Horton building Browns defense in Steelers' image
BEREA, Ohio — For years, Ray Horton pulled together everything he learned from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to become one of the most-respected assistant coaches in the NFL.
On Sunday, the protege squares off against his mentor in a pivotal AFC North battle at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland that could decide the playoff fate of both their teams. The Steelers and Browns are 4-6, and defense likely will dictate the outcome.
Horton, though, is careful not to make this a personal encounter. Admittedly, it'll be difficult to distance himself emotionally, in part, because of his immeasurable respect for LeBeau.
He might be emotionally conflicted, but he was hired to devise a scheme — albeit similar to the Steelers — to slow down a Ben Roethlisberger-led offense that has owned the Browns. Roethlisberger, who didn't start in a 20-14 defeat at Cleveland last November, is 15-1 against the perpetually rebuilding Browns.
“For me, it's another game,” Horton said prior to Thursday's practice. “It doesn't have sentimental value, so we want to win.
“As far as alignment and calls, our defenses are identical. I don't think it gives them an advantage. I stood behind their offense while I was in Pittsburgh, and I don't expect them to change. I don't think it gives either one of us an advantage.”
LeBeau was the defensive backs coach when the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Horton in 1983. In the years since, they have coached together — including a seven-year stint with the Steelers in which Horton served as defensive backs coach until 2010.
LeBeau said Friday he never hesitated in hiring Horton on three occasions.
“I'm very proud of Ray,” LeBeau said. “We've been down a lot of roads together.”
After 18 years, Horton appears poised to become a head coach next season. Few, if any, believe he'll return to Cleveland next year.
“I think someone will make a smart move to make Ray their head coach,” LeBeau said. “He's played the game, and he's coached the game at most positions. I do believe he's ready to take the next step.”
Horton and LeBeau have a 30-year friendship that transcends football. It's one strengthened by mutual admiration.
“When you have a mentor like that, it's that way,” Horton said. “I carry some of the life lessons I've learned from him and instilled them into my life, my children and coaching career. He's a big reason why I am who I am.
“I always thought I would be a college coach, but when I met (LeBeau), I realized what style of coach I wanted to be. So he was a role model for me.”
Horton, who spent two years as Arizona's defensive coordinator before moving to Cleveland this season, is building a Browns' defense that essentially mirrors the Steelers. While it varies slightly, it's designed to achieve similar results: consistently shut down the run and minimize big plays in the passing game.
“(Horton) was showing us mostly Arizona stuff when he first got here,” Haden said. “There wasn't much Steelers stuff, but that's changing.”
So far this season, Horton's defense is, statistically, better than LeBeau's. The Browns are fourth-best in the NFL in defending the pass and eighth against the run, while the Steelers are eighth and 26th, respectively.
More impressively, the Browns have been better at preventing big plays. The Steelers already have given up nine plays longer than 50 yards.
“They've got an all-around good defense,” Roethlisberger said. “No holes that we can find right now.”
Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery said: “They've grown together on defense. They get after it up front, and their secondary is really good.”
Horton's no-nonsense approach demands both attention to detail and a willingness to invest the prerequisite sweat equity that enables a defense to carry a team even when the offense falters.
“(Horton) is going to run what he wants to run, and we have to adjust,” safety T.J. Ward said. “I think that's the attitude change he brings. It gets the job done regardless, no excuses
“He wants us to be fiery and passionate but smart at the same time. It's what our defense has become.”
Horton's defense is largely responsible for the Browns being part of the playoff conversation this deep into the season. The Browns have started three quarterbacks, traded a first-round running back (Trent Richardson) and have receivers who are among the league leaders in dropped passes.
“I have tremendous respect for the Steelers because they have played dominant defense for years,” linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. “We are similar to the Steelers, but we're developing our own style of defense.
“Can you compare us to the Steelers? Not yet, because we haven't won anything yet. Those guys (Steelers) play championship defense. But I like where we're headed.”
Horton believes the Browns' defense is better equipped to deal with Roethlisberger, mostly because of the acquisition of outside linebacker Paul Kruger and the consistent play of cornerback Joe Haden.
“It has a lot to do with Ray, because he challenges you,” Jackson said. “He forces Haden to play technique-sound football. With Ray's experience with (Arizona cornerback) Patrick Peterson, he's grooming Joe.”
Horton said he knows enough about Roethlisberger that schemes and strategies rarely matter. While he respects and admires LeBeau, Roethlisberger is Horton's immediate concern.
“Getting to Roethlisberger is the first step,” Horton said. “Getting him down is something different. I don't think there's ever been a more elusive quarterback than Roethlisberger — including scramblers like Fran Tarkenton and Bob Griese.
“I told our players he was a shortstop in baseball when everyone said he should be a pitcher, a point guard in basketball and punts left footed. He is the most athletic guy we'll face.”