BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Browns linebacker Paul Kruger recently saw an unsettling film filled with shocking, ghastly moments.
No, it wasn’t the latest teen-slasher horror flick. It was last Sunday’s game.
Kruger and his defensive teammates had to sit through the videotape breakdown of their loss to the Oakland Raiders last week, when one Cleveland defender after another missed tackles.
“It’s hard to watch,” he said.
Cleveland’s defense has not been pleasing to the eyes through three games this season.
Touted as one of the team’s strengths, the Browns are allowing an NFL-worst 158.3 yards rushing per game and Oakland had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard runner and a 100-yard receiver while rolling up 469 total yards in its 27-20 win.
After finishing No. 32 in rushing defense in 2014, the Browns spent the offseason trying to plug holes up front. They drafted nose tackle Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick and two other defenders in the first three rounds. Cleveland signed free agent end Randy Starks and re-signed lineman John Hughes to an extension.
They’ve devoted the resources — Sportrac, which charts team’s spending, says the Browns have devoted a league-high 45 percent of its payroll ($62 million) to its defense — but they’re not getting the results.
Browns coach Mike Pettine counted 14 missed tackles last week, but Cleveland’s issues go much deeper than not wrapping up and bringing down ball carriers.
“I don’t want to get into it or come off as a coach as ‘Hey, it’s not the scheme; it’s the players,’” Pettine said.
“I think it all needs to be better. There were times when we did have a guy at the point of attack, we needed to make a play and we didn’t. There could be some other things where you could point to scheme-wise, but I don’t want to sit here and make that statement. I think across the board, playing and coaching needs to be better.”
As the team prepared for this week’s game at San Diego, Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said inconsistency has been the unit’s biggest issue so far.
He’s determined to get things fixed, and understands that in a statistics driven sport, the numbers don’t look good at this point.
“I have to put guys in position to make the play,” he said. “I like where we’re going. I’m confident in our players. I’m confident in myself. I’m confident in our coaches. I’m not willing to say that we’re not going to be a good defense or we’re not going to stop the run. I know the first three weeks are what they are. We’re moving ahead, and we’re looking forward to San Diego.”
One of the defensive players struggling most is safety Donte Whitner, who isn’t living up to his “Hitner” nickname.
The 30-year-old Whitner fanned on some tackles against the Raiders, including on a short pass by Derek Carr that turned into a 55-yard gain.
Whitner knows he has been the target of criticism, and he acknowledged he’s been “up and down.” But the 10-year veteran isn’t ducking from blame.
“I’ve missed a few tackles,” he said Thursday. “I see a lot of people writing me off as being old, and this and that and want me replaced and all these things, but I accept the criticism. Being the leader of this defense, it’s OK. We’re going to fix it. There are a lot of things that are easily correctible.”
Kruger has been surprised by the defense’s poor start. But there are highs and lows to every season, and he’s confident the Browns can clean up their defensive mess.
“It is disappointing. It definitely weighs on you,” he said. “As a player you got a lot of pressure, negative energies that really try to creep into your mind and it happens, you experience that. We are making those changes.
“I think coach O’Neil’s doing a good job of changing up the packages, putting us in good situations. But the mindset, when it comes to tackling, that’s really on the players. We just got to go out there and hit the guy and get him on the ground.
“It’s that simple.”