Browns defense under scrunity

Tribune Chronicle

CLEVELAND – It hasn’t been this good statistically for the Browns defense since the days of Clay Matthews, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield.

Yet the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense is the object of questions to coordinator Ray Horton almost every week about another fourth-quarter meltdown and another loss. Since opening the season with a 3-2 record, the Browns have lost eight of the last nine games, including five straight.

No one is more disappointed than Horton, who sold fans during the offseason on a promise that his aggressive style would result in wins. He was buoyed by the front office’s determination in recent years to strengthen the front seven through the draft and free agency.

“I don’t want to use any kind of excuse or crutch and say we’re young and this and that,” Horton said. “That’s not acceptable at this point in the season. You have to do your job and be accountable or at some point you move on.

“We have failed the last three weeks. We talk about being accountable and being the backbone of the team, but you can’t do that. You don’t do that.”

It doesn’t take an in-depth analysis to figure out the root cause behind five losses in which the Browns had a fourth-quarter lead. The lack of big plays in the form of turnovers and sacks has been the downfall.

In the last three offseasons the Browns have added several players to the front seven in an attempt to become more dominant on the pass rush. Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, John Hughes, Billy Winn, Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger have joined the front seven through the draft and free agency.

The plan was for the defense to become a quarterback’s worst nightmare, particularly in the fourth quarter. Instead, the unit has struggled to get to quarterbacks at critical times, which is lethal when the secondary is playing soft to protect a lead.

Nine of the 39 total sacks have come in the fourth quarter, including four against Kansas City. The defense had two fourth-quarter sacks in the second game against Baltimore and one each in the final period against New England, Minnesota and Buffalo. They had none in the fourth quarter of nine games.

“There is pressure, and you do have to have some kind of positive play,” Horton said. “Very seldom do they just throw the ball out of bounds or incomplete. It comes down to that.”

Horton hit on another issue that might not sit well with some players – lack of accountability. He noted that safeties T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson have consistently stepped up but that other players tend to wait for someone else to make the big play.

“It’s very disappointing,” Horton said. “We talked to our players and said, ‘You can’t play well for three quarters and come crunch time you tighten up.’ We’ve talked about being clutch at the end, and some of our players have really played at a Pro Bowl level.

“This is the way I explained it to them: Some of the guys are going to wait for LeBron (James) to score in the fourth quarter. Tashaun and T.J. played like they did (against Chicago), but the rest of the guys are accountable to do their jobs. Just because the game is in the fourth quarter and it’s a seven-point game or a tie, you can’t tighten up and do something different.”

Gipson agreed that players might begin to exert inward pressure in the fourth quarter of close games.

“Maybe myself included – and I’m not pointing any fingers – guys out there trying to do too much instead of just doing their jobs,” Gipson said. “They might want to sit on routes and think that play might change the game or jump outside the gap thinking that sack might change the game.”

It’s too late to save this season, but the defense needs to develop more playmakers.