In an era of high-flying offenses and rules slanted toward yards and touchdowns, defense can be hard to come by. The amount of truly stalwart defenses in the league feels like they’re dwindling by the year, but the Cleveland Browns appear to have a unit that has ascended beyond the usual bend-but-don’t-break defenses that have been legislated into today's NFL.
The Browns have a defense that’s a legitimate weapon, one good enough to hand Brock Purdy the first regular-season loss of his career and the first loss of the 2023 season for the San Francisco 49ers.
"We know who we are," Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said afterward. "We made a statement to everyone else, but to us, we knew what we had in our building, our room."
The 49ers missing Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey for chunks of this game due to injury, not to mention the rain in Cleveland, certainly helped the Browns’ cause, but Cleveland's defense was the best unit on the field all game against what has been one of the elite offenses in the league this season. Just a week ago, the 49ers scored 42 points against the Dallas Cowboys, and Sunday they were rendered hapless for most of the afternoon against the Browns. Even on the final drive of the game, the Browns played lockdown coverage before a pass interference penalty gave the 49ers life to drive down the field. Kicker Jake Moody ultimately missed what would have been the game-winning field goal from 41 yards.
The Browns held the 49ers to 3.9 yards per play, 25% on third down and 107 total passing yards. Those numbers illustrate how good the Browns were against the 49ers.
This performance confirmed what’s already been known about the Browns for the majority of this season: The defense is special. It's a group good enough to win the AFC and make a run toward the Super Bowl.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been a godsend for this season and he has done an incredible job of putting guys in the right positions for them to develop into the defense that they’ve had the talent to be. Even in a game where P.J. Walker didn't help the Browns all that much en route to victory, the defense did just enough to push the team over the edge. That’s not a great formula for winning a lot of games in the NFL, but it was good enough for this game.
"People say they don't see the stuff on social media. I'm gonna be honest, I saw it," Browns safety Juan Thorhnill said. "It pissed me off, just saying that like, we had some of our fans not believing in us, and obviously the 49ers thought that they were going to come in and just walk all over us. But like I said, I believed all week."
Cleveland’s defense being this good only accentuates something else everyone knew was true about this season: Deshaun Watson needs to show out and be a positive factor for this offense whenever he gets back from his shoulder injury. According to the NFL, the Browns have allowed only 1,002 yards on defense, the third fewest yards in a team’s first five games since the 1970 merger. That’s an incredible feat in 2023, when it seems like even the average quarterbacks have the skills to run up and down the field.
The Browns paid $230 million and three first-round draft picks for Watson and any success they’ve had has largely been in spite of him. This defense has given the Browns a chance to stay in the season and turn things around if the offense can be a consistent contributor.
It’s hard to play good defense with the league's current setup. It’s even harder to field a defense that is, statistically, turning offenses into units that are on par with the offenses from when the league was turning its nose at the idea of the forward pass. A defense this good may be able to lead the Browns to the playoffs, but that’s only a piece of the equation. The offense needs to get moving, which should be easier when Watson gets back from injury.
In an AFC North that features the improving Cincinnati Bengals (3-3), the stalwart Baltimore Ravens (4-2) and the pesky Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2), having a defense that can control a game is paramount. Sunday was a good barometer for what the Browns’ defense is capable of, but the offense needs to start carrying part of the load as well.
There are certainly worse spots to be than 3-2 going into a game against Gardner Minshew II and the Indianapolis Colts (3-3), especially for a defense this damn good.