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Browns continue to make strides

BEREA, Ohio – At the season’#39;s halfway point, the Cleveland Browns aren’#39;t playing half bad.

Romeo Crennel isn’#39;t ready to say they’#39;re half good, though.

“When you’#39;re 3-5,” the rookie coach said in typical simplicity and candor, “You don’#39;t have many strengths.”

Maybe not, but the Browns (3-5) are showing signs of improvement in nearly every facet of the game. On Sunday, the club emerged from a week of assorted distractions with a 20-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans, a tight win that has renewed the faith of many of Cleveland’#39;s players.

“It gives us hope,” said running back Reuben Droughns, who rushed for 116 yards on 20 carries and added four receptions for 73. “We still believe we can make a little run and get some wins in the next few games. We can’#39;t give up right now, and I don’#39;t believe this team is ready to give up.”

Only a few days ago, the Browns had enough soap opera-like storylines that it seemed they were on the verge of seeing another season spiral out of control.

Quarterback Trent Dilfer’#39;s starting status was becoming less certain as Cleveland fans clamored for the club to play rookie Charlie Frye. Rookie wide receiver Braylon Edwards then compounded the QB issue by chiming in that Frye could spark the Browns before later saying he was taken out of context.

Last week, Droughns was arrested on drunken driving charges, and wide receiver Dennis Northcutt wondered aloud why he wasn’#39;t getting the ball more. And on top of that, punter Kyle Richardson nearly lost his job after two shanks in a loss to Houston prompted the Browns to sign a punter to the practice squad.

But just as the Browns were beginning their accustomed descent into dismay, they managed to make just enough big plays to edge the rebuilding Titans and snap a three-game losing streak.

For offensive tackle Ryan Tucker, the season has started over.

“I’#39;m trying to forget about the past, the beginning of the season,” said Tucker, who kept Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, one of the AFC’#39;s top pass rushers, off Dilfer. “I’#39;m just starting at each week and I was going to wait until we got that first win to start my new season.”

In recent weeks, Crennel criticized an overall lack of enthusiasm and energy in his players, whom he felt weren’#39;t playing with as much emotion in the second half as at the start of the game. But Sunday, Crennel liked his team’#39;s effort for all 60 minutes.

“At times, in trying to win the game, I’#39;’ve felt like maybe we were too tight. During the course of the week, I talked to them about positive things, about making plays. Let’s do what we have to do to make plays. Let’s not play not to make a mistake. Let’s play to make a play. Whether it did any good or not, I’m not sure, but we seemed to play looser. We weren’t as tight.”

There has been one constant for the Browns this season. Through eight games, Cleveland’s defense has emerged as the team’s most improved and dependable unit, a group that came into the season expected to struggle while learning a new 3-4 system.

But as the club’s offense has sputtered and been inconsistent, the defense has been able to keep games close.

“I don’t think people felt like we would keep teams from scoring the way that they have done at this point,” Crennel said.

Cleveland’s defense is giving up just 17 points per game, and before allowing the Titans to score two TDs, the Browns had tied a club record by not giving up more than one TD in five straight games.

“We were talking about that (record) on the sideline,” linebacker Andra Davis said. “We definitely wanted to break it.”

Crennel, who won three Super Bowl rings as New Englan”#39;s defensive coordinator, credits the defense’#39;s success with an ability to keep the opposing offense from ripping off huge chunks of yardage.

“They try not to give up the big play,” he said. “If you don’t give up the big play, other teams have to run more plays to gain yards and there are more opportunities for mistakes.”

Truth be told, the Browns haven’t had to deal with many of the NFL’s higher-ranked offenses, facing Houston (No. 31), Detroit (No. 28), Chicago (No. 26), Baltimore (No. 25) and Tennessee (No. 15) thus far.

Still, there is a noticeable upgrade from last year, further proof that Crennel’s system is taking hold.

“We’re better,” Davis said. “But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

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