By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Winning them over: The two Browns players who might have legitimate reason to question, or resent, or even dread the switch to a 3-4 base system claim they are “all in” on the blitzing, Pittsburgh-style defense being installed by new coordinator Ray Horton.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who enters his eighth season now as the longest-tenured Brown, stands to be mauled in the running game by 300-pound guards unimpeded by defensive tackles who would otherwise line up over them in the 4-3.
“I’ve got to get some bigger pads this year,” Jackson joked.
Jabaal Sheard has to make two major transitions in his third NFL season. After leading the team with 15.5 sacks the past two years as the left defensive end, Sheard will move to the right side and audition for the standup weakside linebacker spot, where he has to adjust from always moving forward to often moving backward. He inherits unfamiliar, additional responsibilities to cover backs, tight ends – even slot receivers – in pass coverage.
It is the most physically and mentally demanding position on defense in the NFL.
“It’s different, but I think it’s gonna be fine,” Sheard said. “It’s a challenge. But football’s a challenge. I’m just gonna step up to the plate.
“I think I’m athletic. I always wanted to be a linebacker. I wanted to be able to drop (into pass coverage) and also rush. I’m happy for it. Honestly.”
Jackson, 6-0 and 240 pounds, doesn’t think he’ll have to add weight to be more stout in the running game. Sheard, 6-2 and 255 pounds, doesn’t think he’ll have to lose weight to be more agile in the pass coverage game.
Are they engaging in fantasy football? Or is their enthusiasm a real effect of Horton’s immediate impact on his new players?
It’s all about the pass rush: What is exciting and appealing to both players is the unrelenting aggressiveness in Horton’s scheme.
“The beauty of Ray’s defense, he doesn’t let an offense dictate what we’re doing,” Jackson said. “We’re gonna do what we do, give you multiple looks, multiple pressures. Ray’s played the game, so he understands what works and what doesn’t.”
Jackson broke in with the Browns in 2006 as an inside linebacker in the Romeo Crennel 3-4 defense. He transitioned easily into the facsimile Eric Mangini 3-4, but both systems took their toll on him physically. He has been more productive – and had more fun -- as the middle linebacker in the Dick Jauron 4-3 the past two seasons.
“The thing about this 3-4 compared to the 3-4 I played in the past (is) we’re going to be aggressive,” Jackson said. “It’s similar to what Arizona ran last year, to what the Steelers do.
“I’ll have a lot more opportunities to blitz. We have a lot of different fronts, so it won’t be one look all the time. You look around at the Baltimores, the Steelers, they excel in being able to execute multiple fronts. There’ll be a lot more movement. It’s harder for an offense to hit a moving target. In years past, you’d just stand there all day. You feel you (can’t) make plays. You get blocked all the way down the field.”
Sheard said, “Pass rushing is pass rushing. I’m still on the edge. All I have to do is learn to drop a little bit. I’m starting to get the hang of it.”
Sheard was scouted by New England and Pittsburgh as a 3-4 outside ‘backer coming out of Pitt in 2011. He considered himself fortunate to break in as a 4-3 end with the Browns. Recognizing coverage assignments will be his biggest adjustment.
His rush opportunities may be reduced, but he will realize an advantage from the stand-up position at linebacker.
“Mainly it’s about the get-off,” he said. “In the three-point stance, you’re like a track runner. You have more force leaning forward. (In the two-point stance of a linebacker) you can get a good jump on the ball seeing the center snap the ball.”
A new Cleveland swag: Jackson said the best NFL defenses over the past five years have been the ones playing an aggressive 3-4 scheme. He has seen the Steelers and Ravens run roughshod over the Browns for eight years. He’s been envious of them.
“I’ve watched all the top defenses,” he said. “Baltimore, Pittsburgh … they get after people. That’s what Ray brings. Baltimore’s been highly successful with their ‘cross dogs’ – sending the two inside linebackers on stunts. We’ll do a lot of that. We run a ton of it. It’s gonna be good to finally get after Baltimore and Pittsburgh and actually give them a dose of their own medicine.”
Sheard sees Horton, a passionate disciple of the great Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, turning the Browns into a defensive power.
“It’s similar (to the Steelers’ style),” he said. “We’ve got our own swag. We’re gonna have our own thing. We’re going to bring pressure. We’re going to get after it. We want to pride ourself on defense, too.”
For these two players, there will be some sacrifices. Hopefully, some new triumphs, too.
“I want to win some games around here,” Sheard said. “So whatever it takes to win games.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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