BEREA (AP) — For the past two weeks, Cleveland’s defense has been a swarming mass that will stop at nothing to inflict pain and punishment on its opponent.
The Browns have been ruthless, relentless.
“They’re like a bunch of fire ants,” offensive coordinator Brad Childress said.
With consecutive dominant performances against Dallas and Pittsburgh, Cleveland’s defense is establishing itself as one of the NFL’s up-and-coming units. Don’t tell cornerback Joe Haden that, though. He believes the Browns deserve to be considered among the elite already.
“I would say we’re one of the top five defenses, for sure,” Haden said Thursday as the Browns (3-8) continued to prepare for Sunday’s game against the Raiders (3-8). “We have people who can play their position, are really good at it and everybody’s established now and they understand what’s going on.
“We have playmakers that can make plays at every level, and when we’re all healthy and everybody’s doing their thing, we’re up there with the best.”
They’ve certainly been at their best the past two Sundays.
Last week, the Browns forced eight turnovers — five fumbles, three interceptions — in a 20-14 win over the Steelers. The eight takeaways were the most by any team since 2001 and most by a Cleveland team since 1989. Also, the Browns held Pittsburgh to 49 yards rushing, the fewest by a Cleveland opponent in nine years.
One week earlier, the Browns sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo seven times and allowed Dallas only 64 yards rushing. Prior to their bye, the Browns were allowing 132.2 yards on the ground per game. Since then, they’re giving up just 56 — the league’s best total.
It’s no coincidence that defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor have played in both games.
Taylor missed Cleveland’s first eight games after undergoing surgery to repair a chest muscle the 335-pounder tore while lifting weights in May. The underrated Rubin sat out three games with a calf injury. But now that the beefy pair have been reunited, the Browns’ defense has become a heavyweight.
“It’s like baseball,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “You need to be strong up the middle. When you have two big sturdy guys in there that can play the run on first and second down, and then get push when it’s time to throw the football, that definitely helps your run game.”
Cleveland’s defensive line has become the team’s strength.
The injuries to Taylor and Rubin allowed rookie tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes to get more playing time right away, and while there may have been some early growing pains, the two kids have quickly matured into dependable players.
Also, the return of Taylor and Rubin has freed up ends Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker to make more plays, and allowed defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to rotate Juqua Parker and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen into the lineup without worrying about any letdown.
It’s taken a while, but the Browns finally have the defense on the field they envisioned having to start the season.
It’s all come together.
“We’re just flying around playing as a solid group, a big-time unit and we’ve been trying to get a complete game out of us for a while,” said Rucker, signed by Cleveland as a free agent in the offseason after six years with Cincinnati. “We’ve shown flashes here and there. Starting the year, we played some good ball. It got a little bit away from us, and now we’re just right back to where we want to be. We’re getting guys back and we just want to make something happen these last couple of games.”
They made something happen last week.
The Browns seemed to be all over the field. They attacked Pittsburgh’s running backs, causing four of them to fumble. It was rare when a Cleveland defender made a solo tackle. Usually, there were two or three orange helmets flying to the football, and more than one pair of hands ripping at the ball and trying to force a fumble.
The Steelers got stripped bare.
“They take the ball off people and people aren’t readily wanting to have the ball taken off them,” Childress said “That’s what I see. I see lots of guys in on the pile and it’s like a feeding frenzy, which is the way you want your defense. You want all 11 guys to show up.”
Along with creating turnovers, the Browns let the Steelers convert just 1 of 9 third downs, the lowest total by a Cleveland opponent since 2006.
It’s been two terrific weeks, but Haden, who was suspended four games and was injured for another, knows for the Browns defense to be regarded among the league’s best, like Pittsburgh’s or Baltimore’s, they’ll have to do it again, and again, and again.
“We’re just going to keep coming in every week and keep hopefully building on those performances and then you have no choice but to look at us like a dominating defense,” he said. “That’s what we’re going for. You have to earn it.”
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