Most discussions of the Cleveland Browns defense center around their front seven, now more effective than ever under the guidance of new coordinator Ray Horton. If not, then the attention goes to cornerback Joe Haden, who is having a stellar season, with five passes defensed and no touchdowns given up.
However, other members of Cleveland's secondary are also having impressive years. Fellow cornerback Buster Skrine and safeties Tashaun Gipson and T.J. Ward are clearly learning from Haden's example.
This offseason, the worry was that Skrine, the Browns' former nickel corner, wouldn't be able to take up starting duties alongside Haden. Though he had 10 passes defensed last year, he gave up five touchdowns and allowed 73.1 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
However, Skrine has been surprising this season. He's improved his game dramatically, giving up just one touchdown to seven passes defensed, pulling down an interception and allowing only 24 of 46 passes to be caught, a 52.2 percent catch rate for receivers he's covering. Skrine has only three missed tackles on the season, and quarterbacks throwing his way presently have an average passer rating of just 68.1.
Not to be outdone, Ward has also been outstanding in coverage. He is coming off of a 2012 season in which he allowed catches on just 48 percent of the passes thrown his way and only one touchdown, and he is having just as good of a 2013 so far.
Ward has given up nine catches on 14 targets, allowed no touchdowns, has two interceptions and a pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks have an average passer rating of just 46.4 when throwing his way.
Free safety Gipson has also stepped up this year after having just three starts and playing 377 snaps in 2012. He's allowed only seven receptions on 13 passes, given up no touchdowns, has an interception and has three pass defenses. Last year, he gave up five catches on seven passes, had an interception and allowed one touchdown.
As a result, the Browns rank seventh in passing yards per game allowed at 207.6. They are eighth in opponent completion percentage at 57.95, and they lead the league in passing touchdowns allowed per game at a mere .4. Last year, they were 24th in passing yards allowed, 23rd in opponent completion percentage and 21st in passing touchdowns per game allowed at 1.7. The improvement has been both quick and dramatic.
Some of that can be attributed to the front seven. A good pass rush trickles down to the rest of the defense and means the secondary has to do less work. Cleveland is currently third in the league in sacks with 18, and the defense also has 19 quarterback hits and 67 hurries so far this season.
But the pass rush cannot take credit for what these safeties and cornerbacks ultimately do once the football is thrown and they have to defend receivers. Yes, pressure can force quarterbacks into bad throws, which benefits the defender in coverage, but sometimes it's about simply making plays. And everyone in Cleveland's secondary appears to have stepped up to that challenge.
Clearly, Horton's influence shows here. Prior to becoming the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator in 2011, his background was as a secondary or defensive backs coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and Washington. However, so does Haden's.
Horton has in Haden a prototypical cornerback, one of the best in the league, who defines what Horton wants out of the rest of Cleveland's safeties and corners. It's one thing to have an adept defensive coordinator who knows the secondary, but it's even better still to have a coordinator with Horton's experience aided by a top cornerback like Haden who can lead by example.
Perhaps Skrine, Ward and Gipson would have stepped up this season simply because of Horton's tutelage. But the results likely wouldn't have been as impressive as they are without Haden's presence on the team.
Playing well can be contagious. Having a standard-bearer like Haden in the secondary has made Horton's job that much easier. The outcome for Cleveland's defense thus far has been remarkable.