Big-name Browns defense continues to come up small against Cardinals

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal

CLEVELAND — The Browns’ rebuilt defense looks like a mirage.

The orange-colored glasses that fans and observers used to view General Manager Andrew Berry’s offseason upgrades, especially in the secondary, boosted expectations into the Super Bowl stratosphere.

On Sunday, the Browns thudded to earth. Again.

Not all the issues were on the defensive side of the ball. But the Browns were a discombobulated mess in a 37-14 loss to the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals at FirstEnergy Stadium, and Berry, coach Kevin Stefanski, defensive coordinator Joe Woods and the rest of the coaching staff were not exempt from the blame.

Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) is brought down by Cleveland Browns free safety John Johnson (43) and Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Anthony Walker (4) during the second half of an NFL football game at FirstEnergy Stadium, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

In four of the Browns’ six games, the defense has underachieved. It saved a 14-7 victory at Minnesota on Oct. 3 when quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled. It sacked Chicago Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields nine times in a 26-6 home victory on Sept. 26.

But in the other four games, the Browns (3-3) have given up 138 points. For those scoring at home, that’s an average of 34.5 points.

“Busted coverage” has been the operative phrase the past two Sundays against the Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers, along with “a lack of communication.”

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The defense’s performance is not what Berry had in mind when he paid free safety John Johnson III $33.75 million over three years with a $12 million signing bonus and $24 million guaranteed. Berry is not getting what he expected out of cornerback Troy Hill or linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., in his second game back from a hamstring strain that landed him on injured reserve.

Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Anthony Walker (4) brings down Arizona Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds (2) during the first half of an NFL football game at FirstEnergy Stadium, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

This is not what the Browns expected when they drafted cornerback Greg Newsome III 26th overall and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah 52nd. Owusu-Koramoah, a former Notre Dame star, was juked at the 10-yard line by Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins on a 13-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Safety Grant Delpit, playing his first full season after suffering a torn Achilles a year ago, also took Hopkins’ bait on the score.

Myles Garrett alone can't save Browns defense

“Right now we just have to find ourselves,” Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We’re not rushing like we’re supposed to, we’re not covering like we’re supposed to. We’re not living up to who we are and the position that we have.”

That position is slipping fast. Garrett’s reputation and skill — and his eight sacks – cannot keep the Browns defense in the upper echelon for much longer, even if the Browns offense is outgaining opponents by nearly 90 yards per game.

Browns foes are converting 45.1% on third down and 62.5% on fourth down. At this point, stopping quarterback Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals is not a given, much less the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, playing better than his 2019 NFL MVP season.

Against the Cardinals, the Browns’ lack of discipline on defense brought back shudder-inducing memories of the one-and-done Freddie Kitchens’ era.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) catches a pass against Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21) during the second half of an NFL football game at FirstEnergy Stadium, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

On a 78-yard Cardinals touchdown drive that staked them to a 14-0 lead, the Browns were flagged for four defensive penalties for 43 yards. Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward drew pass interference calls of 8 and 24 yards while attempting to cover Hopkins. Defensive tackle Malik McDowell accounted for the other two — a desperate 7-yard (half the distance) face mask grab as running back Rondale Moore shot past him and a 4-yard unnecessary roughness call when quarterback Kyler Murray stepped out of bounds as he threw.

Penalties hurt Cleveland Browns again in loss to Arizona Cardinals

The penalties appeared to be borderline, and the calls stoked the crowd into a frenzy.

Ward didn’t agree with his two flags, saying, “I felt like I did my job. I was shutting my man down. It was put in the refs’ hands. They made some calls that went the offense’s way. Just got to play the next play.”

Asked if the penalties took the air out of the defense, Garrett said, “It’s frustrating, of course. You can dispute the calls all you want. But you’re still out there, you’ve still got to make the stop, you’ve still got to show up to play. Whether it’s one yard or 10 yards, you’ve got to defend that goal line, you’ve got to defend the end zone like it’s your last play.

“It doesn’t matter about the penalties; we can’t let that get to us or shake us. We’ve got to step up and make the play.”

Garrett said adding to the frustration is that the Browns defense can't seem to rush and cover at the same time.

The offense has been ravaged by injuries at key positions. Mayfield is playing with a torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder that he reaggravated during the game. He came to the interview room with his arm in a sling, saying it felt worse than when he was hurt in Game 2 against the Houston Texans.

Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb was inactive with a calf injury and his backup, Kareem Hunt, suffered the same fate with 12:06 remaining. Starting offensive tackles Jack Conklin (knee) and Jedrick Wills Jr. (ankle) sat out, Wills for the second consecutive week.

Kareem Hunt injury:Browns running back carted off against Cardinals with calf injury

This is when the defense needs to step up and carry the Browns, especially in Thursday’s home game against the Denver Broncos. Yet the Browns are still struggling to put the pieces together on defense. After a relatively normal offseason and training camp compared to COVID-19-disrupted 2020, they are still talking about a lack of communication.

Yes, there are many new faces on defense. Everyone knew they would need time to jell. But the defense has played to its potential for only two games. Fixing the busted coverages falls on the leaders, both in the locker room and on the coaching staff.

It’s too soon to say this team can’t make the playoffs. It has way too much talent, albeit much of it banged up, to believe the Browns can’t get it together.

“What, 11 games left? Got time to be 14-3, so I’m not too worried,” Garrett said. “If we can go out there and get better on defense and find our groove. ... We were there for two games, we were in a zone and we had the wind knocked out of our sails. Same thing this week. That doesn’t define us.

“It’s like a boxing match. Lose a couple rounds, come back with some flurries and get the momentum on your side.”

Berry, Stefanski, Garrett and the rest of the Browns built a lot of trust equity in 2020, when the Browns reached the postseason for the first time since 2002.

It seems fair to question whether the defense has the talent the Browns front office thought it had, or that it needs, but the well of trust is far from dry.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at Read more about the Browns at Follow her on Twitter at