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State of the Cleveland Browns defense

Posted Aug 15, 2014

Coordinator Jim O’Neil provides a progress report

Know this about the Cleveland Browns’ defense and their dominance so far in training camp: the unit has more than 11 capable starters.

“We’ve always gone with the mindset that we’re going to have 15-16 starters on defense,” said O’Neil. “There’s a lot of guys that are going to play a major role on our defense.”

Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor will play early, often and all over the line of scrimmage, but they are both listed as second-stringers. Another potential “starting quality backup” is cornerback Justin Gilbert. A groin injury held the cornerback out of the first preseason game against the Lions, but the rookie will be suiting up against the Redskins. O’Neil indicated Gilbert will rotate with Buster Skrine, so the youngster can get a test of man coverage against the Redskins’ top-notch receivers – Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.

What O’Neil wants fans to understand is this: don’t press the panic button if Gilbert isn’t starting Week One in Pittsburgh.

“Justin is on his way to being a great corner,” said O’Neil. “If he’s not one of our best 11 by week one, I’m going to be happy with the 11 we trot out there. I’m very optimistic about Justin. He’s doing a great job in the class room. He’s doing a great job out here on the practice field. He’s competing.”

Because the Browns play in the AFC North, and because it’s always been the way Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil have coached, Cleveland’s defense will pride itself first and foremost on stopping the run.

O’Neil and Pettine have seen their system succeed in Baltimore, New York and Buffalo because of their strong emphasis of making offenses one-dimensional by taking away the running game. A sturdy showing from the front-seven generally means loads of third-and-longs, when blitzes are dialed up from all over the field.

“We force them into an obvious passing situation and that allows us to be exotic and unconventional,” said O’Neil on the goal of his defense.

Half the battle for a new coaching staff is getting their players to believe in their message. Count 11-year veteran Karlos Dansby as a player who is not only buying in, but preaching to other players on how bright of a mind O’Neil has.

“He’s very energetic and he’s very passionate about what he does,” said Dansby of his 35-year-old coach. “You get a lot of knowledge with him. You got to try and soak it up as much as you can.”

O’Neil himself pointed out safety Donte Whitner as a reason why the defense has been so far ahead during training camp.

“Donte is a follow me or else guy,” said O’Neil. “He leads by example. There’s a lot of those kind of leaders out there in today’s NFL. But if he sees something he doesn’t like, doesn’t matter if it’s a coach or a player, he’s going to let you know. And I respect the hell out of that. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

“Most of the young guys on the team are visual guys,” said Dansby. “So you have to show them how to do it. You can lead them to the water, but you can’t make them drink it. But you go out and show them [how to play defense], that right there speaks volumes.”

There are still three preseason games left on the docket. Shortly after the Browns land back in Cleveland from Washington, they’ll have to shrink the roster down to 75. It’s not something O’Neil is looking forward to doing and that’s a telling sign of the upgrades the Browns have made to the roster.

“When you are talking about trying to get down to the 53 and you have to make tough decisions, and cut a good player that can play in the league, that just shows what Ray Farmer and his group has done on the personnel side to create competition on the defensive side of the ball,” said O’Neil.

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