BEREA — Running back Ben Tate’s fastball at the helmet of defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin was intended to send a message. Despite Tate’s 105-pound disadvantage, he wanted to make it clear the offense wouldn’t accept being picked on by the defense.
“It was about just setting the tempo that, ‘Hey, you are not going to bully us,’” Tate said Tuesday after practice.
Tate’s brush-back pitch came shortly after linebacker Eric Martin stuffed running back Dion Lewis then threw him to the ground. The Tate-Rubin spat turned into a full-blown fracas.
At least 20 players formed a giant pile of humanity on the ground as offense faced off vs. defense. A second skirmish included several other players, led by defensive lineman John Hughes vs. tackle Martin Wallace, with rookie guard Joel Bitonio working his way in.
“You’ve got to protect your guys,” said Wallace, who tussled with linebacker Justin Staples later in the day. “The defense, we love them. They’re our teammates. But sometimes if the defense thinks they can walk over you, you have to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
In addition to its overzealousness Tuesday, the defense has dominated most of the first four days of training camp. Interceptions have outnumbered touchdowns, and the pass rush is giving the protection fits.
“On offense, if you’re getting beat, you shouldn’t accept somebody doing that to you,” veteran receiver Anthony Armstrong said. “So everybody is fighting and they’re scratching and clawing.”
Strong safety Donte Whitner took the incident in stride.
“Throwing a football at someone never killed anybody,” he said. “We had a little scuffle. We go in the locker room and shake hands and laugh together, but on the football field, we’re not friends. Offense and defense, we’re not friends.”
Rubin was able to turn the other cheek.
“Everything’s love,” he said. “We’re teammates and I want the best for him and nobody to get hurt out there.”
First-year coach Mike Pettine had spent the last couple of days telling reporters he didn’t want fighting. “Competitive not combative” was his catchphrase.
He wasn’t overjoyed as he watched the Tuesday Morning Fights, but he found some positives, including a noticeable increase in intensity and pad popping from the previous practice.
“When we talk about the kind of team we want to be, you have to practice that way,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s difficult. There are going to be times when it does boil over.
“You don’t want one side of the ball to get bullied by the other. There has to be some pushback, whether it’s offense vs. defense or defense vs. offense. You look at that and it’s the price of doing business. You don’t like to see it. You’re afraid somebody could potentially get hurt in it. But at times, it’s going to happen.”
The sheer volume of players involved was worrisome.
“It was a lot. You hate to see it, but it’s also teammates defending teammates,” Pettine said. “When they see a guy that’s involved in something, they want to go help them out. I like the fact that everybody jumped in, but that can’t be a habit that carries over to a game day. We’re not going to be clearing benches.”
Whitner found comfort in the numbers.
“That was a big one and that’s how we like it really,” he said. “We don’t want any soft guys around here. We want guys going to bat for each other.
“It all started because guys were being physical, guys were being extra physical, putting a little extra in after the whistle. You don’t want nice guys on defense. You want nasty guys. You don’t want nice guys on offense and the offensive line. You want nasty guys. That’s what winning football teams are built on — built in the trenches on nasty football — and that’s what we’re trying to develop.”
Pettine has been preaching toughness since he arrived. The free agent signing of Whitner and the drafting of Bitonio with the No. 35 pick were a nod to nasty.
The Browns have been the little brother in the rough and tumble AFC North for years and must fight their way to respectability.
“I am going to try and make my imprint on this team that we ain’t gonna take anything from anybody,” Tate said. “That it is time to change around here and it starts with an attitude and a mindset.
“That is just who I am as a person. You see me on the streets, I am not going to let anyone walk up to me and mess with me.”
The defenders pushed, shoved, agitated and bragged at the offense throughout the day. They were particularly annoying trying to pry the ball loose seconds after the whistle — an instruction that comes from the coaches. It’s all about creating turnovers on defense and preventing them on offense.
“You look at the statistics in the league — what’s the biggest indicator of wins and losses? It’s the turnover ratio,” Pettine said. “We want to be one of those teams that takes the ball away and doesn’t allow teams to take it away from us. I think as frustrating as it is for our running backs, it’s great practice for them having guys pulling at it and hacking at it, and it’s good for our guys defensively. It’s a habit like anything else. Hopefully, it will carry over to Sunday.”
The defense’s edge over the offense carried into the final period of practice. Pettine wanted to raise the level of competition, so he put something on the line. The winning side would wear orange jerseys in the next practice, and the ritual will continue through camp.
On Tuesday, the offense needed to move 20 yards. In a best-of-five situation, the defense won three of four to claim the first “Orange Bowl.”
“Yeah, it means something,” Whitner said. “It kind of gives you the feel of a real football game.”
Tate’s stance against Rubin didn’t quiet the defense. Armstrong knows what will.
“The way you shut the defense up is by making plays, moving the ball and scoring touchdowns,” he said. “We’re just going to bounce back and make some plays and they’ll be over there quiet. We’ll be hooting and hollering and dancing and we’ll get our orange jerseys back.”