BEREA - Blitzing safety Sean Jones hits Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, safety Brodney Pool intercepts the wounded duck and returns it 100 yards for a touchdown.
Pool breaks on a pass at the 5-yard line, lowers his shoulder, drills the receiver and separates the ball. No first down and the Texans settle for a field goal.
Rookie cornerback Brandon McDonald, in his most extensive action of the year, decoys Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, then drops in his zone and intercepts a pass intended for Pro Bowler Andre Johnson. It sets up the clinching touchdown.
After a season of frustration and criticism, the Browns secondary has started to come alive with big plays.
"They understand where their teammate is going to be," coach Romeo Crennel said. "Early on, guys were guessing a little bit and getting out of position and that hurt us. Guys are being more consistent in their responsibilities."
The positive vibes will get a serious challenge Sunday in Arizona.
Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 484 yards last week and has three talented receivers. Larry Fitzgerald has 75 catches for 1,060 yards and six touchdowns, Anquan Boldin 46 for 527 and six touchdowns and Bryant Johnson 32 for 376.
Fitzgerald was the third overall pick in 2004, Johnson the 17th pick in 2003 and Boldin a second-rounder in `03. Fitzgerald made the Pro Bowl in 2005 and Boldin in 2003 and `06.
"The trio of receivers is really good," Crennel said. "They catch the ball with ease and look so natural doing it. If you relax on either one of those guys, they can hurt you."
"They pass the look test," Pool said. "They`re big, fast and can run. They`re guys who can catch the ball. We`re going to have a tough challenge. We`re just going to have to stop them."
The Browns have allowed 266.5 passing yards per game, which ranks 30th, up two spots from three weeks ago. They`ve allowed a league-worst 25 touchdown passes.
The Cardinals look like a good bet to add to that number. They rank third in the league in the red zone with 20 touchdowns in 28 trips. Fitzgerald is 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, Johnson 6-3, 213 and Boldin 6-1, 217. Fitzgerald went up in a crowd to catch a Hail Mary touchdown last week.
"They`re definitely bigger and probably the most physical bunch (of receivers the Browns have faced)," cornerback Leigh Bodden said.
At 6-1, 193 pounds, Bodden is the biggest Cleveland cornerback and will be matched against Boldin in the slot when the Cardinals go to three receivers. So Warner may try to take advantage of the size mismatch with Daven Holly (5-10, 185) and McDonald (5-10, 184) on the outside.
"They do real well in the red zone. They also do well on third downs," said Holly, who`s filling in for Eric Wright. "It`s hard. You`ve got to play the receiver`s eyes and his hands. You`ve got to know your leverage and compete for the ball."
Holly said the jump ball in the end zone can make a cornerback feel helpless.
"A lot of times receivers are seeing the ball the whole way," he said. "He can make adjustments on the ball the defensive back can`t, because he can`t see. You`ve got to be ready to compete for the ball at the highest point."
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said the cornerback needs to win the battle before the ball is thrown.
"Jam, re-route - trying to disrupt the timing of the routes is very critical," he said.
Crennel took much of the responsibility away from the secondary when it comes to red-zone defense.
"Pass rush. That`s the main thing because those big receivers, they can body up on you," he said. "They can outjump you if you`re not as big as they are. You have to have some help to affect the quarterback."
Though the defensive backs are quick to acknowledge the talent of the Cardinals receivers, they enter the matchup with a renewed confidence.
"We`ve been playing solid all year, but the big plays are starting to come around more," Jones said. "The secondary is different than last year, so the more we play with each other, the better chemistry we have back there. That`s important in the secondary.
"Hopefully we can keep everybody around here for a while so we can continue to build on that."
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