June 30, 2016

Mostly sunny

Browns: Players embrace defensive philosophy

BEREA — The trademark braids are gone.

“It was time,” cropped defensive coordinator Ray Horton said Tuesday in a pre-training camp news conference. “It’s been that way for seven years. Change of pace. It will grow back.”

His attacking defense isn’t going anywhere.

Cleveland’s Jabaal Sheard, right, takes down Steelers running back Issac Redman in a game last January. Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is pleased with Sheard’s conversion from end to outside linebacker. (AP PHOTO)

As Cleveland’s new leader of the defense, Horton was charged with making the switch from a conservative 4-3 to an attacking 3-4 scheme. The players have embraced the philosophy, but must master the techniques and learn to play consistently in that style.

“I keep saying there’s a learning curve, a transition period to get accustomed to what we’re doing, how I call a game, how they best react to a game, what they do best,” Horton said. “The players like it. I like it. What I’m hoping is the opponents don’t like it.”

Horton hammered home a few points with his infectious personality. He wants his players to have position flexibility, he expects to force turnovers and he demands pressure on the quarterback and physical play.

“If you’re not physical, you’re probably not going to win a lot of games,” he said. “If you don’t hit the guy, they catch every ball because you can’t hit them at 5 yards, you can’t hit the quarterback too high, you can’t hit them too low, you can’t hit them too hard. We understand that, but you have to affect (the quarterback), hit that guy legally. We teach legal punishment of the quarterbacks.”

From CEO Joe Banner to coach Rob Chudzinski to Horton, the Browns have been clear that their new philosophy is to pressure the quarterback. They believe that’s the only way to succeed in today’s pass-first NFL.

Horton frequently dialed up the blitz in Arizona and has brought to Cleveland the quarterback-flustering defense made famous in Pittsburgh by coordinator Dick LeBeau, his mentor. Horton referenced the impressive statistics compiled recently by Arizona and Pittsburgh using that system.

“I’m looking at red zone. I’m looking at third down. I’m looking at quarterback rating. I’m looking at turnovers. I’m looking at scores. I’m looking at number of big plays,” he said. “There’s a lot of numbers that tell me what works and I know statistically how good this system works.”

The Steelers had the No. 1-ranked defense (275.8 yards per game) in 2012, while the Cardinals led the NFL in opponent passer rating (71.2) and were tops in the NFC inside the red zone (44.4 touchdown percentage, 75.6 scoring percentage).

Horton disagreed with the suggestion that the focus on the quarterback takes away from stopping the run, a perennial weakness for the Browns.

“We play run first, we really do,” he said. “Our guys upfront are big, strong, I love our guys upfront. I hope our guys will embrace being a total defense, not just an attacking defense, not just a coverage defense. I want smart football players that understand the football game and it’s a run and pass league.”

Horton touched on a number of other subjects.

 The weight and development of rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the No. 6 pick who’s considered undersized at 240 pounds.

“I want an athletic player that can get after the quarterback,” Horton said. “I’m not going to say a thing to him about his weight. I’m going to say go get the quarterback, go back, cover this guy. I want a football player.

“I like where he’s at. He’s probably on pace for where a rookie should be.”

 Third-round pick Leon McFadden, who’s in the competition for the second starting cornerback job with Chris Owens and Buster Skrine.

“Leon, just like Mingo, is a young rookie,” Horton said. “Has a growing curve, a learning curve. I would like to play them as much as they will allow me to play them. Now what is that? That’s up to them.”

 The transition of Johnson Bademosi from cornerback to free safety and the battle there that includes likely starter Tashaun Gipson and sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter.

“It’s a fluid position for me right now,” Horton said. “Johnson will be a nickel candidate. He’s making good progress. Not great progress, good progress of assimilating calls, responsibilities.”

 Veteran free safety Kerry Rhodes played for Horton in Arizona and is a free agent.

“Right now, we’re committed to our roster. We talk about injuries, attrition and we make sure we have a backup plan,” Horton said. “He is familiar with our system.”

 The conversion of Jabaal Sheard from end to outside linebacker.

“Fantastic. He was one of the surprises of OTAs and minicamp for me,” Horton said. “He transitioned from left to right and now we’re playing him on both sides. When you have good athletes, they can do a lot. He’s really done a good job of absorbing the defense and playing both sides.”

 Craig Robertson, who’s penciled in as the starting inside linebacker next to D’Qwell Jackson.

“A young, athletic ‘backer who is savvy,” Horton said. “When I came here I wasn’t sure how he would be on picking things up, but he’s been everything I wanted. That’s my little ace in the hole.”

 Where does seventh-round pick Armonty Bryant fit as a 3-4 end?

“How about project?” Horton said. “And we knew that. We need him to get a little bit more weight. He’s got speed, athletic ability, and it’s a process for him to get better and learn.”

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