Browns' Joe Woods must grow in the land of defensive coordinators with worlds of experience

Steve Doerschuk
The Repository
Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods, right, and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin, center, talk to linebacker Jacob Phillips during a game against the Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cleveland. The Browns won 24-22. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Kevin Stefanski played 20 questions in his season-ending Zoom conference, but no one asked him about the 2020-21 defense.

Everyone is talking about it.

Issues that followed the Browns through the season came to a head in Kansas City, where a comeback fell short when it couldn't stop replacement quarterback Chad Henne.

One reason the Browns slid to 6-10 in 2019 was a defense that never found itself under a new coordinator, Steve Wilks. The 2020 Browns made a quantum leap to 12-6, but the defense took a statistical step backward under Wilks' replacement, Joe Woods.

The 2019 Browns were superior to the 2020 Browns in points allowed (393-419), passing yards allowed (3,470-3,962), opponent passer rating (89.0-94.8), touchdown passes allowed (25-31), and interceptions (14-11).

The 2020 run defense gave up 1,773 yards, a notable improvement over the 2,315 rushing yards permitted in 2019. The sacks made by the 2019 and 2020 defenses were even at 38 apiece.

Bottom line: The 2020 defense did enough to help make Cleveland the story of the year in the NFL, but needs to get better.

Without launching the long discussion of why Stefanski intends to keep Woods, suffice it to acknowledge that he does. In the interview that stands as his final word on the season, Stefanski didn't mention Woods specifically, but he did say, "I expect the coaching staff back next season."

"They worked very, very hard in some tough circumstances," the head coach said. "I loved the way our group worked together and very much tried to solve problems as they came about."

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Woods, 50, spent 2020-21 installing a system, playing dodge ball with COVID-19, experimenting with linebackers and scrambling to field a secondary.

A piece of good news, via General Manager Andrew Berry, is that cornerback Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit are on course to return and play at "a high level" in 2021. Losing both of them to injuries for all of 2020 left Woods behind the 8-ball all season.

There were numerous fires to put out, and Woods had little experience at being the fire chief. A word on his background:

He grew up about 15 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, played defensive back at Illinois State, and made seven stops as a college defensive backs coach, including Muskingum and Kent State. He broke into the NFL with Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, spent eight seasons in Minnesota when Stefanski also was a Vikings assistant, and landed his first coordinator job with the Broncos in 2017. 

Denver fired head coach Vance Joseph following the 2018 season, and Woods spent a year with the 49ers under coordinator Robert Saleh. He then accepted Stefanski's invitation to join the Browns.

San Francisco 49ers defensive backs coach Joe Woods leads a drill during a combined NFL training camp with the Denver Broncos last year.

Woods often had to game plan against offenses operated by experienced coordinators, as evidenced by the offensive coordinators from the five teams that beat the Browns. 

Greg Roman, whose 2020 Ravens scored 85 points in two wins against Cleveland, coordinated 49ers offenses that went 36-11-1 from 2011-13 and went to a Super Bowl. Randy Fichtner was in his 14th year with the Steelers, his third as coordinator. Las Vegas' Greg Olson was in his 14th year as an NFL coordinator. Adam Gase was play caller for the Jets, having landed two head coaching jobs based on past offensive coordinator work. Kansas City's Andy Reid is a master play caller, working alongside three-year offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

On offense, Stefanski was supported by NFL long-timers Bill Callahan, Alex Van Pelt and Stump Mitchell. The deepest coaching resume among Woods' assistants belonged to linebackers coach Jason Tarver, who was a coordinator for the Raiders from 2012-14 but was out of the NFL before joining the 2020 Browns, coordinating the defense at Vanderbilt in 2018 and '19.

The four teams still alive in the Super Bowl chase all have "name" defensive coordinators. Their quick profiles:

- Steve Spagnuolo (Chiefs) was a coordinator on a Super Bowl winner (Giants) before becoming head coach of the Rams. He then returned to coordinator work with the Saints and Giants before Reid lured him to the Chiefs in 2019.

- Leslie Frazier (Bills) sandwiched D-coordinator stints with the Bengals, Vikings and Buccaneers around a head coaching run in Minnesota. Sean McDermott recruited him to Buffalo in 2017.

- Todd Bowles (Buccaneers) played in the NFL for eight years before coaching defensive backs on the Browns' 2002 playoff team. He was a coordinator for the Cardinals (2013-14) before a run as head coach of the Jets (2015-18). Bruce Arians, who was on that 2002 Browns staff, brought in Bowles as coordinator in 2019.

- Mike Pettine (Packers) had the Browns at 7-4 in 2014 before his head coaching run in Cleveland crashed. He had been a coordinator for the Jets and Bills. This is his third year with the Packers.

The coordinators in last year's conference finals were veterans Spagnuolo, Pettine, Saleh and Dean Pees (Titans). 

Teams that make deep runs sometimes dismiss coordinators. Bob Sutton was in his sixth year in charge of the Chiefs' defense when Reid fired him after a 37-31 overtime loss to New England in the AFC title game two years ago.

That same postseason, the Rams reached the Super Bowl with Wade Phillips coordinating the defense. The Rams then went 9-7 the next year and did not renew Phillips' contract. He had been an NFL coordinator or head coach for more than 30 years, at one point working with Woods.

The 2017 final four included experienced coordinators Jim Schwartz (Eagles), George Edwards (Vikings) and Pettine. Jacksonville's Todd Wash was the outlier, similar to Woods in both age and coaching experience.

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Woods can't do anything about his experience but try to get more of it and grow.

He certainly has been around experience. His first NFL job was as an entry-level defensive coach for the 2004 Buccaneers, whose defensive staff included Rod Marinelli, Monte Kiffin, Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris.

In 2015, Woods was defensive backs coach in Denver under coordinator Wade Phillips. That team beat Carolina 24-10 in Super Bowl 50.

In this Aug. 5, 2018, file photo, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Woods takes part in drills at the team's training camp in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Coordinating the 2020 Browns defense was an experience like none other. Williams and Delpit never made it to the opener. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward lost games to COVID-19. Players who had shrinking roles with previous teams became Browns mainstays.

“That is what the year has been about," Woods said recently. "When the season started, given what we were going through, I felt like it was going to be the year for everybody to contribute. 

"Throughout the season, we were shorthanded, players and coaches. Guys stepped up and made big plays to help us. It was just awesome to see.

"In terms of what (Stefanski) was trying to do to change the culture, it was all about working, staying focused and doing your job. We carried that through with our defensive identity."

The season produced a fair number of defensive highlights. Garrett was the league's player of the month for October. In a must-win road game, the Giants were held to six points. In the playoff win at Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger got picked four times.

The highlight reel must get thicker in 2021. It will be no surprise if Woods takes a step forward with more time to get his feet on the ground, and an experienced defensive coach is brought in to assist him.

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@gannnett.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP