BEREA, Ohio (AP) — For the past two weeks, Cleveland's defense has been a swarming mass that will stop at nothing to inflict pain and punishment on its opponent.
The Browns have been ruthless, relentless.
"They're like a bunch of fire ants," offensive coordinator Brad Childress said.
With consecutive dominant performances against Dallas and Pittsburgh, Cleveland's defense is establishing itself as one of the NFL's up-and-coming units. Don't tell cornerback Joe Haden that, though. He believes the Browns deserve to be considered among the elite already.
"I would say we're one of the top five defenses, for sure," Haden said Thursday as the Browns (3-8) continued to prepare for Sunday's game against the Raiders (3-8). "We have people who can play their position, are really good at it and everybody's established now and they understand what's going on.
"We have playmakers that can make plays at every level, and when we're all healthy and everybody's doing their thing, we're up there with the best."
They've certainly been at their best the past two Sundays.
Last week, the Browns forced eight turnovers — five fumbles, three interceptions — in a 20-14 win over the Steelers. The eight takeaways were the most by any team since 2001 and most by a Cleveland team since 1989. Also, the Browns held Pittsburgh to 49 yards rushing, the fewest by a Cleveland opponent in nine years.
One week earlier, the Browns sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo seven times and allowed Dallas only 64 yards rushing. Before their bye, the Browns were allowing 132.2 yards on the ground per game. Since then, they're giving up a league-low 56.
It's no coincidence that defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor have played in both games.
Taylor missed Cleveland's first eight games after having surgery to repair a chest muscle the 335-pounder tore while lifting weights in May. The underrated Rubin sat out three games with a calf injury. But now that the beefy pair have been reunited, the Browns' defense has become a heavyweight.
"It's like baseball," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "You need to be strong up the middle. When you have two big sturdy guys in there that can play the run on first and second down, and then get push when it's time to throw the football, that definitely helps your run game."
Cleveland's defensive line has become the team's strength.
The injuries to Taylor and Rubin allowed rookie tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes to get more playing time right away, and while there may have been some early growing pains, the two kids have quickly matured into dependable players.
Also, the return of Taylor and Rubin has freed up ends Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker to make more plays, and allowed defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to rotate Juqua Parker and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen into the lineup without worrying about any letdown.