The Cleveland Browns are 1-1 coming off a big win against the Cincinnati Bengals, and while the offense is showing signs of significant improvement, the Browns defense is a huge question mark. The scheme is one part of the equation, but a rash of injuries has left the secondary and linebacker rooms in tatters. If Cleveland hopes to continue winning, they’ll need to get some key defenders back quickly.
The Cleveland Browns defense must get healthy in a hurry
Olivier Vernon is unsurprisingly injured once again
Olivier Vernon has developed a reputation for being injury-prone over the past few seasons, and an abdomen injury sidelined him for Cleveland’s Thursday Night victory. When healthy, he’s a significantly above-average player against both the run and the pass and is an excellent complement to superstar Myles Garrett.
His injury doesn’t appear to be too serious, so he should be able to return against the Washington Football Team on September 27. The Browns defense will be going up against second-year rookie Dwayne Haskins, and the defensive line could wreak havoc on the young signal-caller, as Washington’s offensive line is one of the weaker groups in the league.
Adrian Clayborn will try to play through the pain
Vernon’s absence on Thursday thrust Adrian Clayborn into the starting lineup before he exited with a hip flexor strain that he will reportedly attempt to play through. He’s logged a sack in each of his two games thus far and has been one of the NFL’s most underrated pass-rushers for a while now.
He allows defensive coordinator Joe Woods to rotate out Garrett and Vernon, keeping all three players fresh. It would be a significant loss if Clayborn can’t go, although Porter Gustin filled in quite well on Thursday night.
Two starting linebackers potentially returning soon
Mack Wilson’s return could provide a massive boost to the entire Browns defense
Wilson was drafted in the fifth round in 2019 and was labeled a steal by many because of his Alabama pedigree. In reality, Wilson played like a fifth-rounder. He struggled mightily early on, as he was thrust into a starting rule due to Christian Kirksey suffering a season-ending injury.
Wilson showed improvement as the year went on, and by the end of the campaign, was a replacement-level player. For a prospect who likely needed another season in college, that’s not bad at all. His excellent coverage ability didn’t quite translate to the NFL as a rookie, but hopefully, that will come with time.
Entering camp as the presumed starter at WILL, Wilson suffered a hyperextended knee that he was able to avoid having surgery on. Initially, it was feared that Wilson suffered complete ligament tears and would be out for the season. He could potentially return to practice this week, and while it’s unlikely he suits up for Washington, getting a starter back will be a big help for the Browns defense as a whole. This is even more important if Wilson can contribute in pass coverage, which is something that both Malcolm Smith and B.J. Goodson are having severe issues with.
Jacob Phillips presents a higher ceiling at MIKE
Third-round rookie Jacob Phillips started for Wilson at WILL and played 12 snaps before suffering a knee injury in Week 1. He didn’t practice last week, and his status going forward remains in doubt. Although his playing time came at WILL, Phillips’ skillset is better suited for MIKE, where he can stay between the tackles and use his elite explosiveness to blow up run plays.
Coverage was not his strong suit at LSU, so that is an area he will need to improve in. However, his athletic traits give him more potential in the middle than veteran starter B.J. Goodson, whose first two games as a Brown have not gone well. Goodson tackles well, but he lacks the athleticism or instincts to make impact plays and has been routinely picked on in coverage. Smith is a better athlete, but he has many of the same issues as Goodson. Both players are what they are at this point in their respective careers; veterans best suited as backups and special teamers.
Phillips was a third-round pick (and selected over other prospects such as Ohio State’s Malik Harrison) for a reason; this regime likes what he can bring to the table, and there’s really no downside to playing him over Goodson. Phillips called the defense at LSU, and he is capable of doing the same as a rookie. Whether or not Woods will actually move Goodson to the bench is another story.
Two starting cornerbacks have yet to play
Greedy Williams has the ability, but availability has been an issue
Following the 2017 college football season, Williams was a projected top-five pick. He had the height, speed, and man cover skills to be an elite player. By the time the 2018 NFL Draft rolled around, he had fallen to the second round, where Cleveland moved up to get him. His rookie season was not great, but that elite talent hasn’t gone anywhere.
He has the potential to be an excellent number two to Denzel Ward’s number one, but he has to be on the field for that to happen. He missed four games early last season because of a hamstring issue, and now he’s missed the past few weeks of practice to a shoulder injury. Terrance Mitchell has done a stable job in Williams’ absence, but the Browns defense needs its starter back on the field.
Kevin Johnson is fortunate to be alive
Johnson was signed to play the slot for the Browns after a fine season for the Buffalo Bills. He had an impressive training camp before a teammate fell on him during a drill, and Johnson’s kidney was lacerated. He has not practiced since, but the more important thing is that he’s even in a position to keep playing football.
That injury can be fatal depending on the severity, and thankfully Johnson’s was relatively minor. Special teams ace Tavierre Thomas has gotten a chance to play slot over the past two games, and the results aren’t great. Waiver claim and 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-round pick M.J. Stewart dealt with a hamstring injury early in camp but is now healthy.
He didn’t see the field defensively in Week 1 and got just seven defensive snaps in Week 2. Oddly, Thomas is playing over Stewart, but neither should be heavily counted upon. Johnson’s return could make the biggest impact of any player mentioned above, whenever it ends up happening.