INDIANAPOLIS -- Heading into this past week's game in Indianapolis, the Browns' most jarring number may very well have been four. As in, four takeaways. This ferocious, disruptive, insanely fast and talented at all three levels defense had forced just four turnovers through five games?!
"We don't spend any extra time on it," linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah said before the Browns' 39-38 victory. "We know if we do our jobs, they'll come."
They did indeed, with four alone on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. But more on that in a bit. The bigger headline is that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, in his first year in Cleveland, is showing the power of simple: with players like these, a playcaller doesn't have to get cute.
The Browns don't run exotic pressures. They don't blitz at crazy rates. They don't introduce reactionary drills when something is or isn't happening (see: turnovers). They just line up and play and play really fast, unencumbered by any thoughts outside their most basic focus: stopping the opponent and getting the ball back to the Browns offense.
Safety Juan Thornhill went to Cleveland from Kansas City, where he won two rings and appreciated all the creativity in Steve Spagnuolo's defense. But he said even four years into that Chiefs defense, he was constantly studying his playbook.
"It was, 'if this happens, and this happens, then you blitz.' And 'if that happens, then you don't.' In this defense, Coach Schwartz is just saying, 'OK, on this play, the corner's going to blitz,'" Thornhill said with a laugh. "It's really that simple."
Owusu-Koromoah laughed too when asked why he looks so fast going from sideline to sideline. He is enjoying both good health and the blossoming Browns fans have waited for and he said, "It's easy to play fast when you're put in the right position."
And that's what Schwartz and his defensive staff are doing. Head coach Kevin Stefanski raved about how strong Schwartz is in-game, diagnosing and adjusting, and his players love how he encourages their swagger. When he is displeased, it's very obvious, but Thornhill said what's freeing is some of the things that don't displease the veteran coach.
"He doesn't lose his mind if we miss a tackle, because he says if we're all flying to the ball, a teammate will be there," Thornhill said.
There were indeed some missed tackles Sunday, and some uncharacteristic mistakes (see: the two free plays the Browns stopped playing on). But there were also the four turnovers.
A blocked field goal where Myles Garrett leaped over the center and that Denzel Ward scooped up, a fumble Garrett forced that Tony Fields smothered in the end zone, Ward's interception and a game-sealing sack-fumble by Smith. All necessary plays in a seesaw game.
And maybe continuously necessary as the Browns navigate the uncertainty around their offense.
Jonathan Taylor and Shane Steichen bonding
The four weeks Jonathan Taylor spent on PUP, he was in Colts HQ, inevitably working his way into Shane Steichen's office. Taylor said he'd of course spent some time with his head coach before and he'd from the start been struck by "how competitive he is, by how much he wants to win." But over those four weeks, when the running back was not yet in pads and the outside football world wondered if Taylor would ever again put them on for Indianapolis, the two men, Taylor said, "really hit it off."
"We connected over what his plans are for the team. And I asked him everything I could," Taylor said. Everything, as in: Why do you run this? What's the philosophy behind your scheme? What's the motive behind these packages? What goes into your process when you make a practice script? And on and on.
"He wasn't just saying, 'I'm going to put you in a position to dominate.' He was showing me exactly how he'd put me in that position -- and why he was doing it," Taylor said.
It clearly had an impact, as Taylor is happily in the Colts fold, the ink dry on a new contract and uninterested in talking about any angst of the summer. He had a season-high 18 carries, for a season-high 75 yards -- and his first touchdown -- Sunday against the Browns, and any rust from the layoff looked well and gone.
Speaking of connecting
Taylor has said Zack Moss -- who's been monstrously productive and who several times the last two weeks has been on the field at the same time as Taylor -- has been extremely helpful to him. It's a polite thing players often say about someone they share a position room with, so I asked for a specific example from Taylor. He happily complied.
"This is my first head coach change, the first time I had to learn a new scheme. Zack's been somewhere else (Buffalo) and had to learn a new offense before (when traded to the Colts last year)," Taylor said. "If there's a new concept we need to learn, I'll say, 'How does this concept stick in your brain?'"
Taylor is a man who leaves no stone unturned, no question unasked.
Movie reference of the week
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has had to refashion his offense after losing his best offensive player, Nick Chubb, in Week 2. He had to on the fly adjust for a rookie quarterback, when he learned less than three hours before Week 4's kickoff he wouldn't have his starting signal-caller. When that went horribly awry, he had to again retool his offense for another quarterback, one signed just seven weeks prior and while about to face the fierce 49ers defense. The night before he'd have to do it again in Indy (when Deshaun Watson was smacked against the turf and was ultimately sidelined), Stefanski shrugged and said, "That's coaching."
And then he gave a tremendous analogy, referencing the movie Apollo 13, when there's a carbon dioxide filter problem on the lunar module. Definitely call up the scene ("Square Peg in a Round Hole"), but in a nutshell: the NASA engineers have to figure out how to make a square cartridge compatible with a round one, and they have to do it with what's only available on the lunar module. They dump three cardboard boxes of random things on the table, and the lead says, "We gotta find a way to make this (holding up the square canister) fit into the hole for this (holding up the round one) using nothing but that (pointing to the stuff on the table)."
Yep. And with Jerome Ford now nursing an ankle issue and Watson's status still uncertain for this weekend, there will be even more of that until (if?) the Browns offense can get into some sort of consistent rhythm.
The Browns have won their last two games by three points combined.
We were in Detroit last year, when the Lions fell to 1-6. Two of the losses had been by three points, two by four and I remember asking Dan Campbell how one teaches a young team to close out close games. He looked at me and said, "You know what Bill Parcells used to say? 'You learn how to win close games by ... winning close games.'"
Confidence to climb out of a deficit, not getting down when you go down, being resilient and -- to use Myles Garrett's word -- "relentless," are all easier to "know" when you've actually done it. Closing out games against one of the best teams in the NFC and against a genuinely tough team on the road and w/ a backup quarterback no less, will serve Stefanski's Browns down the road.