BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns boasted the top defense in the NFL last season in several categories.
The resurgent unit under coordinator Jim Schwartz ranked No. 1 in efficiency, defensive EPA (expected points allowed) and three-and-outs forced. Myles Garrett earned his first Defensive Player of the Year Award, while cornerback Denzel Ward and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah were named to the Pro Bowl. Behind its vaunted defense, the Browns won 11 games and advanced to the playoffs for just the third time since the franchise rejoined the NFL in 1999.
In 2024, the majority of Cleveland's key defensive players are expected back, including Garrett, Ward, JOK, surging cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. and safety Grant Delpit, who signed a three-year extension in December.
In other words, Cleveland appears loaded again defensively. And yet, matching the success of 2023 won't come so easily in 2024. That's because, at least on paper, the Browns' defense will face a much more challenging schedule in 2024 than it did in 2023. That figures to include defending several of the league's top quarterbacks.
In 2023, the Browns saw only three quarterbacks who finished in the top 12 in QBR (Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, San Francisco's Brock Purdy and the Rams' Matthew Stafford). But in 2024, Cleveland will square off against seven QBs who ranked in the top 12 in QBR (reigning MVP Jackson, Dallas' Dak Prescott, Chargers' Justin Herbert, Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, Miami's Tua Tagovailoa and Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts, who led his team to a Super Bowl a year ago).
The Browns probably will also have to deal with a different Joe Burrow, who struggled hobbling around in Week 1 while still recovering from a calf strain (Cleveland played against Cincinnati backup Jake Browning in their second meeting).
On top of that, the Browns will face former No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence again and whomever the Washington Commanders select with the No. 2 pick in this year's draft (probably either North Carolina's Drake Maye or LSU's Jayden Daniels).
This past season, the Browns' defense feasted at home on Ryan Tannehill (who later lost his starting job in Tennessee), rookie Clayton Tune (who was a placeholder until Kyler Murray returned in Arizona) and Trevor Siemian (a journeyman who started for New York only because of Aaron Rodgers' Achilles injury and Zach Wilson's concussion).
Barring injuries, the competition will be far stiffer.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Browns can't continue to dominate. Cleveland suffocated Purdy on Oct. 15 and stunned the 49ers in a 19-17 win in the rain. A month later, the Browns stifled Jackson in Baltimore and forced him into critical turnovers on the way to a remarkable 33-31 victory.
Garrett and Ward are still in their primes. JOK, Delpit and Emerson are entering theirs. Schwartz isn't going anywhere, and his aggressive, man-based scheme has proved to be an optimal fit for Garrett and Cleveland's talented secondary.
But last month's playoff loss in Houston showed how tough it can be consistently slowing down blue-chip quarterback play. In the AFC wild-card round, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year C.J. Stroud torched the Browns. He completed 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns as the Texans rolled, 45-14, to end Cleveland's season.
The Browns won't have to face Stroud again next year, at least during the regular season. But several other elite quarterbacks await. Meaning, to remain No. 1, Cleveland's defense will have to reach yet another level.