BEREA — The Browns were missing part of their DNA in Pittsburgh, which was one of many reasons they were blown out.
During the four-game winning streak that preceded the trip to Pittsburgh, the defense totaled 11 takeaways. The well ran dry against the Steelers, who instead intercepted Baker Mayfield twice, leading to 14 early points in the 38-7 victory.
“Taking the ball away is part of who we are and we did not do it, so that will be a focus for us moving forward,” coach Kevin Stefanski said.
As the defense continues to miss pieces because of injury, it’s embraced the increased importance of forcing turnovers. It’s the ultimate outcome for a bend-but-don’t-break unit.
“Just seeing when we do get takeaways, we put our team in better chances to win the game, as you have seen,” said cornerback Denzel Ward, who intercepted Dallas’ Dak Prescott in Week 4 to seal the win. “That is the most important thing on that field.”
The Browns (4-2) converted the 11 takeaways into 42 points during the winning streak, including a pick-six from safety Ronnie Harrison against the Colts. He’s back after missing the Steelers game with a concussion and looks to pick up where he left off.
“If I do not do it in practice, then I am not doing it in the game,” he said. “That is what I tell myself and tell everybody else. If we do not get interceptions and turnovers in practice, then it does not just happen in the game all of a sudden.
“I start in practice, practicing hard and trying to force takeaways. Just making stuff happen, and in the game it becomes natural and it becomes easy.”
Harrison came close to an interception against the Cowboys before his 47-yard catch-and-run down the sideline vs. Indianapolis. He felt it was coming but knew he had to be patient.
Turnovers are said to come in bunches and have an element of randomness, but Harrison isn’t buying that.
“I do not believe in luck. I believe in hard work,” he said.
He learned that from Alabama coach Nick Saban, who knows a thing or two about defense and emphasized getting takeaways in practice.
“I just believe it can put you in that mindset when you go into the game so you’re already thinking that way,” Harrison said. “It is not by luck or anything like that.”
The Browns got a fumble recovery in the opening loss at Baltimore, then the game-changing defensive plays started in the 35-30 Week 2 win over the Bengals. They made the lone takeaway count, end Myles Garrett’s strip-sack of rookie Joe Burrow that was recovered on the 1-yard line and led to a third-quarter touchdown.
Garrett had a strip-sack three games in a row then forced an intentional grounding in the end zone that led to a critical safety vs. the Colts. He extended his sack streak to five against the Steelers but didn’t have his usual impact.
“I feel responsible for my team winning or losing every time,” he said Friday. “So I know I am out there to make big plays, and that is what I look forward to doing every time I get the chance to. It is on all of us, but I feel a little bit more pressure on myself to make those.”
Coordinator Joe Woods has been preaching and drilling the need for takeaways since the team convened for training camp. After the 0-fer at Heinz Field, he made it a talking point again Thursday in a pre-practice meeting.
“I just talked to the defense about that this morning and showed them a little cut-up tape,” he said. “Getting turnovers for us defensively, it changes the game because we either want to score with it, which we have, or we want to get it back for our offense and set them up. Not getting turnovers against Pittsburgh was huge.”
The Browns had chances that might have changed the course of the game — at least providing an early spark — but couldn’t secure them.
“Oh, yeah, there were balls tipped. It just felt like the football gods were not with us,” Woods said. “The RPO, we squeezed twice, the ball is in the air and we have three guys around it. The tip on the third one, barely missed it. There were some opportunities. We were just a step slow.”
The Bengals (1-4-1) have committed eight turnovers, four Burrow interceptions and four fumbles. Burrow’s 1.6 percent interception rate is eighth in the league — for comparison sake, Mayfield is 29th at 3.5 percent — but linebacker Mack Wilson believes the opportunities will be there for the Browns on Sunday.
“Yeah, definitely. The first time we played them, they threw the ball 60 times,” Wilson said of Burrow, who went 36-for-61 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. “For a quarterback to throw the ball 60 times, that sounds like at least two to three interceptions to me. We just have to do a great job with making sure everybody is locked in, playing within the game plan and just attack the ball.”
Woods said Burrow makes it more difficult because he’s “not a one-look quarterback” and does well going through his progressions.
As the Bengals try to keep the Browns buried after the loss to the Steelers, coach Zac Taylor realizes protecting the ball is a must.
“That is the thing with them is when the game is starting to get close, they find a way to make that play to separate the game again in their favor in all of those wins that they have had,” he said on a conference call.