BEREA, Ohio - Like a mathematician, Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton loves to crunch numbers.
And like a proud father bragging about his kids, Horton spends a portion of his weekly news conference rattling off statistics that support how well Cleveland’s defense has been playing under him this season.
One stat, though, is keeping him awake at night.
“If we could fix the dog-gone third downs,” he said, smiling to reporters. “You guys wouldn’t ask me a question.”
And the Browns might not have three losses.
Despite leading the NFL by giving up just 4.4 yards per play, the Browns are ranked 29th on third down, allowing opponents to convert 44.1 percent of their chances. It’s been an issue most of the season, but Cleveland’s third-down deficiency was especially glaring last week as Detroit converted 6 of 7 third-down opportunities in the second half and the Lions outscored the Browns 24-0 after halftime in a 31-17 win.
It’s a new phenomenon for Horton, whose defense in Arizona last season was second in the league in third-down efficiency. The previous season the Cardinals were first under Horton.
This week, Horton analyzed all 93 third-down plays this season to find a common denominator, hoping to pinpoint the reason why the Browns are allowing team to continue drives. He found that there’s not just one.
“You look at all the third downs, the major area of concern to me is third-and-four to third and nine,” he said. “We’re grossly deficient in getting off (the field). I look at every call. It’s a great balance of zone and man. I look at the plays that are bad, meaning why do we not win? I keep saying it’s us. It’s not the other team. Nobody’s shocking us by coming out and running some revolutionary new offense.
“It really comes down to us and that’s what we’re focusing on is us being more focused on our detail, and that seems to be the major thing when I look at it.”
Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is equally perplexed by the Browns’ struggles on third down. After all, Cleveland, which plays at Green Bay this week, is ranked seventh in total defense and the Browns are just one of three teams to rank in the top 10 in rush defense, pass defense and total defense.
It doesn’t add up.
“I don’t know what it is,” Jackson said. “First and second down, we’ve developed a reputation of stopping the run and we have a saying: ‘You earn the right to rush the passer, playing well on first and second down.’ Third downs? I don’t know what it’s been but we have to improve in that area. If you look at us from top to bottom in terms of yards per play, we’re probably one of the top defenses in the league, but third down has been something we definitely got to improve on
“We’re going to work on it. We’ve been harping on it the last few weeks and if we bring that number down, I think we move up and we can create more opportunities for our offense.”
Horton described the Browns as being “grossly deficient” on third down overall, but it’s been their struggles in the second half of their three losses that make the numbers even more alarming.
The Browns allowed Miami, Baltimore and Detroit to convert 70 percent (16 of 23) of their third-down chances after halftime.
“It’s just executing,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re a little more locked in.”
That will be vital on Sunday against the Packers, who are converting just 38 percent on third down but have quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the game’s most lethal passers.
“This dude can really make every throw,” Haden said.
Defensively, the Browns have made major strides under Horton, who believes the team will benefit from the return of outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard. One of the team’s most versatile players, Sheard missed three games with a sprained knee. He gives Horton more depth and will allow him to keep fresh bodies on the field for every down.