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Browns No. 1 offseason focus: Elevate the defense to an elite level


In a sit-down interview with Nathan Zegura, Browns coach Mike Pettine was asked for the No. 1 improvement Cleveland needs to make in order to reach the playoffs in 2015.

The answer may surprise you.

Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer have publicly said the quarterback position does not yet have a definitive answer, and the Browns' 12 touchdown receptions were the fewest in the NFL last season.  But because the defense is closer to being fully put together than the offense, the Browns want to zero in on making the unit elite.

"It will start on defense," Pettine told Zegura on what will be most important this offseason. "That we can get the front shored up and get the questions answered with the run game, and then I feel we'll be in a real good place there.

"If we're playing to the level we showed flashes of last year, we'll be in every game."

In games where the Browns surrendered 17 points or less in 2014, the team went 4-1. Cleveland reeled off five wins in a six-game stretch spanning from October to November and defensive supremacy was at the forefront of the high point of the season.

Enticing, shutdown defensive performances like Week 6's 31-10 thumping of the Steelers and Week 10's 24-3 hosing of the Bengals are the lynchpin standard Pettine envisions for the defense moving forward.

Pettine said he threw defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil in the deep end of the pool last year, and the first-time play caller came out swimming. He repeatedly kept putting his playmakers in the right position.

Members of the coaching staff called Joe Haden the best cornerback in the league on multiple occasions, safety Tashaun Gipson picked off six passes in 10 games, Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner brought consistent professionalism and an undeniable leadership element to the locker room and Paul Kruger's 11 sacks were a career-high.

The dominoes are lining up.

"We can build a dominant defense very quickly," Pettine said. "I know that's one thing Jim O'Neil and the staff, they've really hit the ground running this offseason going back through tape. They are light years ahead now of where they were a year ago."

By no means does this insinuate that the Browns and Pettine are ignoring the offense. Remember, Pettine said it's such a priority that the head coach will immerse himself with the unit – even helping come up with strategies.

The facts are what they are. Cleveland has two Pro Bowl maulers on the offensive line – Joe Thomas, Alex Mack – and one of the NFL's top young guards in Joel Bitonio. The skill players might be extremely young – Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West, Taylor Gabriel – but alongside Andrew Hawkins, that trio played well above the level it was expected to as rookies.

"Offensively, we're going to build it around the offensive line," Pettine said. "We feel we're going to have one of the best lines in football.

"We've got to get the quarterback question answered and then get some playmakers on the field and find ways to get them the ball."

Free agency officially begins March 10 at 4 p.m.

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