THE feeling is that the Browns are becoming a more physical team on the defensive side.
According to coach Eric Mangini, the defense is also a smart group of players. That might not mean much, unless calculus exams are given each Sunday - but it can't hurt.
Mangini made the comment when he was asked about the solid season linebacker Eric Barton is having.
"I have had a lot of faith in Eric, and he has played for me for a long time," Mangini said. "With Eric and Chris (Gocong) and Scott (Fujita), those three guys are really, really bright guys. The three of them combined see a lot of things and they communicate real well.
"Outside of their ability, that's huge for a successful defense to have guys like that that can get things right. It allows you to do some more things defensively in terms of formation adjustments and play recognition. It's really important. Eric is really bright. The other two guys are really bright, so that's fun to coach that."
The defense that's coordinated by Rob Ryan definitely requires muscle power, including the muscle called the brain. In particular, much is asked of the linebackers.
"We have a pretty smart group of linebackers," Barton said. "You need to be that way in this defense. There are a lot of suggestions that need to be made."
The thing that might be unique about the linebackers is the input they have during the week of preparations. They don't just sit quietly at meetings without lending some input.
"The thing we're happy about is that we tweak our own game plan and that comes with being smart and understanding the game," said David Bowens, who wants to coach when his playing career ends. "If we don't like something, we'll throw it out. If we get to something, we'll find a way for it to work for all of us. We can recognize a lot of things before they happen."
Before training camp started, it was logical to say that Barton might not be part of the mix as a starter. D'Qwell Jackson and Gocong were ticketed to start on the inside, with Fujita and Matt Roth getting the nods on the outside.
That changed when Jackson suffered a pectoral injury prior to the first preseason game. Jackson was supposedly close to returning early in the season, but he suffered a setback that ended his season.
Enter Barton, who played for Mangini when he coached the New York Jets. Through four games Barton is fourth in tackles with 19.
Adding to Barton's challenge was coming off a neck injury he suffered last season. Any injury to the neck or head area causes concern.
"It was mentally scary," Barton said. "I guess people get it all the time, but it's different when it's you."
The linebacker positions were collectively considered to be a team strength entering the season, and nothing has happened to change that belief. Fujita, who arrived from the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, is second in tackles with 23. Roth has been strong against the run and has two sacks.
You can call the linebackers smart or you can call them tough. All they care about is winning.
"Our goal we talk about every day is to be smart and tough," Fujita said. "That's how we're going to win games."