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Browns hope defense steps up
The struggles of the Cleveland Browns offense has allowed the defense to escape criticism, but that is starting to change as focus for the game Sunday with the Jacksonville Jaguars at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland began in earnest on Wednesday.
The Browns rank 11th overall defensively, a vast improvement over their 31st ranking in 2016. A closer look at other numbers tells a different story; the Browns are 30th in points allowed. They have allowed 19 passing touchdowns through nine games, which puts them on pace to give up 34 through the air. That is only a slight improvement over the 36 allowed last year.
"They keep score, we're 0-9, so that's the way it is," head coach Hue Jackson said. "The heat is going to ratchet up or simmering hot or whatever you want to call it, but it doesn't faze me. I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about the guys in the locker room. That's what matters most to me - the people in our organization and our building and our fans. I know our fans are disappointed, but I just keep telling them, hang in there. We just need to keep working and keep getting better."
If the Browns are going to play up to their ranking, this should be the week to do it. The Jaguars are 6-3 and on a three-game winning streak, but they are not winning on the shoulders of quarterback Blake Bortles the way the Patriots win on the right arm of Tom Brady.
Bortles' passer rating of 81.8 ranks sixth among starting quarterbacks. He has 11 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
The Browns, along with allowing an average of nearly three touchdowns a game (they have given up six rushing touchdowns), are near the bottom of the league with 10 takeaways - six interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Still, the biggest issue confronting the Browns is the 19 touchdown passes allowed.
"It's a unit issue," Jackson said. "We have to cover better. We have to rush the quarterback better. We have to make sure we get the quarterback off his spot a little bit more. We have to make these quarterbacks uncomfortable. We just have to keep getting better."
The 11 players projected as starters at the beginning of the season were finally on the field for the first time last Sunday in the 38-24 loss to the Lions in Detroit, but that changed quickly when linebacker Jamie Collins suffered a season-ending right MCL injury with 10 minutes left in the first quarter. The Lions took advantage of that and rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries - a 5.5-yard average. Now the Browns have to contend with Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette, who has 629 yards and six rushing touchdowns on 147 carries.
If the offense has to carry the day against the Jaguars, they will be up for a challenge of their own; Jacksonville has allowed opponents fewer than 10 points in five of nine games. They have allowed 12 touchdowns all season.
SERIES HISTORY: 17th regular-season meeting. Jaguars lead series, 11-5. The Browns lost the first six times they played the Jaguars. Since then they are 6-6, which, for a team that has had 10 straight losing seasons, is a major success.