Whitner’s presence felt on Browns defense

Cleveland Browns strong safety Donte Whitner (31) causes Oakland Raiders running back Kory Sheets (30) to fumble during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns beat the Raiders 23-13.

Ken Blaze/Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

BEREA, Ohio– Donte Whitner was a signature signing for Ray Farmer and the Browns as free agency opened.

The Browns chose to allow T.J. Ward leave via in free agency and replace him with the former Pro Bowler from the 49ers.

Beyond the former Glenville High School and Ohio State star returning home, the Browns were expecting a big impact on the team’s defense.

However, to fans in general, Whitner hasn’t had eye-popping statistics since joining the Browns. The most noticeable big play by Whitner occurred last Sunday when he drilled Darren McFadden and the ball shot into Joe Haden’s arms to set up the turning point in the game. He has a lot of tackles, but no sacks or interceptions or fumble recoveries.

However, the coaches say Whitner has been everything they hoped for. He currently leads the team with 50 tackles, including 37 solo tackles. He has only missed two snaps all season.

"He really has (given us what we had hoped for)," defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said. "He’s averaging around 10 tackles a game and I think he’s made two huge impact plays in two of our wins. The (McFadden) fumble was obviously the turning point in the Oakland game and I think the tackle on Le’Veon Bell in the Pittsburgh game down on the goal line was a huge play that was a turning point in not allowing a touchdown."

Mike Pettine said Whitner has been the model of consistency and the leader he was expecting. He also said there’s a reason Tashaun Gipson is getting a lot of the interceptions.

"Very consistent, very solid," Pettine said. "He graded out very well. I think at times, it puts Gip (Gipson) in position to make more plays, just by the nature of the call and the assignment and how we allocate them, so again I don’t get caught up in the game book production post game to determine whether a guy is playing well for you or not.

"A lot of times there are things that are not on that sheet, production that he’s causing and the plays that he does make like the one he made in the (Oakland) game," Pettine said. "He’s played well, but it’s important as a staff that we don’t get wrapped up in that. We’re giving guys pluses and minuses and he’s been one of our most consistent defenders to date."

O’Neil said Whitner’s hard-hitting reputation causes opposing teams to change some of their passing routes on game day.

"(Whitner’s) an enforcer out there," O’Neil said. "We haven’t seen as many (over the middle) routes as the season has gone one. His presence out there makes offenses think about what they want to do schematically.

"He’s a guy that has learned multiple positions for us," he said. "He can play deep safety, low safety and get off and blitz as a dime linebacker. The way he helps other guys prepare and the leader he has been in the room has been awesome."


Johnny Package: After playing a few plays earlier in the season, QB Johnny Manziel hasn’t been used in the past four weeks. Pettine was asked if the series of plays for Manziel has been scrapped.

"It’s discussed each week," Pettine said. "When he goes in there the plays are more tailored to his skill set. Those are available, but the offensive staff, namely Kyle (Shanahan) will evaluate each week and we’ll rep it. Sometimes, it’s something you want to go to if it causes problems and creates some yards and points and other weeks you don’t.

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"It’s just been a week to week decision, where we’ve decided not to use it."

Pettine said there are a lot of factors to consider before deciding to use Manziel in situations in games.

"What are the positives, what are the negatives," he said. "You always are looking for the balance sheet before that."

Cameron still Absent: TE Jordan Cameron (concussion) was still absent from the practice field and his chances of playing Sunday against the Buccaneers is in doubt. Cameron was not on the field during the opening portion of practice open to the media.

Besides Cameron, DL Phil Taylor (knee) didn’t practice, but was on the stationary bike for the second-straight day.

WR Rodney Smith (hamstring) was practicing for the first time in several weeks in the individual drills. DL Ahtyba Rubin (ankle) was limited.

Full participants that were on the injury report were DB Jim Leonhard (ankle), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder), DB K’Waun Williams (shoulder/neck) and DL Billy Winn (quad).

Winn Back: Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said he expects to add DL Billy Winn back into the mix this week after missing the last several games with a quad injury.

"We’ll get Billy Winn (back) this week," O’Neil said. "We had him penciled in as a starter (at the beginning of the season)."

Browns add Bates: The Browns signed WR Phil Bates to the practice squad and released DB Marcus Cromartie.

Bates (6-2, 220) is officially in his first NFL season out of Ohio. Originally signed by Seattle as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Bates has spent time on the Seahawks’ practice squad each of the past three seasons (2012-14). He was elevated to Seattle’s active roster last week and made his NFL debut as a reserve.

Bringing Cribbs Back?: Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor was asked about the possibility of bringing back former Brown PR Josh Cribbs because the struggles of the Browns punt return game. However, Tabor didn’t want to go there.

"I’ll be honest with you," Tabor said. "You know how I feel about Josh Cribbs. I obviously coached him for whatever that was, two years, and had a great experience with him. Not to side step the question, but I’m not in that decision making process.

"At the end of the day, I have to talk about and be concerned about the players that are here, but I know we’re not doing as well," he said. "I’m frustrated about it. I know that…I said it last week, the guys in that room take great pride in what we’ve done. In the punt return game we’ve finished in the top 10 every single year we’ve been here, so we’re not playing up to our standard. It’s just like anything in life; if you’re not living up to what your standard is, you become disappointed.

"At the same time, the only thing that you can do is continue to work through it, put your head down and grind. That’s what we’re doing, and with regards to the personnel moves, I have confidence in the players that we have."

Tabor said the return game got better last week, even though PR Travis Benjamin fumbled a return, which the Browns were able to recover. Benjamin had a 13-yard return on one return before fumbling the other return for a loss of six yards.

"Well, I don’t think (fumbling) helps," he said. "I’m not going to lie. I don’t think it helps, but we’re working through something – no question about it. We’ll continue to work through it, but at the same time, ball security has to be…that’s a premium. At the end of the day, there’s no excuse for the ball being on the ground."

Tabor also said there’s a possibility the Browns will not put any player back on punts.

Dawg Collars: Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said the defensive coaches have established a reward system since the beginning of the season. He brought one of the collars in to display during his meeting with the media.

"We wanted to come up with a unique way of ‘Playing like a Brown’, O’Neil said. "We

give each player a ‘Dawg Collar’ and players will be rewarded for a playing like a Brown play."

O’Neil said coaches get them for wins and players for "exceptional plays."

O’Neil said besides awarding the collars each week, they will have a mid-season standings come out after the Tampa Bay game.

"I think the players have bought into it and I hear the players talking about it," he said. "We’ve worked so hard to implement in playing like a Brown. We’ll announce the top three next week."

O’Neil said the position coaches have the final say.