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The long and short of the Browns' defense: They are nasty

Oct 02, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/USA Today

Updated at 11:45 a.m.

The Morning Kickoff …

Quarter report: There are four checkpoints in a 16-game NFL season (every four games) and as we reach the first one with the Browns’ record evened at 2-2, one thing is most obvious – coordinator Ray Horton’s defense is unlike any we’ve seen in the expansion era.

Here’s a look at selected categories through four games compared to last year’s final numbers:

                                        2013                                 2012

Category              Average  NFL rank                 Average   NFL rank

Rushing yards        79.0          4                            118.7          19

Passing yards       212.5          9                           245.2          25

Total yards            291.5          3                           363.8          23

Points allowed        17.5          8T                            23.0          19

Sacks                     3.5           3T                              2.4          11T

A couple other points: Opponents have an average rush of 2.9 yards against the Browns – lowest in the league. The Browns have not allowed a run longer than 14 yards. No other team has been stingier.

Here’s what Buffalo coach Doug Marrone said of the Browns’ defense to Buffalo media on Tuesday:

“I think they’re very difficult because of a couple things. Obviously Coach Horton does a great job. You have 11 guys on that field that are playing extremely hard. You have a front seven that is similar to the front seven we’ve seen this past week (against Baltimore). They’re very strong. They do a very good job of holding the edges, similar to what the Steelers did when Coach Horton was there. Not identical for what they do defensively, but I think that’s a good reference for how they hold the point. Outside, the corners are fast, they play well with their hands, they re-route you very well in their man coverage. The safeties do a good job of reading. People have had a very difficult time driving the ball on them and scoring. I think they’re playing at a high level.”

Horton hears a who: From the day he was hired, Horton preached of wanting “big guys who can run and little guys who can hit.” Two players who epitomize those principles are nose tackle Phil Taylor (big guy) and cornerback Buster Skrine (little guy).

At 6-3 and 335 pounds, Taylor is the biggest of the bigs. Skrine, 5-9 and 185, is the littlest of the littles.

Playing directly over center, Taylor doesn’t have many opportunities to rush the passer. But Horton, who reviewed every play from the Browns’ 2012 season before fitting together the pieces of his puzzle, recalled Taylor running down a Broncos ball-carrier in the Denver game last year.

As for Skrine, he is an absolutely fearless tackler – a rare trait among cornerbacks (of any size), which endears him to coaches and teammates. Cornerback Joe Haden also is a sure and willing tackler, but Skrine actually packs a wallop when he hits a ball-carrier. Pound for pound, Skrine may be the nastiest of the Browns’ defenders.

But the king of nasty has got to be Taylor.

Aw, shucks: One of the little-known facts about Taylor is his football intelligence.

Horton said: “I often quiz them on other people’s responsibilities. I asked Phil what the cornerback did on a certain defense, and he answered it. Phil is brilliantly smart … off-the-charts smart.

Coach Rob Chudzinski said: “He’s a very excitable guy. A very intelligent football player. You watch him and sit in meetings … he talks almost like a coach. I can’t say enough about the guy and how he’s matured and how he’s playing and how he is. He’s a fun guy to be around.”

As a teammate, he may be a fun guy to be around. But as an opponent, nobody on the Browns casts a nastier demeanor than Big Phil. He has a menacing look, heck, a menacing gait about him. When Taylor stalks to mid-field with the captains for the pre-game coin toss, he looks like he intends to bite the coin in half.

“For a guy that’s big and athletic like that, the last thing you want to do as an offense is rub him the wrong way,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “Once he gets going and his body leans on you, he’s hard to block, and it makes my job easier and it makes Joe Haden’s job easier. It makes everyone’s job on defense a lot easier.”

Taylor told me that he has turned up his game a notch from last season because he is constantly learning and seeking to improve, but also because he felt bad missing the first eight games last year after surgery on a torn pectoral muscle.

“I just want to make a bigger impact than I did last year,” he said.

Taylor believes his nasty attitude on the field embodies the personality of the Browns’ defense.

“Just having an aggressive personality on the field tells the offense it’s not going to be an easy day,” he said. “That’s just the way I play. Other guys on the team, they feed off of it. Being nasty is going to get us to be the No. 1 defense. That’s our goal.”

It is too early to project the potential of this Browns’ defense. But it may not be too early for a nickname for these guys. They are Nasty Boys.

 

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 tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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