Browns’ defense plays with an edge

Posted Oct 1, 2013

With a combination of an aggressive attitude, considerable talent, and strong coaching, the Browns’ defense has rightfully established its place among the NFL’s best.

The personality of the Browns’ defense has all of the charm of a punch to the face.

And never was that more evident than in Sunday’s 17-6 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Browns’ front seven came out looking to take the fight to the Bengals. It was feisty and physical. It was aggressive and disruptive.

It was, in a word, dominant. It was, in two words, lights out.

The production of a Bengals offense that is supposed to be built for explosiveness said it all: scant rushing yards, no big plays, no touchdowns.

“You’ve got to set the tone from the first snap of the game, and I felt like we did that,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “You can tell in those guys’ eyes that it was going to be a long day for them.”

It is a look the Browns’ defense is striving to elicit from every opponent. It also seems like a natural response to what the opposing offense sees on the other side of the line.

Taylor, alone, is an imposing sight, all 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds of him. He’s got the kind of face that makes him seem angry even when he isn’t.

But make no mistake: Taylor, like the rest of the Browns' defense, always plays with an edge. He always is ready to scrap. Give him or any of his teammates any grief after the whistle, and he’ll give it back. And then some.

“Yeah, I play mad and I play with a chip on my shoulder as well,” he said.

That chip was firmly in place during the Browns’ second game of the season, at Baltimore, when he wound up tussling with Ravens running back Ray Rice. Taylor drew a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, a reminder that playing mad does have its limits.

“I apologized for that, getting the 15-yard penalty for the team,” he said. “But you’ve got to play between the whistle.”

Browns coach Rob Chudzinski calls Taylor “excitable.” But he also describes him as a student of the game who sounds like a coach when discussing Xs and Os.

“I don’t know so much about talking like a coach, but I love this game and I’ll do anything for it,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to study, because you’ve got to know your opponent. And if you don’t know your opponent, it’ll show and it’ll be an embarrassing day out there for you, so you’ve got to go out there each week, ready for your opponent, watching film and things like that.”

It is that sort of mentality, along with the fact that he plays the anchor position and causes so much havoc for blockers and ball-carriers, that make Taylor the perfect face of a defense that is beginning to draw national acclaim.

The unit ranks third in the NFL, behind the Houston Texans and New York Jets. It is fourth against the run and ninth against the pass.

And media, player-personnel people and coaches around the league are raving about its talent. End Desmond Bryant is being widely viewed as one of the top acquisitions in free agency.

Consider this assessment from Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and scout who works as an analyst for “Bryant was one of the best-kept secrets on last offseason's free-agent market, despite an impressive 2012 campaign in Oakland. He is a versatile interior defender capable of playing as a three-technique (aligned on the outside shade of the offensive guard) or five-technique (positioned in front of the offensive tackle). Bryant's positional flexibility allows him to stay on the field in every situation, including obvious passing downs with a nickel package on the field.”

Linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who has three sacks in his first three NFL games, is already making a strong case for defensive-rookie-of-the-year honors. Joe Haden is cementing his place among the top cornerbacks in the game. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is being lauded for the creativity he displays within the Browns’ attack-oriented, 3-4 scheme.

Long-time Browns observers consider it the best defense the team has put together since its return to Cleveland in 1999. In fact, to find another Browns defense that compares to this one, you have to go back to the 1980s and early 1990s, to the days when Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield formed one of the best cornerback duos in league history, and when Michael Dean Perry and Rob Burnett were Pro Bowl linemen.

“I think the guys are playing hard,” Chudzinski said. “They’re playing relentless football, and that’s what you want to see from that standpoint.”

Besides playing hard and performing well, the Browns’ defense also is overcoming some key injuries. The touchdown-shutout of the Bengals was achieved without one of its most talented linebackers, Jabaal Sheard, and a pair of talented backups, linebacker Quentin Groves and lineman Billy Winn. They were replaced by the likes of linebacker Eric Martin and lineman Armonty Bryant, and the Browns never missed a defensive beat.

That is a testament to the unit's depth and overall talent, which includes free-agent linebacker Paul Kruger and veteran mainstays D’Qwell Jackson at inside linebacker and Ahtyba Rubin on the line.

“All of these guys are double-team demanding,” Taylor said. “You can’t double-team everybody, so if I’m demanding a double-team, that means the outside guys are getting the one-on-one. If they’re double-teaming Paul or Mingo on the outside or Des, that means I’ll have the one-on-one or Rube will have the one-on-one. That’s the great thing about this defense and the athletes that we have on this defense.”

Despite being short-handed, the Browns maintained their most defining defensive trend of the season by smothering a fourth opponent’s rushing game. Cincinnati running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for a mere 50 yards.

“If you stop the run, you’re going to make a team one-dimensional,” Taylor said. “And when they become one-dimensional, you’re going to know what to do. You get to tee off on the quarterback and things like that.

“When you’re out there stopping the run, they’re going to try to put the ball in the air, and we’ve got the secondary that can shut down any team.”

Which is all in keeping with having the personality of a punch to the face.

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