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By Reaching Into His Past, Horton Wants To Bring Browns Into The Future

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Billy Winn is just one of several players likely to thrive in Horton's 3-4 defense. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Billy Winn is just one of several players likely to thrive in Horton's 3-4 defense. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s as if the Browns took the same plan and applied it to both sides of the ball.

And maybe they did.

Whereas last year they wanted to incrementally move the ball up the field with short passes – and were willing to let opponents do the same – the 2013 Browns want to be aggressive and attacking, to the nth degree.

On offense, they want to throw those long passes and, on defense, they want to go after the quarterback so he doesn’t have time to do the same – or anything else, for that matter.

Yes, new defensive coordinator Ray Horton is the equivalent of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and coach Rob Chudzinski – also new -- is the equivalent of both of them. They are all on the same page with their basic theories.

There will be no more sitting around again on defense, waiting for the quarterback to make a mistake. Now the Browns want to go after him with everything they’ve got, including a series of elaborate blitz schemes and force him into that mistake.

And they want to do so with a 3-4 scheme after playing a 4-3 the last two seasons under former coordinator Dick Jauron.

“Rushing the quarterback is the single most important thing that a defense can do,” Horton said upon being hired three months ago.

If this philosophy sounds familiar to Browns fans, it should. It is the same thinking used in Pittsburgh under longtime – and successful – defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Horton worked under LeBeau as a secondary coach for seven seasons before going on to the Arizona Cardinals as defensive coordinator for two years and finally to the Browns.

“Steelers Week” has always been a challenge to the other teams in the AFC North, including the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. The offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches do their best to prep their players for what’s going to happen and how to counter it and block it, then LeBeau comes up with a new wrinkle for that particular week and all that planning goes up in smoke.

But it’s not just the sacks that come out of the Pittsburgh scheme that are the problem, it’s the constant pressure it generates on the quarterback by hitting him and confusion it creates.

“I want big men who can run and little men who can hit,” Horton says of his philosophy and the ability of anybody on defense to be part of his blitz calls.

That should be good news to strong safety T.J. Ward, a big hitter who is much more effective in the box than he is in downfield pass coverage.

Ditto for two rookie defensive linemen from last season who like to get after the quarterback in Billy Winn and John Hughes.

Horton’s plans are also why the Browns spent most of their money in free agency on pass-rushing LBs Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves and athletic DL Desmond Bryant.

But this transition won’t be easy or immediate. The switch in alignments (from a 4-3 to a 3-4) and philosophies (from a bend-but-don’t-break to a don’t-bend-at-all) will take some time. Those are dramatic changes, about as dramatic as can be made on defense.

For the record, Horton insists the learning curve isn’t as great as most people make it out to be. He reasons that players – being naturally aggressive and attacking – will quickly adapt to it. But that remains to be seen.

And talent will play a role, as it always does. The Browns need more pieces and better ones, especially at linebacker, to make fulfill Horton’s ultimate vision. Linebacker is the position that makes or breaks a 3-4.

Horton knows there will be times when the good quarterbacks in this division beat his blitz and make plays. But he’s betting that those times will be few and far between in comparison to the number of plays his defense makes.

At the very least, though, it will be a whole lot different than it was in Cleveland the last two seasons. For a Browns team that was a combined 9-23 over that time and hasn’t posted a winning record since 2007, any type of change – particularly of the major variety -- should be quite refreshing.