On Sunday in Tennessee, the Cleveland Browns will be reunited with their former defensive coordinator, Ray Horton.
The Browns dismissed Horton and most of their coaching staff following the conclusion of the 2013 season. But the team's 4-12 record wasn't a direct indictment of the defense. Horton's unit ranked ninth in the league, boasted Pro Bowl players Joe Haden and T.J. Ward and was often referred to as the backbone of the franchise.
There were some deficiencies in the scheme, though. The Browns ranked 31st on third down stops, giving up a 45 percent conversion rate. Outside of the notable statistics, Cleveland had an even bigger problem covering tight ends in the middle of the field.
Regardless of how things turned out last season, the Browns recognize Horton's defenses are tenacious and he's a coach who can help develop average players into stellar ones. There's a reason he's interviewed for several head coaching positions over the years. Even with the scenery change, Horton's reputation inside the walls of Berea has not taken a dip.
"They will play hard," linebacker Jabaal Sheard said about the Titans' defense. "He had us ranked as a top 10 defense last year. Obviously he prides the defense on stopping the run and no deep balls. I think our offense can do a good job against those aspects, though."
"Last year our defense was active," said offensive guard John Greco, who practiced against the unit every day for a full season. "They were mobile, they were flying around the field. They can make your hands full on offense."
"We know that they are high-flying, sideline-to-sideline. That's what we are going to prepare for," said receiver Andrew Hawkins, who went against Horton's defense last year with the Bengals.
Coach Mike Pettine also speaks highly of Horton. The latter's defenses have always been able to apply pressure and not just in the form of blitzes. Defenders are unremittingly on the move, forcing quarterbacks and other players to make quick decisions – often the wrong ones. So far in 2014, the Titans are 15th in the NFL in total defense and an impressive ninth in pass defense – against Andy Dalton, Tony Romo and Andrew Luck, nonetheless. Defense has not been the problem for Tennessee.
When Pettine first was hired in late January he decided to retain assistant defensive backs coach Bobby Babich. One of the first things on Pettine's to-do list was to have the young coach explain to him the terminology and basics of what Horton ran here. The teaching process continued on in the spring once players arrived for OTAs.
"[Bobby] was able to kind of, as we went through the tape, what was this and what were these guys coached?" said Pettine. "That really helped us in building it, and then being able to introduce it to the guys that were here before, 'Hey, this is what you ran last year was called this or this is the same technique. Ok, now we might tweak it this way.' Bobby was very helpful for us in bridging that gap."
Many are under the impression the Browns will be collectively bunkered down all week, revisiting Horton's old schemes. The whole preparing-for-a-former-coach-narrative is loud within the media, but not so much inside the team facility. It's already Wednesday and Pettine has said he's yet to consult any of his offensive linemen on the types of fronts Horton typically uses.
Though there is an open dialogue format in many team meetings with players, the Browns' offensive coaches already have their own game plan concocted. The difficulties Horton presents are loud and clear.
"It's a group where we know, in all phases, we're going to have our hands full," said Pettine.