Browns running out of time to turn around defense after latest collapse

CLEVELAND -- Myles Garrett called it “disrespectful” for the Chargers to go for it on fourth down. Forgive Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley for disrespecting the Cleveland Browns' deteriorating defense.

Getting a first down on the Browns these days isn’t so tough.

Cleveland actually got the stop on fourth-and-1 to set up a game-winning field goal try (which Cade York would miss anyway). But by that point, the damage had already been done to a Browns defense that came into the season expected to be among the NFL’s best -- yet, through five weeks, ranks among the worst.

“Not good,” replied defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, when asked for his assessment of the defense. “We got the names and the pieces on paper, but we got to come out here and put it together. ... I expect a lot out of this defense. And right now, we ain’t showing up and doing it.”

Cleveland fell to 2-3 on Sunday following a 30-28 loss to the Chargers that was about far more than just another poor defensive showing.

Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett continued his troubling trend of saving his interceptions for the game’s final minutes, Sunday’s a back-breaking, unforced pick near the goal line just as Cleveland was about to punch in the go-ahead touchdown.

York, meanwhile missed two field goals in the second half, the first time he says he’s ever missed two field goals in a single game -- high school, college or pro. Since nailing the game-winning, 58-yard field goal in the opener at Carolina to bail out the defense after its first fourth-quarter collapse, the rookie has struggled, along with Cleveland’s other special teams units.

But none of that was supposed to matter so acutely. Not with Cleveland’s star-studded defense carrying the load, at least until quarterback Deshaun Watson's return in Week 13 (Watson will be allowed back in the Browns training facility Monday, but can’t practice until Nov. 14 as he continues to serve his 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy for committing sexual assault on massage therapists).

Cleveland’s defense, which now ranks 30th in efficiency, instead has withered.

And just when the Browns seem to plug one hole (inexplicable breakdowns in coverage the first two games), others (tackling and stopping the run the past two games) emerge.

“Every pass is not just on the secondary, every run is not just on the front -- it takes all 11 [defenders],” said safety John Johnson III. “Not one thing we can put our finger on. Not like it’s one person or one position group. It’s just like all 11, we’re not playing at a high level.”

On Sunday, it was one of the NFL’s worst rushing teams coming into the weekend running the ball at will on Cleveland.

The Chargers actually out-gained Cleveland and its vaunted rushing attack on the ground (238-to-213), which propelled them to their second 14-point comeback on the Browns in as many seasons. The Chargers are 0-14 when down two touchdowns to everyone else in the league since 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

L.A.’s Austin Ekeler led the way with 173 yards, including a 71-yard dash up the middle, which set up a field goal and jump-started the Chargers after a slow start. Ekeler wound up with 98 rushing yards over expectation, according to Next Gen Stats, the most by of any NFL player in a game in the last two seasons.

“We gave up way too many yards, including a real big one early in the game,” said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, whose defense surrendered 172 yards in the second half alone in the 23-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last weekend. “It’s always a combination of things, but we have to be better stopping the run. Have to.”

Something will have to give defensively if the Browns are to have any hope of contending for a playoff spot -- a prospect that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods still appears to have time to fix his defense’s multitude of issues. But with a brutal upcoming schedule, featuring some of the most lethal offenses in the league, time is running out.

“We have to take pride in doing our job,” Garrett said. “Right now, we have to have some more pride.”

Having more pride would be a good start.

But the Browns also have to tackle a lot better and cover a lot better and force a lot more than just four turnovers all season.

Otherwise, a once promising season will begin to slip away -- if it hasn’t begun to already.