The Browns defense was the laughingstock of the NFL after Baltimore's Jamal Lewis ran for a record 295 yards in the second week of the season. But since then, the Browns have gotten their act together. They gave up only 13 points to Pittsburgh last week. In Sunday's 13-7 victory over Oakland, they yielded only one touchdown, and that was set up by a fumble recovery at the Browns' 24.
Half of the NFL's 16 teams have played six games. Of those, only Denver (87 points) has given up fewer points than the 95 allowed by Cleveland.
That's a testament to the speed in which the Browns have grasped defensive coordinator Dave Campo's system. It's also a testament to the simplicity of Campo's system, which is based on a few principles: stay in the proper gap on run plays, swarm to the ball and don't allow big plays in the passing game.
"It's very, very simple," safety Robert Griffith said of Campo's scheme. "That's the reason we're getting great play out of our linebackers. They're able to just go. There are not a lot of adjustments. There are not a lot of checks."
But if teams could have success with such a simple scheme, why isn't
everybody doing it? Probably because simple is a relative term.
"It's not just junior-high plain vanilla," Browns coach Butch Davis said of the Browns' defense.
Staying in gaps sounds simple, but when 22 bodies move at once, players must sort out responsibility amidst the chaos.
"Things change on the move," linebacker Kevin Bentley said. "Gaps change, and that's where you get your misfits at. All it takes is one guy not in their gap for big plays to happen."
That's what happened against Jamal Lewis. Since then, the Browns have done extra homework so they wouldn't be burned again. Then again, teams throw curveballs on Sundays, which is what happened against the Raiders.
Oakland lined up in several formations the Browns hadn't seen.
"They ran an offense that was absolutely 100 percent opposite of what they'd
been doing the last couple months," Davis said.
"You have to have guys you can coach on the sidelines. You can't wait until Monday to fix it."
Campo took particular delight in the fact the Browns were able to use a new blitz during Oakland's last-ditch two-minute drill.
Campo would be the first to say that schemes are less important than players. The Browns have gotten improved play from their defensive line, particularly Courtney Brown. The defensive end got his fifth sack of the season Sunday, already a career-high, and is finally being the disruptive force expected of a No. 1 overall draft pick.
"I think we've got a ways to go in some things," Campo said, "but I think the main thing is we have guys who like to play. They're listening and they're coachable. As long as they are, we've got a chance. I'm happy we're making progress."
SERIES HISTORY: 19th meeting, and the Chargers lead 10-7-1. They last played Oct. 17, 2001 when the Browns won 20-16 in Cleveland. That game was decided when Tim Couch threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson with 1:15 left and then survived a Hail Mary attempt by Doug Flutie. Butch Davis was a University of Miami assistant coach when Flutie threw his famous pass to Gerard Phelan while playing for Boston College.
BY THE NUMBERS: 63.5. Since yielding 295 yards to Jamal Lewis, the Browns have given up an average of only 63.5 rushing yards per game. The Eagles have the NFL's best run defense. They allow only 68.2 yards per game.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE...: Just when it appeared the Browns
offensive line had started to jell, injuries hit again. Center Jeff Faine
(medial collateral knee sprain) and left guard Shaun (ACL sprain) O'Hara are
expected to miss Sunday's game against San Diego. They'll likely be replaced by
Melvin Fowler at center and Chad Beasley at guard.
In addition, left tackle Barry Stokes continues to play with a sprained ankle. Right guard Paul Zukauskas was briefly hurt against the Raiders but returned to the game. The Browns have been without left tackle Ross Verba (torn biceps tendon) since the preseason finale.
Fowler started the season at right guard but played so badly he was benched. He has been inactive two of the last three weeks and played only on special teams in the other. A third-round draft pick from Maryland, Fowler may have his last chance to salvage his career in Cleveland.
Beasley, a converted defensive lineman, took three snaps in place of Zukauskas against the Raiders, his first in the NFL.
Right tackle Ryan Tucker is the only offensive lineman still playing in his original spot at the start of training camp.
GAME PLAN: The Browns would love to pound the ball on the ground against the Chargers as they've done the past two weeks, but their reshuffled line might make that impossible. The Chargers haven't put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, so Davis might let Couch air it out more than he did against the Raiders, who were determined to take away the Browns' downfield passing game.
Defensively, the Browns are prepared for a heavy dose of LaDainian Tomlinson.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
LaDainian Tomlinson vs. Browns defensive line. Since the Jamal Lewis debacle, the Browns' run defense has been solid. But Tomlinson is capable of lighting up any defense and his shiftiness will make the Browns pay if they're not disciplined.
David Boston vs. Browns CBs Anthony Henry and Daylon McCutcheon. After a disappointing start, Boston caught a career-high 14 passes for 181 yards against Jacksonville in San Diego's last game. McCutcheon has played well, but is giving up a huge amount of size to Boston. Henry isn't as polished, but he has played better than many Browns fans expected. Look for him to get most of the assignments against Boston.
Browns offensive line vs. Chargers defensive line. Marcellus Wiley has started as the left defensive end, but San Diego might consider switching him to the right side to go against the ankle-impaired Stokes.
INJURY IMPACT: The Browns' offensive line depth will be sorely tested this week, with Chad Beasley making his first NFL start and Fowler getting another chance to show he can be a viable starter.
The Browns will be using their 21st different starting offensive-line
combination in 71 games since returning to the league.