By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: The Browns believe they have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and they’re eager to show the world when they enter the spotlight this week.
“We can be a dominant defense,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said Tuesday before practice.
The Browns (2-2) will try to extend their winning streak to three games when they face the Buffalo Bills (2-2) Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium in front of a national television audience on NFL Network. It’ll be the first prime-time game held in Cleveland since the Browns hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers and beat them 13-6 on Dec. 10, 2009.
The defense sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger eight times in frigid temperatures four years ago. But its stellar performance that Thursday night was an aberration, considering it ranked second-to-last in the league at the end of the season.
However, the 2013 version of the Browns’ defense might be the real deal.
“We have a bunch of hungry, persistent defensive players on our team,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “Everyone has bought in. Everyone is doing their job, not trying to make up for somebody else’s slack. We can trust each and everyone on the defense to do what they’re going to do. Sometimes the D-line, they bail us out, and we bail them out. But I think we communicate well. We’ve been clicking at a high level.”
Statistics back up the claim.
Through a quarter of the season, the defense is ranked third overall (291.5 yards allowed per game), fourth against the run (79.0 yards allowed per game) and ninth against the pass (212.5 yards allowed per game). The Browns are tied for eighth in points allowed (17.5 per game) and tied for 11th in red-zone defense (six touchdowns allowed in 12 possessions).
Only the Browns and New York Jets have top-10 run and pass defenses. So it wouldn’t be considered a fluke if the Browns created problems for Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, limited wide receiver Stevie Johnson and stifled running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
“It’s a standard now,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “It’s not like when we do good, it’s a surprise. We expect to do good. Our defense is good enough to be one of the best.”
The defense’s early success is alarming for at least one glaring reason. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was hired in January and has led the conversion from Dick Jauron’s 4-3 system, which the Browns used the past two seasons, to his multi-front, 3-4 scheme. Such drastic changes in coaching and philosophy usually result in a transition that lasts a season or two before positive results take hold.
Perhaps only the Browns truly believed they could hit the ground running in a new scheme. They finished last season ranked 23rd in total defense (now third), 19th in rushing defense (now fourth) and 25th in passing defense (now ninth).
“I didn’t think it was going to be too much of an adjusting period,” Haden said. “We have talent. Put them out there, they’re going to make stuff happen, so I didn’t think it was going to take too long.
“We were loading up [in the offseason]. I knew our defense was going to be stacked. When I came here for OTAs, minicamp, training camp, all that stuff, I already knew what we had.”
The strength of the defense is its front seven.
Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin successfully switched from 4-3 defensive tackles to nose tackle and left defensive end, respectively, in Horton’s system. Right defensive end Desmond Bryant, who played 4-3 defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders last season, and left outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who won the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in February, have shown why the Browns labeled them prized free-agent acquisitions in the offseason. And after playing for Jauron, defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson converted well to their new inside linebacker spots, and Jabaal Sheard proved to be a pleasant surprise in his move from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Sheard and backup outside linebacker Quentin Groves are expected to remain idle Thursday as they recover from a sprained left knee and a high-ankle sprain, respectively. But the Browns have quality depth at the position, as evidenced by rookie Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, getting off to a hot start.
The Browns are tied for third in the NFL with 14 sacks. Bryant is tied for 10th among all players with 3½ sacks, and Mingo leads all rookies with three.
“They have some guys who can fly around and rush the passer,” Manuel, the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft, said during a conference call. “So we definitely have to be ready for all of that.”
Horton predicted the run defense would be the “calling card” of his men, and he has been right thus far. The Browns lead the league in yards per carry (2.9) and are the only team that has not yielded a run of 15 yards or longer. In a 31-27 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 22, the defense held running back Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, to 88 yards on 25 carries (3.5 average).
“No one is going to be able to run on us this year,” Jackson said. “As long as we stay healthy, I don’t think anyone will be able to run on us. We’ve faced one of the purest running backs in Adrian Peterson, so we feel like that’s what we do best — stopping the run. We want to be a top defense when this season is over with.”
Jackson, who has a team-high 40 tackles, explained that he usually doesn’t even get touched by offensive linemen because the physical, relentless style Taylor and Rubin use in the trenches allows them to occupy multiple blockers.
“That’s just the way I play,” Taylor said. “The other guys on the team feed off it. Being nasty is going to get us to be the No. 1 defense. That’s how it goes.”
Although Ward is an established starter and Haden had what he considers his best game this season when he essentially shut down Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green Sunday in a 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the secondary is viewed as the Achilles’ heel of the defense. The one category Horton and Jackson have recently lamented is opponents’ third-down conversion rate (28-of-63 for 44.4 percent).
But the proverbial question marks in the starting secondary, cornerback Buster Skrine and free safety Tashaun Gipson, performed well in the past two games. Skrine had an interception against the Bengals — the Browns are tied for 13th with seven takeaways (three interceptions and four fumble recoveries).
“That’s what we expected from them,” Ward said of Skrine and Gipson. “They had very good OTAs and camps, and they’re just showing the world right now what they’re capable of.”
The entire defense is aiming to do the same Thursday night when the Browns take center stage.
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.