September 23, 2014

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Browns defense must adapt, adjust to 3-4 scheme

BEREA — Jabaal Sheard lined up at right outside linebacker after spending his life as a left end. Ahtyba Rubin was at end after his first five years were in the middle. D’Qwell Jackson had a linebacker next to him on the inside, but was no longer protected by two tackles upfront.

The switch to the 3-4 defense became real for the Browns in the first two days of minicamp under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. They took their new spots in the new alignment and tried to take Horton’s plan from paper to the turf.

“At the end of the day, if they are good players, and they are playing the same techniques, it’s all the same,” coach Rob Chudzinski said Wednesday after the second minicamp practice. “The biggest thing is the terminology and guys learning the terminology and being able to get and be in the right places. It’s building that foundation of the knowledge of the defense that we are doing right now.”

Sheard is the face of the change, because no one has a bigger adjustment. An end’s life is spent going forward, while the outside linebacker must be able to drop in coverage.

“You’ve got to understand, I think I’m athletic so I always wanted to be a linebacker,” Sheard said. “I wanted to be back there and be able to drop and also rush. The more I can do, the more athletic I feel. I’m happy for it, honestly.

“It’s different, but I think it’s going to be fine. Just going to step up to the plate.”

Sheard isn’t oblivious to the challenges, he’s just staying positive. He is also being asked to switch sides, which will match him against the left tackle in pass-rushing situations.

Sheard started at right end to open his rookie season in 2011, but the experiment was short-lived and he returned to the left side, where he was able to attack the weaker right tackle. Big-money free-agent acquisition Paul Kruger is the left outside linebacker.

“I was a lot better on the left side,” Sheard said. “But I’m standing up (as a linebacker), so it’s a little easier than putting my left hand down. It feels good so far.”

Unlike Sheard, Jackson has experience in a 3-4. He didn’t love it.

In the systems of Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, Jackson was left to take on 300-pound guards who often took him out of the play and wore him down physically. Jackson was freed up in the 4-3 the last two years and had his best seasons.

“The thing about this 3-4 as compared with the one I played before is we are going to be aggressive,” Jackson said. “A lot more opportunities to blitz and we have a lot of different fronts, so it won’t be one look all the time.

“We’ve got a lot of movement and it’s harder for an offense to hit a moving target, let alone in years past, where you just stand there all day and feel like you don’t make plays and get blocked all the way down the field.”

Horton is the mastermind and learned the 3-4 under longtime Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau. Horton’s scheme will be similar, with a variety of fronts added.

“We got our own swag, we’re going to have our own thing, but it’s going to be similar,” Sheard said. “We’re going to bring pressure, we’re going to get after it.”

Rubin opened at right end Wednesday with Phil Taylor at nose tackle. They spent the last two seasons as the starting tackles and have the versatility to switch spots. Free-agent pickup Desmond Bryant is the other end.

Taylor played nose tackle at Baylor and downplayed the shift from 4-3 tackle.

“You’re going to take a beating when you’re inside the tackles, period,” he said. “So there’s no difference.”

Rubin said he dropped about 10 pounds to 306 so he could be ready for however he will be used.

“Right now we’re all playing everywhere — right, left, nose,” he said. “It’s really kind of a free-for-all.”

Craig Robertson, who played nickel linebacker last year, got the first crack next to Jackson inside. James-Michael Johnson and Tank Carder are also candidates for the spot Jackson described as “up for grabs.” Tashaun Gipson lined up as the free safety, and Buster Skrine was the corner opposite Joe Haden.

They could all be replaced by draft picks, as could Sheard if the Browns choose BYU’s Ziggy Ansah, Oregon’s Dion Jordan or LSU’s Barkevious Mingo in the first round. Sheard said he’s not worried about that, rather his focus is on learning coverages, which he didn’t have to bother with as an end.

“There’s three receivers, you know you’re tied to one of them. Who’s your man?” he said. “You’ve got to distribute the receivers, I think that’s the biggest problem.”

Chudzinski and Jackson were confident Sheard’ll get it down.

“Right now he’s grinding the tape and learning as much as he can and he’s picking it up,” Jackson said. “If anybody can do it, Jabaal can do it. He’s a bright D-end. D-ends don’t get a good reputation in this league, but he’s one of the few that can pick things up easily.”

Sheard can lean on Quentin Groves, who signed a two-year, $2.8 million deal to follow Horton from the Arizona Cardinals. He is next in line at outside linebacker after Kruger and Sheard.

“If the talent wasn’t here they wouldn’t have hired Ray Horton,” Groves said of the switch to the 3-4. “It’s only the second day of minicamp and Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“We’re not going to win the Super Bowl today. But through OTAs and training camp we are going to get better and better. I’m excited to see what we do.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.