April 21, 2014

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Defense steps up in Browns’ win over Houston

CLEVELAND – Each of the sculpted arms of Cleveland Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley are scrawled with black ink, bearing the pictures and words of at least a dozen tattoos. One in particular shows the image of a lunging tiger, along with the words, “Hold my own.”
For Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, those words, no doubt, bear truth. From his right outside linebacker position, Wimbley was in Schaub`s face, and on Schaub`s back, all game.
The Browns defense has been a much-maligned group, ranking last in the NFL in yards per game (406.3), total points (294), points per game (29.4) and first downs allowed per game (23.9). But during Sunday`s 27-17 victory over the Texans, that same wet-paper-bag unit did a superb job of holding its own – garnering two sacks, seven quarterback hits, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and three passes knocked down.
“I don`t think we were nearly as bad as we looked earlier,” said Wimbley, who had three tackles, two quarterback hits and forced a fumble. “What we`ve had is different guys stepping up each game. It`s not just coming from one person. I think we`re starting to take more accountability and responsibility for our jobs and not trying to do too much.”
Two plays in the fourth quarter illustrated the Browns` approach. With Houston trailing 20-10 with just over eight minutes remaining, Schaub lined up out of a shotgun formation. At the snap of the ball, linebacker Antwan Peek exploded off the left end and blindsided Schaub for a loss of 12 yards. One play later, Cleveland`s pressure again collapsed the pocket and Schaub was forced to hurry his throw, resulting in an interception by rookie cornerback Brandon McDonald.
McDonald announced his presence in bold strokes. The 22-year-old fifth-rounder out of Memphis had until last week only been limited to special-teams duty. But when starting cornerback Eric Wright was held out of Sunday`s action with a sprained knee, a window of opportunity was suddenly swung open.
McDonald was faced with the formidable task of checking two-time Pro Bowl wideout Andre Johnson – a matchup in which he gave up 5 inches and 40 pounds.
“I thought of it as an opportunity to make a name for myself and help this team win,” said McDonald, whose interception was the first of his career. “At first I was a little nervous. Usually I`m not nervous before games. But knowing I`m going to get a chance to definitely play, it was a little nerve-racking.”
Johnson is one of the game`s most dangerous long-yardage threats, but was held to just three catches and 37 yards. He was thrown to six times – several of which came on deep attempts in which he was pitted one-on-one with McDonald.
“He has good ability and he has been learning all year,” said Browns coach Romeo Crennel. “It paid off today because he had a couple of big plays and a good first interception.”
There were several eye-popping plays. But many more were mere footnotes to the bigger picture: strong safety Sean Jones stopping wideout Andre Davis a yard short of the first down marker in the first half, defensive end Shaun Smith charging through the defensive line and dragging Schaub to the turf late in the third quarter. Alone, they might appear insignificant. But over the course of the game, they stalled drives and gave the Browns excellent field position.
Schaub entered the game on a roll having quickly emerged as one of the league`s hottest young quarterbacks. He completed 22 of 36 attempts for 256 yards, but was plagued by ill-timed turnovers – all of which came as result of defensive pressure.
The Browns have 19 sacks this year and 12 have come in the last three games. More than a change in strategies, Peek said the difference has been a change in effort.
“When it comes to sacks, they often come in bunches,” said the fifth-year linebacker, who had spent his previous four seasons with the Texans before signing with Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent. “And most of those sacks come on second moves. It`s rare that you just blow by guys. You`ve got to want it and keep going after it.”
Hunger is a theme that runs through the Browns` locker room. And no one seems to be having more fun with it than Andra Davis. The longest tenured Brown, who has seen more losing seasons and suffered more anguishing defeats than anyone on the team, now finds himself in the unlikeliest of positions: managing expectations for a playoff contender.
“I`m enjoying this a lot,” said Davis, who was a rookie the last time the Browns made the postseason. “It`s been a long time since I`ve been a part of a winning football team.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7135 or palpern@chroniclet.com.