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SINCE THE Browns were reborn in Cleveland, in 1999, the best month for the team has usually been August. Tim Couch really looks like a playoff quarterback in camp this year.... Finally we've got big-time weapons in Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow.... Glad we're going back to ground and pound—this Peyton Hillis is unstoppable!
This year there's a more pragmatic sense of We're on the right track; this isn't our year, and we're dubious about our QB, but our D can still punch some people in the mouth.
First there was the administration change. New owner Jimmy Haslam saw out president Mike Holmgren, G.M. Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur. Enter CEO Joe Banner, G.M. Mike Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski. That group's biggest decision was to stick with Brandon Weeden—the NFL's 29th-rated passer as a rookie—but when Banner speaks about the future, you get the feeling he's got his QB in mind when he says, "I think about the parts of the team that we know aren't ready; at the end of the season we're going to have work to do on our roster. We aren't sure yet where all those spots are."
The Browns are going to have to win a few 17--13 and 12--10 games in 2013 in order to take the Leap. Trent Richardson is a potential game-turner who can run powerfully between the tackles. But unless Weeden plays significantly better than he did a year ago—and with a two-game suspension for his top weapon, wideout Josh Gordon, he won't start with a full deck—Richardson won't be able to carry the attack by himself. The run defenses of all three division rivals are just too good, and in the hypercompetitive AFC North, 7--9 is probably the best fans can hope for.
But it should be a competitive 7--9. Defense is the common denominator in the division, and the Browns have a top 10 D, a unit with few weaknesses outside the corner opposite Joe Haden, where the untested Buster Skrine and Chris Owens are battling for a job.
Well under the cap, the Browns plowed their dollars into their defense, investing $19.2 million to significantly upgrade a pass-rush that averaged just 2.4 sacks per game last season. Free agent Desmond Bryant, a 310-pound interior disrupter, was a loss that pained Raiders G.M. Reggie McKenzie; and the Browns got themselves a nickel pass-rush with the additions of free-agent Paul Kruger and first-round choice Barkevious Mingo, from LSU. Kruger led the Ravens with nine sacks last year, but he's not a natural run-stopper and requires a bookend to be effective. He will get that complement in Mingo, whose college numbers didn't reflect his value. His body type and outside speed remind evaluators of Aldon Smith, who had a 14-sack rookie year with the Niners in 2011.
Anyone who witnessed an afternoon training session this August understands why the front office was fixated on Mingo, the best rookie I saw in camp this year. Twice in one 11-on-11 drill he blew by the left tackle and got to the QB; later he powered through the tackle-guard gap with a swim move, disrupting the play in the backfield. Once he returns from a bruised lung, Mingo may play only as a nickel rusher, but if he makes an impact there, it will be enough. "Great instincts for a young player," says linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, whose own pass-rush should be improved by two tough edge guys. "Barkevious bats down a lot of balls. We need two good rushers, and I think we've got them now."
Jackson also touched on the philosophy of new coordinator Ray Horton. Last season, as Arizona's coordinator, Horton blitzed on 47% of opponents' passing plays, the second-highest rate for any team and well above the 32% NFL average. In 2013, Jackson says he expects the Browns might bring blitzers on 30 snaps a game, which would be a significant increase from their average of 22 in '12.
"I've played with a lot of good defensive players here," says Jackson, "but this year we've got enough of them to be great. There's logic to [Horton's blitzes]; every guy's capable of making a play at any time."
Traditional division kingpins Baltimore and Pittsburgh have that mentality: Don't wait for the offense to win the game; we can win on the other side of the ball. The Cleveland defense will steal a few games too. It won't be enough to overcome the shortcomings of the offense, but it's a start.