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Browns teammates showing Justin Gilbert 'tough love'

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All of the Browns' first three opponents feature quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger; the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees; the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco.

Talk about a welcome to the NFL for Mike Pettine.

The Steelers were the first team on the schedule to alter their game plan from what the Browns were expecting. Pittsburgh scoffed at the Browns' revamped secondary played in mostly three wide receiver sets, which meant rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert was on the field for 60 of 72 snaps.

"It wasn't the norm with how the Pittsburgh Steelers attacked us in the past," said defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil on Thursday.

Pittsburgh saw certain scenarios where they could take advantage of Gilbert's inexperience. And they pounced. Particularly, Gilbert had trouble sticking with Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton, who notably caught a 20-yarder on the rookie, setting up Pittsburgh's game winning field goal.

Being a cornerback in the NFL requires the utmost confidence. Right now, for obvious reasons, Gilbert's mindset isn't what it was when he was a college All-American at Oklahoma State. Pettine and his staff are under the impression that coaches can only do so much for a player. Pettine has never been one to "degrade a player" after a poor performance.

Instead, the Browns have employed their own veterans to work extra closely with their rookie. The thing with Gilbert is that he has every tool you could ever want in a cornerback. Physical, tall, athleticism: you name it, he has it. Pettine thinks fellow teammates can help those skills start to shine through against the Saints.

"I think he's gotten some tough love from the defensive back room," said Pettine. "He doesn't want to let down the rest of the guys in the room. They'll make him aware of that as well. That's why we have veterans like Joe [Haden] and Donte [Whitner]. To give them the task, let's get this kid right."

Gilbert himself said things have remained the same in the normally chatty defensive backs room. It's not on anyone else: Gilbert knows it's on him to get better.

"I'm trying not to make the same mistake twice," said Gilbert. "I've had my ups and downs. I'm just trying to continue to limit mistakes. Technique-wise and controlling my eyes to make a play on the ball."

What's interesting, and what many NFL observers aren't focusing in on, is that the Browns did not expect Gilbert to come in right away and challenge Haden as the best cornerback on the roster. O'Neil brought up the fact that Haden wasn't exactly playing much as a rookie in 2010, not even cracking the starting lineup until Week Eight. Even further, media pundits were labeling Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson a bust after his first season struggles. Now, some regard him a better overall player than Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

The big take away: the transition from college cornerback the NFL is one of the hardest adjustments in the sport of football.

"[Cornerback] is the one position, that and quarterback, the two most important, that there is no experience for those game reps," said Pettine. "And like I said on Monday, you've got to walk that fine line between getting him out there and getting him playing and getting him better…and balance that between potentially hurting the team."

"I think [Gilbert's] done a good job coming back this week and working hard in the classroom," said O'Neil. "He had a great practice yesterday. I just thing he needs to…those guys have each other's backs. We all have each other's backs on defense. We've just got to do a better job, the defense as a whole, bringing the techniques that we're learning every day on the practice field to the game field. Justin is one of those guys who needs to learn how to do that just like a lot of players on defense."

Getting Gilbert right is only a small part of equation this week for Cleveland. It's going to take the entire defense to hinder the Saints' big offensive plans.

Pettine says the Saints are an unusual animal to tackle because of their unique passing game. Lots of New Orleans short throws are more like a "controlled form of the running game." The Browns will treat some of these quick passes like they are playing defense against the run. The takeaway: let the Saints dink and dunk on you, but don't let them air the football out deep.

"You have to eliminate the chunk plays," said Pettine. "The big thing especially with Drew Brees, they'll look to push the ball down the field. Vertical concepts. It doesn't matter where they are. They'll run those concepts anywhere in the field."

 
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