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Jackson mans middle of Browns' defense

Posted Jul 16, 2013

Over the next few weeks, ClevelandBrowns.com will take a look at the 2013 Browns, position-by-position. Today’s spotlight is on the linebackers.

Overview:

The Cleveland Browns are transitioning back to a 3-4 defensive front after spending the last two years in a 4-3 alignment. In making the change, the coaches have switched players to different positions along the defensive front, except for middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.

Jackson spent the first five years of his NFL career in the 3-4, and it was in that defensive scheme that he had his most productive seasons in terms of tackles.

After registering 112 and 111 tackles respectively in his first two seasons, Jackson led the league with 188 total stops, including 112 solo efforts, in 2008. During those first three seasons, Jackson registered three sacks, collected four interceptions, and defended nine passes.

Jackson comes into 2013 on the heels of a 119-tackle, 3.5-sack, two-interception season that earned him first-alternate status for the 2013 Pro Bowl. In the Browns’ season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson intercepted quarterback Michael Vick and returned it 27 yards for the first touchdown of his career.

When he intercepted Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton a week later, Jackson, last year’s defensive captain, became the first Browns linebacker since the NFL-AFL merger to register interceptions in the first two games of the regular season.

“D’Qwell has been great,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “You guys know from a leadership and character standpoint what he brings to the table, but he has been right at home, adjusting back to playing the 3-4. Obviously, he has had that time before in a 3-4 so it has been no problem. It looks like he has been there his whole career.”

Key Number:

Two: the number of undrafted free-agent linebackers who made the roster out of training camp last season.

Craig Robertson was on the Browns’ practice squad at the end of the 2011 regular season, but then, turned an invitation to training camp into a roster spot and an appearance in all 16 games with three starts.

In those games, Robertson totaled 83 tackles, second only to Jackson’s 119, as well as 56 solo stops, 27 assists, a sack for a 10-yard loss at Dallas on Nov. 18, and two interceptions. Robertson also collected two fumble recoveries last season.

In addition to Robertson’s production, rookie L.J. Fort started the season-opener against the Eagles and collected both a sack and an interception. He was the first rookie to have both a sack and interception in his NFL debut since Jacksonville’s Kevin Hardy on Sept. 1, 1996, and first undrafted free agent to start for the Browns in the Super-Bowl era.

Robertson and Fort are the only Browns linebackers to collect an interception in their first NFL games.

Players to Watch:

Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo.

The Browns added Kruger through free agency after he led the Ravens with nine quarterback sacks last season. During Baltimore’s march to the NFL championship, Kruger had 4.5 sacks in the playoffs, including two against San Francisco 49ers signal-caller Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII.

When Kruger was introduced as the Browns’ first free-agent signing of the 2013 offseason, he talked about joining the team and working with defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

“It just seems like he’s got a really attacking style, aggressive style of defense, and I think that’s exactly what I was seeing in Baltimore be successful,” Kruger said. “I think we have a great opportunity to start something special this year. I think it’s just a matter of us putting it all together and making it happen.”

In each of his first two seasons, Sheard led the Browns in sacks as a defensive end, registering 8.5 for 73.5 lost yards as a rookie and seven for 55 lost yards last fall. Now, the third-year professional is transitioning to outside linebacker.

“Jabaal has done a great job,” Chudzinski said. “You look at him making the transition from defensive end to outside backer, he is understanding the drop concepts and really looks real natural in that position.”

Like Sheard, Mingo, the Browns’ first-round draft pick back in April, is switching from defensive end to outside linebacker.

During his college career, Mingo made 15 starts in 40 games, registered 15 sacks for 108 lost yards and made 29 tackles in opposing backfields. He also made 119 total tackles, broke up 11 passes and collected 27 hits on quarterbacks.

“I’m just going to go in there, compete for a job and just have fun playing with those guys,” Mingo said of training camp. “We’ve grown close over the last couple weeks that we’ve been here, especially us as rookies. Getting to do stuff like (coaching at the youth camp) really helps us bond, and I think that’s how to build a team.”