The Browns are starting to get to the opposing quarterback just in time to make their playoff push.
After registering just seven sacks in the first eight games, the Browns have recorded 12 in the last three.
The change began in Pittsburgh on Nov. 11 when they got to Ben Roethlisberger six times in a 31-28 defeat. They sacked Kyle Boller four times in Baltimore while winning 33-30, and in the last game they dumped Texans quarterback Matt Schaub twice in a 27-17 victory. They also hurried Schaub seven times.
The Browns want to build on beating the Texans as they continue preparation for their game Sunday against the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals lost to the 49ers 37-31 when Kurt Warner was sacked and fumbled in the end zone in overtime. The 49ers recovered for an easy touchdown.
Warner passed for 484 yards while completing 34 of 48 passes. He was sacked four times.
The matchup on paper does not bode well for the Browns. Larry Fitzgerald, 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, caught nine passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers. Anquan Boldin, 6-foot-1, 223 pounds, caught six passes for 76 yards. Putting pressure on Warner is essential to the Browns' chances of winning for the sixth time in seven games.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, under fire when his unit could not stop teams from attacking by land or air for the first nine weeks, was smiling after his unit held the Texans to 314 yards of offense.
Grantham at the end of last season was a candidate to be head coach at Michigan State but lost out on that job. He signed a three-year extension with the Browns through 2009 to make his contract coincide with those of head coach Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
The unspoken word was Grantham had the experience to take over as head coach if Crennel, 10-22 before 2007, faltered. Far from faltering, Crennel has gone from the hot seat (such was the perception, anyway) to Coach of the Year candidate with his team at 7-4 and currently in the playoff chase. The defense, though, had lagged, and Grantham has been the one under scrutiny. Twelve sacks in three games have taken off some of the heat.
"It's a combination of executing pressures and watching the players we're playing against," Grantham said. "Every player has an asset-liability you play against. We're trying to maximize our assets and take advantage of other people."
There are other signs the defense is improving. The Ravens and Texans were a combined 4-for-22 on third down. The Browns forced three fumbles in the last three games after going four consecutive games without forcing any.
Linebacker Antwan Peek had one of the two sacks on Schaub. He also got to Roethlisberger once. He credits improved play by the secondary for the increase in sacks and pressure on quarterbacks.
"Our corners are getting better," Peek said. "They're preventing receivers from running slant patterns on us. They're holding up on deep balls well. The DBs are doing a good job and helping us out a lot."
The Browns defense still ranks last in the league, allowing 398 yards a game. Cleveland is the only team in the league to have allowed more than 300 points -- 311 to be exact. On the positive side, holding the Texans to 17 marked the first time since beating the Ravens 27-13 on Sept. 30 that the Browns held on opponent under 20.
SERIES HISTORY: 48th meeting. Browns lead the series, 33-11-3. This will be the third game against the Cardinals in the new era for the Browns. Arizona won in the desert in 2000, 29-21, and the Browns won in Cleveland, 44-6, three years later.
--The Browns have more ties against the Cardinals than any other team in the league. The Browns and St. Louis Cardinals played to a 17-17 tie in 1960, a 33-33 tie in 1964 and a 21-21 tie in 1969.
--Jim Brown enjoyed playing the Cardinals. He scored four touchdowns in a game five times in his career. He did it once against the Chicago Cardinals in 1958 and once against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1962.
--Kelly Holcomb's best regular season game as Browns quarterback occurred against the Cardinals on Nov. 16, 2003, when he completed 29 of 35 passes for 392 yards in the 44-6 victory. The next week the Browns lost to the Steelers, 13-6.
The Browns rushed for only 89 yards and a 2.7-yard average in the 2003 game, but James Jackson, while averaging only 2.4 yards a carry, rushed for two 4-yard touchdowns.
--Catching more than 10 passes in a game is noteworthy now, but it was especially so half a century ago. On Nov. 9, 1952, Mac Speedie caught 11 passes in a 28-13 victory over the Chicago Cardinals. Speedie led the NFL with 62 catches, and the Browns finished 8-4 that season. They lost to the Detroit Lions 17-7 in the NFL championship game.
--On Dec. 2, 1951, Speedie established a Browns record of three touchdown catches in a game in a 49-28 shootout with the Cardinals. Speedie's record has been tied nine times but never broken.
--It seems odd to say a lost season turned on one game, but the disaster of 2000 can be traced to the 29-21 loss in Arizona. The Browns, 2-1 at one point, lost two straight but jumped out in front of the Cardinals 14-0 on two touchdown runs by Travis Prentice. The Cardinals scored 16 points on two touchdowns and a field goal in the second quarter. The Browns never recovered and ended up losing seven in a row. Chris Palmer was fired at the end of the season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- The Browns have won five consecutive games in Cleveland Browns Stadium, assuring them of their first winning season at home in the expansion era.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think everyone is aware of the potential, but it doesn't mean anything. There is no reason for playoff talk with five games to go." -- Ten-year veteran Joe Jurevicius, about the Browns' playoff hopes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Browns likely will have to play without starting CB Eric Wright for the second straight week. Daven Holly would start against the Cardinals if Wright's knee injury does not heal. Wright did not practice Wednesday.
The key player isn't so much Holly as it is rookie Brandon McDonald. McDonald was the nickel back against the Texans and would have the same role against the Cardinals. It is a taller order, though, because the Cardinals will use Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson in three-receiver sets.
"Those guys catch the ball with ease," Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel said. "They look so natural doing it. If you relax on any one of those guys, they can hurt you."
McDonald plays on the right corner and Leigh Bodden plays in the slot when the Browns are in the nickel.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--WR Braylon Edwards was held out of practice Wednesday due to a hamstring injury. He expects to practice Thursday.
--NT Ethan Kelly did not practice. He has a knee injury that prevented him from playing against the Texans last week.
--RT Kevin Shaffer is fighting through a knee injury. He did not practice Wednesday.
--DE Robaire Smith missed practice with a knee injury.
--LB Antwan Peek, who has been battling various injuries all season, was limited in practice with a knee injury.
GAME PLAN: The Browns have a chance to exploit an injured secondary for the second week in a row. They did not attack the Texans through the air as much as they might have, instead winning the game with a balanced attack.
S Adrian Wilson and CB Eric Green will not play against the Browns. Though Braylon Edwards, with 11 touchdown catches in 11 games, missed practice Wednesday with a hamstring injury, he fully expects to be ready by Sunday. The Browns need him in a game that is likely to be high-scoring.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns LB Kamerion Wimbley vs. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner -- Wimbley has only four sacks, well off a pace to match the 11 he had as a rookie last year, but he has 14 pressures and should add to that total Sunday. Warner does not escape pressure well. That, coupled with the improved pass rush, should make Warner throw before he is ready.
Browns LG Eric Steinbach vs. Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby -- Dansby likes to blitz. He has 3.5 sacks and also three interceptions, plus he is second on the team with 74 tackles. The Browns might want to pass the ball more than usual, but Jamal Lewis believes he is in a groove and the Browns have had success running on the left side behind Steinbach and rookie tackle Joe Thomas.
INJURY IMPACT: Most of the players held from practice Wednesday were being rested and should practice Thursday. The two causing most concern are CB Eric Wright and NT Ethan Kelly. Both have knee injuries that kept them out of the Texans game. Shaun Smith would start at nose tackle again if Kelly cannot play. S Mike Adams could be the dime back following Brandon McDonald as the nickel back if Wright is forced to sit again.