By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Something gained in a loss: The night before their season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Browns’ defense had a meeting.
“Creating our identity,” said linebacker Craig Robertson. “That’s the biggest thing. A couple of our vets harped on it. Gotta create our identity.”
On paper, the Browns’ defense was overmatched against the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense. The Browns were missing three veteran starters – tackle Phil Taylor, and linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita. In their places were Billy Winn, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, and two unproven linebackers who would share time, Robertson, an undrafted free agent last year, and L.J. Fort, an undrafted free agent this year. Neither Robertson nor Fort played in an NFL game before Sunday.
We know what happened Sunday in the season opener. The Eagles ran 88 plays and rang up 456 yards. But the Browns’ defense gave a performance of note. It intercepted Michael Vick four times, forced and recovered a LeSean McCoy fumble, and posted the only touchdown of the day for the Browns.
Browns’ pass rushers Ahtyba Rubin, Jabaal Sheard, Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker chased Vick for miles. Vick threw 56 times. On most of those plays, linebackers D’Qwell Jackson, Fort and Robertson patrolled the middle of the field so thoroughly, each snatched an interception. Jackson’s interception return for a touchdown put the Browns ahead, 16-10, in the fourth quarter.
Vick surely wore them down on his 91-yard winning drive. Had Fort not let Vick’s next-to-last pass slip through his hands, it would have been a heroic day for the defense in general and for the undrafted from agent from Northern Iowa in particular.
“Today was definitely an emotional roller coaster, to say the least,” Fort said after the game.
A new identity: I asked Robertson to define the identity the defense wanted to create.
“Hard-nosed guys getting to the ball making plays. That’s what makes a great defense,” he said.
On the sideline, linebacker Scott Fujita beamed with pride. Fujita is 33 and in the last year of his Browns contract. It may be his last year in the NFL. Because his league suspension was lifted so late in the week, he was not activated for the game. So he helped coach up Fort and Robertson, giving them encouragement and pointers when they came off the field
“I’m so proud of those guys, the way they’ve worked,” Fujita said. “They’re so mature. They played like they were on a mission. It was fun to watch.”
It’s possible – no, probable – that Robertson and Fort earned more playing time as a result of their productive debuts. Their young legs will be needed if the offense can’t stay on the field, let alone score.
Coach Pat Shurmur indicated he and his coaches might have to evaluate roles and playing time when Fujita returns.
The Jauron factor: The shockingly good outing by the defense is a tribute to defensive coordinator Dick Jauron.
Last year, he faced the same obstacles imposed by the owners lockout as the offensive coaches. He was breaking in two rookie starters – Taylor and Sheard – and other young players in situational roles, such Eric Hagg, Buster Skrine and Emmanuel Stephens, while at the same time transitioning the returning players to his 4-3 scheme.
Jauron kept putting out fires and improving the young players at the same time. Yes, the defense was 30th against the run. But the most important statistic is points allowed, and Jauron’s unit ranked fifth. The caliber of opposing quarterbacks last year helped with that, but still.
Already, after one game, Jauron is doing it again. His unit, which does not have a Pro Bowl player; is the foundation of the team. Jauron's defense keeps the Browns competitive.
Jauron has rookies who were drafted low or not at all. And he’s missing Taylor and Gocong. Now he will be without cornerback Joe Haden for four games because of a league suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance program. The other starting cornerback, Sheldon Brown, is 33 and left the first game with a stinger (spine or nerve injury).
The developments will bring another low-drafted rookie, seventh-round cornerback Trevin Wade, into prominent play.
Why do I feel calm that the defense will be fine? Easy. Dick Jauron is in charge.
|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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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