Phil Taylor strutted into the locker room last week with three chicken wings stuffed in his mouth and one in his hand.
The big man’s always hungry.
And Cleveland’s massive nose tackle, who brings a nasty appetite for destruction to the field, is also one of the leaders of a Browns defense that’s been devouring running backs this season.
With impressive, stifling performances the past two weeks, Cleveland’s defense is quickly establishing itself as one of the NFL’s most dominant units. On Sunday, the Browns held the Cincinnati Bengals to just two field goals and 63 rushing yards in a 17-6 win. The previous week, the Browns limited Minnesota superstar Adrian Peterson to 88 yards and forced three key turnovers in a 31-27 victory.
Through four games, the Browns are allowing just 2.9 yards per carry — a league low — and are the only defense not to give up a run of 15 yards or longer.
It’s a pattern linebacker D’Qwell Jackson expects to continue.
“No one is going to be able to run on us this year,” Jackson boasted Tuesday as the Browns got ready to face the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night. “As long as we stay healthy and continue to grind the tape out and do what we need to do on Sunday, I don’t think anyone will be able to run on us. We’ve faced one of the purest running backs in Adrian Peterson, so we feel like that’s what we do best, stopping the run.
“We want to be a top defense when this season is over with.”
The Browns are on their way. With exceptional depth up front and an improving secondary anchored by cornerback Joe Haden, who locked down Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, Cleveland’s defense, under first-year coordinator Ray Horton, has the makings of something special.
And what makes the Browns’ strong start more impressive is that the defense has not yet been at full strength as rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, linebacker Jabaal Sheard and end Ahtyba Rubin have all missed games with injuries.
“I think that’s a great sign for us,” said right end Desmond Bryant, one of Cleveland’s top free-agent signings. “It’s a sign of what we’re capable of, but we know we haven’t played our best game yet and we still have a lot of things we can clean up, a lot of things to improve.”
Bills quarterback EJ Manuel has watched Cleveland’s defense on tape and knows he’s got his hands full this week.
“I see some guys who can get after the passer,” he said. “Definitely guys with really good size. Barkevious is doing a great job filling the gaps as well as dropping back in coverage. He’s done a great job rushing the passer as well. All of those things we’ll have to pick up for our protection so we can get the ball down the field.”
Horton, who spent the previous two seasons with Arizona, envisioned having an aggressive, attacking front seven and the Browns enter this week’s game third in the league with 14 sacks. Bryant leads the way with 31/2 sacks with Mingo, the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft, recording three in his first three pro games.
But the 6-foot-3, 335-pound Taylor may be the biggest reason for the Browns’ defensive climb.
“We all say we start with big Phil,” linebacker Craig Robertson said. “We run through him. The man in the middle.”
More like a mountain for opponents.
Last week, Horton raised some eyebrows when he described Taylor as “brilliantly smart, off-the-charts smart.”
It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when evaluating the intimidating Taylor, a former first-round pick from Baylor who has a nasty streak when he’s on the field but insists he’s “a cool guy” off it.
On Cincinnati’s first offensive play, Taylor stepped in the hole and stopped running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain and then punctuated his big hit by stomping around in celebration before returning to the huddle.
“That was a tone-setter,” Taylor said. “They didn’t get in the end zone, they didn’t have over 100 yards rushing.”
Taylor believes his menacing manner is spreading through Cleveland’s defense.
“That’s just the way I play,” he said. “The other guys on the team feed off it. Being nasty is going to get us to be the No. 1 defense, that’s how it goes.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski hasn’t decided if QB Brandon Weeden will be Brian Hoyer’s backup on Thursday. Weeden has been out with a sprained right thumb, and he’s lost his starting job because Hoyer has gone 2-0 in two starts. Chudzinski wanted to see Weeden throw the ball in practice before making any decisions. Weeden had gloves on both hands during the portion of practice open to the media. ... Sheard (sprained left knee), DE Billy Winn (quadriceps) and OLB Quentin Groves (ankle) all missed practice.