BEREA: The Browns are thrilled to have cornerback Joe Haden on their side as they prepare to visit the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals and Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in a crucial showdown Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Haden, however, isn’t the defensive Most Valuable Player in Ray Horton’s eyes.
Horton, the Browns’ defensive coordinator, believes Haden is in the midst of a Pro Bowl-caliber season. But Horton went out of his way Thursday to make it clear that the team’s top cornerback isn’t the only member of the secondary who has been exceptional this season.
“Joe has done a fantastic job of being pressured to cover the rarest of athletes in the NFL — that can run and jump and catch — without hitting the guy past 5 yards,” Horton said during a news conference. “So he’s having a fantastic year. I think [cornerback] Buster Skrine is having a fantastic year. I think [strong safety] T.J. Ward is having a fantastic year. And I think my biggest surprise and probably the MVP for me is [free safety] Tashaun Gipson. He has done a remarkable job for us.”
The secondary needs to be at its best to prevent Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton from getting back on track after throwing three interceptions in each of the past two games and Green from tallying at least 100 receiving yards for the sixth consecutive game. If the Browns (4-5) curb the connection between Dalton and Green, they’ll have a good shot at prevailing against the Bengals (6-4). With a win, the Browns would trim the Bengals’ lead to a half-game in the division standings.
Horton surprised reporters when he labeled Gipson the MVP, not just of the team’s overachieving secondary, but for the entire defense as well.
Gipson, a cornerback at the University of Wyoming who entered the NFL last year, and Skrine were viewed as unproven, weak spots in the secondary heading into this season. Gipson ranks fourth on the team with 62 tackles to go along with two interceptions and 11 broken-up passes, and Skrine is fifth with 49 tackles to go along with one interception and 17 broken-up passes.
Both of them have been pleasant surprises, but why is Gipson the defensive MVP?
“Because he was a former corner that played limited snaps last year going to a position that requires a ton of smarts and you can never be wrong at the position, and he’s a much better tackler than I ever envisioned,” Horton said. “He’s got fantastic hands, and he’s tough and he makes very few mistakes. He’s protected some guys that may have been out of position.
“I use the word ‘unremarkable,’ meaning on a piece of paper when you’re watching practice and grading you don’t remark anything about him because he’s always in the right place doing the right thing. … He has very few mental mistakes, and he’s just been a fantastic player. It’s really for me a comfort because I know he’s going to be in the right place at the right time and do his job well.”
The combination of Haden and Ward having their best seasons since they were drafted in the first and second round, respectively, in 2010 and Gipson and Skrine rising to the occasion in their first season as full-time starters has created a secondary that has taken some lumps, especially in back-to-back losses to the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, but has been formidable for the majority of the season. The Browns are ranked fifth in total defense (315.7 yards allowed per game), 10th against the pass (217.4 yards allowed per game) and sixth against the run (98.2 yards allowed per game).
Still, Green has enough talent to give any defense headaches, as evidenced by his NFL-leading 1,013 receiving yards. In five games against the Browns, he has 25 catches for 395 yards and four touchdowns, though Haden helped hold him to seven catches for 51 yards Sept. 29 in a 17-6 triumph over the Bengals.
“He’s getting 100 yards receiving [against other teams], but the whole thing is, whenever he comes here, or whenever we play against people like A.J. or his caliber, we just make sure we stay on top,” Haden said. “We make sure he doesn’t really affect the game like that. He’s a really, really good player but at the same time, me, Buster, T.J. Gip, we make sure we pay extra little attention to him for sure to make sure he doesn’t do that to us.
“If I go out there and handle my business, I feel I can do what I have to do. He’s a really, really great receiver, and I feel like I’m a great corner. So he’s going to get his plays, and I’m going to get mine. I just want to make sure he doesn’t get the best of me.”
The Browns are convinced that Haden will neutralize Green again.
“Joe is one of the best corners in the league and just a guy who can literally shut somebody down,” starting left outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “We have all the confidence in the world in him, in his abilities. We definitely respect Green, and we know he’s an effective player. Obviously his play speaks for itself. We’re going to be doing what we can to make sure we minimize his productivity, and I think Joe’s obviously a big part of that.”
Ward echoed Horton’s sentiment about Haden playing at a Pro Bowl level.
“He’s definitely having a Pro Bowl season,” Ward said. “If you ask me, he’s the best cornerback in the league, so I think he’s playing great right now.”
Haden has 12 broken-up passes this season but only one interception. He might have some golden opportunities if Dalton continues to struggle. After being named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for October, Dalton has committed seven turnovers, six interceptions and a lost fumble, in consecutive overtime losses on the road. He has also taken five sacks in each of the past two games.
“I think he’s getting some pressure on him, and it’s forcing him to make quick decisions or forcing him to make the wrong decision,” Ward said. “I think he’s getting flustered a little bit in those situations, so hopefully we can come in and we can create those same situations for him.”
Horton doesn’t expect the upcoming matchup against Green and Dalton to be easy, though his trust in a secondary featuring Haden and an unexpected MVP is strong.
“A.J.’s going to get his catches, and they’re going to get their throws,” Horton said. “But really what it comes down to is limiting them to no explosive plays.”
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.