October 23, 2014

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Making strides: Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton likes what he sees so far, but is far from satisfied

Even defensive coordinator Ray Horton has gotten caught up in the hot start by the first-team offense.

“I give us an incomplete, but I give them an A,” he said.

Horton was being modest. The starting defense has been just as efficient as the starting offense through preseason victories over the Rams and Lions.

Norv Turner’s first team has scored 27 points in six possessions. Horton’s first team has allowed three points in seven possessions.

“It is a good starting point,” Horton said. “All we have been trying to instill in the players is to get better today, get better today, get better today.

“It is a good start. That is all it is. It’s preseason. We are trying to get better and get ready for Miami coming up.”

The first true test in Horton’s first season in Cleveland will come Sept. 8 when the Dolphins visit FirstEnergy Stadium to open the regular season. But the solid performance to open the preseason calmed any fears about the switch to his 3-4 scheme.

“We’re showing that we can make some plays when everyone’s on the same page and everyone’s in tune to what the calls are,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.

Nose tackle Phil Taylor came down the line to force a fumble on the first drive of the preseason and cornerback Buster Skrine recovered. The Rams went three-and-out on their next possession.

Against Matthew Stafford and the Lions — who were without All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson — Cleveland’s defense forced three three-and-outs, a four-and-out and allowed a field-goal drive.

“That was a great showing against Detroit,” Jackson said. “I thought we played well for what they threw at us. We stopped the run, created those third downs, let those outside linebackers and our ends get up the field and pin our ears back. I think it’s a good start.

“If we can finish the season with the guys we have right now, then we can be a pretty good defense.”
Horton’s bunch will be tested tonight by second-year quarterback Andrew Luck and the rest of the Colts offense. Indianapolis went 11-5 last year after going 2-14 in 2011 and expects another trip to the playoffs.

Luck, the No. 1 overall pick out of Stanford, set an NFL-rookie record with 4,374 passing yards. He beat the Browns 17-13 in Week 8 in Indianapolis and is joined by receivers Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.

Cleveland’s starters are expected to play a series into the second half in possibly their final action of the preseason. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger thinks the Colts are a good matchup for the dress rehearsal.

“They’ve got a lot of talent,” he said. “Their offense is doing a lot of good things.”

Horton remains a bit of a mystery as he enters his first season in Cleveland. He modeled his scheme after Dick LeBeau’s in Pittsburgh and plans to attack from every angle, but he’s kept the game plan vanilla.

“I have called a different game in the preseason because I want our guys to show me something,” Horton said. “I don’t call a lot of pressure. I am more interested in the maturation process of guys individually and how they react one-on-one, and let them go.

“The bottom line is our offense is doing a fantastic job keeping us off the field. As long as we keep rolling like we are on offense, they will help us on defense. A big part of our success is the offense’s success.”

More humility from Horton, who could only name a lack of turnovers forced as a problem for his starting defense through two games. Taylor’s forced fumble is the lone takeaway.

The Browns’ starters have been stout against the run, allowing 24 yards on 13 carries (1.8 per attempt), and efficient on third down, a key to any good defense. They’ve allowed 114 passing yards on 22 attempts (5.2 average) and 138 yards total in seven series.

The starting 11 will be without a couple of fixtures in end Desmond Bryant (back spasms) and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (sore knee). Cornerback Chris Owens, who’s fighting for a starting spot with Skrine, will also sit with a foot strain.

Billy Winn, Quentin Groves and Skrine will start in their place and have the chance to show the defense’s depth. Groves was slated to be the fourth outside linebacker, but might be asked to assume a larger role with rookie Barkevious Mingo out for an undetermined length of time with a bruised lung.

“I’m just going to play my brand of football,” said Groves, who signed as a free agent from Arizona. “Whatever the play calls for me to do, I’m going to try to do my job to the best of my ability.”

Horton has gotten some help filling the playbook. He received four plays from players and called one designed by Taylor vs. the Lions.

“I like players to be smart, to be invested and to have ownership and I always say, ‘If you can come up with something that will work and it’s solid and schematically sound, I’ll run it,’” Horton said. “I think the players really feel like this is our team. I want it to be their team. It’s not my team. I hope it’s not Chud’s (coach Rob Chudzinski). I hope it’s the Cleveland Browns team, where the players are invested and they are the ones that make the plays. I think if you give them ownership, they respond to you.”

Horton thinks the defense is on pace to be where he wants it Week 1, but he isn’t satisfied by limited snaps in a pair of preseason games. Kruger isn’t either.

“We just gotta continue to build and keep that momentum with us,” he said. “We’ve done some good things and I think we can see the vision, and we just gotta keep working hard and making sure that we’re correcting these mistakes.”

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

CLEVELAND BROWNS VS. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

WHEN: Tonight, 7 o’clock
WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
WHAT: NFL preseason football
TV: Channel 3 with Jim Donovan and Bernie Kosar
RADIO: WKNR-AM 850,
WKRK-FM 92.3, WNCX-FM 98.5 with Michael Reghi and Doug Dieken

BROWNS UPDATE: Cleveland is seeking its first 3-0 start to the preseason since 1994, when its coach was Bill Belichick.
* Brandon Weeden threw two touchdown passes to tight end Jordan Cameron as the Browns defeated the Detroit Lions 24-6 on Aug. 15.
* Travis Benjamin returned a punt 91 yards for a score as Cleveland beat the St. Louis Rams 27-19 on Aug. 8.
* Weeden has a 139.8 passer rating and has completed 72.0 percent of his throws under first-year coach Rob Chudzinski.
* Running back Trent Richardson gained 33 yards on six carries in his NFL preseason debut against St. Louis.
* Benjamin is averaging 26.0 yards on four punt returns.
* Running back Brandon Jackson has a team-high eight receptions and 91 yards from scrimmage.
* In 2012, Cleveland finished last in the AFC North Division with a 5-11 record.

COLTS UPDATE: Indianapolis is 1-1 in the preseason in its second year under coach Chuck Pagano.
* Andrew Luck passed for 107 yards and two touchdowns as the Colts beat the New York Giants 20-12 on Aug. 18.
* T.Y. Hilton caught a 45-yard TD pass from Matt Hasselbeck, but Indianapolis lost 44-20 to the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 11.
* Luck has a 128.8 passer rating and has completed 68.4 percent of his throws.
* Seventh-round pick Kerwynn Williams has a team-high 40 rushing yards.
* Former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was signed June 11, but will be held out of his third straight exhibition game.
* Pagano served as Cleveland’s secondary coach from 2001-04.
* In 2012, Indianapolis went 11-5 and qualified for the playoffs as a wild card as Luck set an NFL rookie record with 4,374 passing yards.
— Brian Dulik