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Jim O'Neil: Browns D came together when adversity reached its peak

Jim O'Neil spent a good chunk of his Saturday press conference talking about a game Cleveland lost nearly six months earlier.

There was a method to his unexpected monologue.

The Browns' defensive coordinator looked back to the team's 2014 season-ending loss at Baltimore, the fifth in as many weeks to close the year. Battered and bruised with their playoff hopes dashed the previous week, the Browns' defense put a scare into the playoff-hopeful Baltimore Ravens for 60 minutes but ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, allowing the Ravens to pull away for a 20-10 win. The victory sent the Ravens to the playoffs and sent the Browns back to Cleveland with a 7-9 record.

As Mike Pettine often said throughout his first season as Cleveland's head coach, the NFL is a pass-fail league and the Browns failed in their season finale for a sixth consecutive season. O'Neil won't deny that, but something happened behind the scenes and on the field that O'Neil took to heart.

The Browns defense came together amid a storm of negative circumstances, and O'Neil sees the positive effect lingering as the team goes through its offseason workouts.

"It was just unbelievable to me what those guys did and how hard they played," O'Neil said. "You guys have been around with what some of the Week 17 games have looked like around here."

It was a reflection, O'Neil said, of what he saw throughout the holiday week from a Browns defense that featured numerous players playing through injuries.

Cornerback Joe Haden played through an injured shoulder and the flu. Defensive lineman John Hughes made a point to return to action after missing a significant chunk of the season with a knee injury and notched a career high in tackles. At some point in the game, defensive lineman Ishmaa'ily Kitchen injured his leg but played through the pain.

"We gave up some plays in the fourth quarter, but I was so proud of how that unit came together," O'Neil said. "They stayed late throughout the week. It was important to them. That was really important to me."

What could have been the worst possible way to enter an offseason morphed into a positive when the sting of defeat faded, O'Neil said. He called the Browns' start to their offseason training program "great" and "outstanding."

Winning the offseason, he said, entails strong attendance for both workouts and drill work, and his unit has excelled in both areas. The mix of positive and negative that came from how the Browns ended 2014 has served as the backbone to the group's motivation.

"That was something that I was like, 'You know what? We're all in this together, coaching staff-wise, player-wise,'" O'Neil said. "That really validated a lot of things for me."

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