Browns' defense forcing turnovers at rapid rate
BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The Miami Hurricanes invented the turnover chain. The Browns borrowed that idea.
They've been stealing everything else lately.
With eight interceptions and seven forced fumbles in just five games, Cleveland's defense leads the NFL with 15 takeaways — two more than the Browns got during 16 games in their winless 2017 season.
The dramatic swing has helped the Browns (2-2-1) turn things around quickly while breeding confidence into a getting-better-by-the-week team that feels like it can do much more than simply compete this season.
Creating turnovers has been a major emphasis of bombastic defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who devotes large chunks of practice — Thursday's workout has been dubbed "Takeaway Thursday" — to drills geared toward getting the football.
The Browns work on stripping it, tipping it, recovering it and doing anything in their power to gain possession. Then, they're doing it in games.
"It is what you do as a professional," said Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Schobert, who has two fumble recoveries and an interception. "You try to take stuff from the practice field to the game, apply it and be able to contribute and do it. The fact that we have been able to do it just shows how hard and how focused everybody on the defense has been this whole offseason and in training camp.
"We are just starting to see the rewards of our hard work."
After finishing last in the league with a minus-28 turnover differential last season, the Browns are first at plus-8.
They opened the season by forcing six turnovers against Pittsburgh, but failed to capitalize and ended up tying the Steelers 21-21.
A plus-5 turnover differential almost always guarantees victory — teams with that margin are 132-4-1 since 1999. But although the Browns came up short, the defense's showing created confidence.
"You just go into the game expecting to get turnovers," said defensive back T.J. Carrie, part of Cleveland's revamped secondary. "In this league, quarterbacks and coordinators are so good at not giving up turnovers. So when you can go in as a defensive unit and say, 'We're guaranteed three turnovers this game, guaranteed. Play the way we play. Play fast.' That is contagious to the entire team."
Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward has been Cleveland's top defensive thief with three interceptions, two in Week 1. He's also forced a fumble, recovered one and has given the Browns a defender that makes opponents wary.
As he prepared to face the Browns on Sunday, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers took special note of Ward, the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft.
"He obviously has good ball skills," Rivers said. "If he gets an opportunity, he has made the play on it. It seems to be clear on things, too, that he is pretty savvy back there for a young player. He is not just, 'Oh, I am playing my coverage and I have my zone.'"
The excessive forced turnovers have led to a direct carry-over for Cleveland's offense, which has been given better field position and more possessions.
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield said it's imperative when the defense comes up with a big play, the offense follows with one of its own.
"We can really put a stamp on a game when the defense gets turnovers," said Mayfield, who passed for 342 yards in his second career start last week. "We need to take advantage of when they do get those turnovers. We need to turn those into points and really take the life out of the other team. We just have to continue to feed off of that because it is very rare that you get a defense like that, that has 15 this early."
The Browns' burglary prompted linebacker Christian Kirksey to copy Miami's sideline celebration by placing a silver chain with a dangling orange dog bone trinket around neck of any defender who makes a big play.
"It's just something fun to do," Kirskey said. "Having it around just bring a lot of chemistry for us."
Right now, the Browns are thick as thieves.
NOTES: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally got to meet Snoop Dogg, who stopped in at Wednesday's practice. A die-hard Steelers fan, the rapper had been very critical of Haley's play calling when he coached in Pittsburgh. "We had a couple of rough years there," Haley said. "It got smoother over the last few and then him being out there and saying that he is a part of the Dawg Pound, we are good now. I can go back to listening to West Coast rap."
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