By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: This was supposed to be the year of the pass-rushing, outside linebacker in Cleveland.
The Browns hired defensive coordinator Ray Horton to implement his aggressive philosophy and attack-style, 3-4 scheme. They secured Paul Kruger as their top free-agent acquisition by signing him to a five-year, $40 million deal in March. They made Barkevious Mingo their top draft pick by selecting him sixth overall in April. And they worked all offseason on converting Jabaal Sheard from defensive end to the marquee position in Horton’s system.
But the organization’s top-three outside linebackers — Kruger, Mingo and Sheard — have yet to live up to the hype, individually or collectively. It wasn’t until this past weekend in a 27-26 loss to the New England Patriots that all three of them registered a sack in the same game.
Still, they’re confident the production in Foxborough, Mass., was not an aberration. They’re aiming to prove it in the final three games, starting Sunday when the Browns (4-9) face the Chicago Bears (7-6) in the last showdown of the season at FirstEnergy Stadium, and they’re hoping a strong finish would carry over to next year.
“I have no doubt in my mind that myself and these two [Mingo and Sheard] are the guys for the job,” Kruger said Friday after practice. “We have all the playmaking ability in the world. It’s just about us going out and doing it and the right opportunities being there.”
The Browns are tied for ninth in the NFL with 37 sacks. It’s an improvement from last season, when they used defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 scheme and finished with 38 sacks.
However, the top-three outside linebackers have combined for just 14 sacks this season. Mingo is tied for 56th in the league with five sacks. Kruger and Sheard are tied for 65th with 4½ sacks apiece.
The statistics were even less impressive before the three tormented Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in what the Browns hope proves to be a breakout game for their unit of edge rushers. Kruger compiled two sacks, and Mingo got one after both of them had failed to tally any since Oct. 27. Sheard added a sack for the second consecutive game after going the previous two without one. They accounted for all four of the Browns’ sacks against the Patriots.
“The work that we’ve been putting in is paying off,” Mingo said. “Every blocker is different, so it goes back to us preparing for them. We know what we have to do to get past those guys. We know how the quarterback’s going to set, and when we come off [the blocks], if we execute at a high level, we get rewarded with a sack. And that’s how it is. Going forward, the work we put in, we just hope that it has the same result.”
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Kruger has shown flashes of being the dominant edge rusher he was last season when he helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl. The problem is that dominance hasn’t been the norm for Kruger, who had 13½ sacks last season, including 4½ in the playoffs.
Horton was correct when he said before the Patriots game that Kruger was frustrated with the way his season has gone.
“My frustration was mainly with just the production I’ve had as far as number of sacks,” Kruger said. “I have a high standard for myself, and I wanted to be a major contributor in that way. So I didn’t reach the numbers I wanted to. But looking forward, we’ve still got three opportunities to make some good things happen.”
Despite Kruger being irritated about sacks, or lack thereof, they are hardly the only way to measure a pass rusher’s performance.
In ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing ratings for 3-4 outside linebackers, Sheard is 13th, Kruger 22nd and Mingo 36th. Forty players are listed.
By PFF’s count, Kruger is tied for 10th with seven quarterback hits, Mingo is tied for 17th with six and Sheard is tied for 26th with three. Kruger is tied for sixth with 34 quarterback hurries, Sheard is tied for 19th with 22 and Mingo is tied for 29th with 16, according to the website.
Kruger has played in every game, Mingo missed one with a bruised lung and Sheard sat out three with a sprained knee.
“It’s hard to judge a player simply based on numbers,” Kruger said. “We’re looking forward to having the most production as possible each week. There have been games we’ve been frustrated, games we’ve had some success.
“You’re going to see Mingo make amazing plays and Jabaal make amazing plays. Then there’s going to be some quiet games, too. But if you understand the game and you watch the tape, they’re doing their job, they’re doing what they’re coached to do.”
The 6-4, 240-pound Mingo played defensive end at Louisiana State University and knew the adjustment to the NFL wouldn’t be simple. Nevertheless, a top-10 pick is expected to produce right away.
“I guess everybody expects the sacks just to keep coming,” Mingo said, snapping his fingers. “But it’s not that case. These [offensive tackles] are getting paid and getting paid a lot, and they perform their jobs at a high level.
“I’m working toward that goal [of consistently getting sacks], and I know what kind of player I want to be. It’s not going to be easy, just because those guys across the line are good, too, some of them great. But [I’m focusing on] just getting to where I want to be at, and I think I can get there.”
Horton predicted his primary outside linebackers would make the greatest leap in progression from this season to next because they’ll be accustomed to their positions and the system.
The 6-2, 255-pound Sheard buys the theory. Until this season, he had been a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme his entire life.
“You get more and more comfortable, you learn more and more about the defense,” Sheard said. “These next three weeks are going to be huge, and they give us a jump on next year.
“I know what to expect. I’ll have a chance to think about it during my break. It’ll definitely be night and day [from this season to next]. I know what’s going on.”
Horton also believes the way his players finish down the stretch will likely dictate the type of season they have in 2014, which the Browns are hoping really is the year of the pass-rushing, outside linebacker.
“It always carries over,” Kruger said. “Not only is it important for us, it’s important for the whole team.”
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.