On a sweltering Monday afternoon in Berea, key defensive players Phil Taylor and Karlos Dansby fielded the same question from reporters: What was up with the defense against St. Louis?
The Rams used mostly second-stringers to take a commanding, 20-0 lead before the two minute warning in the second quarter.
The defense played above average in their first outing against the Lions, limiting Detroit to mostly field goals. And while the defense gave up some big plays in Washington, the Browns forced four turnovers, scored a touchdown and produced the best preseason moment thus far with their four-down goal line stand.
Against the Rams, not much was working. Quarterbacks had all day to throw and picked apart Cleveland's secondary. Third downs were especially the problem – St. Louis was able to convert 7-for-10 of those in the first half alone.
Don't sound the alarm bells, yet. After reviewing the tape, the Browns have pinpointed some of the issues.
"It was a lack of focus and communication issues," said Dansby on why the Browns let St. Louis have their way on offense.
"We've got to correct the little things," said Taylor. "Once we correct those little things, the big things – we have. That game was not the defense we are capable of being. I'm glad we got that test in the preseason, so we know not to make those mistakes again."
Part of the reason for the sustained optimism is the players' strong belief in head coach Mike Pettine.
When he was a free agent in the spring of 2013, Dansby remembers having a conversation with Pettine, then the defensive coordinator of the Bills, about how much success the veteran linebacker could have in this scheme. Things didn't work out with the Buffalo front office but Dansby went on to have a career year in Arizona.
Because Dansby's play was off the charts last season, the Cardinals were unable to afford him. This time Pettine and the linebacker were able to join forces.
"Now I'm here with him, and the sky is the limit," said Dansby. "[He] has the ability to relate to players. It's uncanny. You don't see that a lot in the NFL with head coaches. His ability to relate to players is huge."
In the past, Taylor has been involved with coaches who sent indirect messages. Taylor knows he's getting the honest truth when instructions come from his head coach.
"He tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear," said Taylor. "He keeps it 100 with you."
The preparation for the Steelers game has already begun. The Browns are putting the kinks in their defense against St. Louis behind them. While there still is Thursday's contest against Chicago, the anticipation for Week One at Heinz Field is substantial. Players aren't backing down from the challenge.
"Two weeks is more than enough [time]," said Taylor. "We'll be good."
"We'll be ready to play Pittsburgh – period, point, blank," said Dansby.
Monday's practice report
- It was a surprise when tight end Jordan Cameron was not on the practice field on Monday. Browns head coach Mike Pettine said Cameron was excused for an "issue" and the Pro Bowler should be back on Tuesday.
- The plan against the Bears is to play the starters a little less than a quarter. Pettine knows he's beating a dead horse by saying nothing truly replicates live game reps. The Browns think it's valuable to play their top players just a little bit more before Week One at Pittsburgh.
- In sort of a surprise, Pettine hinted Johnny Manziel probably won't play much in the second half against Chicago. Plans might chance, but the Browns want to look and see what they have in Rex Grossman, and might also give some reps to Connor Shaw.
- Pettine was quick to point out that there were several defensive linemen and linebackers who actually played well against the Rams. But because of the secondary's inability to cover receivers consistently, the performance as an 11-man unit was poor.
- "If your front seven is playing well and your back end is not…if it's flipped you can survive a little bit," said Pettine. "If your secondary is not playing well, and we did not play well as a secondary the other night, then you're going to have issues."
- Armonty Bryant has played well enough in the preseason to now jointly share the starting defensive end position with Desmond Bryant. The latter is still recovering from minor wrist surgery. The Browns are hopeful he can suit up against the Steelers on September 7th.
- "[Armonty] is coming off the ball, he's giving us a great pass rush," said Phil Taylor. "He's getting better on the run each day."
- Dansby was candid in saying the Browns' defensive play calls were totally different without Joe Haden in the lineup. Dansby could "not even elaborate" on how potentially different the Cleveland defense will look against Pittsburgh.
- Wide receiver Nate Burleson (hamstring) was able to participate in practice for the first time since August 6th. The veteran has to do everything in his power to get on the field Thursday. Every wide receiver not named Miles Austin or Andrew Hawkins still has plenty to prove to stick on the 53-man roster.
- Other injury news: rookie cornerback Pierre Desir has something up with his knee, which could leave him out against the Steelers.
- The players did notice the Browns' new dog Swagger on Saturday night. Phil Taylor, a dog enthusiast, had a thought.
- "I wish they would've given my dogs a chance," said Taylor, smiling.