In 2012, after yet another fruitless season, the Browns decided to make some changes.
One of those was hiring Ray Horton away from Arizona to become Cleveland's defensive coordinator. Though the Browns are 4-8 and again occupying the AFC North's basement, the defense has improved.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is not surprised. New England struggled mightily against the Cardinals last season, converting just 33 percent of both third-down and red zone opportunities in a 20-18 loss. Also, quarterback Tom Brady was sacked four times.
McDaniels noted Tuesday he sees many similarities between that Arizona defense and Cleveland's current one.
"They have an aggressive scheme," he rued. "They don’t give up big plays, which I think to me is a sign of a good defense. They make you drive the ball if you are going to score points. They haven’t allowed many red area trips in terms of the entire season. Many teams haven’t gotten down there more than once or twice in a game, and they do a good job in the running game and the passing game. They create good pressure on the quarterback, all of which we saw from his defense last year in Arizona."
The Browns are ranked fourth-best in the NFL for yards surrendered per game (306.8), which is a leap from where they sat last season at No. 23. They are ranked fifth in the league for both pass (207.8) and rush yards (98.9) allowed per game.
McDaniels credits Cleveland's "top-notch" front. He pointed to linemen Phil Taylor, and Ahtyba Rubin, as well as linebackers Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, and rookie Barkevious Mingo as physical players all capable of tamping down the run game, putting pressure on the quarterback, and creating negative plays.
And he wasn't even done.
"I think they have two of the best cover linebackers and active linebacker inside that we’ll play all year in D’Qwell Jackson and [Craig] Robertson," McDaniels gushed. "I mean these guys can move sideline to sideline, they cover tight ends, they cover backs, they read the quarterbacks eyes well in zone coverage and you’ve better get a hat on them in the running game or you are going to have a hard time running the ball at their defense."
The coordinator continued down the line, complimenting Cleveland's corners for being physical tacklers. He praised the safeties for their ability to read quarterbacks and get to the ball.
The point? He expects New England will have to work for every yard it gains this weekend, much like it did last season against Ray Horton's Arizona defense.
"I think this group is extremely well coached," McDaniels concluded. "He certainly has a great grasp of what he wants to do against the opponent each week. There are definitely changes in game plan pressures and different subtleties that he mixes in there that seemingly always work when he uses them.
"We have a great deal of respect for him and this group."