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Christian Kirksey's secret to his breakout season? It's all in the eyes

The setting for the most impactful offseason of Christian Kirksey's career was a dark room.

Kirksey had fewer tackles in his second season than he did as a rookie. It wasn't necessarily trending the wrong way for the former third-round pick, but Kirksey wanted to put a halt to any sort of negative momentum. With a coaching overhaul, he'd have a fresh set of eyes analyzing him and determining his role in what would be a new-look Browns defense.

This would require more than just extra hours in the gym. Kirksey needed to fix how he saw the game in front of him, specifically how he read an offense on running plays.

"Being in the right place at right time," Kirksey said. "Basically fixing my eyes."

The hours were long, stretching for months before Kirksey got back on the field for real, live football. The payoff, though, was well worth it.

Simply put, Kirksey was a different player in a different role during his third NFL season. He went from the part-time role he filled alongside Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson in his first two seasons to an every-down role next to Jamie Collins Sr. and Demario Davis in 2016. His production was due to increase by default, but the different way Kirksey was able to see the game propelled him to a whopping 148 tackles, a figure that ranked third-best in the NFL.

"Probably the most improved player on our team in my opinion is Kirko," Browns coach Hue Jackson said. "What he has done this year is outstanding."

The change hit Kirksey at Cleveland's first training camp practice.

He wasn't hitting or even in pads, but Kirksey was experiencing a slowed-down version of a game that came at him fast during his first two seasons. Suddenly, he was seeing the direction of a play a half-second sooner, enough of an advantage to turn medium gains into small gains and small gains into negative-yardage plays.

Kirksey was in a spot where plays were there for the taking, and he was making them.

"I could just feel myself getting better. I could just feel myself being more and more confident," Kirksey said. "The guys around me, the chemistry with the guys in our linebacker room, that builds your confidence, too."

The increase in production was immediate.

Kirksey picked up a sack in the first half of Cleveland's season opener against Philadelphia and finished with six tackles. He had fewer than six just twice more the rest of the season with his production peaking Week 5 against the Patriots, when he had 16.

"I'm never thinking about it," Kirksey said. "I just know that I try to make as many plays as possible and always be around the ball. I never keep up with tackles.

"I remember the Patriots game, Jordan Poyer looked up and was like, 'man you've got 13 tackles.' I didn't even notice it. I look after the game. I don't pay attention to that."

Whether it was during the game or afterward in a film review session, Jackson noticed.

"That is what football is about. It is about making football plays and part of it, a huge part of it as you know, is tackling," Jackson said. "He has had a tremendous season.

"He has accepted the challenge of playing extremely physical and tough. He has done that. He is a three-down linebacker. He can play on first, second and third down. He runs, and he has made some explosive plays. He needs to continue to do so, and I think he will."

For Kirksey, leadership came both naturally and by default.

Two of Kirksey's closest mentors, Dansby and Robertson, left during the offseason. Three other top veterans -- Paul Kruger, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson -- were gone by the midpoint of the preseason. Davis, a free agent acquisition, quickly emerged as a vocal leader and was named a captain before the season, but there was room for Kirksey, a former captain at Iowa, to assert himself as one of the lead voices on Cleveland's young defense.

A few weeks into the season, Kirksey was tabbed as the official voice of the defense. For the majority of the year, he was the one responsible for relaying the calls from the coaches box to the players around him.

"I had to take that responsibility and I started looking at different things and looking at different positions like, 'OK, if I'm calling this I need to know what the other player is doing instead of me just focusing in and holding down my own position,'" Kirksey said. "I took that challenge and I think that helped my game grow because now you become a student of the game and you're taking responsibility. That's definitely helped."

The more time Kirksey spent around Davis, the more comfortable he felt asserting himself as a leader away from the field. He quickly emerged as not just the voice of Cleveland's defense, but also the entire locker room.

After a lopsided loss to Dallas in Week 9, Kirksey slowly took off his pads as reporters surrounded him after the team's ninth consecutive loss. The losing was wearing on him just like everyone else in the locker room but Kirksey didn't duck away from the burning spotlight. He made headlines when he said the Browns "wouldn't go 0-16," and stuck by it even as the losses mounted into Weeks 14 and 15. Local media recognized Kirksey's stand-up nature, win or lose, and awarded him with the PFWA Dino Lucarelli "Good Guy Award."

When the Browns finally landed that elusive first win, Kirksey was asked about the prediction. He promptly credited the players around him who "played their hearts out."

"Kirko is a rising football player on our football team and within pro football itself," Jackson said. "He has had a hell of a year and he needs to keep growing, but I think he gets it. It is about team for him. It has never just been about him, and I appreciate it."

Kirksey sees just as much room to grow for himself as his coaches do. He knows he can be a better, more dynamic player, and he doesn't need more tackles to accomplish it.

As Kirksey describes it, he made a lot of "good" plays in 2016. The next step, as he prepares for his fourth season, is to elevate his game enough to make the "great" ones.

He has his eyes on those around the league who play at the level he wants to reach.

"Luke Kuechly, he makes great plays, game-changing plays where he'll get an interception at a crucial time and run down the field 60 yards," Kirksey said. "You've got people like Odell Beckham Jr. making spectacular catches. You have people like Jamie Collins being that big of a guy that can move and make a play on the ball.

"I think if I really put my mind to it, the sky is the limit for me. Keep working, keep practicing and keep pushing myself to the limit, I think I'll be one of those players you mention."

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