The Browns' defense has turned in back to back strong efforts after being pummeled the first three weeks, and right at the heart of the resurgence as the Browns prepare to face the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday is linebacker Kamerion Wimbley.
Wimbley has looked like a different player five games into the season with Rob Ryan designing the defensive schemes and Eric Mangini running the show from the top. The fourth-year linebacker from Florida State, the Browns' first-round draft choice in 2006, sacked Brett Favre once and hit him three other times in the season opener, sacked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the third game, sacked Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer while totaling seven tackles in Week 4 and last week dumped Bills quarterback Trent Edwards while making 11 tackles. The sack in the second quarter took the Bills out of field goal range.
Wimbley drew a lot of criticism in 2007 and 2008 for not getting to the quarterback more often. After posting 11 sacks as a rookie, he had five in 2007 and four last season. He has already matched his 2008 total.
Former general manager Phil Savage passed on Haloti Ngata to draft Wimbley. Ngata was drafted one spot before Wimbley was chosen 13th, but the 12th spot belonged to the Browns until the Browns and Ravens swapped positions. In their rookie seasons it looked as if Savage made the right decision. Now the pick is looking good again.
Wimbley passes no judgment on Romeo Crennel and his defensive coordinators of the first three years, Todd Grantham and Mel Tucker. Wimbley, a good soldier, does what he's told. But he does like the way he is being used now.
Wimbley for most of the first three years was plugged in at right outside linebacker. Ryan has Wimbley, primarily the left outside linebacker, moving all over the field. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, hard to take down, has to account for him on every play. Wimbley likes the variety.
"Our coaches we have now are good at putting players in position to make plays," Wimbley said. "I don't think about the past. I can only control what's happening now. We go out there in our practices and do what we're asked and try to translate that onto the field.
"It's a team effort, not just one guy. I'm proud of the way all the guys are responding and getting pressure on the quarterback. Hopefully we can continue to be disruptive and take away a team's strengths."
The Browns have nine sacks and are on pace for 29. They had 17 in 2008.
As with Wimbley, Ryan isn't judgmental of the way the previous coaching staff used the 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker. Ryan and Crennel were on the same coaching staff in New England from 2001-2003, so Ryan isn't going throw a peer under the bus.
But it did not take long for Ryan to realize Wimbley can be a special player if used properly. Ryan said it when he met with reporters in June, and he hasn't changed his mind over the four months since.
"I'm not real sure about how he looked before, but he's a very athletic guy," Ryan said. "He's smart. He's a tough, competitive guy. We're using him in a multiple role. He's going to be great. He's a talented guy and we're looking forward to a lot of good things from him."
SERIES HISTORY: 113th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series 57-55. The Browns have lost 11 straight to the Steelers. Romeo Crennel had eight chances as head coach and did not beat them once. There was a time when the Browns dominated, but since the second game of the series in 1992, the Browns are 4-25 against the Steelers.
--The Browns were down to their fourth quarterback, Bruce Gradkowski, when they played the Steelers in the final game of 2008. Predictably, they lost 31-0 and produced only 126 yards of offense while allowing 369 yards.
--Tim Couch was the quarterback the last time the Browns beat the Steelers. On a Sunday night in Pittsburgh on Oct. 5, 2003, Couch played the best game of his career with the Browns when he completed 20 of 25 passes for 208 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 33-13 Browns' victory. Couch had a passer rating of 111.3.
--History changed for the Browns in a playoff game against the Steelers on Jan. 5, 2003. Kelly Holcomb completed 26 of 43 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns, but the Browns lost 36-33.
Two factors led to defeat: Dennis Northcutt dropped a third-down pass that had he caught would have allowed the Browns to run out the clock, and the Browns gave up two touchdowns in the last 3:06 -- one on a 5-yard pass from Tommy Maddox to Hines Ward and one on a 3-yard run by Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala with 54 seconds left.
--The Browns have been searching for a starting quarterback since returning to the NFL in 1999. Whenever they play the Steelers they are reminded of what could have been. In 2004 they had the seventh pick in the draft. They traded up one spot and took tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.
Then-coach Butch Davis could have stayed at seven and drafted Ben Roethlisberger from Miami of Ohio. Instead, the Steelers took Roethlisberger with the 11th pick. Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls with the Steelers and the Browns are still looking for their quarterback.
--The Steelers have had Jamal Lewis' number since the Browns signed Lewis as a free agent in 2007. He rushed for 35 yards against the Steelers in each game in 2007. Last year, the Steelers held him to 38 yards on 19 carries on Sept. 14 and 94 yards on 23 carries in the final game of the season.
Lewis has 36 100-yard games in his career, but only one of them against the Steelers, on Dec. 28, 2003.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Touchdowns scored by the Browns in their last 128 possessions dating back to the fourth quarter of the 10th game in 2008.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's not anything fancy. It's just everything we've been practicing from OTAs and training camp. Now it's starting to show dividends." -- Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on the Browns' improved defense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With the trading deadline approaching Oct. 20, Browns coach Eric Mangini used his press conference Wednesday to make it clear Brady Quinn is not on the trading block.
Quinn began the season as the starting quarterback but was benched at halftime of the third game. The Browns were 0-3 under Quinn. They are 1-1 under Derek Anderson.
"We're not looking to move Brady Quinn," Mangini said. "We get calls all the time that we listen to, but Brady is a Cleveland Brown and it's not anything we're looking to do. He's focused on Pittsburgh."
Quinn has two years left on his Browns contract and said he plans to honor it. He said it is too early to think about possibly being traded in the offseason.
"I have not asked to be traded," Quinn said. "That's something I won't do. That's not my nature to do something like that. I don't know where that came from. I've got a contract here with the Browns and I intend to play that out."
Mangini made it clear Anderson will start against the Steelers. Mangini did not sound like he is picking his quarterback on a week to week basis.
Speculation Quinn would be traded mushroomed when word got out he is selling his home in Avon Lake. It is a five-bedroom, five-bath spread for one person. He has been living in it since he was a rookie in 2007.
"It's a personal issue," Quinn said. "I'm a human like anyone else. I have other reasons for selling a house. It's a long drive to work. I'm here a lot, all day. What's the point of adding extra time on my drive?
"I'm a bachelor. Do I really need a house? Some downsizing might be a little more effective in my life."
--K Phil Dawson returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday. He missed three games with a calf injury.
--NT Shaun Rogers missed practice for personal reasons. Coach Eric Mangini expects Rogers to practice Thursday.
--DE Kenyon Coleman has a groin injury.
--P Dave Zastudil was named the AFC special teams player of the week. He landed seven punts against the Bills inside the 20. Three of those were inside the 5.
--TE Steve Heiden was held from practice Wednesday because of a knee injury.
GAME PLAN: One reason the Browns took the Bengals to overtime and beat the Bills is quarterback Derek Anderson has done a better job protecting the football. He threw 48 times against the Bengals and threw only one interception. He threw one pick against the Bills.
Protecting the ball is essential if the Browns have any chance to beat the Steelers. The Browns have run the ball better of late; Jerome Harrison rushed for 121 yards against the Bengals and Jamal Lewis rushed for 117 against the Bills. Anderson won't have to make high-risk throws if the Browns can maintain that ground attack in Pittsburgh.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns MLB D'Qwell Jackson vs. Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall isn't as slippery as Willie Parker, but at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds he's a load once he gets rolling. If the Browns try to tackle him high, Mendenhall will shed the linebacker. If Mendenhall gets into the secondary he can break a long run, because the Browns' cornerbacks, particularly Eric Wright, have problems in run defense.
Browns C Alex Mack vs. Steelers NT Casey Hampton. The Browns use a 3-4 defense as the Steelers do, so Mack practiced against Shaun Rogers early in training camp before a foot injury sidelined Rogers. That experience might help Mack be prepared for Hampton, who will be difficult to push out of the way when the Browns try running inside. If the Browns can run successfully against the Steelers they'll be in the game in the fourth quarter.
INJURY IMPACT: Tight end Robert Royal is playing with torn ligaments in the ring finger of his right hand. It affects the way he catches the ball. He was limited in practice Wednesday. The Browns might have to start him because Steve Heiden (knee) did not practice Wednesday.