BEREA — The question to defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was about rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert.
The answer was a tribute to rookie nickelback K’Waun Williams.
“I would say that K’Waun Williams has earned the right to be on the field,” O’Neil said Thursday. “I think that you would struggle to find a corner that was drafted this past year playing at a higher level than K’Waun Williams right now.
“It’s just hard to keep K’Waun off the field. He makes plays in critical situations.”
Gilbert, the No. 8 pick, played zero defensive snaps Sunday in the 23-7 loss to Houston. Williams, who was undrafted, played 58 — all of the nickelback snaps — and was a bright spot in the slot.
“Justin is progressing. It’s not anything Justin isn’t doing,” O’Neil said. “It’s just K’Waun is playing so well in practice and so well when he gets a chance in the games.
“K’Waun has come in and done a helluva job. I can’t tell you how excited I am about him and how excited I am that he chose us post-draft.”
Gilbert’s season is considered a disappointment, primarily because of the expectations that go with being a top-10 pick. The Browns targeted a cornerback with the first choice of the general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine era, and traded up a spot to make sure they got Gilbert.
“I just go out there and practice every day and try my best to do what the team wants me to do and not worry about where I was picked,” he said. “That’s nothing I can control.”
At 6-foot, 202 pounds, he’s supposed to be perfect to pair with Pro Bowler Joe Haden in Pettine’s man scheme that features a lot of press coverage. But Gilbert has struggled with his technique, particularly disrupting the receiver’s route with a jam at the line and finding the ball in the air downfield.
“I think it’s one of the hardest positions on the field. A lot of people might not realize that,” he said. “No matter how good you are, it’s a big technique position and it’s something I really haven’t mastered yet.”
The issues surfaced early in the season. Gilbert was beat repeatedly by Pittsburgh’s Markus Wheaton in the opener and had a costly pass interference penalty against Baltimore in Week 3. He had stretches of solid play against Jacksonville and Oakland in Weeks 7 and 8, but finds himself on the outside looking in as the playoff push kicks into gear.
“With the amount that they throw the ball, there are some scenarios where I could see Justin being out there,” Pettine said of Sunday’s matchup with the Falcons.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But Gilbert remains confident he can have an impact as the regular season winds down.
“Within this six-game stretch I think I can make an incredible amount of plays on the defensive end,” said Gilbert, who has two starts in 10 games with 23 tackles and five passes defensed.
Gilbert left the Bengals game Nov. 6 with a heel injury, after beginning the game as the third corner. He wasn’t listed on the injury report last week, but Pettine said he didn’t look right in practice and Gilbert said it prevented him from getting out of breaks. He’s had a series of minor injuries, starting in training camp.
Williams, as he’s done since he arrived, ran with the opportunity Sunday. He got his third start of the year as the Browns opened in the nickel and had seven tackles — four solo — and a pass defensed. The breakup was a thing of beauty, as he stayed with receiver Damaris Johnson and lunged to knock away a 35-yard pass in the end zone.
“Man, I had to hustle all the way across the field and I just got the last glimpse of the ball and I just dove for it,” Williams said. “I was just playing my game, just playing aggressive and just showing up wherever I’m needed.”
Williams (5-9, 175) has 20 tackles, a sack on the final drive against Tennessee and six passes defensed. Gilbert rooms with him on the road and before home games and said he’s always studying film.
Williams, who’s played predominantly in the slot, picked the Browns over the Steelers after the draft. He said he arrived with no expectations.
“Just come out here and show these guys I can ball and just trust my technique and go out and get the job done,” he said.
Haden’s not going anywhere, and Buster Skrine has been mostly solid — and tough and resilient as ever. The original plan was for Gilbert to move into the starting lineup and bump Skrine into the slot, but that didn’t happen.
“I wouldn’t say anything major is lacking,” O’Neil said of Gilbert. “It’s just right now we feel like our best three corners out in the game are K’Waun, Buster and Joe. He’s our fourth corner right now. That’s where he fits on the totem pole.”
The secondary is one of the deepest groups on the Browns. That makes Gilbert’s status understandable, if not ideal.
Gilbert’s lowest snap count before Sunday was eight against Tennessee. That followed the bye, when the coaches moved Williams ahead on the depth chart.
Williams sustained a concussion the next week, sidelining him for a game. Gilbert played his best ball of the year in Williams’ absence.
“He did a good job at the line of scrimmage,” O’Neil said. “He brought the techniques to the field that we were asking him to do. He challenged. He competed. He practiced well. He did a good job in the meeting room.
“I’m not down on Justin. I’m just really high on K’Waun. If they’d let us play with 12, I’d play with 12, and he’d be out there.”