New Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pays tribute to good work ethic by donning the jersey of players he's pleased with. He honored backup linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk on Wednesday. (TheLandOnDemand)
Browns pass rusher Za’Darius Smith happy to play 4-3 end in Jim Schwartz’s defense
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Takeaways from Browns OTA practice and interviews …
Cleveland is Za’Darius Smith’s fourth NFL stop in nine years. But it marks the first time the natural pass rusher will play in a 4-3 defensive system with essentially one task – attack the quarterback.
That’s the over-riding philosophy of new coordinator Jim Schwartz’s system.
“We just need you to get off the ball, man,” Schwartz told Smith in their first conversation. “We know that you haven't had that in the last past eight years.”
Smith is overjoyed to return to playing end in a three-point stance and not having to worry about other linebacker responsibilities in a standup stance in the 3-4.
“I played it in college and I played it in junior college and my first year of high school,” he said. “That was my first time playing football, was a 4-3 end. I’m used to it, but it’s been eight years, so trying to learn the new techniques and get back to what I used to do. Hand in the dirt.”
As an edge rusher in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense in Green Bay in 2019 and 2020, Smith had 13.5 and 12.5 sacks. Last year in Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense in Minnesota, Smith had 10 sacks, but only 1.5 over his last nine games while he played through a knee injury to qualify for a $200,000 per-game contract incentive.
“You would dress up too, right?,” he said with a laugh. “Exactly.”
Smith has 54.5 career sacks in 107 games.
“I probably would have had 100 sacks by now [if I’d played in a 4-3],” he said. “I’m just happy to be here, man. Happy to be with [Schwartz], happy to be with the coaching staff, man. This is a great organization. Can’t wait.”
Smith replaces Jadeveon Clowney as the gun-for-hire complement to Myles Garrett. Clowney exited the Browns after expressing contempt for Garrett and claiming the Browns set him up to be the feature sack-master.
Smith said he is looking forward to bonding with Myles Garrett (who was among the absent from voluntary OTAs on Wednesday). Smith, a three-time Pro Bowler, was asked how he feels playing second fiddle to Garrett.
“I don’t even think about that,” he said. “I just play my role as a player. And when you go into a team, different team, you can’t focus on that stuff. You got to be all about the team and helping the team win.”
Thornhill and fan negativity
New Browns safety Juan Thornhill is used to hearing positive vibes from fans. In four years with the Chiefs, Kansas City fans saw their team end a 50-year Super Bowl drought and appear in three Super Bowls, winning two.
“Those fans there, I would not say too cocky … they were just like, ‘We’re going to win this week.’ And the players can feel that,” Thornhill said. “Like when you walk into the stadium, you know that you’re going to win and everyone is behind you. You don’t want to be walking around with fans saying, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to win or not. I hope we win this year.’
“We don't want to see that as a team. We want them guys to be behind us, pushing us every day, and like, we're going to win. And once you have your fans backing you up, they make us want to play harder for you, as fans."
Which is why when he felt negative vibes from Browns fans via social media last week, Thornhill Tweeted, “If y’all can’t tell I’m tired of the negativity and I’ve only been here for 3 weeks. We will Win this year”
I explained to Thornhill that Cleveland fans are scarred because the Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl while Kansas City fans are sitting on top of the NFL world right now.
"Yeah, I mean, that's true,” he said. “When you're winning a lot, you're not going to see here and expect to lose. So the fans definitely play a big role in that.
“It’s all good. "It's all good. Like I said, it's a new start. Whatever happened last year is last year. This is a new year and this is what we're working for, to get to the Super Bowl this season."
Schwartz’s jersey tribute
Schwartz wore a No. 51 Browns jersey at practice to honor backup linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk’s exemplary work ethic during OTAs. Schwartz has been doing this over the years at various jobs he’s held.
“What he’s doing is he’s telling the players about another player that’s doing it the right way, a guy that’s doing it how we want it done, that’s embodying what we do out on the practice field and in the meeting room,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “So coach Schwartz is a fan of Jordan today. You’ll see, he’s a fan of a bunch of guys over the course of these practices, but Jordan’s a guy that continues to always do what he’s supposed to do. So coach has given him some love.”
Besides Garrett, other prominent players missing Wednesday’s practice included running back Nick Chubb, tight end David Njoku and guard Joel Bitonio. I asked Stefanski how annoying it was to him that Garrett, in particular, has chosen to miss voluntary practices while Schwartz is installing a defense new to him. The coach chuckled at the word “annoying,” and answered, “I’m not going to characterize it. I think it’s a voluntary program and the guys that are here, we coach them up. That’s how we approach it.” …
Former Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is a guest of the Browns during OTAs, as he ponders pursuing a coaching career. “I think the world of him, this building thinks the world of him. So he’s visiting with us this week,” Stefanski said. “Just having him meet with different people and spend some time with different people and impart some of that knowledge that he’s had over that career. I think that’s totally invaluable for our young players. What ultimately it means for his future, I think that also remains to be seen, but it’s a visit and let him get to know different areas of our building.” …
Tight end Jordan Akins, who was Deshaun Watson’s teammate with the Texans for three seasons, said he recognized the stress Watson played under in his Browns debut in Houston last season. Watson threw a lot of balls in the dirt in his first game in 700 days, but the Browns prevailed, 27-14. “I met with him after the game,” Akins said. “I told him, ‘Great job with battling adversity. Overcome it. It’s huge for you to come back and win this game. So you made a statement.’”