BEREA — The Browns defense has allowed 31 points each in back-to-back losses. It was at its worst in the fourth quarter, stopped forcing turnovers and continued to struggle on third down. The tackling was subpar against the Packers on Sunday.
Coordinator Ray Horton’s confidence remains at an all-time high.
“We’ve been evolving as a defense and I like where we’re headed,” he said Thursday. “I think there’s very, very good defensive football ahead of us.
“I think this next four-week period for us, you’ll see kind of a different Cleveland Browns defense and you’ll start seeing the names that everybody thought. But I like where we’re sitting at right now, and I think at Thanksgiving when we sit in here, you’ll say, ‘Wow, you were probably right in what you said back then about getting better.’”
Horton arrived in January talking big and he isn’t about to stop. It’s one of the reasons his players love him.
Horton was reminded of some of the defense’s negative statistics, but spun them like a politician. He was quick with an explanation when asked why he’s so confident the defense will make significant strides by Thanksgiving.
“I know how I call a game and why I call a game, and I know what my vision is and where we’re at on the field and in the classroom,” he said. “I just think you’ll see a different Cleveland Browns defense moving forward.”
The overall numbers remain impressive, as the Browns rank seventh in total yards allowed (318.9), tied for seventh against the run (99.0) and tied for ninth against the pass (219.9). They’re second in yards per play (4.54), tied for fourth in yards per rush (3.5) and 17th in scoring (22.3 points).
But the defense was unable the last two weeks to help a moribund offense that needs all the help it can get. The defense didn’t create scoring opportunities and crumbled in the key moments. It was especially generous in the fourth quarter, as Detroit scored 17 to win the game and Green Bay scored 14 to pull away.
“We just have to correct the little things and get back to what we were doing the first couple of weeks of the season when we where dominating people,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “We will be all right when we get back to that.”
Third down has been a problem since Week 1 and the Browns allowed Green Bay to convert six of eight in the first half. The Browns rank 29th, allowing 45.3 percent to become first downs.
“It’s a reoccurring theme. I stress to our guys all the time that third down is going to be what puts us in the top two in the league,” Horton said. “It’s going to mean turnovers, it’s going to mean stops, it’s going to mean getting off the field, it’s going to mean non-scoring opportunities.”
The lone turnover in the losses saved a touchdown against Detroit, but that’s been it. No momentum-changing strip-sack, no pick-six, no good field position for the offense.
The Packers game was the first without a turnover, but the Browns have only forced multiple turnovers against Minnesota (three) and Cincinnati (two). It’s not a coincidence those were the start of a three-game winning streak.
“It’s always important to get the offense the ball as many times as possible,” strong safety T.J. Ward said.
Horton tried to deflect the focus from his defense, which is tied for 22nd with nine takeaways. He pointed to a team’s turnover differential as the most important statistic in making the playoffs. Cleveland’s offense has 10 turnovers, which is tied for 12th. The minus-1 turnover margin is tied for 17th.
“They come, they’re cyclical,” Horton said. “You get them by hitting and putting the ball on the ground. Tips and overthrows and sacks and fumbles. It’s a team effort.”
Turning around the turnover tide won’t be easy Sunday against 7-0 Kansas City. The Chiefs lead the league with a plus-11 turnover margin – 19 takeaways and eight giveaways.
Running back Jamaal Charles drives the offense as a rusher and receiver – 898 yards from scrimmage with eight touchdowns — but quarterback Alex Smith is the key to protecting the ball. His 24 interceptions since 2010 are the fewest in the league for someone with 1,100 attempts. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are next with 29. Smith has thrown four picks this year.
“There’s other ways to affect the games,” Horton said. “There’s sacks and there’s punts and there’s field-position swings. Certain quarterbacks are more prone to throw interceptions. We understand it’s not going to be a turnover-fest in the game.”
Sacks also dipped the last two weeks for the Browns, who rank tied for seventh with 2.9 per game. They got to Rodgers once and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford once.
“It’s hard to get to the quarterback when they’re getting the ball out of their hand fast, throwing hitch routes, slants and all those type of things,” Ward said. “I think we’ve got to just get back to trying to get to the quarterback. We’ll have an opportunity this week because they run a lot of play-action passes where they’re trying to get guys downfield.”
Horton said he called a different game plan than what he likes the last two games because of how quickly Rodgers and Stafford get rid of the ball.
“There are certain quarterbacks in the league that are special,” he said.
The offense’s problems, highlighted by benched quarterback Brandon Weeden’s struggles, have made life more difficult for the defense. The margin for error is slim in every phase of the game.
“We’re not too worried about that side of the ball,” Ward said when asked about the quarterback switch to Jason Campbell. “They’ll get it together and I’m sure they’ll figure things out, but they’re working just as hard as we are.
“It’s a complete team effort, we’re trying to win games out here and we can just control what we can control. That’s getting them the ball, getting off the field on third down and controlling field position.”
Horton said the defense’s chief responsibility is to keep the game close.
“It’s hard for us to score, so you keep it close,” he said. “Do I want better in the fourth quarter? Yeah, I do. And that’s been really the biggest disappointment to me the last two weeks. We didn’t stop them there at the end.”
Horton has no doubts that will be fixed by Turkey Day. Taylor believes it could happen sooner.
“We can show people this weekend how good we can be,” he said.