BEREA - You might want to take it with a grain of salt when Joe Haden says the Browns have a top-five defense.
Haden, after all, is one of the Browns' starting cornerbacks. He has a vested interest in promoting the defense as it climbs the statistical ladder of success in the NFL.
Through 11 games the defense is ranked 22nd in total yards allowed (362.1) and 19th against the run (118.4). You need to understand the recent history of the Browns to know that those pedestrian numbers are actually quite good.
The defense has regularly been among the worst at stopping the run since the Browns' return to the NFL in 1999. To be holding opponents to 118.4 rushing yards a game is a giant step forward.
Haden's comments suggest that the defense has done more than take giant steps.
"I think we're one of the top five defenses for sure," Haden said. "We have people that can play their positions and are really good at it. Everybody is established now and understands what's going on. Our D-line with (tackles) Phil (Taylor) and (Ahtyba) Rubin healthy. We have (linebacker) D'Qwell (Jackson) and I'm back and (safety) T.J. (Ward). Our defense has playmakers that can make plays. We can go out there with the best."
The play against the run was stellar the last two games, limiting the Dallas Cowboys to 63 yards and the Steelers to 55 yards. The Browns forced eight turnovers against the Steelers (five fumbles and three interceptions).
The efforts have begun to ripple throughout the NFL, but respect is often a slow process.
"Eight turnovers. I don't know how much more we can do to be recognized," Haden said. "We're trying to become an established defense."
One aspect that has stood out is the defense's increased level of physicality. The tackling was sure and pad-cracking, forcing fumbles by five different Steelers.
Much of the credit goes to the line, where Taylor and Rubin were healthy and on the field together for the first time this season Nov. 18 at Dallas. The presence of those two gives the Browns arguably one of the best lines in the NFL.
"Losing Phil and Rube for a good amount of time set us back, but it certainly helped the development of John (Hughes) and Billy (Winn)," defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. "They got a lot of snaps in there. As we move forward, it's a good front. I think they'll get better over time."
The Browns have a plus-eight turnover ratio, which is tied for seventh in the NFL. The art of stripping the ball is obviously catching on.
"We always teach the first man tackles," Jauron said. "He's a tackler. It's a little bit different on the quarterback in the pocket because if you're coming in from the blind side you always go for the ball.
"Out in the field or a running back with the ball, once the tackle is secure, then the next guys in will try to strip the ball."
One of the best perspectives of the defense comes from offensive coordinator Brad Childress. He's seen the development on almost a daily basis.
"They're like a bunch of fire ants," Childress said. "They take the ball off people, and people aren't readily wanting to have the ball taken off them. I see lots of guys in on a pile, and it's like a feeding frenzy, which is the way you want all defenses. You want 11 guys to show up on the screen."