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Browns' defense stepping up

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Posted Sept. 26, 2011 @ 5:27 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

The Browns will enter October with a winning record after a 17-16 victory vs. Miami extended their winning streak to two and placed them atop the AFC North, tied with Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

If you tuned in late, you saw the Browns' offense stringing together a 13-play, 80-yard drive punctuated by a 14-yard TD pass from Colt McCoy to Mohamed Massaquoi. You also saw Massaquoi and TE Benjamin Watson draw a celebration penalty. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, the Browns committed a personal foul.

This left the Dolphins on the Cleveland 47 with 36 seconds left, but the Cleveland defense, as it had most of the day, held up, with Dolphins QB Chad Henne throwing three incompletions, then an interception, as the Browns secured the win.

After allowing a touchown on Miami's second drive, Cleveland surrendered just three field goals thereafter. Miami's persistent problems converting prime offensive opportunities didn't hurt Cleveland's cause, but the Browns' defense also did plenty to help itself.

"The defense did a tremendous job of battling play-to-play," head coach Pat Shurmur said after the game. "I challenged the guys to string a bunch of good plays together and I thought defensively they battled. They forced a turnover (a Reggie Bush fumble that ended a 10-play Miami drive on the Cleveland 22), then they missed a field goal. They did some things that you need to do when offensively we weren't quite clicking, just off on some things, so I give them credit."

The PFW Spin

Only eight teams have surrendered fewer yards than Cleveland, a positive sign, even when considering the Browns faced Cincinnati and Indianapolis in the first two games. The Browns, like every other club, had to deal with the impact of OTAs being scuttled because of the lockout, and they had the added challenge of installing new offensive and defensive schemes under the guidance with a new head coach (Pat Shurmur, who's also the de facto offensive coordinator) and a new defensive coordinator (Dick Jauron). 

The Browns' offense has generally struggled in the first three games. However, the defense, after a rocky start vs. Cincinnati that saw the Browns surrender two long TDs in the fourth quarter in a loss, has rebounded, surrendering just one touchdown in each of the last two games.

One of the reasons the Browns are giving opposing offenses some problems: an improved pass rush and solid pass coverage. Cleveland notched five sacks Sunday and has 11 on the season. The Browns are getting a strong push from their starting D-linemen — ends Jabaal Sheard and Jayme Mitchell and tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor alike. Rubin and Taylor, who combined for 16 tackles and 2½ sacks Sunday, have formed a very good tandem in the middle. Sheard and Mitchell, meanwhile, have done their part to get after quarterbacks, too — which was an issue to watch entering the season with Sheard being a rookie and Mitchell a veteran reserve getting his first full-time starting job.

CB Joe Haden, playing exceptionally well early this season, is the key to the secondary. He helped limited Miami star Brandon Marshall to just four catches and 43 yards on Sunday. While the Dolphins did have success going after veteran CB Sheldon Brown and QB Chad Henne threw for 255 yards, the pass defense has nonetheless been a strength. Cleveland has allowed the third-fewest passing yards in the NFL through three games.

The LB corps has also done its part. MLB D'Qwell Jackson's 30 tackles are second-most in the NFL, and OLBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong made key plays Sunday. Fujita had very good coverage on a third-down pass that fell incomplete in the endzone late in the first half, and Miami settled for a field goal. Gocong had two QB hits and was credited with half-sack of Henne.

Jauron also deserves plenty of credit for Cleveland's strong defensive start. The Browns surrendered the eventual game-winning TD in Week One when the defense came out of the huddle late, but it has been generally sound the last two games. And it certainly buckled down when needed on Sunday. 

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