Browns minicamp: Ray Horton’s vision for defense begins to take shape

By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer

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Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson runs drills during mini-camp at the team's training facility Wednesday in Berea. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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BEREA: Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has played in a 3-4 scheme before, but not one quite like the system new defensive coordinator Ray Horton is installing this week during the team’s three-day voluntary minicamp.

Horton is hell-bent on harassing quarterbacks, and he’s not shy about dialing up blitz after blitz after blitz.

“I watch all the top defenses,” Jackson said Wednesday after practice. “Baltimore, Pittsburgh, they get after people, and that’s what Ray brings here. Baltimore has been highly successful with their cross-dog, sending the two inside linebackers on stunts, and we run a ton of it. It’s going to be good to finally get after Baltimore and Pittsburgh and actually give them a little dose of their own medicine.”

The Browns are only in the initial stages of converting from former defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 system to Horton’s multi-front, attacking-style scheme, which features a 3-4 base package. At the end of last season, many of the defense’s prominent players, including Jackson, lamented the thought of switching systems with another coaching change on the horizon. The transition will be a long, sometimes painful process, but there’s no looking back now, and the players know it.

It’s only April, so starting lineups are far from set in stone, especially with the NFL Draft around the corner. For example, Jackson said he would welcome the addition of another rush linebacker.

“I will welcome any pass rusher they bring in,” Jackson said. “Trust me.”

But even though the roster will morph, minicamp has provided the media with clues about how Horton is experimenting with some key players.

On Wednesday, Phil Taylor lined up at nose tackle with Ahtyba Rubin at right end and Desmond Bryant at left end. Jabaal Sheard was the right outside linebacker, and Paul Kruger was stationed on the left side while Jackson and Craig Robertson filled the left and right inside linebacker spots, respectively. Joe Haden was at left cornerback, Buster Skrine at right corner, T.J. Ward at strong safety and Tashaun Gipson at free safety.

Everyone must adjust, some more than others.

In 2010, Rubin had his breakout season as a nose tackle in the 3-4 system employed by former coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He also excelled in 2011 as a 4-3 defensive tackle under Jauron’s guidance before being plagued by a calf injury last season.

Aware Horton could ask him to switch to end in a three-man front, Rubin has been watching his diet this offseason and training at 4th and Inches Sports Performance in Carrollton, Texas. The 6-foot-2 Rubin said he weighs 306 pounds after playing between 315-320 last season, and he’s determined to conquer yet another change.

“I’m not scared of it,” Rubin said of playing end. “I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to stay on my playbook and listen to my coaches, who will show me how to play the technique and be successful.”

Jackson has no doubt Rubin will continue to succeed.

“Anywhere you put Rube, he’ll work his tail off,” Jackson said. “That’s one guy you don’t worry about.”

The 6-3, 335-pound Taylor said switching to nose tackle wouldn’t faze him because he had experience playing it at Baylor University and sometimes lined up across from the opposing center last season in the “shade” technique. Taylor also believes he and Rubin are versatile enough to play nose or end for Horton.

Sheard, on the other hand, is being asked to make a significant change. Sheard has played defensive end his entire life. Now he must learn how to rush from a standing position and how to drop into coverage. He’s also playing on the right side of the field after switching to the left side of the line one game into his rookie season because he was more comfortable there.

Sheard has a team-high 15½ sacks the past two seasons. His production and playing time could decrease, though he insists he doesn’t consider changing positions a sacrifice.

“You got to understand, I think I’m athletic, so I always wanted to be a linebacker,” said Sheard, adding some 3-4 teams viewed him as an outside linebacker heading into the 2011 draft. “Nonetheless, I wanted to be back there and be able to drop and also rush. The more I can do, the more athletic I feel. I’m happy for it, honestly.”

The 6-2, 255-pound Sheard said losing weight isn’t part of his plan. However, he has spent time working on his footwork this offseason while training with former NFL receiver Chris Chambers in Miami.

“Sheard is just an athletic guy,” Kruger said. “So I think he’s going to be just fine. From what I saw, he didn’t skip a beat. He’s just taking everything we’ve learned in the classroom and applying it here on the field.”

With some players transferring to new positions and all of them learning Horton’s playbook and its verbiage, backup outside linebacker Quentin Groves is proving to be an invaluable tutor. Groves spent last season playing for Horton as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.

“In talking with D’Qwell, I know they ran the 3-4 here before, but they sat back a lot,” Groves said. “This is going to be a year we get after the quarterback.”

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.


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