During this past off-season, there was a great deal of angst and hand-wringing around the transition of the Browns’ defense from the 3-4 to the 4-3. Many in the media wanted us to believe that this changeover would lead to significant issues in finding the right personnel to man the new four-man line, and would result in a long learning curve on the defensive side of the ball.
Enter Tom Heckert. After what many would consider a tremendously successful 2010 draft and off-season that saw the team add the tremendously talented Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, as well as the veteran presence of Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, Heckert seems to have done it again.
While only three games into the young season, 2011 draftees Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are drawing notice. Along with the continued emergence of Ahtyba Rubin in the middle, the young Browns’ defensive front is quickly becoming an area of strength.
Perhaps the biggest standout thus far has been Sheard. After the opening loss to Cincinnati, the coaching staff shifted him to his natural position on the left end. Sheard has responded not only by terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, but also by providing solid run defense – a supposed weakness in his game. While not matching the big numbers he posted last week in Indianapolis, Sheard was solid again in the run game and was often disruptive in the Dolphins’ backfield, despite matching up against All-Pro Jake Long.
Ahtyba Rubin accrued the most tackles by a down lineman last season while fighting against constant double teams as the nose tackle in the 3-4. Now in the 4-3, Rubin has constantly been a force, especially in run defense. On Sunday, Rubin tallied nine tackles, one for a loss and added 1.5 sacks of Chad Henne. His interior linemate, rookie Phil Taylor, added seven tackles of his own, one for a loss and a sack of his own. Frankly, this pair of defensive tackles looks to have a chance to become one of the more feared interior lines in the league.
After a bit of a lackluster start to the season, Jayme Mitchell also turned in a big day, contributing another 1.5 sacks, as well as forcing a key fumble from Reggie Bush as the Dolphins were closing in on the red zone near the end of the first quarter.
While the front four were tremendous there were other big defensive contributions:
- D’Qwell Jackson continued to amaze since his return from two injury-halted seasons adding 11 tackles, keeping him near the league lead.
- Joe Haden stymied Brandon Mashall all day, holding the talented wide receiver to just four catches for 43 yards. Marshall was so frustrated by the third quarter that he committed a bone-headed unnecessary roughness penalty.
- Buster Skrine was solid in coverage while spelling the struggling Sheldon Brown.
- Mike Adams pulled in the game-clinching interception with :13 left on the clock.
Browns fans should, at this point, be able to see the vision of Tom Heckert and Dick Jauron when it comes to building this young defense, a defense that just may be 1-2 impact players away from being a force to be reckoned with in the AFC North. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore around that would be high praise, indeed.