BEREA: Browns cornerback Buster Skrine dived a couple of yards in front of the goal line and broke up a pass zooming toward the chest of Detroit Lions wide receiver Patrick Edwards.
Free safety Tashaun Gipson intercepted the deflection in the end zone and returned the ball to the Browns’ 30-yard line with 1:40 left in the third quarter. The takeaway could have been a turning point, though quarterback Brandon Weeden and the offense failed to capitalize.
The Browns ultimately fell 31-17 to the Lions last week. But Skrine’s clutch breakup is an example of his vast improvement, and it’s exactly the type of play the Browns (3-3) will need to make when they face the Green Bay Packers (3-2) and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers at 4:25 p.m. today at Lambeau Field.
“He can make every throw, makes a lot of back-shoulder throws,” Skrine said of Rodgers. “He looks the safety off a lot of times and then comes back to the guy he really wants to throw it to. So he’s a crafty quarterback and probably the best, or one of the best, in the league.”
As for Skrine, he might not be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he is certainly establishing himself as a solid, reliable starter opposite Joe Haden. That’s probably shocking to most observers, because Skrine was often maligned for being beaten in coverage and committing penalties in his first two professional seasons.
Forced into extensive playing time last season because of injuries and Haden’s four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Skrine finished with 12 penalties (nine on defense and three on special teams) and allowed a passer rating of 114.6 on balls thrown into his coverage, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The majority of fans dismissed Skrine, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, as someone who simply couldn’t cut it in the NFL.
However, Skrine held off free-agent acquisition Chris Owens during training camp to win a starting job, and he has taken advantage of his opportunity since. Although his number of broken-up passes this season varies depending on who’s counting, Skrine is definitely among the league’s leaders in the category.
The Browns credit Skrine with 14 pass breakups this season. STATS LLC has him tied for second in the NFL with 10. ProFootballFocus.com has him leading the league with nine.
ProFootballFocus.com also ranks Skrine 20th among cornerbacks for allowing a passer rating of 65.5 on balls thrown into his coverage. Haden is ranked 14th with an allowed passer rating of 61.3.
“He’s stepped it up and he’s made me look like I knew exactly what I was talking about because he did it in practice,” Haden said. “He came through and every day he was getting better, every day he was improving on his technique and it’s just transferred to the games. Every time I see him making plays, you see me running over to him. I’m so happy for the dude because he works really hard, he’s a scrappy player and he’s just doing a really good job.”
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Skrine is believed to be the Browns’ fastest defensive player. He posted a time of 4.22 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a junior in college, so he has always possessed the raw talent to become successful.
Still, Skrine needed to polish his technique and learn how to cover wide receivers at the next level. His task is especially challenging this season because he covers receivers on the outside and in the slot when the Browns employ their nickel package.
“Route recognition has helped me a lot,” Skrine said. “I’ve been able to read a lot of routes this year. I’ve been able to finish on a lot of balls when some of the receivers do have them caught. Technique has helped me out a lot.
“I take a lot of pride in being aggressive. A lot of smaller corners in the league, they get pushed around. I’m just trying to hold my side down and do my job the best I can for the team.”
Skrine’s aggression gets him into trouble at times, as evidenced by his 12 penalties last season and four this season. But it’s also the reason he has broken up so many passes.
“He believes in himself,” Haden said. “When you watch him play, you see his quickness and all that, and now he’s just getting his eyes back to the quarterback and being able to make plays on the ball. That was the biggest thing. He was never getting burnt. He was always right there, and now he’s getting his head around and making plays on the ball.”
Skrine will need to continue to perform well today, even though the Packers will face the Browns without their leading receiver, Randall Cobb, who suffered a fractured fibula last week against the Baltimore Ravens. Packers receiver James Jones is also questionable with knee ligament damage.
Rodgers, though, is an equalizer.
“Aaron Rodgers, he makes a lot of good plays for his receivers,” Skrine said. “If they’re not open, he can get them open by the type of balls he throws. We would want Randall Cobb to play. We’ve matched up against the best receivers in the NFL and done a good job. So him not playing, we’re not thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got it easy.’ We’re going to treat everyone the same on the field with that kind of quarterback.
“Their receivers are good. But when you have a quarterback like him, he just makes everybody good. You can look at [Minnesota Vikings receiver Greg] Jennings. Jennings is having a good year, but when Jennings played for Green Bay he had a really good year and ended up being paid. [Rodgers] makes everybody good.”
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said he believes Rodgers, the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft, is the best NFL quarterback in the prime of his career.
“I think it’s that intangible X-factor of heart and drive and desire and will,” Horton said. “He sat in the green room for I don’t know how many picks, and he knew he was probably a better player than [those] going in front of him. [I don’t know] whether that’s part of that X-factor of, ‘I’m going to prove everybody wrong.’ But when you get on the field, those things are self-evident. [He has] great feet, decision-making, accuracy, ability to throw on the run, checking into the right play.”
Rodgers has completed 118-of-184 passes (64.1 percent) for 1,646 yards and 10 touchdowns with four interceptions this season. His passer rating of 101.9 is ranked fifth in the NFL.
“Him and [Denver Broncos star] Peyton Manning are probably the two most accurate quarterbacks in the league,” Skrine said. “He’s more mobile than Peyton, though. He gets on the run and he puts it on a dime. We’ve just got to plaster our receivers this week.”
Horton is confident his secondary will hold its own against one of the best passers in the NFL. He has repeatedly made it known that he thinks Haden has Pro Bowl potential, and he believes Skrine is becoming a force to be reckoned with as well.
“I see a young individual, a young man that’s working his butt off,” Horton said. “He was competitive always, and technique is a big part of what we teach. Penalties are part of this game. They just get them. It’s an offensive game. We understand all that stuff. But he’s working very hard in practice, you see it, we watch it, and he’s a capable young man that’s really coming into his own.”
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.