Based on their last two games, the Patriot victory and the 20-0 win over Tampa Bay a week earlier (their first back-to-back shutouts since 1951), the Browns have made a 180-degree turn. They're 7-5 and challenging for a playoff spot, and for the first time since 1976 their defense is rated in the top half of the NFL. They're No. 7 after allowing the Patriots just 190 yards Sunday. They've got a new set of heroes: linebackers Tom Cousin-eau and Chip Banks, rookie Defensive End Reggie Camp and Middle Guard Bob Golic, a castoff converted linebacker from New England.
Cousineau, at $500,000 per year the highest-paid defensive performer in football, plays inside on the weak side. A year ago he used to get the hook on passing downs, but now he's an integral part of the coverage scheme. He had two interceptions Sunday. And he was the focal figure in the game's most important play, crashing into Pats Quarterback Steve Grogan on a blitz and forcing a pass that Banks picked off and returned 65 yards for a TD—and a 10-0 Cleveland lead—in the second quarter.
"Yeah, Cousineau played great," Rutigliano said, "but you realize he'll never play as well as his salary. Nobody'll ever play that good."
In addition to his TD, Banks, last year's No. 1 Cleveland draft pick out of USC, collected a pair of sacks and batted away a fourth-down pass on the goal line to end the Patriots' only significant threat when the game was still a game. Camp applied steady pressure from his left-end spot, got one sack and forced another. And Golic, working against backup Center Wimpy Wheeler, got deep penetration all day and helped disrupt the Patriots' offensive scheme.
"It's a fun kind of game to go into," Rutigliano had said on Saturday night, "because we have a pretty good idea what they're going to do. In their last three games they've run left 54 times, so I know they're gonna run left, behind John Hannah and Brian Holloway. And when they get to around the 50, Grogan will let one go to Stanley Morgan."
The Patriots, who came into the game as the NFL's leading rushing team, averaging 178.4 yards per game, did, in fact, run to their left on the first three plays, falling a yard short of a first down and punting. Before the game Golic, the ex-Patriot, had cautioned Elvis Franks, the right defensive end, to "watch out for Hannah's turtle block."
"His what?" Franks had said.
"Turtle block. He'll pull his head down into his shoulder pads like a turtle, so only his eyes are showing, and then when he fires out he'll pop his head into you. It's effective."
Maybe so, but not Sunday as the Patriots' top rusher, Tony Collins, gained only 48 yards. Grogan and Morgan were never able to hook up on anything longer than four yards. The only deep pass they tried ended up intercepted by Cornerback Hanford Dixon.
The Patriots' problems started a week earlier when their fine center, Pete Brock, went down with a knee injury. Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns' defensive coordinator, gave his linemen and linebackers a stunting-blitzing scheme designed to take advantage of Wheeler's inexperience. By the end of the first half, the Browns were up 20-0, seven of the points going directly to the defense (Banks's TD), three indirectly (Cousin-eau's first interception set up a chippie field goal for Matt Bahr) and seven coming from a surprise onside kick in the second quarter, which was Rutigliano's way of showing the world that a little of the old Sam still exists.