By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton called his shot Thursday, vowing to guide his men to a turnaround after they allowed 31 points in each of the past two losses.
“I think this next four-week period for us, you’ll see kind of a different Cleveland Browns defense, and you’ll start seeing the names that everybody thought,” Horton said during a news conference. “But I like where we’re sitting at right now, and I think at Thanksgiving when we sit in here, you’ll say, ‘Wow, you were probably right in what you said back then about getting better.’ ”
Horton used a more conservative game plan against the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers than he normally does. He employed more coverage and fewer blitzes in an effort to slow Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“There is no question I’ve called a different game plan for two weeks,” Horton said.
The strategy backfired as Stafford and Rodgers shredded the defense, which, as Horton pointed out, hasn’t received much support from an offense that is switching this week from Brandon Weeden to Jason Campbell as its starting quarterback. In the fourth quarter during their two-game losing streak, the Browns have allowed 31 points, 17 to the Lions and 14 to the Packers.
“I think the biggest responsibility of a defense is keep the game close,” Horton said. “It’s hard for us to score, so you keep it close. Do I want better in the fourth quarter? Yeah, I do, and that’s been really the biggest disappointment to me the last two weeks.”
Now the Browns (3-4) are seeking redemption, and their defense is aiming to prove that the flashes of dominance it displayed earlier this season weren’t flukes. Bouncing back won’t be easy Sunday against quarterback Alex Smith, running back Jamaal Charles and the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs (7-0) at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Browns are tied for seventh in the NFL with 20 sacks. But the quick releases of Stafford and Rodgers contributed to the defense registering only one sack in each of the past two games.
“It’s hard to get to the quarterback when they’re getting the ball out of their hand fast, throwing hitch routes, slants and all those type of things,” Browns strong safety T.J. Ward said. “I think we got to just get back to trying to get to the quarterback. We’ll have an opportunity this week because they run a lot of play-action passes where they’re trying to get guys downfield. But at the same time, they have a great run game, and Alex Smith controls the pass with short passes here, short passes there, then they try to go over the top. We’ll have opportunities to get to the quarterback this week.”
Neither the Chiefs’ offense nor Smith has blown anyone away statistically this season. The offense is ranked 19th in the NFL (330.7 yards per game). Smith is ranked 22nd with a passer rating of 79.3.
But the Chiefs also are tied for eighth in scoring (24.1 points per game), their defense is first in points allowed (11.6 average) and they’re first in turnover differential (plus-11). Smith has thrown seven touchdown passes and four interceptions without any lost fumbles. He also has tallied 43 carries for 218 yards (5.1 average) and a touchdown.
“He is a smart quarterback,” Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “Obviously, he can run, and make plays on his feet. So we have to keep him in the pocket and put a helmet on him whenever we can.”
Aside from eschewing mistakes, the strength of the Chiefs’ offense is its rushing attack, which is ranked 12th (120 yards per game). Charles had compiled 135 carries for 561 yards (4.2 average) and six touchdowns to go along with 36 catches for 337 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s probably pound-for-pound the best running back in the league,” Horton said. “There’s a lot of special guys in the league. [Minnesota Vikings running back] Adrian Peterson’s a bigger guy. But Jamaal leads their team in receptions, yards from scrimmage, runs, all these things, and he’s a 200-pound back. He’s not a dynamic jump cutter, but he’s so silky smooth, and you can’t get the guy down. You don’t get great shots on the guy, and he’s in there every down and he’s a workhorse.”
Added Taylor: “He is their team. He leads the team in rushing and receiving and most touches. We shut him down, they won’t be able to do anything.”
The Browns’ defense is ranked seventh in the NFL (318.9 yards allowed per game), tied for ninth against the run (99.0 yards allowed per game) and tied for seventh against the pass (219.9 yards allowed per game). However, it’s also 17th in points allowed (22.3 average), 29th in third-down conversion percentage (45.3) and 29th in red-zone touchdown percentage (66.7 percent). It’s tied for 22nd in takeaways with nine.
“If we were average on third down, we’d be the No. 2 [defense] probably, and if we were top 10, we’d be the No. 1 team,” Horton said. “I stress to our guys all the time that third down is going to be what puts us in the top two in the league. It’s going to mean turnovers. It’s going to mean stops. It’s going to mean getting off the field. It’s going to mean nonscoring opportunities.”
Despite the defense’s deficiencies, the players are confident it’ll get back on track.
“We just have to correct the little things and get back to what we were doing the first couple of weeks of the season when we where dominating people,” Taylor said. “We will be all right when we get back to that.”
Horton predicted that it would all fall into place soon.
“I know how I call a game and why I call a game, and I know what my vision is and where we’re at on the field and in the classroom,” Horton said. “I just think you’ll see a different Cleveland Browns defense moving forward.
“We’ve been evolving as a defense, and I like where we’re headed. I think there’s very, very good defensive football ahead of us.”
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.