By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
For eight weeks, Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor watched videotape, thoroughly studying the offensive line of each of the team’s first eight opponents this season.
For eight weeks, Taylor sat through meetings with his position group.
For eight weeks, he was at every practice.
None of this would be unusual, of course, because watching tape and showing up for meetings and practice are basic responsibilities for all NFL players.
The difference with Taylor, however, is that he wasn’t on the field for any of those first eight games because he was still recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered while lifting weights in May. He was simply conducting himself as the professional he knows he must be to succeed in this league.
“It was like I was playing,” Taylor says. “But I just wasn’t out there.”
And that is one of the clearest signs of just how far he has come since last year, when the Browns made him a first-round draft pick from Baylor. Taylor understands that improvement doesn’t simply happen on its own, that he must invest the time and effort necessary to make himself a better player.
So far, the approach is paying big dividends for the 6-foot-3, 335-pound behemoth known as “Big Phil.”
Since his return for the Browns’ Nov. 4 game against the Baltimore Ravens, Taylor has played some of the best football of his young career. He has made the most of his impressive combination of size, strength, and athleticism. In six games, Taylor has registered 11 tackles, 10 solo, and a sack. He had a season-high four solo tackles in last Sunday’s 38-21 loss against the Washington Redskins.
“My rookie year, it was more of a learning process,” Taylor says. “I’m still learning now. But the difference is, in your rookie year, you learn how to be a pro, and now you have to carry yourself that way in anything you do. My conditioning is a lot better. I’m stopping the run a lot better. I’m using my hands a lot more in the pass rush.
“I’ve gotten a lot better from last year, but there are still things I need to work on to get better at.”
Taylor’s recognition that he has not reached his full potential is something his teammates, such as middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, admire the most. Jackson has been encouraged by what he has seen in Taylor’s work habits and dedication. He knows how beneficial that can be for Taylor’s long-term success in the NFL.
But he also knows how much it helps his own game, with Taylor’s ability to keep blockers away from him and other linebackers and defensive linemen.
“He makes my world because you can’t just focus on the guys behind him,” Jackson says. “(Opponents) have to focus on getting him stopped and being aware of where he is on the field. Phil Taylor, he’s a monster, when he’s healthy and when he’s playing under control, playing with technique.”
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who joined the Browns as a second-round draft pick in 2011, has this to say about his fellow lineman: “Phil’s a big guy that’s explosive. The things that make him so good are just his aggressiveness, his strength off the ball, and playing with great pad level. And when you get under his skin, you make him mad, he’s like a big, angry bear out there.”
In May, Taylor was feeling more worried than angry. That was because he had suffered a torn pectoral muscle, an injury that can sideline a player for as long as a year.
“It was a freak accident, really,” Taylor says. “I was thinking about (the long recovery), but (the doctor) said if you rehab strong, it’s four to six months. I was going to rehab my butt off and just try to get back as soon as I can.
“It was tough watching the guys go out there and play and not being able to do anything. It humbled me in a lot of ways and it helped me in a lot of ways as well, just watching things from the sideline perspective.”
Taylor has taken the time to learn his craft from some of the best defensive tackles in the game. He has watched videotape of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Oakland Raider Warren Sapp, paying particularly close attention to his physical and relentless style of play. “I try to mimic some of the things he does,” Taylor says.
He also has studied how New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork is “able to take on some of the double teams and how he’s so good at stopping the run.”
And one of the very best examples of playing his position can be found right next to him on each snap: Ahtyba Rubin, the Browns’ fifth-year defensive tackle.
“Rube has that motor that’s hard to duplicate,” Taylor says. “Playing next to him makes me play even harder to try to match his tempo each week. We talk a lot, we watch film together.”
Taylor’s teammates on the other side of the ball can see how much his extra attention to detail is paying off. Browns veteran offensive guard John Greco, for one, gets an up-close view of Taylor during every practice.
Suffice it to say that each workout goes a long way toward helping to give Greco the highest level of preparation for each game.
“He has a good combination of size and speed,” Greco says of Taylor. “Sometimes, when you have a guy that big, it’s like he’s one-dimensional; you only have to worry about power. But with Phil, he’s multi-dimensional. He can hit you with quick moves off the ball or just straight power. I think that’s the one thing that works to his advantage. It makes for a long day when you’re blocking him.”
Taylor’s goal is to make those days even longer for the opposition.
“Each week,” he says, “I’ve just got to get better and better.”
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