BEREA — Safety T.J. Ward stopped Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in his tracks, then spun the reigning MVP out of bounds.
Cornerback Joe Haden used the same technique on Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green and planted him in the ground.
Nose tackle Phil Taylor and end Desmond Bryant destroyed blocks to drop Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield. Taylor’s tackle came on the opening defensive snap of the game, Bryant’s on a fourth-and-1.
The Browns defense isn’t just putting up numbers, it’s making weekly statements.
“Our defense is that good, I think one of the best in the league right now,” receiver Josh Gordon said Tuesday. “Honestly doesn’t matter who we play against, those guys just want to go out there and they want to prove themselves so much as a contending defense, that you just can’t come to Cleveland and put numbers up.”
Coordinator Ray Horton, in his first year, said the start will pale in comparison to the finish as the players grow more comfortable in the transition to his attacking 3-4 scheme.
“We’re not near where we will be,” he said last week. “Our defense, we only have probably 50 percent of it in, so there’s bigger and better things to come.”
Peterson, the NFL’s No. 1 running back, posted season lows of 88 yards, 3.5 a carry and a long of 9. Green, unanimously considered a top-five receiver, caught seven passes in 15 targets with a 7.3 average.
The Browns not only have impressive league rankings — third in total yardage (291.5 per game), fourth versus the run (79.0), tied for eighth in scoring (17.5), tied for third with 14 sacks — they have the notches in the belt and the confidence that comes with grounding stars.
“It means a lot, because guys are going to go, ‘How do we stop Adrian Peterson, how do we stop A.J. Green? Well, the Browns played them really good, so let’s go watch their tape,’” nose tackle Phil Taylor said.
The two-game winning streak has the excitement and belief flowing in the Browns locker room as they prepare for Thursday night against the Bills. The defense looked dominant Sunday, holding Cincinnati to six points, no touchdowns and 266 yards.
“It can be really good. We have a lot of talent,” said Haden, who was largely responsible for keeping Green in check. “People are starting to understand their roles and making plays and that’s the biggest thing.
“It’s a standard now. It’s not like when we do good it’s a surprise. We expect to do good. Our defense is good enough to be one of the best.”
The statistics support him.
The Browns’ worst category is passing yardage, where they rank ninth with 212.5 yards allowed a game. They’ve improved dramatically in every area from last year, most noticeably against the run.
“No one is going to be able to run on us this year,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.
The captain isn’t prone to hyperbole, but he started the proclamation after Week 1.
The performances against Baltimore’s Ray Rice (36 yards, 2.8 average) and Peterson only emboldened him — and proved him right. The Browns lead the league in yards per rushing attempt (2.9) and longest run allowed (14).
Jackson is the tackle machine in the middle, totaling 40. But stopping the run starts with Taylor, 335 pounds of muscle, fat, fury and beard.
“With a guy like that, it makes everything else work,” inside linebacker Craig Robertson said. “We all say we start with big Phil. We run through him. The man in the middle.”
Taylor isn’t all brawn and bluster, even though he’s been known to draw a 15-yard penalty for a late or excessive hit, and stuff three chicken wings in his mouth at once.
“Phil is brilliantly smart. He’s off-the-charts smart,” Horton said. “He’s big and he’s growing. He has untapped potential.”
Horton cited Taylor’s knowledge of the responsibilities of the entire defense. He also drew up a play during training camp that Horton inserted into the rotation.
“I take pride in it because it’s a business, it’s the NFL,” Taylor said of his intelligence. “You can’t be out there not knowing what’s going on.”
Taylor is joined on the line by ends Ahtyba Rubin and Bryant. Rubin is the quiet leader who never quits hustling. Bryant is the big-money free agent that plays with an edge, along with Taylor and Ward.
“The other guys on the team feed off it. Being nasty is going to get us to be the No. 1 defense, that’s how it goes,” Taylor said.
“I think we’re making the statement that we are to be respected around this league,” Bryant said. “We come to play every week, I think our tape speaks to that, I think anybody’s going to have to be ready to play us. They’re going to have to bring their A-game if they’re going to beat us.”
The front seven is where all the resources went in the offseason. Bryant and outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves were signed as free agents, and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo was drafted with the No. 6 pick. The secondary was largely ignored, and thus remains the holdup in declaring the defense dominant — although its tackling against the run has been outstanding.
Haden has played like a Pro Bowler all season — he has a map of the Hawaiian Islands in his locker for motivation — but cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Chris Owens and free safety Tashaun Gipson had early struggles in coverage. Each made key plays against the Bengals, and the result was no trips into the end zone.
“Our secondary is playing better and better and really improved in tightening up some of the things that early on had hurt us,” coach Rob Chudzinski said.
The Bills bring multiple threats. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, the No. 16 pick, is 2-2 and can run out of the read-option. He’s helped by the league’s second-ranked run offense (152 yards a game), which is led by two-headed monster C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Both are dealing with injuries but hope to play.
“He’s a rookie quarterback. They kind of simplify the offense a little bit for him,” Ward said. “They run the ball a lot to set up play-action and easy passes for him. But he’s made some good throws, some NFL-type throws and some accurate deep balls, so he’s very capable of beating you with his arm as well.”
The Browns would love to force Manuel into a few interceptions or fumbles. They forced three turnovers in Minnesota and two against Cincinnati, and creating turnovers is what oftentimes turns a good defense into a winning one.
“We can be a dominant defense,” Taylor said. “We just need to go out there and correct the mistakes and play the way we want to play.”