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Browns' stockpiling of cornerbacks reflects Mike Pettine's belief that pass rush starts at the back of the defense

Sep 02, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi |



The Morning Kickoff …

Strength in numbers: Most NFL coaches believe the best pass defense is a strong pass rush, so they try to collect as many quarterback sackers as they can find.

Mike Pettine has taken a different approach with the Browns. He has loaded up on defensive backs -- hopefully ones able to cover without safety help -- to manufacture quarterback pressure from a variety of sources.

Pettine’s first 53-player roster as Browns coach includes seven cornerbacks – an unusually high number – and five safeties.

“I knew our room was deep, and I knew we had a lot of talent and it was going to be hard (to cut cornerbacks),” said Pro Bowler Joe Haden. “When I was looking at the room – sometimes in different situations, you could see the players that were going to get released or whatever – but with that room that we had, we had really tough competition. I think the coaches couldn’t make decisions either.”

Pettine’s stamp on his first Browns’ team starts with the decision to bypass Sammy Watkins with the fourth pick in the draft and use the No. 8 selection on cornerback Justin Gilbert. The bloated defensive back roster also is all on him.

It’s weird because Ray Horton, who preceded the Pettine regime as defensive coordinator, was an NFL cornerback in his playing days, but he swore by pass rushers (green-lighting Barkevious Mingo at No. 6 in the 2013 draft rather than Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner.)

“There’s a couple different ways to get the pass rush,” Pettine said. “If you don’t have guys that can win one-on-one, then you have to scheme it up. I just think the trend in the league -- (with) the spread offenses, the ability to match up and single guys up -- that’s a big part of what we do.

“We don’t play a lot of split safety cover 2 where corners are essentially playing an outside linebacker-type position. We need guys that can match up, that can run. That’s why we feel fortunate we were able to find as many as we did.”

Diamond in rough: This is how Robert Nelson made the team. Robert Nelson?

The 5-9, 175-pound cornerback from Arizona State was not invited to the NFL Combine despite co-leading the PAC-12 Conference with six interceptions last year. He wasn’t drafted. The Browns invited him to rookie camp on a tryout basis. He earned a spot on the training camp roster and then made the team.

I have attended every Pettine press conference since training camp started except one, and Sunday was the first time I heard Robert Nelson’s name brought up (by me).

Haden said: “Nelly was a nice-kept secret that we had. He’s a smart kid and has a lot of skills. He knows how to cover.”

The Browns discovered Nelson when they scouted Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, whom GM Ray Farmer liked a lot. Cooks, one of the fastest players in the draft, had nine catches for 99 yards in a 30-17 loss to Arizona State in November. Nelson covered Cooks the whole game and had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and a fumble recovery.

“That might have had something to do with (signing Nelson),” Pettine affirmed.

“‘Nelly, I think he has a bright future in this league. He was a guy nobody really looked at after the draft. We were very fortunate that (secondary coach) Jeff Hafley had a connection and that we were able to bring him here.

“I know he was very productive at Arizona State – made a lot of plays there. That continued when he got here. He was a guy who impressed us and we feel has the potential to be a starting NFL DB at some point.”

All sizes and shapes: Pettine prefers cornerbacks with “length,” and he made an assertive effort to add two in the draft in Gilbert (6-0 and 202 pounds) and Pierre Desir (6-2, 206).

But of the five others on the roster, Haden is the tallest, and he’s barely 5-11. Buster Skrine, Aaron Berry, K’Waun Williams and Nelson are all listed as 5-9.

“Make-up speed is important and just a timing thing,” Pettine said. “You’ll see a lot of shorter corners who can cover taller wide outs because they have a good sense of timing – when to jump, when to play a ball, when to play into the receiver’s hands. The guys who have a real good knack for it are obviously the premier guys.”

Nelson has that sense of timing and the fact he was undrafted, and brings that chip on his shoulder, also appeals to Pettine.

“I’m going to go out there every day and play like I run a 4.2 and play like I’m 225 pounds,” Nelson told me. “No matter who comes at me, I’m going to make a play and I’m going to help my team. I’m going to show my team I’m not scared to make a tackle or scared to go against the biggest and best receivers.”

To Pettine, this kind of player is as valuable as a 250-pound speed pass rusher.

“He’s coached the best, (Darrelle) Revis. If he could play any position on the field, I think he’d play cornerback,” Nelson said.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




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