BEREA: As the Browns begin their defensive overhaul from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 this season, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is focused on the meat.
The more beef in the middle of the defense, the better.
To that end, the Browns are well covered with hefty defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, who each weigh more than 330 pounds.
“We favor a bigger front maybe [more] than most people do,” Jauron said. “I’ve always liked to be big inside. It’s a big man’s game to a certain degree and certainly at that part of the game.”
Rubin is the experienced veteran who has worked his way into all facets of Jauron’s schemes. Taylor is the first-round pick who was slow to make a visible impact during the preseason, then flashed last week against the Philadelphia Eagles when he clobbered quarterback Michael Vick on a strip sack.
“We have pretty good size inside,” Jauron said. “Now we have to develop their feel for it and Phil has to start experiencing the game. Even though he’s played in the preseason, it’s not anything like what he’ll see.”
Rubin has played alongside Taylor long enough to believe the rookie will be just fine this season.
“I’m there to help him and give him advice, but when it comes to Sunday, there’s instinct in football that kicks in,” Rubin said. “Phil’s doing a great job of picking up the speed of the NFL and eventually he’ll do pretty good.”
Rubin is a former offensive lineman who played left tackle at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas five years ago before switching to defense full-time at Iowa State. He spent most of his time in the 3-4 reading the offense and trying to decipher where the offensive linemen were going before attacking.
Now his focus is getting off the ball quickly and getting to the quarterback.
“I’m still getting used to it. It’s new to me,” Rubin said. “We’ll see how fun it is on Sunday.”
Rest of defense
As for the rest of the defense, Jauron likes what he has seen out of his linebackers and secondary. Now the key is keeping the linebackers healthy, which thus far has been a losing battle.
The Browns entered the week with just four healthy linebackers before Chris Gocong returned to practice after missing a month with a pinched nerve in his neck. Browns coach Pat Shurmur said Thursday that he expects Gocong to be ready to start against the Cincinnati Bengals.
D’Qwell Jackson has essentially missed the past two years with injuries, and Scott Fujita ended last season on injured reserve with a torn ligament in his left knee. Backup Kaluka Maiava missed most of last season with a torn ACL, and reserve Titus Brown remains sidelined with a high ankle sprain.
“It’s a pretty solid group if we can just keep them healthy and we haven’t been able to do that,” Jauron said. “Very smart, very aware guys. They have experience and know how to play in the league.”
In the secondary, Jauron has been pleased with the progress made by second-year players Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. He has been equally impressed with Buster Skrine, the undersized fifth-round pick out of UT-Chattanooga.
“He wasn’t drafted awfully high, he doesn’t come from the highest level of college football, but Buster has had a really good camp and I believe in the long run he’s going to be an outstanding addition to this football team,” Jauron said. “Is he a surprise? You’d say no because you drafted him, and if you drafted him you clearly saw something in him. But he’s done an outstanding job.”
Skrine, who is generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, has battled critics over his size all his life.
“I’ve always been the smallest guy and I’m from the smallest school,” he said. “People are going to underestimate me right away. But that’s all right. I definitely carry a chip on my shoulder and that helps.”
Tony Pashos’ left foot was out of the walking boot, and he returned to practice Thursday in a limited role. He is cautiously optimistic he will be ready to start at right tackle Sunday, but that isn’t a given.
Details surrounding Pashos’ injury remain unclear. Both he and Shurmur remain tight-lipped about the specifics or how it happened. Shurmur referred to it Thursday as foot soreness.
Pashos, who ended last season on injured reserve with a right ankle injury, blamed it on the lockout.
“I think it was more or less a catching up of sorts of what I went through in the offseason with not being amongst football people,” he said. “Things creep up. A lot of us, whether coming off injury or not, need football in the offseason. I wish I could work those kinks out in the May and June period instead of July, August and September.”
If Pashos can’t play Sunday, Oniel Cousins, Artis Hicks and John Greco would share time at right tackle.
Rookie Jason Pinkston continues to take the bulk of the snaps at left guard and remains the likely candidate to replace Eric Steinbach. Hicks and Cousins are both getting time there, but Shurmur is leaning toward Pinkston.
“If it ends up being Jason, which it probably will be, he’s surrounded by Alex Mack and Joe Thomas,” Shurmur said. “Good centers are usually getting help or giving help, and I know that’s something Jason can count on.”
Running back Montario Hardesty is anxious to make his NFL debut Sunday after missing all of last season to a knee injury.
The Browns have been cautious in their handling of him during the preseason, but all of that is about to change.
“There are no pitch counts on anybody Sunday,” Shurmur said.
“We’re out there to win the game. He will play, he will get some carries, but Peyton Hillis is our starting tailback.”
The Browns have barely seen their second-round pick from a year ago. Hardesty carried just five times in the preseason after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the final preseason game last year. He has torn the ACL in both of his knees.
“When you run around cones, that’s not the same as live people coming after you,” he said. “I think a lot of it is mental. Once you do it, [you realize] ‘OK, I can still do that. That doesn’t hurt at all.’ The more and more you do it, you get more comfortable with it.”
Shurmur has a group of about 15 players whom he considers the leaders of this team, but the role of game captains will rotate every week.
Fujita, quarterback Colt McCoy, and kicker Phil Dawson will serve as captains on Sunday.
Brown declined to say when he might return from his high ankle sprain but said it is feeling better. He also suffered a high ankle sprain a couple of years ago.
“They’re nagging,” he said. “It’s like a little fly to your ear.”
Safety Usama Young went through a full practice Thursday with a hamstring injury.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Sports writer Nate Ulrich also contributed to this report.