Brownie Points With a defense playing up to its new coach's high standards, the Browns are still in the race for the playoffs

December 03, 2001

Foge Fazio, the Cleveland Browns' 62-year-old defensive
coordinator, couldn't hide his emotions as he sat with his
players in the darkness of a meeting room at the team's practice
facility last week, watching game film from a 24-14 loss to the
Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 14. The man with the sad eyes and the
weathered face swore at every mistake his defense had made--and
there had been plenty; Cincinnati's 199 rushing yards were proof
of that. Fazio got so fed up that he tossed the remote to the
floor. The tape stopped rolling, and an awkward silence filled
the room.

None of the players recall having seen Fazio so angry, and one,
outside linebacker Jamir Miller, understood the significance of
the moment. After somebody flipped on the lights, Miller rose
from his chair and announced that the defense would determine
the outcome of Sunday's rematch with the Bengals. "We were
starting to get depressed if our offense didn't do anything to
help us," Miller says. "So in that meeting, we talked about what
we had to do to win."

What the defense did on Sunday was limit Cincinnati to 191 total
yards, force seven turnovers and collect three sacks in an 18-0
win. The Browns are 6-4 and in the AFC playoff hunt, quite a
leap for a team that had won five games in its first two years
combined as an expansion franchise. The key against the Bengals
was controlling Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, who had
averaged 135.6 yards in five previous games against Cleveland.
In the first meeting between the two teams this year, Dillon
found gaping holes to run through because the Browns were often
out of position and didn't fill their gaps. That wasn't the case
on Sunday when Dillon was held to 63 yards, including seven on
six carries after halftime.

One series inside the Cleveland 10 early in the fourth quarter
was particularly disheartening for Cincinnati. Trailing 12-0,
the Bengals got an 86-yard punt return by T.J. Houshmandzadeh
and had first-and-goal at the five. After quarterback Scott
Mitchell threw incomplete, a pair of Dillon runs netted three
yards. When the Bengals lined up for the fourth-down play,
Cleveland linebacker Dwayne Rudd and free safety Devin Bush
recognized the formation as one that Dillon often runs out of,
yet they also noticed that left tackle Richmond Webb was leaning
in a manner that suggested a pass. Sure enough, the lumbering
Mitchell faked to Dillon and rolled to his left, but Rudd and
defensive end Courtney Brown stuffed him for a nine-yard loss.

The importance of that sequence can't be overstated. In early
November the Browns suffered bitter back-to-back overtime
defeats, to the Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers, after
leading both games in the fourth quarter. Cleveland, however,
bounced back the following week, clinching a 27-17 win over the
Super Bowl-champion Ravens in Baltimore with a 68-yard
fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Sunday's win over Cincinnati was
further proof that the Browns are learning how to finish games.

"Our coaches have been preaching that a lot lately," said
cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, who had two interceptions against
the Bengals. "When we get teams down, we have to take them out.
Even today we left the door open, but this time we put them
away."

Offense, not defense, was foremost on the minds of management
when the team was assembled in 1999. But the arrival last
January of coach Butch Davis changed all that. Davis was a top
defensive assistant with the Dallas Cowboys from 1989 through
'94 and helped that organization win two Super Bowls. The Browns
play defense the way those Cowboys did: attacking the opposition
with speed and a smash-mouth attitude.

That's a welcome departure from the read-and-react system the
Cleveland defense employed the first two years, and it shows in
the increased number of turnovers. The Browns intercepted seven
passes in a Sept. 23 win over the Detroit Lions, and tormented
Elvis Grbac (six interceptions and two fumbles total) in a pair
of victories over the Ravens. For the season, the Browns have a
league-high 25 interceptions, 13 more than they had all last
year.

The Cleveland defense doesn't have a star, and its most
prominent player--Courtney Brown, the first pick in the 2000
draft--has been hindered by a knee injury that sidelined him for
the first six games. What the Browns do have is a scheme that
fits their personnel and a coaching staff that constantly pumps
up the players' confidence. "[The schemes] aren't real
complicated," says Seattle Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer.
"They had good personnel last year, but it seemed that if you
motioned them, you could get the matchups you wanted. You do
that five or six times in a game and you create big plays. This
year they're fundamentally sound. They play three or four
defenses and try to outexecute you."

Adds Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, "Those guys are a lot
better on defense. They're ball hawks, and they're not pushovers
in the running game either."

After Fazio arrived in the off-season, he sought out cornerback
Corey Fuller, who had played for him from 1995 through '98 when
Fazio was defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings.
Watching film from last year, Fazio noticed that Fuller had bad
technique, was guessing on routes and was getting beat on long
passes too often. Working with Fazio has made Fuller a steadier
player, one who's most effective when muscling receivers near
the line. On Sunday he had nine tackles, an interception and a
fumble recovery.

Miller, with a career-high eight sacks already, relishes his
multiple role as a run stopper and pass rusher. Those talents
had attracted the attention of Buddy Ryan, who as coach of the
Arizona Cardinals made Miller the 10th choice in the 1994 draft.
But when Ryan lost his job after the '95 season, the new
coaching staff viewed Miller as a strongside presence who could
best be used covering tight ends and running backs. He remained
stuck in that role even after he came to Cleveland as a free
agent in '99--until he got a call in the off-season from Fazio,
who told him to be ready to move all over the field. "I'm more
of a playmaker," says Miller, who had five tackles and knocked
down three passes against Cincinnati. "I've always known I could
make things happen."

Davis thinks rookie nickelback Anthony Henry, whom he recruited
in 1996 when he was the coach at the University of Miami, can do
the same. Because of low SAT scores, Henry wound up at South
Florida, where former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters
coached him. Because of his size, the 6-foot, 198-pound Henry was
viewed by most pro scouts as a safety, but the Browns, who
drafted him in the fourth round, tried him at cornerback--and he's
looking more and more like a steal. Henry has twice intercepted
three passes in a game and leads the team with seven
interceptions overall. "I don't know why teams keep throwing at
him," Fuller says.

The Browns, young and old, have bought into Davis's philosophy.
For one thing, he connects with the players much better than his
predecessor, Chris Palmer, did. Many players felt that Palmer's
practices were too long and that he worked them too hard. By
contrast Davis took his team swimming one day during camp,
invited Run-D.M.C. to perform at rookie night in August and even
assigns seats on the team charter so players can learn more
about one another. "I'd long ago given up on football ever being
fun around here," says safety Percy Ellsworth.

Davis has made it fun again, partly by maintaining a collegiate
atmosphere. "You can see they like going to practice," says
Jacksonville Jaguars director of player personnel Rick Reiprish.
"When you play hard in this league, that's half the battle. You
don't have to have the most talent or the highest-paid players
to win."

"Usually, when you come to a team you have factions in the
locker room," Davis says. "The question is how quickly you can
get everybody to have one heartbeat. A lot of times you hope to
get it right by the second season, but there was a hunger to win
here."

That's not to say the Browns have been trouble-free. Defensive
tackle Gerard Warren, the team's first-round draft pick last
April, was arrested on Nov. 19 for carrying an unlicensed weapon
in his car in Pittsburgh. On the same day, fullback Mike Sellers
and injured cornerback Lamar Chapman were arrested on felony drug
charges after police found two bags of marijuana in Sellers's
car. The team suspended all three players without pay for the
Bengals game, but the incidents were not a distraction. "We
talked about it in our team meeting on Wednesday," says strong
safety Earl Little, "and it never came up after that."

As he sat in the lobby of the team hotel last Saturday, Fuller
agreed that the Browns never lost their focus. Clad in a baggy
Cleveland Indians sweatshirt and wearing a red headband on his
shaved pate, he explained how the players no longer fear anyone
or any setback. Then, before racing off to a position meeting,
he said, "I don't think we'll know how good we really are until
Week 12 or 13."

As the Browns begin their surprising playoff push, they're
already better than anyone could have imagined.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES TACKLE BOX Brown (92) and Rudd ended the Bengals' hopes of a comeback when they dumped Mitchell. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER EARLY INDICATOR Linebacker Brant Boyer set the tone for Cleveland when he picked off a pass on the third play from scrimmage.

"You can see they like going to practice. When you play hard in
this league, that's half the battle."

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