CLEVELAND: No disrespect to Pat Shurmur, who is still learning how to cope with the myriad responsibilities of an NFL coach.
But the Browns’ best off-season hire was Dick Jauron.
Jauron has been in the league 27 years, nine of those as head coach of the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. With Jauron as defensive coordinator, Shurmur found a capable man he can trust to handle that side of the ball so he can concentrate on offense.
Shurmur’s detractors might counter that Jauron is so capable he should be handling the team. But that’s an argument for another year. Or hopefully never.
While the Browns’ offense vies with Ohio State, the University of Akron and Kent State as the worst in Ohio, Jauron’s men are doing more than holding up their end. After the 6-3 victory Sunday over the visiting Seattle Seahawks, quarterback Colt McCoy proclaimed, “Our defense won the game today.”
The offense’s pulse is faint, but the Browns’ defense is providing the team’s heartbeat.
“Every time I’d go on the field, I’d be pumped up because they’d come off to the sideline all yelling and screaming,” McCoy said. “It was making me excited.”
The Seahawks managed just 137 yards, the fewest allowed by the Browns since 1993, when hall-of-fame-bound Bill Belichick was clearing his sinuses at the Cleveland podium. Of course, the Browns got breaks when Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was stricken with back spasms during warm-ups and with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson sidelined with a pectoral strain. Jackson’s backup, Charlie Whitehurst, stirred memories of a beleaguered Charlie Frye.
The performance highlighted the solid unit built by Jauron with two rookies (Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor), two second-year players (Joe Haden and T.J. Ward) and a six-year veteran (Jayme Mitchell) who had never started a game until 2011. And it was missing strong side linebacker Scott Fujita, out with a concussion, which allowed Kaluka Maiava to make his fourth pro start.
Ranked seventh in the NFL going into the weekend, the Browns’ defense isn’t thriving with magical chemistry. It’s thriving with a magical coordinator, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.
“It’s coach Dick Jauron,” Jackson said. “He plays to his talent. He makes calls based on the talent he has. The freedom he gives me to make calls, [the freedom] he gives the d-line to let them work.”
Jackson has lauded Jauron before. Cornerback Sheldon Brown also mentioned him after an ugly game savored mainly for the victory.
“I credit coach Jauron for the game plan and the guys for playing hard and staying together,” Brown said.
A 10-year veteran, Brown knows how easy it would be for the defense to resent the fact that the offense’s Dawgs can’t penetrate the goal line’s Invisible Fence.
Jauron is relying on a defense of gritty scrappers. There’s not a household name among them, although a few could be on that track.
“We’re all grinding on defense. We don’t have any superstars. We’re just playing,” Ward said.
“We’ve got a semi-young team, but we still have veterans that keep us grounded. We fight, claw for every inch. That’s what we want to be known as.”
Asked whether he thought the Browns had developed one of the best defenses in the league, Ward didn’t brag.
“I don’t know. I don’t check stats or watch other defenses too much,” he said. “What do you think?”
He might have thought it was too early in the season for that kind of talk. But the Browns defenders proved their toughness and grit against the Seahawks, none more than Haden.
Returning from a sprained left knee suffered Oct. 2 against the Tennessee Titans, Haden recorded five tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup. By the end, Haden was flying all over the field, playing at his Pro Bowl-caliber, pre-injury form.
“I was talking to our medical staff, and they said he might be sore tomorrow,” Shurmur said of Haden. “Shoot, I’m sore. I can’t imagine how he feels.
“He’s awesome. He played his fanny off.”
Haden tried to deflect the praise, saying, “We knew we had the talent to do it. Everybody was in a zone. We were playing like, ‘You can’t catch anything.’ ”
The defense shouldered an added burden when the Browns offense started losing starters. First, right guard Shawn Lauvao went down, then receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and tight end Ben Watson followed.
They responded with a goal-line stand for the second consecutive week, holding the Seahawks to a 20-yard field goal after receiver Sidney Rice found a hole in the Browns’ zone and caught a 38-yard pass to the Cleveland 9 in the third quarter. They survived a face- mask penalty on Browns nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin that set up Seattle with a first and goal at the Cleveland 2.
But Ward and Jackson stopped running back Justin Forsett for no gain on first down. Defensive back Mike Adams provided the coverage and defensive end Sheard the pressure as Whitehurst’s pass to fullback Michael Robinson fell incomplete. Ward broke up the third-down pass to tight end Cameron Morrah.
As smothering as the Browns’ defense looked, Jackson said it hasn’t arrived.
“We haven’t arrived until we’re the No. 1 defense in the league,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Those improvements seem minimal in light of the offense’s challenges.
Shurmur vowed the Browns will one day have an explosive offense that will “be up by five scores.” Until that day comes, sit back, wait for the Browns to punt and enjoy the show. Jauron and his men will do their darnedest to deliver.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.