It isn't a group loaded with household names, and by the numbers, it is clear that more improvement is still needed, but the Browns' defense has shown some promise in 2010. And with the majority of its regular starters under contract through at least 2011, the core of the group figures to be back next season.
The defense stood especially tall in upsets of New Orleans and New England, intercepting Saints QB Drew Brees four times in the former and holding the Patriots to just 14 points in the latter — a performance looking better and better by the week with New England's offense currently in top form. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is capable of creating schemes that confound the opposition, and his players clearly relish playing for him, the way we hear it.
The defense has shown marked improvement playing the run. Opponents averaged 4.57 yards a rush a season ago but are averaging just 4.00 yards per carry in 2010. Solid play from the front seven has made the Browns tougher to crack in the run game, and the emergence of NT Ahtyba Rubin has played a key role in this regard. Through 10 games, Rubin had 51 tackles, and he has earned high praise from both Ryan and head coach Eric Mangini for his considerable improvement this season. The 6-2, 330-pound Rubin's motor has garnered particular notice.
"Nobody in the league plays defensive tackle the way he does," Ryan said recently. "... I told him a technique I wanted him to use in short yardage, and he came up to me and was like, 'Well, Rob, how am I going to get to the guy with the ball?' And I'm like, 'You know what Rub, do exactly what you do,' because I've had guys that can't move, that stand there and don't do anything, and it pisses you off watching them.
"This guy's phenomenal. This guy gives more effort. He's tough as (heck); you can't run on him."
The pass defense has surrendered a few too many big plays this season, but it's also a group with potential, with rookie CB Joe Haden rapidly improving and fellow first-year player T.J. Ward starting from Week One at safety. Overall, the defense is clearly in better shape than when Mangini and Ryan arrived — and its upside for further development is apparent.