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Browns defensive playbook will keep evolving

Get used to hearing this phrase: Year 2 in the system.

Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said it multiple times in his Thursday appearance on Cleveland Browns Daily and because of how well the unit played in 2014, the enthusiasm of year 2 in the system on defense is already becoming contagious inside the building.

"I loved the mentality we finished the year with," said O'Neil. "We were knocked out of the playoffs and I thought the last two games the defense really, really played hard. They played for each other. They played for the coaching staff. They played for the Dawg Pound. I was impressed by that and that was a hell of a foundation to build off of."

Defensively, the Browns' motto is simple: become a cutting-edge scheme, built on old school philosophies. And becoming a cutting-edge unit other teams around the NFL copy, means evolving.

A total reemphasis on stopping the run, and becoming vocally prideful about it, will be the first noticeable change fans and media members notice about OTAs – which begin on April 20.

But a nearly equal alteration will be coming to how the club coaches defensive backs.

This offseason, O'Neil and secondary coach Jeff Hafley will be cross-training every defensive back, teaching each corner how to play multiple positions within the elaborate scheme. Last season, undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams solely lined up as the nickel back covering slot receivers, while first round draft pick Justin Gilbert exclusively was an outside cornerback.

Both will be learning the opposite roles this spring.

"When you cross-train guys on the inside and outside, it will create identification problems for offenses," explained O'Neil. "And we won't be giving away man and zone tells based off of what coverages were in."

The cross-training will even reach Joe Haden. If Gilbert or Pierre Desir take a leap in their second NFL seasons, it will give Cleveland flexibility to occasionally slide Haden as a nickel cornerback to toy with opposing quarterbacks.

"Having too many good cornerbacks is a good problem," said O'Neil. "We all know it's a passing league and you need guys that can cover."

Part of the reasoning behind broadening the responsibilities of each cornerback is the addition of veteran Tramon Williams. The longtime Packer did it all in Green Bay – played inside, outside, press-man, off-man, zone and played both roles as the No.1 and No.2 cornerback, too.

As O'Neil watched game film with Williams on his free agent visit in March, the defensive coordinator said it was like examining tape with a coach. O'Neil thought to himself: why not make all the Browns cornerbacks this way?

"To me, Tramon Williams is a do-it-all corner," O'Neil said. "He'll tackle extremely well. The big game experience he has is going to be huge for our guys. And like Donte Whitner was with the safeties, he's going to be a guy like that with our cornerbacks. I even think Joe will be able to learn from him."

There are more details about defensive tweaks that O'Neil kept private, and for good reason.

Despite inconsistency from the offense, the Browns were 7-4 last season in November.  In big wins against AFC North foes Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the defense played lights out, allowing a combined 13 points while completely muting quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton. It was vintage old school football.

Coach Mike Pettine said the biggest goal this offseason is to make the defense consistently dominant, as they were in those momentous divisional wins.

And O'Neil knows he and his coaching staff will play a paramount role in making that happen.

"The defense is going to evolve every year based off of who our best 11-14 players are," said O'Neil. "And we're going to fire on all cylinders and make the right subtle changes."

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