Defense will be key to Browns’ success

No one in the Browns’ organization will dare go there, and with good reason.

The thought of predicting a playoff appearance is off grounds as the Browns prepare to host the Miami Dolphins Sunday at First Energy Stadium. In many ways this is the first year for the new regime led by owner James Haslam, which means growing pains are a built-in factor when discussing realistic expectations.

With that in mind, the plan developed in the offseason was to aspire for respectability in whatever way that might play out. To reach that goal, the front office decided to use the draft and free agency to strengthen a defense that was productive at times last season.

In theory, a good defense will keep a team in most games. A good quarterback can take those close games and help win many of them.

The jury remains out on Browns second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden. The best guess is that general manager Michael Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner would have stayed away from Weeden in the 2012 draft, but since he’s here they’ll have to try to get the most production from him as possible.

This is where an improved defense can help. All those sacks and quarterback pressures that first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton talks about could make life easier on Weeden, who wouldn’t have to carry the burden of winning solely on his shoulders.

Horton came to town talking about wanting “big people that can run and little people that can tackle.” He preaches an aggressive, attack style that will play well to fans but won’t help much if the goal of harassing quarterbacks isn’t reached.

Last season the defense finished 23rd in average yards allowed at 363.8 per game. Horton, who exudes optimism, believes the unit has the potential to become elite.

“I’ve been stressing to our players that we will be as good as we can be, meaning I’m going to challenge them to be as good as we can be,” Horton said. “How good is that? That all is predicated on the team concept. It all works together. Can they be? Yes. Are we striving to be? Absolutely.”

The defense that fans will see Sunday won’t bare much of a resemblance to the defense they saw in preseason. Coordinators never come close to showing the entire arsenal before the start of a season.

One thing we know is that Horton will dig deep into his book of blitzes. The words “bend” and “break” rarely enter his thinking.

The players linemen and linebackers in particular have to love Horton’s get-after-it mentality.

“That just goes along with defensive players’ mentalities,” linebacker Paul Kruger said. “I never played for the guys that were here last year. This is all I know. I think it’s a great defense for us and especially for the type of personnel we have.”

Kruger was the centerpiece of Lombardi’s offseason plan. He signed a five-year, $41 million contract last March to fill a spot on the outside in the switch to a 3-4 defense.

“One of the things you can’t measure when he came over was competitive desire,” Horton said. “He has a desire to be the best. I think he’s on a mission. He has a lot to prove to a lot of people on the football field.

“He had six sacks (for the Super Bowl champion Ravens) in the playoffs (last year). He has the heart and desire to be one of the best.”

If, as many assume, the offense struggles, the defense will carry much of the burden again this season.