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Browns defense looks to take another step in opener vs. Steelers

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 9:35 p.m.

BEREA, Ohio — No one, it seems, is as confident about the future of the Cleveland Browns as defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil.

O'Neil inherits a defense that was among the NFL's best last season. However, even an increasingly stingy defense couldn't alter the fortunes of a franchise besieged by mediocrity much of the past decade.

Again last season, the Browns brought up the rear of the AFC North with a 4-12 record, mostly because of key injuries — including quarterback Brian Hoyer — after a three-game winning streak. They stumbled toward the finish by losing 10 of 11 games.

The Browns, though, enter their season opener against the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field with a new attitude. There also is a sense of urgency for a team haunted by a 50-year championship drought.

“I'm obviously fired up about this week,” O'Neil said. “I'm not nervous but anxious.”

The Browns aren't sure what to expect from an offense still seeking an identity. Their immediate future hinges on how well a talent-laden defense plays, particularly against divisional rivals — they were 1-5 in AFC North games last season.

“We had all the parts we needed last year,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “Now we're at the point where we have playmakers to close games out.”

Karlos Dansby, an 11-year veteran, adds depth to a linebacker corps that includes Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Craig Robertson and former Pitt standout Jabaal Sheard.

The Browns invested millions to build a defense they hope can frustrate Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 17-1 against the Browns.

“All our leaders and all the money is on defense,” said Sheard, who last year became the first player in team history to lead the Browns in sacks three consecutive seasons.

“We were great (defensively) last year, but we just didn't finish. We brought in some more veteran guys who will help out a lot.”

In addition to Dansby, the Browns added Cleveland native Donte Whitner. A two-time Pro Bowl safety, Whitner played in three straight NFC championship games with San Francisco.

Like Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, Whitner brings swagger to a defense that despite its top-10 showing last season allowed 25.4 points per game.

“The defense can get a lot better, and it's a matter of finishing games,” Whitner said.

The Browns often fell apart in the second half of games last season. That has been an emphasis for first-year coach Mike Pettine.

“The trademark of a great defense is that we want to thrive in those situations, whether it's third down, whether it's two-minute, whether it's in the red zone,” said Pettine, looking to become the first Browns coach to win his debut since Bud Carson orchestrated a 51-0 win over the Steelers in 1989.

While the Browns are focused primarily on shutting down the Steelers' ground game, Pettine and O'Neil fear a still-unpredictable Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays is a concern for a defense that registered most of its 40 sacks during the first half of the 2013 season.

“He's a problem for guys when you pressure him to get him on the ground, or at least get him on the ground before he gets rid of the football,” O'Neil said.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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