By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton could use a psychology degree on his resume and a chaise lounge in his office at Browns’ headquarters because his players are struggling mentally.
At least that is Horton’s explanation for the defense melting down and allowing fourth-quarter comebacks in each of the past three games. Horton has touted his players’ statistical achievements for the vast majority of this season, but he spent most of his news conference Thursday lamenting the state of their collective mindset and performance in crunch time.
“I think as the games go on, there’s more pressure to perform well and to not repeat a pattern that has happened in the past,” Horton said. “So is there a psychological-pressure effect? I think there is.”
Excluding the Chicago Bears kneeling down at the end of their 38-31 win this past weekend at FirstEnergy Stadium, Horton’s defense has allowed scores in eight — six touchdowns and two field goals for 47 points — of the last nine fourth-quarter possessions in the past three games. With the Browns (4-10) set to visit the New York Jets (6-8) on Sunday, Horton’s men must end the disturbing trend if they hope to prevail.
Defensive captain and inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson didn’t seem to entirely buy Horton’s theory about the root of the problem, though he stressed the importance of finding a solution.
“That’s a coach’s perspective,” Jackson said. “I’ll tell you what, we fight every snap. That’s not something that goes through our head. We’re trying to figure it out. That’s one thing we’ve been trying to harp on is finishing drives, finishing practice, finishing whatever we’re doing. That’s been the topic of discussion the last few weeks. For whatever reason, we can’t seem to pull it together from a team aspect. Defensively, we’ve had some letdowns. To be a great defense, we can’t do that.”
On the other hand, free safety Tashaun Gipson said “it’s very evident” that players have been pressing too much in the fourth quarter.
“I think you’ve just got to look at yourself in the mirror and demand more out of yourself,” Gipson said. “I don’t think it’s nothing that the coaches can coach. I think it should just really start with [the players], and Coach Horton has really been on it this week more particularly than others, and I think that it truly comes down to each and every individual that’s going to have an impact on the game to truly just look at himself and say, ‘I’ve got to do my job and my job only. I can’t worry about making a big play. If the play’s going to come by me doing my job than so be it.’ ”
The Browns and Dallas Cowboys are tied for the most points allowed in the fourth quarter this season with 128. And the Browns have been outscored in the fourth quarter by 62 points, the largest differential in the NFL this season.
“I don’t want to use any kind of excuse or crutch to say, ‘We’re young or this and that.’ It’s not acceptable at this point in the season,” Horton said. “You have to do your job, and you have to be accountable or at some point, you move on, and we have failed the last three weeks. I don’t care how you say the game went. The defense was on the field, and we talk about being accountable and we talk about being the backbone of the team. Well, you can’t [surrender leads]. You don’t do that.”
Horton stopped short of saying his players have been choking, but he made it clear they’ve been buckling under pressure. The defense is ranked eighth in the league (328.9 yards allowed per game), but it won’t be elite until it can consistently deliver when the stakes are high.
“It’s very disappointing,” Horton said. “We talk to our players about it. You cannot play well for three quarters and then come crunch time tighten up because the calls, when you look at them, are about the same and the same players, theoretically, are on the field, their team has run, theoretically, the same plays.”
Horton said Gipson and strong safety T.J. Ward played at a Pro Bowl level against the Bears, but not enough of their teammates rose to the occasion in the clutch. He used an NBA analogy involving LeBron James to explain the scenario to his players.
“Some of the guys will wait for LeBron to go and score in the fourth quarter,” Horton said. “Well, Tashaun and T.J. played like they did, but the rest of the guys are accountable to do your job. Now some of the job is assist and get the ball to them and get out of the way, block, rebound. Our guys’ job is to know what to do and how to do it and make the tackle and not commit an error. Just because the game is in the fourth quarter and the game is a seven-point game one way or another or tied, you can’t tighten up and go, ‘I’m going to do something different or I’m going to wait for somebody.’ We need somebody to step up and not take that back step and say, ‘I’m going to wait for somebody else to do it.’ ”
Like Gipson pointed out, there are also times when players are caught out of position because they freelance too much instead of sticking to their assignment.
“Then you get out of your gap and you do a different technique,” Horton said. “But why would you? We talk about every play is weighted the same. Whether it’s the first play or the last play of the game, to me, it really doesn’t make a difference. And I know for athletes it does because as the clock ticks down, there’s a psychological effect on them, but it shouldn’t be that way. One play, whether it’s in the first quarter or last quarter, they’re all important to me.”
But the ones at the end have haunted the Browns the most.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.