Browns' Za'Darius Smith, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo could give Myles Garrett help he's needed

Za'Darius Smith forced a holding call that led to a Browns safety in last week's preseason game against the Commanders. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

BEREA, Ohio -- On the first play of last week’s preseason game, the Washington Commanders attempted a zone-read play. But new Cleveland Browns defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo snuffed out the play for no gain.

On Washington’s ensuing drive, Cleveland’s other new edge rusher, Za'Darius Smith, swooped inside of right tackle Andrew Wylie, creating a beeline to Commanders quarterback Sam Howell. All Wylie could do after was was hold Smith, which led to a penalty that resulted in a safety.

Plays like those are good news for the Browns' defense, and especially All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett.

Last season, Garrett carried Cleveland’s pass rush. Despite facing an NFL-high double-team rate (31.1%) for edge rushers, Garrett produced 16 of the Browns’ 34 sacks last season. Garrett also had 50 “first pressures” as the defender who pressured the quarterback first on a rush. No other Browns defender had more than 21.

But as the preseason game against Washington has suggested, the additions of Smith and Okoronkwo could see Garrett get far more help off the edge this season than he's had, even when former All-Pro Jadeveon Clowney was lining up on the opposite end of the line the past two seasons.

That could provide Garrett with cleaner opportunities to wreak havoc, while potentially giving Cleveland one of the league’s top pass-rushing trios.

“It’s a special group,” Okoronkwo said. “Just playing with those guys, seeing how they rush the passer. They see how I rush the passer and how it all meshes. It’s been really cool to see.”

Last season with the Houston Texans, Okoronkwo, 28, showed signs of taking a major step forward. He ranked 13th in pass rush win rate (19.0%) despite the eighth-highest double-team rate (22.6%). Okoronkwo also finished with a career-high five sacks.

Now, he’ll be operating as Cleveland’s third defensive end off the bench. He’ll spell Garrett and Smith. And in obvious passing situations, he’ll also play alongside Garrett and Smith -- an intriguing lineup new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been experimenting with in practice.

“It’s not an individual position -- one guy might flush the quarterback, another guy makes the sack,” Schwartz said of the defensive line. “One guy might execute a game perfectly to free up another guy. It’s a group. It’s a mentality of all for one, one for all.”

Operating opposite Garrett, Smith could find himself plenty freed up. Smith, 30, has looked healthy again this training camp after battling a knee injury during the second half of last season with the Minnesota Vikings. Until the injury in Week 9, Smith was tied for the NFL lead with 8.5 sacks. While the injury slowed him down, he still finished with 10 sacks.

In his Browns career, Garrett has never had a teammate finish with double-digit sacks. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Garrett is one of five players with 10-plus sacks in at least three of the past four seasons; Smith is one of the other four.

“He’ll allow us to be great,” Garrett said. “Him not getting double-teamed, me not getting double-teamed, just playing off each other like that.”

Defensive line coach Ben Bloom said Garrett and Smith together is like “one-plus-one equals three.”

That could also equal a lot of sacks. And one of the best pass rushes off the edge in the league.