Two weeks ago, Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown cut in front of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Brandon Tate as he ran a slant route, intercepted quarterback Andy Dalton’s pass and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown.
Last week, Brown zoomed into the backfield on a blitz, smashed into Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, stripped the ball and won a wrestling match for possession at the 50-yard line.
The Browns (1-6) will need some more defensive magic against the San Diego Chargers (3-3) at 1 p.m. today.
Brown’s clutch plays in the past two games have been emblematic of the defense’s knack for creating turnovers this season. The Browns are tied for sixth in the NFL with 15 takeaways, 10 interceptions and five fumble recoveries, and they must continue to produce them this afternoon if they hope to win their first home game since Jimmy Haslam officially became the team’s new owner.
“I think turnovers come in bunches,” Brown said. “We’ve been together a year longer, communication is probably better and obviously you have guys not really worrying about where they’re supposed to be. They’re making a conscious effort of making plays on the ball.”
Turnovers have proved to be the Chargers’ kryptonite this season, and quarterback Philip Rivers has been the main source of the problem. Rivers committed six turnovers (four interceptions and two lost fumbles), including five in the second half, as the Chargers blew a 24-0 halftime lead and lost 35-24 to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 15.
“I think you learn from mistakes and then build on the positives because what gets lost in any game when you have turnovers like I had, like we had, and you lose a game like that, you begin to feel like you did nothing good,” said Rivers, whose team is coming off its Week 7 bye. “But the truth of the matter is we did a lot good, and we’ve just got to eliminate the bad.”
When the Chargers have been bad, they’ve been really bad. In their three losses this season, they’ve been outscored 59-10 after halftime. Five of Rivers’ nine interceptions and three of his six fumbles (he has lost three) have occurred in the second half of losses.
Still, when Rivers limits his miscues, he can annihilate defenses. He has completed 139-of-209 passes (66.5 percent) for 1,492 yards and 10 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season. His passer rating is 85.3.
“He’s clearly one of the elite quarterbacks in the league,” Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. “Every quarterback, including the best that have ever played, have bad games. They all do. They all have a game where they would like to have plays back. He puts up a lot of points and he makes remarkable throws from some unusual positions.”
Of course, the Browns are hoping to take advantage of Rivers’ aggressive style.
“He’s so good that he’s really confident also, and sometimes that can hurt you if you’re trying to squeeze the ball into some spots,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “That just gives us opportunities to make plays, so we’ve got to be able to catch the ball.”
With dynamic targets like wide receiver Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates, Rivers is willing to take risks in an attempt to put the ball in their hands.
“He trusts his receivers, so he’s going to give them a chance to make plays,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “But then he also gives the DBs a chance to make the plays. He takes chances. He trusts his arm strength. He trusts his accuracy. It doesn’t always favor him, but we’ve just got to make sure it favors us this week.”
Only five teams in the NFL have more takeaways than the Browns’ 15 this season. Last season, Jauron’s men compiled just 20 takeaways, nine interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Only seven teams forced fewer turnovers.
“Ever since the spring, we harped on opportunities that we could’ve taken advantage of last year that we didn’t,” said middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who has two interceptions and a fumble recovery this season. “This year’s focal point was to capitalize from the takeaway standpoint. We left a lot of interceptions on the tables last year.”
Haden said he dropped five interceptions last season. He missed four games this season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, but in the three games in which he’s played, he has two interceptions.
“It’s about confidence and not being afraid to make a play,” Haden said. “If you see something in film study and you see it in the game, [the key is] not being afraid to just go for it.”
Only four teams in the NFL have committed more turnovers than the Chargers’ 14 this season, so the Browns should receive plenty of opportunities to continue their takeaway trend. The question is, will they make the Chargers pay for their mistakes?
The Browns signed defensive lineman Brian Sanford to their active roster and placed strongside linebacker Scott Fujita on injured reserve, the team announced Saturday.
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound Sanford spent the first seven weeks of this season on the Browns’ practice squad. He was listed as a left defensive end during the preseason.
Last season, Sanford appeared in five games and had three tackles. In 2010, the Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent from Temple University.
Fujita, 33, started three of the four games in which he appeared this season before disk and nerve issues in his neck sidelined him following the Browns’ loss to the New York Giants on Oct. 7. Fujita, who had 14 tackles with one sack this season, is contemplating retirement.
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.