Browns defense won't 'talk about the past,' not No. 1 ranking or humbling playoff loss

Akron Beacon Journal

BEREA — The Cleveland Browns defense couldn't have started last season much better than it did. It also couldn't have finished it much worse than it did.

The defense, which finished the regular season No. 1 in multiple major statistical categories, found itself incapable of slowing down Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud while last January's AFC wild card game remained in doubt. The Browns allowed Stroud to throw for 274 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-14 season-ending beating.

Five months later, the sting of that loss remains evident to Browns defenders. That's even as they all take different approaches to how they've coped with the defeat in its aftermath.

"To be, truthfully, I watched it one time to put it to bed, and I probably watched it again just because I was so frustrated maybe the first time," cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. told the Beacon Journal this week. "But I ain't watch it too much. I just wanted to just put what we did bad to bed and just watch it and just get done with it. But I got to embrace that game and just make sure that never happens again."

Emerson, since being selected in the third round of the 2022 draft, has grown into one of the league's emerging standouts at his position. That game in Houston, however, won't be among the games he puts on any career highlight reel.

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) catches a pass over Cleveland Browns cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. (23) on Oct. 29, 2023, in Seattle.

According to Pro Football Focus, Emerson was targeted three times in the game, and all three times resulted in completions. That includes one touchdown pass surrendered directly, and another score on a play on which he missed a tackle on Houston tight end Brevin Jordan, resulting in a 76-yard touchdown that gave the Texans the lead for good.

It wasn't just Emerson, though. It was an all-system's failure where two of the defense's biggest strengths — pass rush and coverage — were non-existent.

That's why, months after the loss, defensive end Za'Darius Smith found himself being asked what went wrong after Wednesday's OTA session.

"I know something, what coach told me earlier, man," Smith said. "We're not even going to talk about the past, so we're going to focus on the future. How about that?"

Combine the answers by Emerson and Smith and you find yourself landing on a similar spot. It's not about ignoring the past so much as trying to prevent history from repeating itself as a new season begins.

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws a pass as Cleveland Browns defensive end Za'Darius Smith (99) rushes Dec. 17, 2023, in Cleveland.

The reality is that Smith's words extend beyond just the playoff loss. They actually encapsulate the feeling within the building over everything the defense did a year ago, including the lofty rankings it achieved through the regular season.

"Year to year things change, and every year stands on its own merit," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "And I could let (defensive coordinator Jim) Schwartz speak specifically to it, but I know Jim and I know the conversations we've had. We want to be better on defense. There are plays that we feel were left out there.

"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.”

It behooves the Browns not to rest on any laurels from last season, either as a team or as individual players. Although the regular-season opener against the Dallas Cowboys remains more than three months away, it's also a bright, shining reminder of the challenges that await them in the new season.

It's not just the opponents themselves, whether it's the Cowboys or Kansas City Chiefs or Baltimore Ravens or anyone else. It's specifically the quarterbacks who, if they're healthy when the Browns face their teams, could add a degree of difficulty to the schedule that, frankly, wasn't there a year ago.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) scrambles from Cleveland Browns cornerback Cameron Mitchell (29) on Dec. 10, 2023, in Cleveland.

It's seeing Dak Prescott and Trevor Lawrence in the first two weeks alone. It's a four-game stretch of Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert between Weeks 6-9, and then a potential stretch run of Patrick Mahomes, Burrow again, Tua Tagovailoa and Jackson again.

"It's exciting, you know, just to know we're going against a lot of elite talent," Emerson said in post-practice media availability. "You know, we're gonna have to come play every Sunday. I mean, that's our job, you know, that's what we plan on doing. So we'll see on Sunday."

That's when the Browns really can put the playoff loss behind them. Or, at least, show what they learned from it.

Chris Easterling can be reached at ceasterling@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/browns. Follow him on X at @ceasterlingABJ