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Ray Horton Speaks, We Listen: Browns' Defensive Progress

In a limited sample size this preseason, the Cleveland Browns' defense has been impressive to say the least. In two games, the first-team defense has allowed a combined 3 points. This past Thursday against the Lions, the defense only surrounded two touchdowns total and never allowed Detroit to run an offensive play in the red zone.

On Saturday, defensive coordinator Ray Horton had a press conference following practice and had a lot to say about the progress of individual players and the defense as a collective unit thus far. One of my favorite parts came when he talked about accepting requests from defensive players on certain plays they can run on game day, and the fact that he used one of Phil Taylor's plays against the Lions. I also dug the fact that he praised the offense; haven't we had some coordinators in the past who would say things like, "I'm too focused on my side of the ball, I don't have time to watch them?"

Here is Horton's press conference, organized by topic (or you can watch it on the official team site):

Listening to Play Ideas, and Using Phil Taylor's Play

On Phil Taylor drawing up a play: "I played it in the game. I like players to be smart, to be invested, and to have ownership and I always say, if you can come up with something that will work and it’s solid and schematically sound, I’ll run it. I’ve already seen four plays from players that ask if we can run it. I look at it, and all four are in our defense, and I called one of them the other night and it worked. I think the players really feel like this is our team. I want it to be their team. It’s not my team. I hope it’s not Chud’s. I hope it’s the Cleveland Browns team, where the players are invested and they are the ones that make the plays. I think if you give them ownership, they respond to you."

On Taylor’s nasty streak: "I love our front. Our guys run. I knew that in our first press conference (before camp). When I talk about big men that can run, I have already seen it. Our front is exceptionally gifted in depth, in talent, in strength, in speed, in desire, in willingness to run to the ball. Phil is just one of those players. He is one of the young studs in the system that should be a dominant player."

S Josh Aubrey Playing Like a Veteran, Emerging From Pack of UDFA

On Josh Aubrey: "I think that every NFL roster has a Josh Aubrey, meaning somebody comes out of the woodwork. We always preach that somebody will make our team on special teams and be a surprise. He’s doing all of little things right. He’s running the defense; he’s taking advantage of his opportunity with his chance. We always preach to our free agents as they come in, we can give you an opportunity and a chance. That’s all that we can offer a young man is the opportunity and a chance to make the team. He’s taking advantage of that with his mental capacity, learning the defense and his physical play. He’s been one of the impressive free agents and there’s always somebody that makes a team like that."

On Aubrey’s progression: "It’s been progression and we give him more. The more he can handle, the more we give him. He’s got a lot of poise and his fellow teammates, his peers, trust him in the game. That’s a big part of it; can you trust the guy next to you to do his job and is he doing it? There’ll always be a guy that comes out and you go, ‘Wow, he’s better than we thought,’ and sometimes he just needs a shot. You can ask the players this; I showed a clip of Victor Cruz because he was a free agent that made it in the league. There’s always a guy like that, and can you be our Victor Cruz and make it? You try to show them examples of guys in the NFL that make it, because we don’t always know everything about a drafted player or undrafted player. There’s always somebody that you miss on because you can’t measure certain things, and he’s got one of those intangible qualities that you can’t measure all of the time."

On Aubrey’s poise being a specific quality: "I think so, and maybe he’s a young guy that doesn’t understand what’s going on yet. But I was excited to see him (Thursday) night when the lights came on with the first group and he did. He looked like a veteran out there and maybe he is wise beyond his years."

CB Buster Skrine & CB Chris Owens = Clones of Each Other

On cornerback Buster Skrine’s progress: "I saw every game last year, and Buster impressed me with his toughness. That was one of the first things I said at the press conference (before camp) is players who can hit, and he can. He is ferocious. He has no fear. He has unbelievable quickness, feet and hands, and he is smart. He is progressing exactly as I hoped. You have 11 guys who go out and start for you every game, and when he is on the field as a starter, he has my complete backing. He has done a fantastic job. Is he in a battle? I think there are a lot of guys in battle for playing time. I don’t care who the starter is. They all start for me once they are on the field. He is doing everything I expect him to do and want him to do."

On Chris Owens and competition between cornerbacks: "(Neighborhood dog barking in the background) Dawg Pound, here we go. Competition is good for us. The more you have competing and have potential starters, the better your team is depth-wise and injury-wise. I keep going back to my little saying: When Chris is on the field, I see him as one of my starters. I see him, Buster, Joe all the same. They are all starters for me. I don’t blink. I don’t care who is in the game. I am happy all of them are in the game or one of them is in the game. He is a starter for me, in my mind. We view him that way. We view Buster as a starter. You can only have so many guys on the field and they will be on the field together."

On cornerbacks having different skillsets: "One of them is 21 and the other is 22, their numbers. If you switch, I wouldn’t know which one. They are clones of each other. We talk about Joe and T.J. (Ward) being Siamese twins. They are really Siamese twins. Same body build, same quickness, same height, same competitiveness. I think the competition has really helped them get better. They would both say he has pushed me to be better."

Not Getting to See Guys Like S T.J. Ward, CB Leon McFadden Much Yet

On seeing Joe Haden and T.J. Ward as a tandem: "I haven’t. I know that they have come into the league together and they’re kind of Siamese twins in that way. But what I want from them is to be leaders. I’m challenging those two individuals because they are young guys; they are in the secondary to show leadership qualities, to show young guys what to do. I’m just really pushing for those two guys to step up and be thought of as the young, up-and-coming defensive backs that are going to be the stars in this league. They both have the physical tools, makeup and mentality to accept the challenge that, ‘I want to be on their best receiver or their best tight end and create plays for our defense.’"

On assessing the safety positions: "I would say they’re still the same. We’re rotating a lot of guys through. We’re changing the combination of who plays together and who doesn’t. T.J. (Ward) hasn’t been in there with Tashaun (Gipson), and Josh (Aubrey) has been in there with Johnson (Bademosi) and we’re rolling that through, but we’ve played two games. On paper they look good."

On seeing enough of Leon McFadden before the groin injury: "He’s one of the ones that we need to get a good look at. Unfortunately, he has missed the first two games. We are hoping that he’ll be ready this week. We are waiting for a medical report. He’s a question mark that I don’t know. He hasn’t taken an NFL snap yet. At that position, we all know how critical the secondary is in this league. It’s hard for a rookie to start, period, and then a rookie that has never played, it’s hard to start. He gets an incomplete in my book because I haven’t seen him in live action but I like his skillset."

Notes on the Linebackers

On outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard: "They are on pace. Jabaal has done a fantastic job. You wouldn’t know that we have changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and moved him from the left to the right [from watching him]. He’s just a football player going out playing football. Paul is picking up the nuances of our defense. He was a 3-4 left outside linebacker. He is out here, but the terminology is a little different and how I call the game is a little different. He is getting comfortable with it. I can see the leadership role coming out in him now because he is more comfortable in what he does and what we ask him to do."

On Craig Robertson playing inside linebacker with his speed and lack of size: "I think I classified him as the old Ronnie Lott, in the old days meaning the big strong safety. He would be a strong safety in the old days. Now he is an inside ‘backer that can run as a three-down player. It’s just a space game now. It’s basketball. It spreads you out and creates space matchups. He is gifted, very sharp memory, very smart and he understands football and has the ability to change direction."

On similar players to Robertson: "You hate to compare players, but if you look at what Arizona had last year, it was the same guy. It’s a classic 3-4 weak-side, inside ‘backer. You want a guy that’s smart, fast, athletic and can tackle. There are a lot of players in the league like that, but he has a special skillset of being smart, tough, fast and can change direction. He is exactly what I want."

On his time previously with Quentin Groves: "First of all, he is a good football player. Second of all, I think he can help our team in ways that aren’t seen. Quentin was a second-round draft pick. He had been with two teams and I use him as an example. He talks in front of our players on how precious this league is. It’s not forever. You are not guaranteed, just because you are a second-round pick, to make any team. It can be taken away from you by injury, performance. So he gives me this added bonus of talking to our players on their level of guys. You better appreciate it because it is going to go away. If you don’t, they will get you out of the building. He has a good perspective on football, on life, on pads, on practice; and not only that, he is a good player for us. He adds fantastic depth on our first-, second- and third-down defense, and special teams. He has been one of our better leaders on our team."

Notes on the Defensive Linemen

On what he’s seeing from Desmond Bryant: "Leadership. He handles the point well. We have a young team, a lot of new guys together, and we’re trying to mold something. I’ve seen our fans, they yell at us from the dawg pound. We’re trying to mold something that’s going to be sustainable and when you get players from different places, they don’t quite know, ‘Can I be a leader? Can I not? Should I keep my mouth shut? Should I just do my job?’ He’s slowly emerging out where guys will trust him to open his mouth and say something because he has experience. What I like is that he’s showing it on the field first, and now he’s able to speak. He’s an athletic guy that’s going to make a lot of big plays for us, I think, up the field."

On what he sees from Bryant on the field: "A whole new point versus a double team. When I put him in a three technique, he’s able to take that edge and go. When I ask him to wham or jet inside and cross a guy’s face, he’s able to execute that, so he’s able to do what I need a defensive end to do: Play head up in a five technique, play outside shoulder in a six technique, wham inside in a three technique and he’s able to do that because he’s athletic. On third down he’s one of the two tackles in there executing the game. So he’s doing everything that a defensive tackle or a defensive end in a 3-4 or 4-3 would do for you."

On Ahtyba Rubin, and rumors of a trade back in April: "I wasn’t aware of any of that. Rubin is going to become a valuable player. Some of that is hidden yardage on offense and on defense because he is on the line. He’s becoming a leader. He is one of those guys that is coming out of his shell. He is a quiet man, but he’s starting to come out because he knows he’s a good player. He knows his teammates trust him so he is starting to talk more. At first, I didn’t know he could talk. He is opening up. He is one of those guys that you probably don’t miss until he is gone and ask what happened. He just does his job very well. If you want the tape, he dominated in the game."

Barkevious Mingo's Injury and His Status

On rookie LB Barkevious Mingo’s status: "I just saw him. He looks great. As far as projections, the doctors will make that decision. We just want him to get healthy and are glad everything is OK. The projection will be whenever his body says he is ready to go."

On if Mingo will return to play soon: "I don’t know. I just saw him at lunch. I could tell you what he had for lunch, but he is fine. He will be ready when he is ready."

On if it is a setback that Mingo may miss repetitions: "For a young guy, he needs every rep he can get. He is smart. He is on page. He is very smart. For us, it’s just reps. It’s seeing a different look. It’s seeing (Colts QB) Andrew Luck. It’s seeing different fronts, what they have and how they want to block him. It will retard a little bit, but he is pretty gifted in what he does and he picks things up fast. How much? I can’t give you a quantitative answer, but it will hurt him a little bit."

On knowing when Mingo sustained the injury based on film: "It didn’t happen on defense. It happened somewhere else. He didn’t play any defensive snaps. He thinks it happened on the first play. I don’t think anybody knows."

On Mingo’s injury and depth at linebacker: "We have a lot of players at a lot of positions who can play for us. I said that earlier in our first press conference (before camp) out here; that depth is a key for us. We have quality players at a lot of quality positions. A lot of people use the mantra, ‘Next man up.’ We believe in that philosophy that it doesn’t matter who the starters are, it is give me 11 guys who want to go out and play and can play. He is one of our 11, so will it hurt our team? Yeah, it will hurt our team because of our depth, but we will get him back soon and we will plug him right back in."

On ever having a player that experienced a bruised lung: "I’m not sure. You see all types (of injuries) from broken bones to concussions. They are all serious when somebody misses (a game). I don’t think it’s necessarily the type of injury, it’s just that he’s going to miss some time and we’re happy that it’s not a career- or season-ending injury. They are all bad when they miss playing time. I can’t specifically say that I’ve seen that."

General Impressions on the Defense Through Two Games

On the defense’s performance in the first two preseason games indicating improvement: "It is a good starting point. All we have been trying to instill in the players is to get better today, get better today, get better today. Not tomorrow; just get better today. It is a good start. That is all it is. It’s preseason. Some guys don’t play and some guys do. We are trying to get better and get ready for Miami coming up."

On areas to improve: "Turnovers. I have called a different game in the preseason because I want our guys to show me something. I don’t call a lot of pressure. I am more interested in the maturation process of guys individually and how they react one-on-one, and let them go. The gameplan is called differently. The bottom line is our offense is doing a fantastic job keeping us off the field. As long as we keep rolling like we are on offense, they will help us on defense. Most of the credit that we have been getting is really a reflection of the offense scoring, keeping us off the field, and we are fresh. That is a big part of our success is the offense’s success."

On the run defense: "I am happy with where we are in Week 2 of the preseason. Obviously, Miami will pose a different problem because it is a real game. It is live action and starters are in every play. Am I satisfied? No. Do I think we are on pace? Yeah. Do I think we will get better? Yeah, I do."

On his philosophy of using his best players on special teams: "I think that you put your best 11 players on the field at any one time to give you the best opportunity to win. It doesn’t matter if the quarterback is holding for extra points or your running back or wide receiver. You are trying to win and evaluate people. The sad part about this business is that people get hurt because it’s a physical game and that’s part of the process and part of the depth. He’ll be back just as if he had a stinger or something else. The philosophy is, do what you do to win the game. That’s the most important thing."

On how happy he is with their third-down conversion rate: "I like that they are excited. I look down at the field and see Phil (Taylor) jumping around and D’Qwell (Jackson) jumping around. I like that it’s important to them. They have taken ownership of it. They bring up plays to me; the defensive-line coach wants pressure, so it’s easy for me to call a game right now because they want certain things. They know if we do this everybody will eat in our defense. They have taken ownership, if you guys listen to them on the field. They always say, ‘Eleven to the ball.’ That’s something I say I want, and they are starting to take ownership. I like the path that we are on. It’s a 16-game season to get into the postseason and we’re just trying to get better every day. Right now, my focus is on Miami."

Browns' Offense Doing Very Well, Gets an "A" From Him

On the offense playing so well, helping the defense: "I love our offense, I know that. I am the biggest cheerleader upstairs. I keep going back, the offense really helps us on the defensive end. They have good ball control, Brandon (Weeden) has been doing a great job, Jason Campbell has done a great job, Jordan Cameron, the offensive line. I just sit back and smile because they are moving the ball, ball control, and third down, everything you want from an offense. I know you guys are talking about defense, but for me the offense is really the focal point of our team. They are doing a fantastic job and they are moving the ball, controlling the ball, no turnovers. And if we have that, they make our defense better. So, I am a big cheerleader of this offense."

On how the defense helps the offense: "They are keeping the score down. I don’t know; I give us an incomplete but I give them an A."

On how the defense helps the offense in practice: "Probably the biggest plus is the formation variety our offense gives us. They give us things we don’t see. It makes us think and adjust. When I look back at what Travis Benjamin has done on special teams, it makes the defense easy because we know they are going to score some points and control the ball. It helps us a lot. I think that is our biggest asset, how our offense is playing right now."

Atmosphere in Cleveland, and Old School Browns Memories

On the atmosphere in Cleveland, the Browns’ facilities, and his memories of Municipal Stadium: "Going through the dugout, the dirt, the cold water, the nails, tight locker rooms. Mr. Haslam has changed this into a palace. They have given us great players to work with and a great facility to work with. I keep going back to the fans. I think I get a different perspective as you go out in the community. I don’t know what it was like before because I wasn’t here, but when you go out to eat last night to eat dinner at Danny Boy’s Pizza, the crowd is in there saying, ‘good job.’ Really, what they are saying in there is the players are doing a great job. I am happy to be here because it is a community that is passionate about football. I go back to what we said before: We want to get better and we want to put a great product out there for them because we get excitement when we go down there and they are cheering for us. We just want to give them the same thing in return."

On the baseball dirt at Municipal Stadium: "Here is what I remember about the old stadium, Municipal Stadium: There were batteries being thrown at you, snowballs being thrown at you, a fight in the dawg pound because there was an incline going up. A much better facility now. I know the fans yell, which is great, but I am on their side now. That part is good, a good change."