The D-word (dominant) has been used to describe the Cleveland D (defense) the last two weeks, and those involved believe it’s just the beginning.
“Something special is building,” defensive end Frostee Rucker said. “We’ve got Phil (Taylor) back, got Rube (Ahtyba Rubin) back, got Joe (Haden) back. Those three names are huge.
“Everyone’s jelling, we’re getting along, we can fight for one another. It’s been a good thing.”
The Steelers game was the first tackles Taylor and Rubin and cornerback Haden played together this year. Besides middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, they’re arguably the three most talented players on the unit.
Taylor missed the first eight weeks with a torn pectoral. Rubin missed most of a month with a calf injury. Haden was suspended for four games, then sat out the Cowboys loss with a strained oblique.
When they’re on the field together, general manager Tom Heckert’s master plan is obvious.
“I think there’s synergy,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I see things more coming together like you would’ve visualized it starting training camp if everybody was healthy and out there.”
The season stats put the defense in the middle of the pack. It ranks 22nd in total yardage (362.1 per game), 19th against the run (118.4) and 21st against the pass (243.7). The Browns have allowed 22.5 points a game, which ranks 16th.
But the Browns feel the arrow’s pointing up. They’ve been under their yards-allowed average for five straight games, and for the first time since 1989 they held the opponent under 65 yards rushing in consecutive weeks.
“I would say we’re one of the top five defenses, for sure,” Haden said Thursday. “We have people who can play their position, are really good at it and everybody’s established now and they understand what’s going on.
“We have playmakers at every level. And when we’re all healthy and everybody’s doing their thing, we’re up there with the best.”
The performance Sunday against the Steelers did wonders for their confidence. The Browns forced eight turnovers — an NFL high since 2001 — and held the bruising Steelers rushing attack to 49 yards, a 2.5 average per carry and a long of 8. They also intercepted three Charlie Batch passes.
“They’re like a bunch of fire ants,” offensive coordinator Brad Childress said of the defense. “Pat doesn’t say take the ball away. They take the ball off people and people aren’t readily wanting to have the ball taken off them.
“I see lots of guys in on the pile and it’s like a feeding frenzy, which is the way you want all defense. You want all 11 guys to show up in the screen.”
Rucker liked the fire ants comparison.
“That’s a good word for it. We’re a scrappy group,” he said. “Everyone wants to make a play and they want to make a play the right way. The right way means being in the right position and being very coachable. They’ve got a lot of good guys here that are smart and good ballplayers. I’m glad I’m a part of it.”
Defense starts upfront, and the impact of the return of Taylor and Rubin has been significant. They stuff the middle versus the run, collapse the pocket in the quarterback’s face — Taylor’s explosion was showcased on a sack of Batch — and allow impressive rookie tackle Billy Winn to be fresher and play some at end.
“Phil and Rube just control the inside,” Haden said. “Those are two dominant dudes.”
Jackson anchors the second level and leads the team with 85 tackles. He calls the plays, sets the defense and has brought along young linebackers James-Michael Johnson and Craig Robertson, who were forced into action with season-ending injuries to Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita.
The secondary has been in flux since Haden’s suspension started Week 2. But his return as the No. 1 cornerback allows the rest of the defensive backs to fit in their natural roles. The continued growth of strong safety T.J. Ward and nickelback Buster Skrine has also improved the unit.
One of the largest jumps from last year is in the turnover department. The Browns have forced 25 — 13 interceptions and 12 fumbles — after 18 all of 2011. The plus-eight turnover ratio is tied for seventh in the NFL.
“Probably like everything in life, there’s a good amount of hard work, planning, effort and a good amount of luck in whatever you do,” coordinator Dick Jauron said. “You certainly work at it, but eight happens very, very rarely.”
Haden said the turnover tornado should’ve forced everyone around the league to appreciate the transformation of Cleveland’s defense.
“I don’t know how much more you can do for them not to recognize it,” he said. “We weren’t just baby-tackling ’em, we were giving ’em reasons to cough it up.
“We’re just going to keep coming in every week and just keep hopefully building those performances and then you have no choice but to look at us like a dominating defense.”
Consistency is the next step. And it’s a big one.
“We go in two weeks ball out, we go in another week and we might stink it up a little bit,” Haden said. “So being a defense that establishes an identity like a Ravens and a Pittsburgh, they know every week when they come in what you’re going to get.
“We need to just keep it going, then we’ll be able to be established.”