BEREA — Coordinator Ray Horton spent most of the season praising his defense, talking up his roster and citing favorable statistics to support his claims.
On Thursday, he harshly criticized his players for failing to handle the pressure of close games.
Three straight blown leads in the fourth quarter will have that effect on a coach.
“You can not play well for three quarters and then come crunch time tighten up,” Horton said. “Because the calls are about the same and the same players theoretically are on the field, their team has run theoretically the same plays. We’ve looked at our plays and we’ve talked about being clutch in the end. The word we used this week to talk to our players is accountability.”
Tighten up is in the same ballpark as choke.
“As the games go on, there’s more pressure to perform well and to not repeat a pattern that has happened in the past,” Horton said. “So is there a psychological pressure effect? I think there is.”
The Browns led the Jaguars and Patriots in the final minute, only to give up touchdowns and lose. They led the Bears on Sunday until allowing 21 points in the fourth quarter to drop their fifth straight. The defense that once pointed a finger at the offense and special teams for their breakdowns must turn the spotlight on itself.
The Browns have allowed 128 points in the fourth quarter, tied with Dallas for most in the NFL. Forty-nine have come in the last three games, as the Jaguars, Patriots and Bears scored on eight of nine possessions, including six touchdowns.
The Browns have led or been within three points 11 times heading into the fourth quarter. They’ve won four games.
“I don’t want to use any kind of excuse or crutch to say we’re young or this and that,” said Horton, who had predicted his defense would hit its stride by Thanksgiving. “It’s not acceptable at this point in the season. The defense was on the field and we talk about being accountable and we talk about being the backbone of the team. Well, you can’t do that. You don’t do that.”
Horton said safeties Tashaun Gipson (two interceptions, touchdown) and T.J. Ward (deflection for interception, fumble return for touchdown) played at a Pro Bowl level against Chicago. But he said others were waiting for someone else to make a play, comparing them to teammates of LeBron James who are content watching him take over games in the final minutes.
“We need somebody to step up and not take that back step and say, ‘I’m going to wait for somebody else to do it,’” Horton said. “To me that’s been the biggest disappointment, as our big-time players play well but we also need our role players to do their role. Whether that’s being in the right gap or making a tackle or knowing your assignment, because there’s too many guys playing at a high level for us to be successful for three quarters and then come crunch time or two minutes to kind of play differently.”
Linebacker and captain D’Qwell Jackson didn’t agree that the string of meltdowns has gotten in his teammates’ heads.
“That’s a coach’s perspective,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, we fight every snap. That’s not something that goes through our head. I don’t think any of the guys I’m on the field with get overwhelmed with the situation. There have just been a lot of things that we can do better as a unit, just being in the right place where we’re supposed to be.
“We’re trying to figure it out. That’s one thing we’ve been trying to harp on is finishing drives, finishing practice, finishing whatever we’re doing. That’s been the topic of discussion the last few weeks. To be a great defense, we can’t do that.”
The Browns have fallen to eighth overall on defense, allowing 328.9 yards a game. They are eighth against the run (103.8) and ninth against the pass (225.1). Much less impressive is the 25.9 points allowed per game, which is tied for 21st.
Multiple players said the late-game problems have been caused by trying to do too much. They want to make the big play to win the game, but instead wind up contributing to the downfall by getting caught out of position or failing to fulfill their responsibility.
“It’s very evident,” Gipson said. “There’s guys — and maybe myself included and I’m not pointing any fingers — out there trying to do too much instead of trying to do their jobs. Might want to sit on routes thinking that play can change the game, might want to jump outside the gap thinking that can change the game. And I think this defense is fierce enough that if we all just play within the game plan that it’s going to be hard to score points on this defense. When we all settle down and play football as though we do the first three quarters, I think it’s very evident that this defense is pretty ferocious.”
The teeth are out of the pass defense. After allowing only two touchdown passes in the first five games, it’s given up 24 in the last nine. No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden, who left the game Sunday in the third quarter and hasn’t practiced this week with a hip pointer, allowed one touchdown through 10 games, then one in each of the last four.
The other part of the equation is the pass rush. It’s been lacking late in games, as outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo have failed to register the game-changing sack.
“It’s a combination of no turnovers, no sack at crunch time,” Horton said. “You can go down and have an 80-yard drive and you have to have some kind of negative play to get them off the field, and that hasn’t happened.”
Horton, who interviewed with Arizona and Cleveland last offseason, is expected to be a popular candidate for head coaching jobs after the season. His goal is to lead a team, but he refrained from discussing the topic Thursday.
“Out of respect for New York, for the Cleveland Browns, I think that’s probably a question that should be broached at the end of the year,” he said.
Numbers and resumes aside, the fourth-quarter woes have sabotaged the team’s record and turned this into another depressing season.
“Anytime you have a meltdown like that and you can potentially change the course of the season — if my memory serves me correctly we could be 7-7 right now with a high possibility of going to the playoffs,” Gipson said. “Anytime you think about it, it’s very frustrating.”