BEREA, Ohio -- During Wednesday’s OTA practice, new Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz stood by the center on almost every 7-on-7 snap.
“Just trying to hear guys communicate,” Schwartz said afterward. “To have a little presence out there.”
Schwartz’s presence already is being felt.
The veteran coach and former Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles has been tasked with revamping a Browns defense that finished 20th in efficiency last season. And whether it’s been his booming voice, him curiously wearing the No. 51 jersey of hard-working backup linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, or the schematic changes he’s been implementing in recent weeks, Schwartz is visibly putting his imprint on Cleveland’s defense heading into minicamp.
“We need to be coached up,” said Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward. “It’s good criticism. Just guys got to be out here knowing what they’re supposed to do and doing our job, and he’s making sure that he’s holding us to that standard.”
Despite a talented overall unit in 2022, Cleveland’s defense never coalesced under coordinator Joe Woods, contributing to the Browns’ disappointing 7-10 finish. The secondary blew numerous coverages in key situations, from the Week 1 opener against the Carolina Panthers to the season-finale loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Communication, among other things, has been a point of emphasis for Schwartz this offseason, underscoring why he’s often been coaching from the center snap.
“You have to really feel the players,” Schwartz said. “We’re learning the players and we’re learning their different personalities and we’re learning where they’re going to need to be pushed, where things are going to fall. So it’s a learning experience for us [coaches] too. And I like to be out there, just in the mix, and think there’s a lot of good information out there.”
One way Schwartz hopes to eliminate breakdowns in the secondary next season is by simplifying the coverages. For all their struggles last season, the Browns ranked No. 1 in opposing QBR defense when in man coverage. With Schwartz looking to unleash his defensive front on opposing quarterbacks, Cleveland should be in man coverage far more this season; the Browns were in man on 45.5% of opponents' dropbacks last season. Schwartz says he believes his cornerback trio of Ward, former first-round pick Greg Newsome II and reigning all-rookie performer Martin Emerson Jr. will be up to that challenge.
“We’ve got good corners,” Schwartz said, “and we’re going to rely on those guys.”
Schwartz hasn’t been vague as to why.
“I won’t keep any secrets,” he said, before admitting that the Browns will be sending at least five pass-rushers after the quarterback on almost every play.
And unlike in past seasons in Cleveland, Schwartz says he’s aiming to feature a defensive line rotation of at least nine players in hopes of keeping them all fresh through the fourth quarter -- with the goal of creating far more sacks, tackles for loss and, ultimately, turnovers.
“The tempo that we want those guys to play, we want to need to rotate fresh troops in,” he said. “Offensive lines don’t sub, but we can. We can keep the pressure on.”
The Browns failed to create negative plays last year, despite featuring All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett. Cleveland ranked just 27th in the league with 34 sacks (with Garrett alone accounting for 16 of those); the Browns were also just 21st in interceptions (11) and 22nd in forced fumbles (11).
“I first came in and he was telling me all the things that he wanted me to do,” said Pro Bowl defensive end Za'Darius Smith, whom the Browns landed in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings before the start of OTAs. “He was like, ‘Man, we just need you to get off the ball.'”
Smith won’t be the only one -- that much is clear. The Browns won’t be hanging back in 2023. Schwartz’s presence won’t allow it.
“We want to be physical, and we want to have a little personality,” Schwartz said. “All the good defenses have those things. Those are the things that we’re going to emphasize as we go.”