September 2, 2014

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Browns defense baffled by its 3rd-down struggles in 2nd half, vows to fix them

BEREA — Defensive coordinator Ray Horton isn’t bashful about his love of statistics. He spits out positive numbers about the Browns defense and his Cardinals units from previous years like a baseball player working through a pouch of sunflower seeds.
One stat he hates is Cleveland’s efficiency on third down.
The Browns are one of three teams ranked in the top 10 against the run, pass and overall — seventh, eighth and seventh — yet are 29th on third down.
They’ve allowed 41 of 93 chances to be converted on the crucial down, 44.1 percent. It’s worse in the second half. And way worse in the second half of losses.
Opponents have converted 16 of 44 third downs in the first half (36.4 percent), 25 of 49 in the second half (51 percent) and 16 of 23 in the second half of the three defeats (69.6 percent).
“If we could fix the doggone third downs you guys wouldn’t ask me a question,” Horton said. “There are a number of things we do extremely well.”
Horton knows as well as anyone that third downs in the second half are when games are won and lost. But fixing the problem isn’t nearly as easy as identifying it.
If the rest of the statistics are good, it’s not a lack of talent. If the numbers are acceptable in the first half, it’s not a flawed scheme.
“To be honest, I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is or else we would’ve already taken care of it,” outside linebacker Paul Kruger said Friday.
“I have no idea, but I know we’ve got to fix it,” nickelback Chris Owens said. “And we’re trying.”
The issues on individual plays vary, all contributing to a trend the Browns don’t want to become a crisis.
Horton has occasionally made the wrong call. The players have had communication breakdowns. They’ve failed in one-on-one matchups. They haven’t gotten the timely pass rush, despite 19 sacks for the year.
The failures add up to extended possessions, more time on the field and more chances to lose on third down.
“We have 100 more snaps than the No. 1 defense, but when you go yards per play we’re the No. 1 defense,” Horton said, referring to the 4.4 allowed per snap. “There’s a number of guys playing well.
“Can we play better? Do we have to play better? Yes. Do we have to fix third down? Yes. I keep saying finish, finish, finish. It’s not broken.”
The inconsistent offense has been blamed for the defense being on the field too much and wearing down late in games. But the time of possession is nearly even for the season (29:15-30:45), and if the defense were better on third down, it would be on the field less.
The Lions went 6-for-7 on third down as they scored 24 unanswered points in the second half Sunday in a 31-17 win. They converted third-and-6, third-and-7 and third-and-7. Detroit was 2-for-7 in the first half.
“The game plan is pretty balanced in what we’re doing. I know that,” Horton said. “There is a little more error in the second half than in the first half.
“What I’m trying to do is replicate what we’re doing in the first half of games and mix things up and I’ll continue to mix them up. We’re taking extra sessions in practice to work on third down. It is glaring for me.”
Horton referenced his Cardinals defenses that ranked second and first the past two seasons on third down as proof he knows what he’s doing.
“I keep saying it’s us. It’s not the other team,” he said. “Nobody’s shocking us by coming out and running some revolutionary new offense. It really comes down to us and we’re focusing on being more focused on our detail.
“You’re asking me do I think the calls are wrong. No, I know those aren’t wrong, but I have to get on guys to play faster than what’s going on.”
A sack is the defense’s best friend on third down. Kruger has only one for the season, and it came in the opener.
“I personally need to do a better job of getting to the passer,” he said when asked about the third-down struggles. “That’s been something I’ve been focused a lot on the last couple weeks.”
Kruger signed a five-year, $40.5 million contract in the offseason after he had 13.5 sacks in 2012, including 4.5 in Baltimore’s Super Bowl run.
“That was specifically one of the things I’m here to do. So, yeah, it’s frustrating,” he said. “But sacks are a weird phenomenon. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time, sometimes you just have a dominant rush.
“The opportunities, they’re there. I just need to get there.”
The Browns were better on third down during their three-game winning streak. Minnesota was 8-for-17, Cincinnati 4-for-14 and Buffalo 5-for-16. The Bengals and Bills went 2-for-8 in the second half.
The Packers’ second-ranked offense should offer a stern test Sunday. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 110.0 passer rating on third down since 2009 is No. 1 in the league, and the Packers have converted 37.9 percent this year.
“We just gotta tighten up and make sure we’re locked in on third down,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “It’s not the scheme. It’s not anything like that, it’s just us sometimes blinking a little bit.”
If the defense can solve the dilemma on a consistent basis, it will open even more eyes around the league.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.