Ask any national analyst what the Cleveland Browns biggest strength is on their roster, and without flinching they'll say the secondary.
It would be hard to find a unit more close-knit than the defensive backs. Players routinely post pictures on Instagram with the entire unit, using the hashtag LOTL – standing for Lockdown On The Lake.
With Joe Haden, Buster Skrine and Tashaun Gipson all returning, and all still young and blossoming, the feeling amongst Browns fans was the back end of their defense was extremely solid.
But when the Browns head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer were evaluating the status of the roster, their philosophy became the same: let's make our secondary so strong, it will make other teams fear throwing the football against us.
One guy on the free agent market came to mind immediately. Pettine had connections in San Francisco, and they all had glowing things to say about safety Donte Whitner. Not just his play on the field, but the type of personality the Browns locker room could lean on.
"It wasn't just talk when he talked in the press conference about how important it was, not just for the Browns to do well, but for the Browns to do well in turn for the city," said Pettine. "You can see he's backed that up with his actions. He absolutely loves football – eats it, breathes it, sleeps it – and he makes the guys around him better."
Whitner has already built a strong reputation on the field as being a communicator. Whitner will be the first to run and slap a teammates butt after a fantastic play. But he'll also be the first to tell a fellow player when he's made a mistake.
Pettine sees the brilliance in Whitner's gift of the gab and calls it a "skill." Whether he intends to or not, Whitner's on the field challenges of his teammates have made the Browns want further success. Simply put: players don't want to frustrate Donte.
"That type of leadership where guys are playing because part of the reason is they don't want to let that guy down, and if you have a guy with that type of leadership ability I think it can be special," said Pettine of Whitner.
"That's the way I've always played the game of football," said Whitner recently. "Half the battle is communicating with teammates. That's how improvements are made, right on the fly in practice."
The Browns didn't stop with just Whitner, though. Many around the league were stunned when the Browns selected cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick. The Browns envision the physical defender playing similarly to the way Antonio Cromartie did with the New York Jets, alongside Darrelle Revis. Pettine and the Jets rode their pair of shutdown corners to back-to-back AFC Championship games.
Gilbert's preseason struggles have been documented. But Joe Haden was also quick to point out he got "burnt up" in his first preseason by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
The Browns are going to count on playing Gilbert quite often against the Steelers. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil knows the NFL transition, especially at the cornerback position, is rarely ever one that occurs without bumps and bruises.
"I think a lot of those moments were things he can learn from," said O'Neil. "Yeah, we wanted to see how he would react in certain situations. I think he did a great job. Playing corner is probably the hardest position to play in this league outside of playing quarterback. It's a process, and I'm happy with where he's at right now."
If the additions of Whitner and Gilbert weren't enough to sell you on the Browns' approach to building the roster, than keeping 12 defensive backs did. Pierre Desir, Aaron Berry, K'Waun Williams and Robert Nelson were all retained to ensure the Browns had a plethora of options when scheming against quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees.
Time will only tell, but on paper, Cleveland's upgrades in both star power and depth in the secondary will give opposing offenses problems all season long in 2014.