Despite their dismal record, the Browns found a recent development to be grateful for on Thanksgiving. The long-awaited reunion of starting defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin sparked a sack outburst this past weekend and gave the Browns (2-8) some newfound swagger as they prepare to play host to the Steelers (6-4) today in an AFC North Division matchup.
The Browns entered their 23-20 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys with 20 sacks, an average of 2.2 per game. But with Taylor and Rubin creating havoc in the middle, the Browns sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo seven times. Now they're licking their chops with Steelers third-string quarterback Charlie Batch on deck.
"The sky's the limit for this group," defensive end Frostee Rucker said. "I heard someone call us a bunch of unnamed rushers or something like that. I heard that term, but that's all right. We're still trying to scratch the surface and make our way.
"Once we get rolling, it's going to be hard to stop this train, and I think everyone around the league knows that. We haven't come up with the wins, but we've put a licking on a lot of people. My D-line, this group's going to be very productive for years to come. If we jell together and we stay healthy, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with."
Injuries kept Taylor and Rubin from playing together for the first nine games this season. Taylor, the 21st overall pick in last year's draft, missed the first eight games as he recovered from a torn left pectoral muscle he suffered lifting weights in May. But when Taylor returned to action in Week 9, Rubin was still sidelined with an injured calf that forced him to miss three games. Finally, in the Browns' 10th game, the defense was able to benefit from the 665-pound, two-headed monster of Taylor and Rubin.
"When you add two players back to the lineup that were starters for us all last year, heck, yes, that makes us better," coach Pat Shurmur said. "When you have big, physical guys, one of the most damaging things about a pass rush is a push in the quarterback's face because when it collapses in front of him, that's what restricts a quarterback's vision more than what they know is happening off the edges. So it all fits together."
For the most part, rookie defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn have performed well this season. Still, there's a noticeable difference when Taylor and Rubin collapse the pocket and draw double teams.
"It's just a little bit of an edge when big Phil and big Rube are in there playing because they played all 16 [games] together last year, and they're comfortable and they know where each other are going to be at on the field," Rucker said. "You have to double team either one of those guys. There's going to be a lot of problems in the middle. If the quarterback steps up, there's going to be somebody in his face. And if he rolls out, there's going to be Jabaal [Sheard] or Juqua [Parker] or myself on the end. So I'm glad we all got to start playing together, and we're going to continue it in these last games."
Rucker, Rubin, Hughes, Sheard, Parker and rookie linebacker Craig Robertson had a sack apiece against the Cowboys. Free safety Usama Young and weakside linebacker Kaluka Maiava each added a half-sack.
"We were pretty hyped up, and [the Cowboys] were talking trash," Rubin said. "We just came out and were really trying to play with our hair on fire."
Rubin is known for his hustle and relentless style. Taylor believes the sack extravaganza can be attributed to Rubin's attitude energizing his fellow linemen.
"We all fed off of it," he said. "When we all mimic Rube's effort, we all play great."
Rucker, Parker, Sheard and middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson lead the Browns with three sacks apiece. The Browns have catapulted themselves into a tie for seventh place among the NFL's leaders in sacks. Their seven sacks against the Cowboys are the most they've tallied since they had eight against the Steelers Dec. 10, 2009. That's also the most recent time the Browns beat the Steelers.
"The rivalry goes back for ages," Taylor said. "We don't like 'em. They don't like us."
The Browns really don't like Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's 14-1 against them. But Roethlisberger will be sidelined with shoulder and rib injuries, and backup Byron Leftwich is out with broken ribs.
The Steelers will resort to Batch, who will turn 38 Dec. 5. The Browns, though, understand they can't afford to take him for granted.
"Charlie's a proven veteran," Rucker said. "He's in this league for a reason."
First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM