BEREA--The Browns entered the 2013 season with one certainty at cornerback. However, there was a big question mark on the opposite side.
Joe Haden came into the NFL as the seventh pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and has been a stalwart at left cornerback. He has developed into one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL.
However, Buster Skrine came to the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice in 2011. He was coming off a less than spectacular second NFL season. He had 73 tackles and 11 passes broken up, but was flagged numerous times for pass interference and holding penalties, not to mention getting beat on a regular basis.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton--who had no prior allegiance to Skrine-- has been in his corner from early on. He has fit into his mantra of "little guys that can hit".
"I see a young individual, a young man that's working his butt off," Horton said recently. "He was competitive always. Technique is a big part of what we teach. He's working very hard in practice. You see it; we watch it. He's a very capable young man that's really coming into his own."
Rob Chudzinski has seen the progress that Skrine has made this season. He was asked what the difference is from his play a year ago.
"I think it's his confidence in his own abilities," Chudzinski said. "You look at a guy who has a lot of ability. He can move, he can run, he can do all of the things that you want from a corner in this league. But trusting himself, trusting his technique and playing that way, I think, are the biggest improvements and those come with playing more and more."
Skrine is getting a lot of praise from the coaches and the media for his improvement in 2013.
"I'm getting a little recognition from last year to this year," Skrine said. "I'm just trying to improve every day. "
He feels he's improved.
"I think I have improved from last year," he said. "I'm just recognizing routes and utilizing my ball skills.
"The coaches are helping me a lot and I've been able to cut down on PI's (pass interference penalties)."
Skrine is currently fifth on the team with 49 tackles, one sack, one interception, and a team-leading 17 passes broken up. He had ten passes broken up in Weeks 4-6, with a high of four against the Lions.
The coaches have been able to put more variables into the defense, due to the improved play of Skrine and second-year safety Tashaun Gipson.
"We've evolved defensively," Chudzinski said. "As the season has gone on and as guys have gotten more comfortable in understanding what to do, I think that Buster's development, and I look at the whole secondary, look at Tashaun Gipson, there's a number of guys, as I've mentioned, we could go through position by position and look at a lot of guys that I feel have made improvements. I think that (defensive backs coach) Louie (Cioffi) and (assistant defensive back coach) Bobby (Babich) have done a great job with the secondary and with Buster in particular, and it allows us to do more things as guys improve."
Skrine agrees that the defense has been able to do more and more.
"As the season goes on, we've been able to put in more plays as the season progresses," he said. "We''re getting more pressure and sacks. Me and Gipson have done a pretty good job holding our own."
Skrine says he never doubted his ability.
"I have always walked around with confidence and feel the coaches have had confidence in me since the preseason."
Haden draws the top receiver each week. He has done a good job through the first nine games. He has faced five players that have made the Pro Bowl (Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace and A.J. Green) has allowed just 34 receptions for 365 yards, including just one touchdown.
Green caught seven passes for 51 yards and no scores on Sept. 29. Torrey Smith had 7 receptions for 85 yards on Sept. 15. The only touchdown was to Nelson on Oct. 20. All totaled, teams are averaging less than four receptions and 40.5 yards a game. Johnson, regarded as the best receiver in the NFL, was held to just three receptions for just 25 yards by Haden.
"Joe has lived up to everything I thought he was coming out of Florida," Horton said. "He's matched up against the top receiver all season and has done a really good job."
Horton said that Haden, Skrine and T.J. Ward are all having "fantastic" years, but he cited Tashaun Gipson has having a "phenomenal year".
Horton referred to Gipson as his "MVP" of the defense.
The Browns are hoping that Haden can contain Green as he did in the first game. Green has been on a hot streak, having already gone over the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 65 catches for 1.013 yards, including six touchdowns.
"A.J.'s an impressive young man," Horton said. "He wants to be known as a standup professional. The matchup between he and Joe is going to be a battle for a long time.
"A.J. is going to get his catches, but what it comes down to is limiting his explosive plays."
Chudzinski is impressed with Green's play.
"A.J.'s been playing great," Chudzinski said. "You go back, I go back to a few years ago when he came out and we studied him hard and looked at him. (He is) just a fabulous talent, great person and really works at his trade and one of the best in the game. So anytime you're playing that type of guy, that's where the competitive nature of a player comes out. I think that Joe has had that response and welcomes the challenge and it's a great challenge for Joe."
On the season, Haden has 40 tackles, one interception and 12 passes broken up.
Paul Kruger says it helps the defense with Haden playing so well.
"Joe is one of the best corners in the league," Kruger said. "We have all the confidence in his ability. We definitely respect (A.J.) Green because his production speaks for itself."
Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton respects Haden's play.
"He's really good and does good things," Dalton said. "He sits on some routes. He's a guy that has been playing really well."
Dalton is hoping to take advantage of the single coverage the Browns employ with Haden. That means Skrine will have to match up with Marvin Jones frequently in the game.
"The way they play, there are a lot of one-on-ones," he said. "We have to win those match ups. We have to get our right depths on routes and be in the right spots."
Haden knows it will be tough to keep Green contained once again.
"No matter what, you have to go out and play," Haden said. "It will be a battle."
The success of the cornerbacks is credited, in part, to the play of the front seven.
"The pressure up front is amazing," Haden said. "Whenever you can make the quarterback uncomfortable, they might throw the ball too high or too low, that helps us."
"On the back end we're just trying to hold up our guys until the guys up front can get to the quarterback," he said. "Pressure on the quarterback is our goal. It's important all the time."
Ward says there's no secret on what the defense is trying to do.
"We're trying to put pressure and make (Dalton) make quick decisions," he said. "We want to make the quarterback uncomfortable."
Haden has a big fan in Bengals' coach Marvin Lewis.
"He's playing very well," Lewis said. "I hate to compare people, but he's very good. He's been that way, in my opinion, since he came here as a rookie. He's got great speed, length, he's not afraid. He just keeps playing. He has all the qualities of great cornerbacks."
Lewis was asked if Haden was a shut down cornerback.
"I don't know what a shutdown corner is," Lewis laughed. "He's pretty good."
Battle of Ohio: Chudzinski knows how good some of the rivalries in the AFC North can be, and knows the "Battle of Ohio" between the Browns and the Bengals can be a great one.
"I think that's the great thing about this division," he said. "There's a lot of history there and they're linked. In this division there's a lot of those types of rivalries and history there. It's exciting to play in a game, to play against a team where they're at. Again, they're in the driver's seat in the division and leading the division and we have an opportunity to go play them. They guys are excited about that and where we're at right now."
Chudzinski said he's confident the Browns are ready to play in a big game.
"I think the guys are focused on that and excited about that," he said. "At the end of the day, all that matters is what you do on the field. So the willingness is there and we have to have a good week of preparation and transfer it onto the field and that's the bottom line."
The players say they're ready for the game.
"All I can say is that it feels good to play in a meaningful game," Joe Thomas said. "It is a big moment, but it doesn't feel like that in this locker room. It's more exciting as the season winds down."
"Everybody knows it's a big game," Skrine said. "It's a division game and the 'Battle of Ohio' no matter what the records are."
Horton Praises Gipson: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton, when talking about the secondary, said that CB Joe Haden, CB Buster Skrine and S T.J. Ward were all having "fantastic" seasons, but singled out S Tashaun Gipson.
"My biggest surprise and probably MVP for us is Tashaun Gipson."
Gipson is fourth on the team with 62 tackles, two interceptions and 11 passes broken up.
Horton said he's a better tackler than what he thought and said he made the transition from being a cornerback to free safety.
"He's done a phenomenal job for us."
Hoyer Sighting: QB Brian Hoyer was walking in the locker room without the aid of crutches and without a noticeable limp after his ACL surgery.
Injury Update: The only player on the injury list that didn't practice fully was TE MarQueis Gray with a hamstring injury. He was listed as limited as he worked on the side with the trainers. QB Jason Campbell (ribs), LB Paul Kruger (finger), RB Willis McGahee (knee), RB Chris Ogbonnaya (ribs) and DB Chris Owens (finger) practiced fully.