BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Joe Woods took the fall for the Cleveland Browns falling flat again.
Cleveland fired its embattled defensive coordinator on Monday as his group's communication issues and inability to stop the run had a major role in the Browns finishing 7-10 and missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
The 52-year-old Woods was one of Kevin Stefanski's first hires in 2020. Cleveland's defense had trouble from the opener, leading to the Browns' 17th double-digit loss season since the franchise's expansion rebirth in 1999.
Stefanski, who was widely criticized for his play-calling, was spared in a season shaped by quarterback Deshaun Watson's 11-game NFL suspension.
“I’d like to thank Joe for his hard work and dedication in his three seasons as our defensive coordinator,” Stefanski said. “I will always have the utmost respect for Joe, the person and the coach.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t perform up to our standards enough this season, and we all share in that responsibility.”
The Browns moved quickly at finding a replacement, requesting permission to interview New England linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, Pittsburgh Steelers assistant Brian Flores, Seattle associate head coach Sean Desai and Tennessee senior defensive assistant Jim Schwartz.
The 36-year-old Mayo played eight seasons with the Patriots before retiring after the 2015 season. Flores was Miami's head coach from 2019-21 before he was fired. He has sued the NFL, alleging racial discrimination.
The Steelers improved across the board with Teryl Austin as their coordinator and Flores focused on the team's linebackers.
“He’s done a great job,” Steelers linebacker Rob Spillane said. "Every day I love coming to work with him. I hope he’s here next year. I hope I get to continue my relationship with him. He’s a mentor to me and somebody I will always look up to and have respect for.”
Woods had been under fire all season and he sensed his dismissal last week, telling reporters, "I hope I get to talk to you guys again,” as he left his weekly news conference.
With Woods in charge, Cleveland's defense, though talented on paper, didn't produce.
The Browns were especially vulnerable to the run, getting gashed for big plays on the ground nearly every week as teams turned to a proven formula.
Woods never ducked responsibility or made excuses despite a rash of injuries, most notably at middle linebacker.
Starters Anthony Walker Jr., Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki all sustained season-ending injuries, forcing Woods to play inexperienced linebackers and general manager Andrew Berry to bring in outside help.
The Browns’ pass defense collapsed late in a Week 2 loss to the New York Jets, who rallied from 13 points down in the final two minutes.
The problem resurfaced in Sunday's 28-14 loss at Pittsburgh as Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Picket threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open George Pickens with Cleveland's defensive backs confused on coverage.
Woods also had to deal with star defensive end Myles Garrett playing hurt for much of the season with a sprained shoulder suffered in a September car crash. Woods' final week included defensive end Jadeveon Clowney being sent home after he criticized the organization and coaching staff.
Clowney was inactive for the finale and didn't make the trip to Pittsburgh.
Cleveland's defense improved some during the season's second half, but there wasn't enough growth to save Woods.
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