The Browns had been hesitant to definitively state they’re switching to a 3-4 defense the past couple of weeks, but new defensive coordinator Ray Horton isn’t shy about it.
During an interview Thursday with Arizona radio station XTRA Sports 910-AM, Horton made it clear he will run a 3-4 system as he commands the Browns’ defense.
Horton was asked whether he will stick with the 3-4 he used the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Cardinals, employ a 4-3 or use a hybrid scheme like new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski has suggested three times since he was hired Jan. 10.
“It won’t be a hybrid, not unless we’re playing golf,” Horton, who was hired Jan. 18, quipped. “It’ll be a 3-4. It’ll be the same defense we ran here [in Arizona].”
The Browns used a 4-3 the past two seasons under the guidance of defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Former General Manager Tom Heckert spent the past two years revamping the roster for Jauron’s system.
But Horton said the Browns’ new defense will mimic the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4. Horton spent seven seasons with the Steelers as a defensive backs coach and is a disciple of longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Horton, 52, will now meet his former team twice a season in AFC North matchups.
“On defense anyway, it’ll be mirror teams,” Horton said. “We’re going to look exactly the same. [We have] a good, young team, and we want to be one of the top defenses in the league just like we tried to produce here in Arizona.”
The Cardinals’ defense ranked 12th in the NFL in 2012 (337.8 yards allowed per game) and tied for 18th in 2011 (355.1). The Browns’ defense ranked 23rd (363.8) in 2012 and 10th (332.4) in 2011.
Chudzinski reiterated Thursday night during the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards that the Browns will use 3-4 and 4-3 alignments.
“We’re going to do both,” Chudzinski said. “We’re going to have packages where we do both of those.”
However, based on Horton’s comments, four-man fronts will definitely not be the norm for the Browns.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam supported that theory Thursday night at the awards show by saying he expects Horton to employ a 3-4. Haslam bought a minority stake in the Steelers in 2008, so he’s familiar with Horton and the type of defense he wants to run.
“Of course, we knew him from the Steelers, and when we interviewed him for this job, [he was] fired up, intense,” Haslam said. “I think he’ll relate extremely well to players. I think the players will like him. Probably we’ll switch to the 3-4 defense. I think it’ll be an attacking defense.
“I think he told me in Phoenix with the Arizona Cardinals that he blitzed more than anybody in the league except for the Houston Texans. So I think it’ll be exciting and fun to watch. He’s really excited about the players we have here. We need to add one or two to really round out the team. But I think you’ll like him as a person and like him as a coach.”
Haslam’s praise of Horton might prove to be warranted but switching schemes in the wake of another coaching change could be challenging. The Browns used a 4-3 from 1999-2004, a 3-4 from 2005-10 and a 4-3 from 2011-12.
Last month, several players expressed concern about possibly going back to a 3-4.
“I don’t know of a 3-4 guy that’s in here [in the locker room],” cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “I can remember when we were changing to a 4-3, they went out and got [defensive end] Jayme [Mitchell]. He sat on the bench for probably 12 weeks because they were getting ready to transition into a 4-3. You have to have players for that scheme. That’s even worse because now not only are you looking over your shoulder, you know you don’t fit that system, so you know you’re out.”
Cornerback Joe Haden added: “It would be crazy to change it up, but whatever happens, happens. You’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to do what they say.”
On Dec. 27, four days before Haslam and CEO Joe Banner fired coach Pat Shurmur, Jauron acknowledged the team could convert to a 3-4 system if he were dismissed.
“I don’t know if it would be difficult or not,” Jauron said of changing defenses.
D’Qwell Jackson thrived the past two seasons as the middle linebacker in Jauron’s defense. But Jackson was a 3-4 weakside linebacker for three years during coach Romeo Crennel’s reign in Cleveland.
“I think the 4-3 is suited for the guys we have here,” Jackson said last month. “I started my career in the 3-4. We’ve got a roll going right here.”
Ahtyba Rubin had his breakout season in 2010, when he played nose tackle during the final year of the Eric Mangini era. Heading into the 2011 NFL Draft, many thought fellow defensive tackle Phil Taylor was best suited to play 3-4 nose tackle.
“I think that our tackles certainly could play the nose,” Jauron said. “Some of them could play defensive end. Certainly Billy Winn could play defensive end easily, I think, in a 3-4 scheme. He’s a talented player, can play either tackle or defensive end.”
But not every player can be expected to make a smooth transition.
In each of his first two NFL seasons, defensive end Jabaal Sheard led the Browns in sacks with 8½ in 2011 and seven in 2012. But Sheard, who’s listed as 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, would be too small to play end in a 3-4.
So could he successfully adjust to playing outside linebacker?
“I would never put anything past Jabaal,” Jauron said. “Jabaal is really a good player and a very good athlete. I suspect that he probably could.”
The Browns are expected to hold Horton’s introductory news conference Tuesday at their headquarters in Berea, Haslam said. Perhaps Horton will share his thoughts about the team’s young, talented defenders because there are plenty of questions about whether some of them can survive the conversion to a 3-4.
The Seattle Seahawks hired Matt Thomas as their vice president of football administration. Thomas served as a contract negotiator for the Browns. ... Crennel and Mangini are among the defensive coaches the New Orleans Saints will consider hiring, ESPN reported.
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.