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Behind the curtain: How Cleveland's secondary became a top unit in the NFL


To understand why the Cleveland Browns were first in the NFL in opposing quarterback rating (74.1), second in the league in interceptions (21) and boasted three Pro Bowlers – Joe Haden, Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner – let's take a trip inside the classroom and onto the practice field.

The Browns' secondary competed against other offenses in the 2014 season, but they also had a raging internal battle with the Seattle Seahawks.

On a weekly basis, defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley would throw up a split-screen graph comparing the Browns' statistics to the Seahawks'. Players would chime in and debate. The discussions would become loud and lively.

The off-the-field duel didn't stop there. Hafley would cut-up snippets of film of how Seattle defended certain coverages and then show how nobody else in the league was covering like Cleveland.

The Seahawks tactic was calculated from the coaches: Relentlessly challenge the Browns' defensive backs to implement a conviction that this unit could conquer the NFL. 

"We have guys in our room who believe we are the best secondary in the NFL," Hafley said. "And they would talk about it openly. We needed to challenge them to do and be that. We couldn't take our foot off the gas. Showing them the Seahawks motivated these guys and us as coaches. Let's be the best."

"You have to want to be the best," Whitner said. "You don't just show up and play and become the best. And that's one thing they can't take away from us. We wanted to be the best. We put in the work. And I think the results showed."

Coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil are the coaching faces of the defense, and rightfully so. They built the defensive scheme together. They nearly led New York Jets defenses to the promised land.

But the 36-year-old Hafley isn't too far behind.

The former University of Pittsburgh defensive backs coach was the one who urged the Browns to take a look at K'Waun Williams during the post-draft tryout sessions. Williams was a player Hafley heavily recruited out of St. Joseph's High School and even visited Williams' home in New Jersey back in 2009. Hafley knew how hard  of a worker Williams was and promised he was an even better person.


Toting No. 36, the undrafted rookie returned the favor to Hafley, blossoming into a standout nickel back and vital member of the secondary.

"The coaches really believed in me here from Day 1," Williams said in his always modest tone. "Coach Hafley took a chance on me. It means so much."

The cohesion of the defensive backs room isn't just Hafley, though.

First-year assistant coach and longtime New York Jets All-Pro cornerback Aaron Glenn and Bobby Babich – whose dad is the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars – lead one of the most distinct classrooms in the building.

Babich's role is unique. Players describe him as a mastermind who can break down how certain offensive line packages will have a trickle-down effect into the secondary.

"Bobby sees a lot of stuff nobody else sees," Hafley said. "He always has stuff we are adding into the game plan."

Glenn's specialty was teaching press-man coverage techniques, especially at the line of scrimmage. A right-handed jab. A left-handed pull move. Mirroring receivers with their feet. These techniques actually turned out to be mind games that gave Browns defensive backs the upper hand in many situations.

"Receivers against cornerbacks really is a cat-and-mouse game, and we wanted to make sure we were the aggressors," Glenn explained. "If you can reroute and disrupt the timing, you win. If you have a lot of tools in your tool box, with these techniques, you can win. So now the receiver is hesitating. They are thinking more about us then their own play call."

The press-man and double-zero coverage – which means no safety help over the top – allowed Gipson and Whitner to roam freely and make plays on the ball. It's no coincidence Gipson was among the league leaders with six interceptions, embracing his centerfielder, ball-hawking role with arms wide open – literally. And it's no surprise the tenacious Whitner led the Browns with 106 tackles.

But, more than any other player, it was Buster Skrine who took the coaching and scheme change to heart. Glenn joked if he, Hafley and Babich told Skrine to run through a brick wall, Skrine wouldn't hesitate.

"I love that dude," Glenn said as he laughed.


The more physical, aggressive and technical style of cornerback play the Browns were coaching helped mold Skrine into a sturdy No. 2 cornerback – who, let's remember, saw a hailstorm of passes his way with Haden on the opposite side.

Here's where Glenn can relate as a former player. On a rare Tuesday evening practice, three days after Skrine was beat for two touchdowns by gigantic Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans, he and his coach had the following exchange in between drills on the field.

Glenn: You know the football is coming your way every play this week.

Skrine: I know.

Glenn: Are you going to be a man or a mouse? Because a mouse goes and hides in the wall.

Skrine: I'm going to be a man!

Two days later, Skrine would play the best game of his career, picking off Andy Dalton twice in the Browns' 24-3 throttling of the Bengals in Cincinnati on the NFL Network.

"Everybody has the utmost respect for AG," Skrine said. "He's come back now and is trying to make everyone else successful. He will push you. But he knows how to push you in the right way."

The brutal honesty is a reason for success and the defensive backs classroom adopted the tone Pettine set right from the start. 

The honesty and the feedback is needed more in the secondary than possibly any other position. Cornerbacks and safeties in Cleveland's system are constantly swapping pre-snap information to be in the best position to make big plays. If someone is lagging behind, the whole unit will feel it.

"We communicate non-stop – at practice, during games – and we are all honestly good friends," Haden said.


Said Glenn: "These guys trust each other more than any other group I've been around."

Hafley, Babich, Glenn, O'Neil and even Pettine – who said he plans on doing more of the X's and O's in his second year with the Browns – are counting down the days until the players come back in April.

When you hear Pettine say there is no substitute for "live game reps" in a press conferences, it sounds like a coaching cliché. But here's where it rings true.

After a year of playing in the system, Cleveland now understands Whitner is one of the best off-man cover safeties in the league. He can go toe-to-toe with any tight end without any help. This adds wrinkles the coaching staff will implement.

"Just through playing games, we found out that K'Waun Williams is one of the best blitzers that we have," Hafley said. "I learned so much about our defensive backs. So now it's my job to communicate to Jimmy O'Neil. This new light has been shed on the tools that we have as a defense."

In12 weeks, the Browns won't be installing a new defensive scheme – they'll be fine-tuning it. The hope is that the dominant 2014 season is just the beginning for this stalwart unit.

And who knows – maybe in a few years' time, it will be another NFL team showing charts of the Cleveland Browns secondary's statistics and hoping to match the best unit in the league.

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