Defense wins championships. It’s an old phrase, but it’s still true to some extent. A high powered offense can propel a team to the Super Bowl, but at some point a team’s defense needs to stop the other team. Great teams have the perfect match of defensive players and defensive coaches. The most important defensive coach is the defensive coordinator. The last Browns team that had that perfect match was the 1994 Cleveland Browns. A defense minded head coach in Bill Belichick, a great defensive coordinator in Nick Sabin and the right players to execute the scheme, being Defensive Lineman Micheal Dean Perry, Linebackers Carl Banks & Pepper Johnson and Defensive Backs Don Griffin & Eric Turner. The Browns finished that year as the NFL’s number one defense in terms of points surrendered per game (12.8 points per game). It was last time the Browns won a playoff game. The 2020 Cleveland Browns hope they’ve found the right coach to repeat that feat in defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
Joe Woods played safety and corner back at Illinois State University, lettering four years and was team captain his senior year. He earned first team Gateway Conference his final year. Throughout his college and pro coaching career, Woods coached in the defensive back field. His first pro job was in 2004 as defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he coached a secondary featuring Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. Barber earned first team All-Pro from the Associated Press in his two years playing for Woods. In 2006, Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin hired Woods as his secondary coach where he spent eight years coaching Minnesota’s defensive backs.
After one year in Oakland as the Raiders defensive backs coach, Woods was hired by the Denver Broncos to be the secondary coach. Denver finished first in the NFL against the pass (199.6 ypg) while the defensive backfield accounted for eleven interceptions, 56 passes defensed, nine forced fumbles and four touchdowns. After the departure of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Woods was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017. The Broncos finished third in the NFL in total defense, giving up just 290.0 yards per game. The Broncos’ fifth-ranked run defense in 2017 was particularly impressive as it improved by more than 40 yards per game after finishing 28th in the NFL in 2016. In 2019 the San Francisco 49ers hired Woods as their defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator.
The Browns waited to hire Woods until after Super Bowl LIV. In an Akron Bacon Journal article published in February, Stefanski said, “When the Vikings hired Mike Tomlin as the defensive coordinator in 2006, Mike wanted to bring Joe along as his defensive backs coach, which should tell you what kind of coach Joe is,” said Stefanski, who also joined the Vikings in 2006 as an assistant to head coach Brad Childress. “Joe is somebody Mike trusts. They’re very close to this day, and I think Joe’s looking forward to facing him two times a year.”
After Woods was hired by the Browns, much was made about whether the Browns would run a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. The Browns have employed a 4-3 base scheme since 2017, when they drafted standout defensive end Myles Garrett first overall. “I think you want to make sure that you’re putting the guys that you have in the right position to make plays,” Woods said in a team release. “I know the personnel here is tailored toward a 4-3 scheme, which I’m very comfortable with. We’ll stay with the 4-3 system here and focus on putting the guys in the right positions to make plays.”
Woods was familiar with the Browns defense after the 49ers October 7 Monday night domination of the Browns by a score of 31-3. “You could definitely see [the Browns] had some pieces in place, some talented players that I’ve evaluated over the years,” Woods said. “I was definitely excited to have an opportunity to be a coach here.” Just from tradition, pride and the fan base, I know they’re craving for a winner, and I know we’re very close. I feel like if we can get it done, the whole city will erupt. I look forward to that challenge.” It sounds like the Browns made the right hire. Hopefully no one will have to throw the defense a life preserver.