Despite their dismal record, the Browns found a recent development to be grateful for on Thanksgiving.
The long-awaited reunion of starting defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin sparked a sack outburst this past weekend and gave the Browns (2-8) some newfound swagger as they prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) Sunday in an AFC North matchup.
The Browns entered their 23-20 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys with 20 sacks, an average of 2.2 per game. But with Taylor and Rubin creating havoc in the middle, the Browns sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo seven times. Now they’re licking their chops with Steelers third-string quarterback Charlie Batch on deck.
“The sky’s the limit for this group,” defensive end Frostee Rucker said. “I heard someone call us a bunch of unnamed rushers or something like that. I heard that term, but that’s all right. We’re still trying to scratch the surface and make our way.
“Once we get rolling, it’s gonna be hard to stop this train, and I think everyone around the league knows that. We haven’t come up with the wins, but we’ve put a licking on a lot of people. My D-line, this group’s gonna be very productive for years to come. If we jell together and we stay healthy, we’re gonna be a force to be reckoned with. People will know by then.”
Injuries prevented Taylor and Rubin from playing together for the first nine games this season. Taylor, the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft, missed the first eight games as he recovered from a torn left pectoral muscle he suffered lifting weights in May. But when Taylor returned to action in Week 9, Rubin was still sidelined with an injured calf that forced him to miss three games. Finally, in the Browns’ 10th game, the defense was able to benefit from the 665-pound, two-headed monster of Taylor and Rubin.
“When you add two players back to the lineup that were starters for us all last year, heck yes, that makes us better,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “When you have big, physical guys, one of the most damaging things about a pass rush is a push in the quarterback’s face because when it collapses in front of him, that’s what restricts a quarterback’s vision more than what they know is happening off the edges. So it all fits together.”
For the most part, rookie defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn have performed well this season. Still, there’s a noticeable difference when Taylor and Rubin collapse the pocket and draw double teams.
“It’s just a little bit of an edge when big Phil and big Rube are in there playing because they played all 16 [games] together last year, and they’re comfortable and they know where each other are gonna be at on the field,” Rucker said. “You have to double team either one of those guys. There’s gonna be a lot of problems in the middle. If the quarterback steps up, there’s gonna be somebody in his face. And if he rolls out, there’s gonna be Jabaal [Sheard] or Juqua [Parker] or myself on the end. So I’m glad we all got to start playing together, and we’re gonna continue it in these last games. We’re gonna fight and continue to be a positive force on the team.”
Rucker, Rubin, Hughes, Sheard, Parker and rookie linebacker Craig Robertson had a sack apiece against the Cowboys. Free safety Usama Young and weakside linebacker Kaluka Maiava each added a half sack.
“We were pretty hyped up, and [the Cowboys] were talking trash,” Rubin said. “We just came out and were really trying to play with our hair on fire. Whoever makes the first play, you just have to feed off that and make sure you keep the intensity up. One person makes a play. Another guy makes one. We’re all in competition with each other, trying to see who’s got the most tackles and the most sacks.”
Rubin is known for his hustle and relentless style. Taylor believes the sack extravaganza can be attributed to Rubin’s attitude energizing his fellow linemen.
“It felt good to see Rube right there by my side again,” Taylor said. “We all fed off of it. We try to mimic Rube’s effort. When we all mimic Rube’s effort, we all play great.”
Four players — Rucker, Parker, Sheard and middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson — lead the Browns with three sacks apiece. The Browns have catapulted themselves into a tie for seventh place among the NFL’s leaders in sacks. Their seven sacks against the Cowboys are the most they’ve tallied since they had eight against the Steelers on Dec. 10, 2009. That’s also the last time the Browns beat the Steelers.
“The rivalry goes back for ages,” Taylor said. “We don’t like ’em. They don’t like us.”
The Browns really don’t like Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who’s 14-1 against them. But Roethlisberger will be sidelined with shoulder and rib injuries, and backup Byron Leftwich is out with broken ribs. The Steelers will resort to Batch, who will turn 38 on Dec. 5. The Browns, though, understand they can’t afford to take him for granted.
“Charlie’s a proven veteran,” Rucker said. “He’s in this league for a reason. I know he’s ready to show that he’s still got it, and we’re still trying to achieve positive things around here. So we take the challenge, and we think we’re gonna have a pretty positive game.”
Launching an impressive sack attack against Batch will be vital for the Browns.
“He’s a pretty good quarterback in the league, and you never know [when] he might have the breakout game,” Rubin said. “We’re gonna attack him, be physical and try to get him on the ground.”
Cornerback Buster Skrine returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday. Skrine, who suffered a concussion Sunday, cornerback Joe Haden (oblique) and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (calf/back) were limited in practice.
Cornerback Dimitri Patterson (ankle) and special-teams ace Ray Ventrone (calf) were the only Browns players who did not practice. Wide receiver Josh Cooper (knee) fully participated in practice after being limited Wednesday.
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.