July 23, 2016

Mostly clear

Browns: Coach Pat Shurmur sees team improving inch-by-inch

BEREA — The Browns reported to work Monday with two wins in the last three weeks, including two in a row at home.

Coach Pat Shurmur reflected the brighter mood of the city after Sunday’s 7-6 win over the San Diego Chargers but didn’t bite on the suggestion his 2-6 team is on the verge of getting on a roll.

Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Billy Winn sacks San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the first quarter at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland. (AP PHOTO)

“Hey, listen, we’re fighting for every inch,” he said. “Like last week (after a loss to the Colts), I said let’s not talk about trends. We’re talking about winning each game.”

While Shurmur kept his nose to the grindstone with early preparation for the rematch with the Ravens on Sunday, he did have time for optimism. The young defense that keeps getting better and healthier is a big reason.

The Browns have allowed nine points and no touchdowns in the past six quarters. The awful conditions were a huge factor Sunday, but holding the high-powered Chargers to six points can’t be dismissed.

“They felt challenged by the opponent and they’ve got great pride and they went out and they executed,” Shurmur said. “I think the defensive coaches, Dick Jauron and all the coaches, put together a terrific plan and then the players went out and executed.”

The defense’s arrow has been pointing north for three weeks. It’s no coincidence that’s when No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden returned from a four-game suspension, bringing a huge dose of talent and energy.

Shurmur expects more reinforcements this week. He didn’t guarantee it, but said defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin will likely return vs. the Ravens. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson should also be nearing a comeback after spraining an ankle Oct. 7 and missing the last three weeks.

Taylor missed the first eight games after tearing a pectoral muscle in May, returned to practice last week and is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list at any time. Rubin has missed all but a few plays of the last three games with an injured calf. They started every game together in the middle last year –– Taylor’s rookie season –– and are considered the foundation of the defense.

“We’ve won two games in the last three weeks. So let’s call it for what it is,” Shurmur said. “We’re getting some defensive players back that will help us. If you function better and you’re playing better and you win a couple games and you’re getting some players back that can help you win, that helps me stay positive.”

The defense hasn’t been what the front office and coaching staff envisioned in the offseason. In addition to the Haden suspension and aforementioned injuries, starting outside linebackers Chris Gocong (Achilles tendon) and Scott Fujita (neck) are done for the year, and cornerback Sheldon Brown missed 1½ games.

The replacements have been mostly rookies, and the statistics are the evidence.

The Browns entered Monday ranked 26th overall (392.4 yards per game), 24th against the run (131.6) and 25th (260.8) against the pass. They were seventh in interceptions (10), 14th in third-down efficiency (37.9 percent) and tied for 19th in points per game (23.3). The numbers are a drop-off from last year, when the Browns ranked 10th in total defense (332.4), 30th against the run (147.4), second against the pass (184.9) and fifth in scoring (19.2 points).

But the youth has shown signs of growing up. Rookie sixth-round tackle Billy Winn has started eight games in place of Taylor and recovered his second fumble Sunday while registering his first sack.

“Billy Winn had production,” Shurmur said. “We had a lot of guys in there that I thought battled.”

James-Michael Johnson has replaced Fujita on the strong side the last three games after missing the first four weeks with a knee injury. Johnson was second on the team Sunday with 10 tackles and forced a Ryan Mathews fumble.

“I’m trusting myself a little more,” Johnson said. “I’m not hesitating as much and just trying to keep growing. I’m getting more comfortable.”

First-year linebacker Craig Robertson has been a mainstay in the nickel package and undrafted rookie Ishmaa’ily Kitchen is in the tackle rotation. Perhaps the greatest improvement has come from second-year cornerback Buster Skrine. He was picked on in losses to Cincinnati and the New York Giants but has been effective the last three games, including Sunday when he helped slow down Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates and made the victory-sealing pass breakup.

“He’s right on track,” Brown said. “He’s a competitor. If you play corner in this league, you are going to have games where they don’t look so good to the people who don’t really know the game and don’t study every single play. Some of the plays he got beat on and guys caught balls on he had good coverage. He’s one of the hardest workers we have on this team.

“I can’t think of anything negative to say. He’s going to be a heckuva a player.”

The Browns are a week away from their bye, but have played half their schedule. Shurmur was asked to reflect.

“Obviously record-wise we’re not where I want to be right now,” he said. “But I see a team that’s improving. I see a team that’s battling. I see a team that’s with me every step of the way. And they believe in their coaches.

“I’m hopeful we’re going to continue to make those improvements and win a heckuva lot of games. That’s where I am.”

New fullback

The Browns were looking for a greater impact from the fullback position, and tight end Alex Smith wanted a larger role. The desires intersected Sunday and helped pave the way for Trent Richardson’s career-high 122 rushing yards.

Smith has dabbled at fullback in his eight-year career but played the spot full time in the 7-6 win over the Chargers. True fullback Owen Marecic was a healthy scratch.

“I’m hoping this can expand into a bigger role, but just to be involved in the action at all -– I have been sitting around for the last six weeks -– I was happy,” Smith said Monday.

Smith opened the year as the second tight end behind Benjamin Watson, but suffered a concussion in Week 2 and missed three weeks. Jordan Cameron became the No. 2 tight end, and Smith saw limited action in his return Oct. 14 against Cincinnati and was inactive the next week in Indianapolis.

“I wanted to get Alex back on the field,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I wanted to have a defined role for him because he brings some energy to our team and he was coming back from injury and he actually showed up very well.

“The roster changes each week. You can only put up so many skill players on offense, so that’s why I made the decision basically to switch Alex and Owen for this game.”

Marecic has four drops and no catches this year and hasn’t had much of an impact as a blocker. Smith is about 15 pounds heavier at 258, but at 6-foot-4, he’s too tall for a normal fullback.

“In watching the film today the one thing I noticed is I definitely need to get lower,” he said. “I’ve got to get used to those nuances and techniques. For the most part, I think I have a feel for it and I’ll keep working out at it.”

Smith, who played 22 of the 63 offensive snaps, said he graded out “pretty well” and is working to build chemistry with Richardson. They talked on the sideline to make sure they were seeing the same things on the field.

“I cherish those opportunities to get on the field going into my eighth year,” Smith said. “I don’t take those days for granted. I just want to have some type of impact, whether it’s being energetic or throwing the key block or whatever it takes. I know these days aren’t going to be forever.”

Shurmur said Richardson didn’t reinjure his rib cartilage despite the 24 carries.

“He’s no worse for wear,” he said. “With a running back, if he’s going and the score’s right, that was a game for him to have an opportunity and he showed up pretty well.”

Weeden’s world

Shurmur acknowledged the conditions weren’t ideal for passing, but felt the offense left yards on the field. Quarterback Brandon Weeden was 11-for-27 for 129 yards and a 55.9 rating.

“I think he could play better,” Shurmur said. “He battled. We’ve all said you evaluate a quarterback, though, based on how he leads his team to victory.”

Shurmur liked that he took a sack late to keep the clock running, and that he was able to call a play when the headset malfunctioned.

“There was about four plays where it went out,” Shurmur said. “Two of which were critical where I (called timeout). Then there was a couple other times in the game when he got a partial and he fixed it and did a good job. So that would be another area where he made improvement.”

The incompletions bothered Shurmur, especially an overthrow toward wide-open tight end Benjamin Watson down the left side. Weeden said he couldn’t get a grip on the ball and shot putted it.

“You’ve got to make that throw,” Shurmur said. “In that case, if I had to be ultra-critical, you take the air out of it and drive it to him. He was wide open.”

Does he get a pass because of the weather?

“No, they don’t get a pass. You don’t give me a pass,” Shurmur said.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.