The days of former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his long, flowing locks are long gone in Cleveland. Ryan’s replacement, Dick Jauron, was kicked to the curb this past offseason after spending two years attempting to compile the right player personnel to fit his 4-3 defensive scheme. Now, the team has brought in yet another defensive coordinator who is more than willing to do whatever necessary to fit his schemes – this time, back to the 3-4 that was once instilled by Ryan.
Overhauls in the coaching department have become somewhat of a routine every few years in Cleveland, as the team has seen more than its fair share of new faces since returning to the NFL in 1999. Arguably no regime has created as much preseason excitement in Cleveland since then than the present trio of Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner, and Ray Horton.
While most fans agree that Chudzinski’s inexperience as a head coach is a bit of a concern, as is the underachieving nature of the Turner-led Chargers in recent years, most seem to have little worries about letting Horton take the reigns of the defense.
Horton, a former NFL cornerback, worked his way up the NFL ladder by starting out as an assistant defensive backs coach with the Washington Redskins before working his way up to head defensive backs coach with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1997. Five years later, Horton found himself with the Detroit Lions as the team’s secondary coach. He accepted the same position with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004, where he began to make a name for himself. Having already collected one championship ring as a player, Horton played a pivotal role in the Steelers’ two most recent Super Bowl victories (2006 and 2009), as well.
After his successful run with the Steelers, Horton spent the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. Having quickly established himself as a hot name on the NFL head coaching market, he earned multiple interviews for head coaching positions across the league after only his first full season as an NFL defensive coordinator. Although he was not given any offers, he had obviously made a lasting impression as numerous teams inquired about Horton’s availability again this past offseason. However, he once again failed to land a head coaching gig.
Despite the popular notion that the Cardinals defense had performed well enough for Horton to keep his job, Arizona allowed him to sign elsewhere following a rather strange chain of events. “Elsewhere” happened to be Cleveland, Ohio.
Horton’s positive impact on the team became evident before the team even stepped onto the practice field, as the persuading of defensive studs Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant to sign with the Browns undoubtedly involved quite a bit of discussion regarding Horton’s coaching pedigree. With the offseason acquisitions of Kruger, Bryant, rookie outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid Barkevious Mingo, and linebacker Quentin Groves, the Browns made sure that Horton would have the right player personnel to plug into his blitz-heavy 4-3 defense that figures to emphasize attacking the quarterback in every which way possible.
The cornerback-safety combination of Joe Haden and T.J. Ward could prove to be devastating to opposing defenses this season, but the secondary’s success as a whole hinges on the play of a few young players who are currently battling for the remaining two starting spots. Regardless of who wins the position battles, the secondary will often be filled with two unproven youngsters this season who will likely be prone to mistakes as they continue to work out their kinks in the NFL.
Luckily, the pressure-heavy style that has been implemented by Horton will likely take a huge load off the shoulders of the young secondary. The simple fact that there is more depth in the Browns’ much-improved front seven will also ease the pressure on the defensive backs, and the group of Kruger, Bryant, Mingo, Groves, Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, and Athya Rubin has enough talent and experience to blossom into one of the league’s best defensive fronts.
This is welcoming news to Browns fans, as applying pressure on the quarterback has been a major weakness for the Browns for nearly 14 years. The Browns lead only the Houston Texans (who weren’t even in existence until the 2002 season) in defensive sacks since 1999, trailing all other 28 teams in the NFL.
Yesterday, the Browns held their annual Family Night practice in front of a crowd of 24,131. The offense sputtered along as growing pains were displayed frequently, an issue Coach Chudzinski chalked up to the continuing adjustment of the players to the team’s new offensive schemes.
While the offense stumbled, the defense excelled en route to a dominating effort that was very well-received by fans. This should come as no surprise, as most fans are aware of the old adage “defense wins championships.” Ray Horton has helped lead defenses to championships before, and he may very well do it again at some point in his career. But, here in Cleveland, a playoff appearance would certainly suffice – for now.