

“I feel like we already have a pretty strong foundation, identity here and just find a way to get better and bring everybody along with me on that journey,” he said. “Make sure that we are farther than what we were last year at this point.”

Coach Kevin Stefanski watched Schwartz dissect all the issues from last season.

“There are plays that we feel were left out there,” Stefanski said last week. “I think if you talk to Coach as he watches the tape over the course of the season, he was surprised we were able to stop anybody. He feels like we can be so much better. Some of that comes from different things we can adjust. Some of that comes from putting guys in positions to go make plays. But we are in no way satisfied on defense.”

Schwartz didn’t have a great answer for the problem that plagued the defense for much of the year — the discrepancy in performance at home vs. on the road. The Browns allowed 32.3 points per game on the road vs. 13.9 at home.

He cited a small sample size, a “slightly better” roster of quarterbacks away from the lakefront, key injuries and luck among the potential reasons. He also noted the pressure rate was the same regardless of location but the sack total was much higher at home.

“That’s another thing we looked at real hard,” he said. “It’s something for us to continue to emphasize, but you also don’t want to overreact. You’re talking about basically 6½ games, and it’s like, ‘does this mean that we should change things on the road or should we just have more time on task and keep persevering?’ I sort of tend toward the latter on that.

“I probably think that’s just a little bit more on the way the ball bounces, but we need to continue to play well at home. We’re a good home team and we need to pick our game up a little bit on the road. You still got to bring your own juice on the road a lot of times, and I think we can do that.”

The defense has plenty of reasons for optimism in 2024 despite a difficult schedule loaded with many of the league’s best quarterbacks.

It returns Defensive Player of the Year Myles Garrett along with linemates Za’Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson and Ogbo Okoronkwo, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Emerson and Greg Newsome II and safeties Grant Delpit, Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod. The Browns also signed linebacker Jordan Hicks and drafted Ohio State defensive tackle Mike Hall Jr. in the second round.

The continuity and a second year in Schwartz’s attacking system should allow for a leap, even for the top-ranked unit.

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“We’re obviously in a different spot because we have a year in the system,” Schwartz said. “What that affords us is the ability to work on more change-ups.”

Schwartz loves baseball analogies and called the Browns a “fastball team.” He said he purposely held back elements in the first year, and the scheme naturally rotates about 20 percent from year to year.

“We don’t have to work on the fastball now, we can add different pitches,” he said.

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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