BEREA-- One of the biggest concerns coming into the 2013 season was the Browns secondary. The Browns went out and bolstered their front seven, but kept the secondary pretty much status quo from 2012.
The known commodities were Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, but right cornerback Buster Skrine and free safety Tashaun Gipson were unproven. Chris Owens was signed as a free agent and Leon McFadden was drafted in the third round. Owens has played the slot, while McFadden has only played on special teams.
At the midpoint of the season, defensive coordinator Ray Horton admitted he has been pleasantly surprised with the secondary. The Browns pass defense is ranked sixth in the NFL, overall.
"Well, I think at the halfway point is a good time to measure where you're at, where you're going, where you hope to go to project forward," Horton said. "I would say our secondary has been outstanding and you can tell by, again, statistics of, remember, big plays, the turnovers, the amount of non-explosive big runs, because, really, they're not blamed for the run. But if they do their job well, there are no big runs. We've given up three runs, three running-back runs over 20 yards, which is amazing.
"The pass plays, there's none over 40 yards, so the secondary has exceeded my expectations by far there," he said. "They're doing a fantastic job. Sacks, that's a part of the defensive backs. We're sitting there I think at 26 (sacks) right now, which puts us third, and on pace for 52 if you multiply by two. I think at the halfway point, other than the win column, I'm pleased with where we're at. The fourth quarter is something we've got to learn to finish and I think that's a team concept. But at half point, I wish we had more wins. I think we're on the right track. I came in here talking about building a perennial winner on defense. I think we've got the blueprint, the footprint, the foundation to do that. The numbers tell me that the wins will come. There'll be more sacks, there'll be more turnovers and we'll get more wins."
Ward is second on the team with 65 tackles, two sacks and five passes broken up. He had a half sack last week and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Bills.
Rob Chudzinski likes what Ward brings to the defense.
"I think he brings a real attitude to our defense," Chudzinski said. "He's tough, he plays tough, he likes the physical part of the game and plays physically. That's what you need to do on defense. He's learned the system and really stepped into a leadership role in terms of on the back end and understanding what to do, getting guys lined up and doing all of the things you would want a safety to do."
Gipson is right behind Ward with 61 tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes broken up.
Chudzinski thinks Ward and Gipson are a fine duo at safety.
"From a mental standpoint, they both have a great understanding of what we're doing, and they're interchangeable in that way," he said. "T.J. is a little bit bigger and stronger; Tashaun can run a little bit better, but I think they're very interchangeable. You see them a lot, whether they're deep, whether they're down, whether they're playing two-deep, wherever they are, we play them at interchangeable positions."
Haden is having a good season. He has 34 tackles with 10 passes broken up. Most teams are throwing away from him and Skrine has played better in recent weeks. He has 45 tackles with an interception, 16 passes broken up and an interception.
Horton likes the way the defense responded in the second half in shutting down the undefeated Chiefs in the second half last week, giving the Browns a chance to win the game. He's hoping it was a spring board for the rest of the season.
"I think the guys dug deep," he said. "I'm an avid reader and a read a lot of different things and there was a few comments about halftime adjustments and what have you. I think the biggest adjustment was a mental adjustment with the players. I think they were embarrassed by what had happened (in the first half) because I know they were very excited about the Kansas City defense, not versus the Cleveland defense, but there was a psychological challenge there. I think they were embarrassed and I hope, there's always somewhere in the season a turning point, good or bad, I hope that that halftime was our turning point to understand we can be, and we are, good."
Horton knows the Browns are close in a lot of ways, but they have to learn to finish. A lot of it has to do with being able to get off the field on third down and many times that falls on the play of the secondary. The Browns have given up 54 points in the fourth quarter this season, which is the most points they have allowed in any quarter this year.
"We're very good statistically in a lot of things," he said. "You guys know I'm kind of a stat maven. One of the ones, I didn't realize, was it's kind of a subliminal type of thing in the back of your head. You know something is going on during the season but you don't see it unless you look at statistics. I told the players today, other than one game, which was the Green Bay game (Oct. 20), if you look at the start when the clock is at 15 minutes in the fourth quarter, we are either leading or, at most, down by three points. So basically every game but one, with 15 minutes to go, we're either leading or down by three. So what we've been preaching and harping on is, finish. What does it take to finish a 15-minute quarter? We have to find some place in there to come up maybe with a halftime of Kansas City I hope."
"We just have to focus on the small things that we have relaxed on," Ward said. "For example, on third down and getting off the field defensively . Making those tackles that don't turn into bigger runs, bigger gains. Those are just two examples of things that we can do better on."
Horton admitted he can't put his finger on why the defense hasn't been able to put four complete quarters together.
"I think it's that X-factor," he said. "I wish I knew what that was. I wish I knew what, the second half of Kansas City and the first half of Detroit. I think games are different; they're fluid. There's certain things that turn emotionally whether it's a blown play, a great play or a penalty somewhere that can swing the momentum shift for a period of time. I go back to my opening statement of, with 15 minutes to go we're in every game and somehow we have to find a way to finish.
"The bottom line in this business is winning, winning, winning," he said. "There's a lot of statistics that go and things that go in the final score, but with 15 minutes we have to dig down, whatever that is, somewhere on this team. I don't care where it is, but somewhere on this team we have to find a way, whether in helping coaching, calls, players, plays, to swing a game that's winnable with 15 minutes to go."
The Browns know a win this week is a must for them to get back into the AFC North division race.
"This game is very important for us," Ward said. "It's at home, in the division. It's before the bye week and we'd love to get a win going into the bye week to refresh. It was a close game the first game. We know this game is going to be a battle and that's what we're preparing for."
Turner Looks for Continuity: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said it will help the offense immensely if they can settle in with one quarterback.
"It would really help in terms of continuity," Turner said. "You put anyone's name in that, you want to have the same guy in there; the huddle calls, the play calls, the guys getting comfortable. I think, again, you get in those third downs, you get in the two-minute situations, you get in the red-zone situations, that's where it gets so much more intensified.
"That's where we have to grow, and having the same guy in there, we had a good two-minute drive at the end of the half (against the Chiefs)," he said. "At the end of the game, their coverage and their rush were just too much for us. I think the more you're together, the same guy playing, the same people, some of those plays that we didn't make, there's opportunities to make."
In the first eight games, the Browns used three different quarterbacks. QB Brandon Weeden started the year and was injured, giving way to QB Brian Hoyer. He started three games and then was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Weeden came back as the starter and then was benched after the Packers game. Jason Campbell started the Chiefs game and will make his second start of the season against the Ravens.
Speaking of Continuity: The Browns have lost 11-straight games to the Ravens dating back to 2007. Only OL Joe Thomas and LB D'Qwell Jackson on the current Browns roster have defeated the Ravens. Ironically, both are captains. In that period of time, the Browns have started five different quarterbacks, with the sixth being QB Jason Campbell this week. The others are: Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace and Brandon Weeden. They have also had four different coaches in Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski. Meanwhile, the Ravens QB Joe Flacco has started all 11 games and John Harbaugh has been the coach the entire time.
Big Test: With the Bengals dropping an overtime loss to the Dolphins Thursday night, the Browns have a chance to get within two games of the division-leading Bengals with a win against the Ravens. Chudzinski downplayed the importance of the game, even though a loss would send the Browns to 3-6 going into the bye week and give them a four-game losing streak. The Browns next game after the bye will be against the Bengals in Cincinnati.
"Every week is a great opportunity," Chudzinski said. "They all count the same. Because it's a division game magnifies (the importance)."
TE Jordan Cameron said the Browns are ready.
"It will be a big challenge," Cameron said. "We had a really good week of practice. We're ready for the challenge against a really good defense."
Ray's Big Seven: Horton spends a lot of time in his meetings with the media talking about statistics. He even admitted to the fact.
"You guys know I'm kind of a stat maven," he said.
Horton explained the reasoning behind the numbers.
"The ethics of what we're doing is wins and losses, and there's a cliché, 'Statistics are for losers', he said. "Well, not in our business because, really, numbers are all we deal with. We deal with wins and losses; those are numbers. The players are paid by their statistics, their numbers on the field. So in our world that's the misnomer of, statistics are for losers.
"They're very important and important in our game, and it tells me what we're doing well and what we're not doing well, what other teams are doing well as I research the No. 1 team in football, what they're doing well and what they're not doing well," he said. "I will say this, if you look at last year's stats, if you look at the teams that were one through five in red zone and third down, those teams were nowhere near the top 10, with the exception of one team. They were nowhere near the top 10 in those numbers, so I know they can swing. But numbers are important. I spend a lot of time on film and numbers because they validate what you're doing and what you're not doing."
He was asked what statistics he pays most attention to. He named seven categories.
"It would be total defense, run, pass, turnovers, third down, red zone, quarterback rating," he said. "I'm not sure how many there are but that's some of those right in there."
Next Man Up: With the loss of PR Travis Benjamin for the season with a torn ACL, WR Davone Bess and newly acquired WR Armanti Edwards are expected to handle the punt return duties.
"It will be a combination of the two," Chudzinski said.
Winn, Groves Appear Ready: DL Billy Winn (quad) and LB Quentin Groves (ankle) practiced all week and have a good chance of playing this week. Groves has missed five of the past six weeks, while Winn has missed the past five games. Both players were listed as questionable on the injury report, meaning there's a 50 percent chance they will play.
"Both Billy and Quentin were limited so we listed them as questionable," Chudzinski said after practice "They both did better at practice this week, so we'll wait and see where they're at in the next couple of days."
RB Willis McGahee (knee) was back at practice after resting Thursday.