Foge Fazio, the Cleveland Browns' 62-year-old defensive coordinator, couldn't hide his emotions as he sat with his players in the darkness of a meeting room at the team's practice facility last week, watching game film from a 24-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 14. The man with the sad eyes and the weathered face swore at every mistake his defense had made—and there had been plenty; Cincinnati's 199 rushing yards were proof of that. Fazio got so fed up that he tossed the remote to the floor. The tape stopped rolling, and an awkward silence filled the room.
None of the players recall having seen Fazio so angry, and one, outside linebacker Jamir Miller, understood the significance of the moment. After somebody flipped on the lights, Miller rose from his chair and announced that the defense would determine the outcome of Sunday's rematch with the Bengals. "We were starting to get depressed if our offense didn't do anything to help us," Miller says. "So in that meeting, we talked about what we had to do to win."
What the defense did on Sunday was limit Cincinnati to 191 total yards, force seven turnovers and collect three sacks in an 18-0 win. The Browns are 6-4 and in the AFC playoff hunt, quite a leap for a team that had won five games in its first two years combined as an expansion franchise. The key against the Bengals was controlling Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, who had averaged 135.6 yards in five previous games against Cleveland. In the first meeting between the two teams this year, Dillon found gaping holes to run through because the Browns were often out of position and didn't fill their gaps. That wasn't the case on Sunday when Dillon was held to 63 yards, including seven on six carries after halftime.
One series inside the Cleveland 10 early in the fourth quarter was particularly disheartening for Cincinnati. Trailing 12-0, the Bengals got an 86-yard punt return by T.J. Houshmandzadeh and had first-and-goal at the five. After quarterback Scott Mitchell threw incomplete, a pair of Dillon runs netted three yards. When the Bengals lined up for the fourth-down play, Cleveland linebacker Dwayne Rudd and free safety Devin Bush recognized the formation as one that Dillon often runs out of, yet they also noticed that left tackle Richmond Webb was leaning in a manner that suggested a pass. Sure enough, the lumbering Mitchell faked to Dillon and rolled to his left, but Rudd and defensive end Courtney Brown stuffed him for a nine-yard loss.
The importance of that sequence can't be overstated. In early November the Browns suffered bitter back-to-back overtime defeats, to the Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers, after leading both games in the fourth quarter. Cleveland, however, bounced back the following week, clinching a 27-17 win over the Super Bowl-champion Ravens in Baltimore with a 68-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Sunday's win over Cincinnati was further proof that the Browns are learning how to finish games.
"Our coaches have been preaching that a lot lately," said cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, who had two interceptions against the Bengals. "When we get teams down, we have to take them out. Even today we left the door open, but this time we put them away."
Offense, not defense, was foremost on the minds of management when the team was assembled in 1999. But the arrival last January of coach Butch Davis changed all that. Davis was a top defensive assistant with the Dallas Cowboys from 1989 through '94 and helped that organization win two Super Bowls. The Browns play defense the way those Cowboys did: attacking the opposition with speed and a smash-mouth attitude.
That's a welcome departure from the read-and-react system the Cleveland defense employed the first two years, and it shows in the increased number of turnovers. The Browns intercepted seven passes in a Sept. 23 win over the Detroit Lions, and tormented Elvis Grbac (six interceptions and two fumbles total) in a pair of victories over the Ravens. For the season, the Browns have a league-high 25 interceptions, 13 more than they had all last year.
The Cleveland defense doesn't have a star, and its most prominent player—Courtney Brown, the first pick in the 2000 draft—has been hindered by a knee injury that sidelined him for the first six games. What the Browns do have is a scheme that fits their personnel and a coaching staff that constantly pumps up the players' confidence. "[The schemes] aren't real complicated," says Seattle Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer. "They had good personnel last year, but it seemed that if you motioned them, you could get the matchups you wanted. You do that five or six times in a game and you create big plays. This year they're fundamentally sound. They play three or four defenses and try to outexecute you."
Adds Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, "Those guys are a lot better on defense. They're ball hawks, and they're not pushovers in the running game either."