BEREA: Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson doesn’t think Peyton Hillis has the guts to try to turn him into a victim of his trademark hurdle.
After all, Jackson is familiar with Hillis and his tendencies.
“I don’t think he’ll try that with me, maybe the younger guys, but we’ve been around him long enough to know he likes to jump over guys and make highlight reels,” Jackson said of Hillis, who spent the 2010-11 seasons with the Browns. “You know what? I’m fine with that, and if he does that, he’ll cough the ball up. So we’ll see him jump. I think he’s going to try to get those tough yards, get those 2 or 3 yards. If he wants to put on a show, that’s fine, too. We can put on a show as well.”
The Browns (4-8) want to shut down Hillis when they host the Kansas City Chiefs (2-10) on Sunday because it’s part of their larger goal to stop the run. Led by standout running back Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs have the fifth-ranked rushing offense (146.7 yards per game) in the NFL, but they lack a formidable passing attack.
“It’s going to be a great test for us just to see how we hold up,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a strong feeling we can get three wins in a row. So that’s our main goal right now is to obviously stop the run, make them one dimensional, force [quarterback] Brady Quinn to throw the ball a little more than they want to and force them to do something they’re not comfortable doing.”
The Browns have been plagued by poor run defense for the vast majority of the expansion era, but in the past few weeks, they have started to show signs of turning it around. They have held opponents to less than 100 rushing yards in three consecutive games for the first time since 2003, a key to them forcing overtime in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys and then defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders.
Before their Week 10 bye, the Browns were ranked 27th in the league against the run (132.2 rushing yards per game). In their three games since, they have limited the Cowboys to 63 yards on the ground, the Steelers to 49 and the Raiders to 85. They entered Thursday ranked 16th against the run (115.6 yards per game).
The progress has coincided with starting defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin being healthy and in the lineup together. That happened for the first time this season Nov. 18 against the Cowboys.
“Obviously, they play a big part,” weakside linebacker Kaluka Maiava said. “Those guys are awesome athletes. But as a unit, we come in every week, we get in the classroom, we get the game plan, we pay attention to details and we try to execute on Sundays. For the most part, we’ve been doing our jobs really well no matter who’s in.”
The players also attribute their recent success to the defensive linemen and linebackers engaging in more joint film sessions as of late. They’ve been better able to break down and plan for opposing rushing attacks as a result.
“There’s been similar schemes the last few weeks with the stretch runs,” Jackson said. “I think once we identified how teams were attacking us, we were able to prepare for it a little better and making adjustments throughout the game was huge.
“It’s tough to run up the middle of our defense with [Taylor and Rubin], and that’s one of the things we’ve identified how we’re being attacked. Teams won’t run right at us because of those two guys. They want to attack our edges and put more emphasis on the defensive backs, make them involved in the running game.”
Gap integrity is a focal point of defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 system.
“Simply put, there are gaps and we’ve got to have a guy in every one of them,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “Sometimes the scheme dictates it. Sometimes how they line up dictates it. That’s where guys get used to playing together [develop] a better feel for that. I think that’s why we’re maybe having better results.”
The Browns must stay disciplined if they hope to succeed against Charles. He is ranked second in the AFC and sixth in the NFL with 1,055 rushing yards this season to go along with three touchdowns. He’s averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
“It starts up front,” Maiava said. “Their O-line is awesome. They’re one of the best lines we’ve faced so far. Charles is an awesome running back. If you give him any kind of air, he gets out.
“He can hit the edge. He can run up in the middle. He’s ridiculously fast, and he’s one of the top backs in the league. He can catch. He can get out of the backfield. We’ve just got to execute our game plan and contain him.”
With 59 carries for 193 yards (3.3 average) and one touchdown, Hillis has had a quiet season while serving as Charles’ backup. Still, the Browns believe he’ll be fired up for his return to Cleveland, where his popularity came crashing down during a dysfunctional 2011 season.
“He’s going to be ready and excited to come in, and they pride themselves on running the ball,” Jackson said. “He’s going to be hyped up.”
The Browns are determined not to let Hillis break out — or hurdle them.
“He’s powerful,” defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. “He’s going to play with a chip on his shoulder. We just have to get after him and create penetration and stop him before he gets going.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.