Monday, September 17, 2018

Monday leftovers

 They are only two games into their schedule, but one thought has become crystal clear about the 2018 Browns. This is not a bad football team.

That is something one could not say for at least the last five years and probably beyond that. That’s not to say it is a good team. It’s just not embarrassingly bad.

It is definitely a step in the right direction as this franchise desperately attempts to apply a tourniquet to the bleeding. Based on the heavily massaged and reconstructed roster, this team is going to win games this season.

The talent is there. General Manager John Dorsey has elevated the skill level on both sides of the football to the point where the Browns are no longer the team you can kick around on a weekly basis between September and December.

Most of the players on this team have no idea their club lugs around a few losing streaks. All they know is the team, as now constituted, is one with the enough talented pieces and parts to be not just competitive, but winners.

That day is coming. It might not happen next week or the week after that, but it will arrive. And once they figure out how to win, that’s the day a frustrated fan base begins to finally rejoice.

You could sense it in the season-opening tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many of the players were angry even though it was the first time in 17 games they didn’t lose. And Sunday’s 21-18 gut-wrenching loss down in New Orleans had to hurt as much as the tie because they knew they played well enough to win both games. Not tie and lose.

“That’s a good football team in there,” intoned coach Hue Jackson after the game. That wasn’t idle talk, designed to make them feel better or a morale boost after a tough loss.

No, they actually played well enough to win. They made plays that had to be made. There was a crispness, particularly on defense, that epitomized the way the game is supposed to played on that side of the ball.

The offense, which is getting untracked seemingly in slow motion, is still a work in progress, but there are signs that progress is being made. For example, quarterback Tyrod Taylor is getting more comfortable with the dumbed-down offense of coordinator Todd Haley.

It took Haley a couple of games to realize he was no longer working with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and what worked in Pittsburgh the last six years was not going to work in Cleveland.

It’s unfair to expect those on board now to perform beyond their capabilities. Their better-than-expected performances thus far is a strong indication the coaching staff has made as much of an adjustment to that end as the players have made to the coaches.

Because of the massive turnover of personnel, a large majority of this team deals with losing and adversity much differently than their predecessors, who sort of got used to it and expected it.

It is incumbent then for Jackson and his staff to take advantage and win the games they should win and help them go out and prove what he said after the Saints loss: “That’s a good football team in there.”
*       *       *
There are probably a few members of Browns Nation lamenting the departure of Josh Gordon, who was shipped to the New England Patriots Monday for a fifth-round draft pick next year.

The talented wide receiver will be missed for sure because of what he can do on as football field. But he won’t be missed after leading a soap-opera-like life when you never know what to expect from him. It took six years to finally wear out the Browns’ patience.

It will be interesting to see how he gets along with stern Pats coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. It is a marriage that brings together three very headstrong individuals. Let’s see if Gordon can adjust to the Patriot Way.

It is also a blessing in disguise for Browns rookie receiver Antonio Callaway, who flashed with a brilliant 47-yard touchdown catch of a Taylor prayer against the Saints.

Up to now, there was little or no room on the play chart for the rookie. Most of the reps belonged to Jarvis Landry and Gordon, as it should have been. But now that Gordon is gone, time for Callaway to step up and show why he was a fourth-round pick with a first-round grade.

His off-the-field problems in college drew enough red flags at draft time. He fell precipitously until Dorsey decided to take a flyer on the speedy, field-stretching wideout.

If his performance in the Saints game is any indication, Callahan has already made his first down payment of thanks. He was targeted only four times by Taylor (that will increase) and caught three balls for 81 yards, including the 47-yarder that temporarily tied the game at 18-18.

As he learns the finer points of being a professional wide receiver, he’s going to get even better. He is already the fastest of the receivers. Once he learns to smooth out his route running, there’s no telling how good he can be. It never would have happened with Gordon still around.
*       *       *
For those of you (including myself here, I guess) waiting for Taylor to fail to the point Jackson sits him down, that’s not going to happen any time soon. He hasn’t done enough to warrant such a move.

Disappointing a little, sure. Most of us want to see Baker Mayfield. The sooner, the better to get on with the future. It’s going to take monumentally bad quarterbacking to uncuff the rookie.

The fact Haley has uncomplicated the playbook somewhat for Taylor and places him in a more comfortable situation with regard to successfully operating the offense, it could be as long as a half season before then unless, of course, injury becomes a factor.
*       *       *
Myles Garrett was kept awfully quiet by the Saints’ defense, which double-teamed him all afternoon. The big defensive end had one solo tackle. That’s the negative.

The positive? It opened opportunity after opportunity for tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who plays next to Garrett, to make plays. And make plays he did with four solo tackles, two sacks (a third was wiped out by an iffy penalty against safety Derrick Kindred) and a couple of quarterback hits.

It was easily the second-year pro’s best game and it came against a pretty good offensive line. It gives future defensive coordinators something to think about when trying to figure out who to double on passing downs.
*       *       *
The signing of Greg Joseph to replace the released Zane Gonzalez as placekicker brought a huge ho hum and a collective “who?” by fans Monday. Some fans had hoped Dan Bailey, who was released by the Dallas Cowboys, would be in the Browns’ crosshairs.

Maybe he was, but there was no way the veteran was going to sign with the Browns no matter how much money they offered. He wanted to kick for a contender. That’s why he signed with the Minnesota Vikings Monday, probably for less money.

Joseph spent the summer kicking for the Miami Dolphins after signing as a free agent out of Florida Atlantic. He was perfect on three field-goal attempts (including one from 54 yards) in exhibition season before being waived.
*       *       *
Why do I get the feeling Haley has no idea how to use Duke Johnson Jr.? Submitted for evidence: 11 touches in two games for 35 yards. Eleven touches? That’s nearly what he averaged in one game last season. Thirty-five yards? He averaged that in one half of a game last season.

The versatile fourth-year running back is a weapon, but Haley doesn’t seem to realize it. He is a bundle of talent being relatively chained to the bench with an emphasis on the running game. Johnson is much more valuable when he’s on the field far more than 40% of the time.

He was on the field for just 37% of the Browns’ offensive plays against New Orleans. He can’t make plays when he’s on the sidelines. Jackson needs to help Haley remember to call his number more than he has. Much more. He’s way too valuable to be a relative spectator.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Once again, special teams were a factor in the New Orleans loss. Gonzalez, of course, shouldered much of that blame, but another flag flew on the punt return team, the dreaded illegal block in the back. It has become almost expected. . . . Two more takeaways against the Saints (both caused by cornerback Terrance Mitchell) boosts the season total to eight in two games, only five behind last season’s total of 13. . . . If you watch Callaway’s big catch closely, notice he catches the back half of the ball before gathering it in as he races into and then out of the end zone. Great hands. . . . There were only seven punts in the game. Britton Colquitt’s 39.3-yard average was disappointing, He’s better than that. . . . Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is having a terrific season. Drew Brees has targeted him 30 times this season. The ex-Buckeye has caught 28 of those for 269 yards and three touchdowns. . . . All three of Brees’ sacks were of the coverage variety.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Yet another woe-is-me loss

The Browns have suffered some awful dispiriting, gut-wrenching, temper-losing, items-throwing losses over the last 20 years. There are so many, it would be difficult to rank them.

A new entry for entrance into that category emerged Sunday down in New Orleans, where they lost a 21-18 heartbreaker to the Saints in a game they played well enough to win.

Major fingers of guilt will definitely be pointed at placekicker Zane Gonzalez, whose terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day turned into a nightmare that kept his team from smashing an 18-game winless streak and a 21-game road losing skein.

His afternoon started well with a pair of 39-yard field goals to help give the Browns a 12-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter as the defense bent a lot, but did not break. And then it all went (pick your adverb) the rest of the way.

Gonzalez, who very well might an ex-Brown by the time Thursday night’s nationally televised game against the New York Jets rolls around, missed two extra points and field goals of 44 and 52 yards. The latter would have forced the club's second straight overtime game.

It was a game the Browns seemingly had under control heading into the final quarter despite an offense that looked as though the main goal was to get back to basics. The ground game plodded most of the afternoon, piling up yards grudgingly. The passing game featured safe, high-percentage throws in an effort to keep the chains moving.

Clearly an emphasis was placed on keeping dumb mistakes that draw flags to a minimum. Not once was the offensive line called for an infraction. It was basic football at its most boring. Cleveland quarterback Tyrod Taylor rarely attempted to stretch the field.

So when Carlos Hyde scored to give the Browns a 12-3 lead on the first possession of the second half, Gonzalez’s first extra-point miss didn’t seem to matter. The defense, which forced two more turnovers to give it eight for the season, was clicking and the lead, although slim, seemed safe.

But when the second-year kicker missed his 44-yard field-goal attempt at the start of the fourth quarter that would have given the Browns a 15-3 lead, murmurs of concern could be around Browns Nation. In other words, “Here we go again.”

That’s just the way Browns fans think. Don’t blame them. Think the worst and if it doesn’t eventuate, enjoy. If it does, they have learned by now how to deal with it. It has become commonplace to think the worst because this franchise has delivered the worst since returning almost 20 years ago.

And this time, as has happened all too frequently in the past, the worst arrived in the last 14 minutes of the game, the Saints erupting for 18 points against a Cleveland defense that began tiring.

Drew Brees got solid help from running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas, the latter snagging a little two-yard screen pass to culminate a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive to pull the Saints to within two points.

Taylor was picked by Saints free safety Marcus Williams two series later and the rejuvenated offense turned it into an 18-12 lead, Thomas scoring his second touchdown of the afternoon on a five-yard fade over rookie Denzel Ward after the Browns had held that lead for nearly 51 minutes.

Nearly three minutes remained, but this team, unlike others in the past beaten down by adversity late in games, had one more card to play. It came in the form of something this franchise almost never deals in: a miracle.

With unexpected improbability. Taylor connected on a beautiful 47-yard scoring strike with rookie Antonio Callaway with 1:16 left to tie the game. A miracle. And when Gonzalez missed his second extra point, a second straight overtime game loomed.

Even if he has been successful with the point, all it took for the Saints to win was a field goal, anyway.

But defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who called an extremely aggressive game up to that point, strangely and unexpectedly went conservative, playing zone in the secondary with so little time left in regulation. Perhaps he thought Saints coach Sean Payton would go conservative and take his chances in overtime.

Uh, no. That’s not Sean Payton, especially with Brees as is his quarterback. Seventy-six seconds with two timeouts in his pocket is almost like a lifetime to the veteran, who has a truckload of comeback victories.

Two passes to wide receiver former Clevelander Ted Ginn Jr., one a 42-yard catch and run during which no Cleveland defender was close enough to touch him for about 20 yards. ate up 50 yards and put the ball within the range of Saints kicker Will Lutz, who had earlier missed a 44-yarder. This 44-yarder was true.

An yet, this iteration of the Browns did not meekly go away.

With only 21 seconds to work with, Taylor connected with Jarvis Landry and Callaway against the Saints’ prevent defense to move the ball 41 yards to the Saints’ 34. With eight seconds left and no timeouts, coach Hue Jackson gave Gonzalez a chance at redemption from 52 yards.

Redemption left town, though, as Gonzalez, who had hit on two of three attempts from 50 or more yards last season, was wide right as he tried to compensate for his previous wide-left misses.

The only positive from the outcome of this game is that the Browns are moving that much closer to the time when they will win games like this. Unfortunately, that seems a bit far-fetched right now.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Sad ending

 In a peculiar and ill-timed move, the Browns Saturday announced they plan to release troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon Monday.

In a statement issued on the eve of their Sunday game in New Orleans against the Saints, General Manager John Dorsey said, “For the past six years, the Browns have fully supported and invested in Josh, both personally and professionally and wanted the best for him. But unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where we feel it’s best to part ways and move forward. We wish Josh well.”

In the end, it turned out to be like an ill-fated romance that blossomed and then withered over a period of time. The Browns' patience with him finally gave out. It was inevitable due to numerous bumps along the way.

The talented wide receiver’s well-documented battle with alcohol and drugs severely hampered a promising career and the Browns, to their credit, kept hoping he would straighten out his life, giving him chance after chance after chance.

Reportedly, Gordon arrived tardily at the team’s facility in Berea Saturday and was “not himself,” NFL sources told Doctors who examined him, again reportedly, were concerned he had either slipped in his battle with alcohol or was close.

That was when the club finally pulled the plug on their long, soap-opera-like relationship with Gordon, who has been suspended by the National Football League for 56 of his 97-game career. He has suited up for just 11 games since the end of the 2014 season.

Technically, he will remain Cleveland property until the team officially actually releases him Monday. But now that word is out, there are reports several teams have expressed interest in trading for him rather than waiting until he becomes a free agent.

It truly is a sad ending to what could have become a terrific story if only he had managed to control his sobriety. Now, he will be some other team’s problem.

In some ways, Gordon will always be known as the wide receiver who shocked the NFL in his second season, recording some of the most remarkable and dazzling statistics for one of the league’s worst teams.

Playing in 14 games, he caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns for the 4-12 2013 Browns. That's nearly 117 yards a game. The Browns were 4-10 when he was in uniform.

What made those numbers so remarkable was it took the combined efforts of three different quarterbacks – Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer – to accomplish it.

In some ways, Gordon’s eventual departure is sort of a cleansing. Now the club can move forward minus the Gordon baggage as they attempt to rekindle a part of their history that was awash with success.

Gordon needs a fresh start in many different ways. This was a relationship that just wasn’t meant to be in Cleveland, except for that one rather exciting glimmer of hope five years ago.

He leaves with 180 receptions for 3,106 yards –more than half of those yards were gained in one season – and 16 touchdown, and a fan base wondering what could have been.

It won’t be close

 It appears as though New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has this strange relationship with hyperbole.

Why else would he say, in the run-up to Sunday’s game with the Browns in New Orleans, something patently ridiculous about Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield? But that’s exactly what he did in a phoner with the Cleveland media the other day.

“I think he can be a lot better than me,” said the man whose outstanding professional career will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after he retires, and he’s still going strong at 39.

He still brings it, witness his 35-for-47, 439-yard, three-touchdown, no-pick performance in the season-opening 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Man, he’s got all the tools,” Brees said, referring to Mayfield. “He’s more athletic, he probably can run around better, he’s got a stronger arm. Listen, he’s got all the tools.”

Definition of hyperbole: Extravagant exaggeration.

Yep, that’s it. And maybe just a wee bit premature.

Here is a man who has thrown for 491 touchdowns, more than 70,000 yards and completed 67% of his passes in a remarkable 18-season career that began only two years after the Browns reentered the National Football League in 1999.

His 70,884 yards rank third on the NFL’s all-time list for most career passing yards and he is certain to become the leader within the next several weeks, trailing the retired Peyton Manning, the man at the top, by only 1,057 yards.

Brees, whose prolific passing ability initially thrust him into the spotlight at Purdue University, has become without question the greatest short quarterback (at just a half at tick taller than six feet) in the history of the league.

Why he chose to strangely compare himself with Mayfield and seemingly beyond is puzzling. Perhaps he sees Mayfield as a worthy successor for the mantle of next great short NFL quarterback. High praise, indeed, for someone who has yet to take a snap as a professional.

But c’mon. “All the tools . . . more athletic . . . probably can run around better . . . stronger arm.” He’s also 16 years younger. My memory recalls a much younger Drew Brees with similar characteristics.

The key word in his Mayfield proclamation is think, as in I think he can be a lot better. Not quite the same as flat out predicting. If anything, that puts pressure on the young Cleveland quarterback, who must wait his turn while coach Hue Jackson clings to the belief that starting Tyrod Taylor gives him his best shot at winning.

That day will come, of course, perhaps sooner than later if Taylor duplicates his awful performance in the season-opening tie with Pittsburgh. For now, all Mayfield can do is graciously accept the praise from his idol growing up and wait.

Which brings us to Sunday’s game between the Browns and Saints in the Crescent City. Brees and Mayfield will meet for the first time on the field prior to that game even though they grew up only miles apart in Austin, Texas.

It will be a meeting of teams with totally different ambitions. The Saints made the playoffs last season and are favored in some quarters to not only return to the postseason, but wind up in the Super Bowl; the Browns are a revamped team looking for any slivers of hope that will lead to any form of respectability and relevance.

Their winless streak now stands at 18 games after last Sunday’s tie with Pittsburgh and their overall record in the last 54 games is 4-49-1, including 1-31-1 under Jackson. They have not won a game in 630 days.

The Browns have experienced little trouble when facing the Saints in the past, owning a 13-4 record, including an 8-2 mark when traveling to the deep south. That includes the last three in a row since 1999.

Brees has encountered moderate success against them, splitting four starts against them, three with the Saints. He has thrown for only five touchdowns and been picked off seven times.

Expect the Saints to arrive in an angry mood for the game after last Sunday’s embarrassment against the Buccaneers in front of the home folks. The secondary made fill-in Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick look like an All-Star.

The bearded veteran shredded the Saints secondary for 417 yards and four touchdowns, clicking five times on pass plays more than 32 yards. Overall the beleaguered defense surrendered 529 yards.

Brees tied to keep pace with a 35-for-47, 439-yard, three-touchdown afternoon. Michael Thomas, his favorite receiver, was busy with 16 receptions in 17 targets for 180 yards and a score.

Based solely on the Saints’ pass defense stats of that game, the struggling Cleveland offense shouldn’t have much trouble, right? Surely, Taylor should have no problem atoning for his rather nasty performance against the Steelers, right?

Then one realizes that while Taylor might have the receivers who can stretch the field, he does not have an arm strong enough to take advantage of a shell-shocked New Orleans secondary, one loaded with former Ohio State stars: Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safeties Kurt Coleman and Vonn Bell.

Also culpable in that loss was the inability of the front seven to sack Fitzpatrick, who escaped a dozen times, a la Taylor against the Steelers.

The big question is whether the Browns, minus defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and possibly linebacker Christian Kirksey, can withstand the aerial onslaught of Brees, who also uses versatile running back Alvin Kamara as a weapon.

Several questions that need to be answered factor into this game

Defensively, how effective will Browns rookie corner Denzel Ward be against Thomas in a battle of former Ohio State teammates? How close will defensive end Myles Garrett come to duplicating his terrific performance last Sunday? Can the Browns stop the run? They couldn’t last Sunday against James Conner.

On offense, how much more will offensive coordinator Todd Haley involve wide receiver Josh Gordon in the game plan? Is Taylor capable of stretching the field, something he didn’t (couldn’t?) do against the Steelers? And can the offensive line provide running room for anyone who isn’t a quarterback?

                           This just in: Gordon will not play
                           due to hamstring problems. More 
                           work for rookie Antonio Callaway.

It’s hard to imagine a team as good as the Saints losing their first two games of the season at home. And despite all the success the Browns have had against the Saints over the years, particularly on the road, that was then and this is now.

This team will struggle a little longer before it not only wins, but learns how to win. It’s a little too early right now. The Saints are clearly the better team and the loss to the Bucs last Sunday just adds fuel to their eagerness to resume their quest to play in January for a second straight season.

The Saints have averaged more than 400 points a season since Brees arrived in 2006. The Browns have cracked 400 points only once (2007) since then. That offensive excellence, especially in the passing game, will continue against a Cleveland secondary still getting used to playing together.

With Mayfield probably collecting tips on how to play successfully in the NFL by watching his idol up close, Brees will put up another 300-plus yard day, connecting with Thomas for two scores in his three-touchdown afternoon, while Kamara scores twice as the run defense continues to have problems.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, manages to bust out with a couple of first-quarter touchdowns before the Saints adjust and shut it down, and the defense comes nowhere close to duplicating its six-takeaway performance against Pittsburgh, coming up with only one . . . and failing to capitalize on it. Make it:

Saints 38, Browns 17

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Mid-week thoughts

 About the only thing surprising about how inefficient the Browns’ offense was in the tie with Pittsburgh on Sunday was coach Hue Jackson’s reaction to that fact.

Jackson, who has forgotten more about coaching offense than any of us know, has been around long enough to not be “surprised” that was the case with many factors as the major contributors.

The Browns owned the ball on an incredible 19 occasions (six in the first half, nine in the second half and four in overtime) and ran 85 plays. The defense, meanwhile, was on the field for 19 possessions, six of which ended in Cleveland takeaways, only one of which was converted into points

The best series for the offense, by far, was its first in the second half, The well-coordinated, well-executed 10-play, 86-yard drive took nearly five minutes off the clock and generated more yards than it did in the entire six-possession first half (82).

With the exception of a two-play, 55-yard drive that tied the game with two minutes left in regulation, that was it. For a vast majority of the afternoon, the offense lacked crispness, looked slow and was clearly out of sync. It was almost as though they had never played before as a unit.

Which they hadn’t. Ever.

It was the first time these 11 men were on the field at the same time. That’s right, the Cleveland offensive line had never played a single down as a unit in the exhibition season.

Now how in the world can anyone realistically expect this unit, which relies heavily on timing, rhythm and cohesion, to come out of the chute and play well? It takes years for the big group up front on any team to achieve the necessary level of play associated with success.

How they perform has a domino effect on the performance of the offense as a whole. And it sure showed Sunday against the Steelers.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who played sparingly during the exhibition season, looked rusty and definitely out of rhythm. He was sacked seven times in 47 dropbacks. If it weren’t for his ability to scramble, that number surely would have hit double figures.

When you begin a season with a brand new quarterback, not to mention a whole new system, it’s usually wise to give him as much exposure in the preseason as possible so that when the real games begin, there is a comfort level that theoretically should enable him to have a good chance to succeed.

Taylor’s poor timing with his receivers was a reflection of the absence of reps needed to hone the passing game. He failed way too often to find open receivers and often looked confused. And when he found them, he overthrew them on at least three occasions.

The ball came out of his hand too slowly when he delivered it. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry bailed him out on at least three occasions. Josh Gordon made an exceptional catch on the game-tying touchdown throw.

And yet Jackson was “surprised” at how poorly the offense played? Shocking.

It would be easy to point fingers of guilt at new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. It also would be foolish.

It wasn’t Haley who decided to plug in rookie Desmond Harrison at left tackle, shift Joel Bitonio back to guard and drop rookie Austin Corbett all the way down to inactive status on game day. That one came courtesy of Jackson.

That’s why the running game looked a little ragged; why Taylor looked so bad; why his timing mechanism with his receivers is shot; why the offense failed to take advantage of six takeaways.

Now it is entirely possible this offensive line could eventually develop into something special. But it won’t happen this Sunday in New Orleans. Maybe not even until midseason, if that. It takes time to develop a chemistry up front.

To believe otherwise is folly and Jackson knows that.
*       *       *
Haley’s offense seemed to do better in the ground game when plays were designed to go north or between the tackles. Zone and trap blocking opened up some holes, but plays that went east or west were not nearly as successful.

This line right now does not have the athleticism or quickness to run plays on the edges. Haley cannot expect his current unit to play nearly as well as the Steelers’ terrific offensive line, with which he worked for the last six seasons before being cashiered at the end of last season.
*       *       *
Addendum: In praising Myles Garrett for his virtuoso performance against the Steelers in Monday leftovers, I neglected to point out his only negative. And as it turned out, it was a game-changer.

After rookie Genard Avery strip-sacked Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger with a half minute left in overtime and Joe Schobert ran the ball back to the Steelers’ 12-yard line, Garrett needlessly blocked a player in the back in support of Schobert. He didn’t have to because the middle linebacker had already passed him.

So rather than Zane Gonzalez in position to win the game with a 30-yard field goal at that point, the ball was placed a dozen yards back, just far enough back to allow the Steelers’ to block his more difficult 43-yard attempt.

Now maybe a shorter attempt would have been blocked, too. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Monday leftovers

 If his performance in the season-opening tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday is any indication, Myles Garrett is going to have a monster season. And it appears he doesn’t need much help.

The big defensive end introduced himself to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on numerous occasions in the 21-21 standoff despite little and often times no help from the rest of his defensive linemates.

Emmanuel Ogbah was almost a cipher for the afternoon at left defensive end, producing exactly one assisted tackle to the cause while Garrett provided relentless pressure all afternoon.

If he wasn’t drawing holding penalties, he was either strip-sacking Roethlisberger, checking out the big quarterback’s dental work or causing havoc within the Steelers’ offensive line with his tireless work ethic.

He had half of the club’s four sacks, half of the four hits on Big Ben and found himself in Roethlisberger’s area code for a extensive portion of the afternoon. Oh and five of his six tackles were solos

He consistently gave Steelers left offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva fits on pass plays, often beating the 6-9, 320-pounder with his strength, quickness and speed.

Whenever the Steelers chose to attack the Browns’ flanks, it was almost always their right side, or where Ogbah was stationed. Running back James Conner picked up a lot of his 135 yards on cutbacks to the strong side.

Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who has improved dramatically on his rookie season, also checked in with a strong game, notching a sack and seven tackles, three solo. But that’s to be expected when you play next to Garrett.

What defensive coordinator Gregg Williams needs to do is identify someone who can bolster Garrett ‘s contributions on the opposite side of the line who can produce to the point where it gains the attention of the opposition. Ogbah is not that player.

It never reached the point Sunday where the Steelers chose to double Garrett, but you can bet future opponents will attempt to scheme to shut him down, or at least render him ineffective with double teams if his performance against the Steelers is any indication.

This defense can become very special if Garrett is allowed to be who the Browns thought he would be when they drafted him No 1 last year. As long as he stays healthy, there is no telling how good he can be.
*       *       *
Denzel Ward is certain to long remember his professional football debut. The offense couldn’t capitalize on his two interceptions, but it sure seemed to vindicate his selection with the fourth pick in the last draft.

Yes, Antonio Brown burned him on one of the Steelers’ three touchdowns. Then again, who hasn’t been burned at least once by the perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver?

And granted, it’s only one game, but the kid from Nordonia and Ohio State sure looked as though he belonged. His first pick, in particular, was very heady and extremely athletic.

He read Roethlisberger’s eyes as he scrambled on the Steelers’ third series of the game shortly after reaching the red zone. The big quarterback spotted Brown in the open at the Cleveland 10. Ward saw it right away, dropped his coverage, changed directions and lunged for the football, catching it just before it hit the ground.

That is something you can’t teach. That’s instinct and intelligence combining to make a play, something the Cleveland defense had trouble with last season. His second pick was a result of a deflection by Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James.

The Browns had only seven interceptions last season. With three picks already, it’s only a matter of time before that embarrassing statistic is passed this season.
*       *       *
If the first game and the performance of the special teams during the exhibition season is any indication, it will be a long season for those units.

It seems as though every time the Browns force the opposition to punt, there will be almost routinely a flag for holding, an illegal block in the back or some other infraction on the returns. It happened four times against the Steelers.

It hamstrings the offense, often times shoving them back dangerously close to the goal line. Starting drives inside the 20 can wear down an offense.

Now factor in how poorly the Browns cover punts. They experienced similar problems in the exhibitions and do not appear to have resolved them. Ryan Switzer of the Steelers returned five punts for 56 yards, his 22-yarder creating a short field to set up the Steelers’ third touchdown.

Then there was the punt by Britton Colquitt in overtime that skipped off the back of his up man in punt formation who allowed so much penetration, it forced Colquitt to adjust. The punt traveled only 29 yards, creating a short field at the Pittsburgh 45, but placekicker Chris Boswell cooperated by missing a 42-yard field goal try.

One more don’t-ever-do-that-again for special teams coordinator Amos Jones’ units: When an opposing punt is short, listen to your return man and clear the area if you are blocking. Get as far away from the ball as you can.

Nick Chubb did not on a fourth-quarter punt and the ball appeared to graze his helmet. The Steelers recovered the ball, but the ruling on the field suggested otherwise and awarded the ball to the Browns

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin immediately threw the red challenge flag and the replay appeared to show the ball slightly moving after glancing off Chubb’s helmet. But rookie referee Shawn Smith upheld the call on the field, probably because there was no conclusive visual evidence to overturn it.
*       *       *
The offensive line was very offensive against the Steelers. Four false start penalties, seven sacks allowed and a generally poor performance against a pretty good Steelers front seven.

They were the main reason Taylor had to scramble as often as he did. That and Taylor’s inability to spot open receivers quickly and get rid of the ball.

Steelers outside linebacker T. J. Watt had a field day against them with four sacks, 11 tackles (eight solo), not to mention blocking the field goal attempt by Zane Gonzalez in the waning seconds of overtime to preserve the tie.

It is going to take time for this unit to operate in a cohesive manner with new faces at both tackle positions. Desmond Harrison did okay at left tackle (being kind here for the rookie) considering it was his pro football debut. As a unit, though, there is plenty of room for improvement.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Penalties, penalties, penalties . . . 11 more for 87 yards for those that were accepted, many of them called in crucial situations. The Browns are killing themselves, a malady that carried over from last season and continued in the exhibition season. It indicates a lack of discipline and needs to be corrected pronto.  . . . Technically, it has been 625 days (Christmas Eve day in 2016) since the Browns lasted tasted victory, a three-point verdict over the then San Diego Chargers. . . . How did rookie offensive lineman Austin Corbett slip all the way to the inactive list on game day? The first of the team’s two second-round draft picks played a huge number of snaps in the exhibition season at left guard only to see coach Hue Jackson bench him in in the run-up to the opener in favor of Harrison, who bumped Joel Bitonio back to left guard, . . . What in the world lowered Duke Johnson Jr. to virtual spectator after his terrific 2017 season? The versatile running back appears to be getting lost in the shuffle, touching the ball only six times for 25 yards. He had one pass reception although targeted six times. What gives? . . . Britton Colquitt’s 12 punts in one game is four shy of the National Football League record set by Leo Araguz of Oakland 20 years ago. But his 522 total yards eclipses Chris Gardocki’s previous club mark of 517 in 2000. . . . Question of the week: Why in the world was Josh Gordon targeted only three times against the Steelers? . . . In retrospect, it does seem a little odd to praise the Browns’ defense when that defense surrendered 472 total yards to the Steelers, but there is no tie without that defense in the second half.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

At least it wasn't a loss

The Browns served notice to the rest of the National Football League Sunday that the good old days of coming into Cleveland and leaving with an easy victory are over.

Displaying a tenacity and a never-ever-say-it’s-over demeanor, the 2018 version of this franchise epitomized the kind of grit and determination John Dorsey sought when he took over as general manager midway through last season.

Fighting all afternoon to rescue an offense that clearly needs a lot of work to get even close to being competitive, the Cleveland defense stepped up with one of its signature performances in a long time.

Were it not for that side of the football, the 21-21 overtime tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers would have ended quite differently. In the end, though, the deadlock seemed almost like a victory. Almost.

The Factory of Sadness (not sad for at least one day?) rocked most of the steady-rain afternoon in the entertaining season opener, especially when the Browns overcame a 21-7 deficit with less than eight minutes left in regulation, due mainly to the opportunistic defense.

That defense made life miserable for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who normally demonizes the Browns. He looked almost human as the secondary picked off three first-half passes, sacked him four times and caused him to twice cough up fumbles en route to a five-turnover afternoon.

The Steelers’ defense conversely made life even more miserable for Cleveland quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who completed only 15 of 40 passes and was sacked seven times behind a crumbling offensive line.

More often than not, he looked confused and was forced to use his legs to bail himself out of further trouble in his Cleveland debut. He had trouble locating open receivers most of the afternoon.

He also led the club in rushing yards with 77, a misleading statistic because they were all scramble yards when dropping back to pass. You don’t want your quarterback to lead the team in rushing.

The big comeback began when Myles Garrett knocked the ball loose from running back James Conner (turnover No. 6) deep in Steelers territory. Safety Jabrill Peppers scooped up the loose ball and ran it to the Pittsburgh 1. Carlos Hyde ran the yard on the next play to pull the Browns within seven.

Two possessions later after a short punt, Taylor found some magic. After throwing eight straight incompletions, he moved his offense 55 yards in two plays, connecting with Rashard Higgins on a 38-yard pass and Josh Gordon with a 17-yard scoring throw with 1:58 left in regulation to pull even.

The overtime was an exercise in futility for both teams. In four possessions, each lasting three plays, the Cleveland offense moved the football just 15 yards. In their four series, the Steelers totaled 54 yards.

Each had an opportunity to win with a field goal. The normally reliable Chris Boswell’s 42-yard effort drifted wide left with 1:47 left for the Steelers. Zane Gonzalez’s 43-yard attempt after rookie Genard Avery strip-sacked Roethlisberger was blocked by T. J. Watt with mere seconds left.

Were it not for the defense’s inability to shut down Conner, this one might have wound up in the column on the left. The second-year man scored twice and was brilliant all afternoon.

He racked up 192 yards from scrimmage, 135 of them on the ground while filling in as the Steelers wait for All-Star Le’Veon Bell to report in the midst of a contract dispute. 

The afternoon looked bleak when the Steelers scored on their first two possessions of the second half, breaking a 7-7 tie. . On the first, penalties negated two touchdowns, but Roethlisberger recovered and connected with Antonio Brown on a 22-yard scoring strike on the third try.

On the next possession, Conner needed two carries to travel the 39 yards to his second touchdown after a nice punt return shortened the field.

The good news is the deadlock, the Browns’ first since a 10-10 tie with Kansas City in 1989, ended the club’s 17-game losing streak dating back to the end of the 2016 season. It also marked the first time these bitter rivals have ended up in a tie in the 133-game series that began in 1950.

Small consolation? Not necessarily. It wasn’t a loss and there’s something to be said for that. It was not earned through luck. It was earned through hard work, although the offense needs to work that much harder to catch up with the defense

It was clearly a huge step toward the new front office’s goal of changing the losing culture that has gripped this franchise for nearly two decades.  They now need to build on this effort and develop consistency, a trait this franchise has not displayed for way too long.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Close, but not quite yet

Britton Colquitt has punted for eight seasons in the National Football League. He has booted the football 635 times, 472 times with the Denver Broncos for six seasons and 163 times in two seasons with the Browns.

Over that period, the youngest member of the punting Colquitt family has had only one of those punts blocked. It was not your ordinary block.

It happened exactly one year ago Sunday in Cleveland on the very first series of the 2017 season, against, yep, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the club’s season-opening opponent again Sunday, and again in Cleveland.

Colquitt dropped back to punt a yard from the end zone, accepted Charley Hughlett’s snap and had no chance as Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo beat the snap and recovered the blocked punt in the end zone in the 21-18 victory.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest the blocked kick set the tone for the Browns for the rest of the lamentably dreadful and embarrassing 0-16 season.

But you can’t blame Colquitt, whose older brother Dustin has logged 12 seasons with Kansas City and daddy Craig spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, because he had no chance on the play. There were too many other overall weaknesses elsewhere to overcome. Punting was not one of them.

Now we come to the kickoff of the 2018 seasons. Colquitt is still around, but he is surrounded this time by a much better team with 32 new faces, a new attitude and a whole new approach.

The optimism emerging from training camp and the revamped – and decidedly improved – roster hasn’t been seen in these parts for a long, long time. A lot of it is warranted.

The defense is markedly better with a healthy Myles Garrett anchoring the defensive line and a rookie cornerback in Denzel Ward, who is being counted on, fairly or unfairly, to be the shutdown corner the Browns haven’t had since the days of a young Joe Haden, now patrolling the secondary for the Steelers.

The Steelers, meanwhile, arrive amid a swirling controversy as Le’Veon Bell, their All-Star running back, is balking at contract differences and has yet to report. He is already out $850,000 for missing this game.

In the process, he has been vilified by a significant number of his teammates, a distraction many Browns fans hope will factor into the outcome of the game. A year ago, though, a similar scenario unfolded.

Bell reported to camp the week of the Browns game and played, but was a non-factor. He touched the ball 13 times and gained only 47 yards. A pair of short touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James – and the blocked punt that became a touchdown – was all the Steelers needed.

This season, Roethlisberger is back for his 15th season and the Browns’ killer still has a terrific receiving corps to target against the young Cleveland secondary. The big guy from Findlay loves playing the Browns, his 22-2 record against them solid proof of that fact

Antonio Brown, who has absolutely tortured – and torched – the Browns over the years, was joined last season by rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster to give other secondaries reason to worry.

James Conner, a second-year man, replaces Bell in the backfield. The Pittsburgh area native, who has a similar running style as Bell, has the luxury of running behind one of the best offensive lines in the AFC, if not all of the NFL.

The challenge for the Cleveland defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be to try and keep Roethlisberger off balance with a variety of different looks that can be effective if disguised properly. 

The Browns’ offense, which staggered in the exhibition season with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, needs to find an element of the game that has been missing – consistency. That will be offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s biggest challenge.

The motivation will be there for the volatile Haley, having served as the Steelers’’ offensive coordinator the past six seasons. But there is a large talent gap between the dynamic Roethlisberger and the careful Taylor.

Coach Hue Jackson promised the Browns would run the ball more this season – they ran it just 34% of the time last season – and that promise was kept in the exhibition season to the tune of nearly 130 yards a game.

One caveat: The offensive line, especially the left side, is a work in progress. After playing Joel Bitonio at left tackle in the exhibitions, Jackson pulled a last-minute switch and named rookie Desmond Harrison to replace the retired Joe Thomas, bumping Bitonio back to his natural position at left guard.

It is a gamble Jackson, operating with a very short leash, obviously is comfortable with considering the slippery handle he has on his job.

Rookie Austin Corbett, the club’s initial selection in the second round of the last draft who played just about every snap at left guard in the exhibitions, will now watch games from the sideline.

That means two of the Browns’ first four picks in that draft will be spectators (quarterback Baker Mayfield and Corbett) and a third, running back Nick Chubb, backs up Carlos Hyde but is expected to play. Ward is the only starter among that quartet.

Taylor becomes the 29th different quarterback since the return in 1999 to start a game. In order for the Browns to have a chance at winning this game, he must perform as he did last season when he led the Buffalo Bills to the postseason.

He has a much better receiving corps to work with than his predecessors with wide receivers, Jarvis Landry, rookie Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins and Josh Gordon, and tight end David Njoku.

He needs to be mistake-free, but that will not be an easy task against a very aggressive and opportunistic Steelers defense.

The weather forecast for the game calls for a steady rain and winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour. If that is correct, it might have a significant impact on the game plans on offense.

Several media prognosticators look for the Browns to end their current six-game losing streak to the Steelers, who own a 33-6 record against them since 1999. Now factor in Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s 19-3 record against Cleveland, all three losses by the lakefront.

It is very tempting to join those who see an upset, but I think it’s a bit too early for this team to jell to the point where they shock an opponent. It will come, but it will take another few games to reach that point. For that reason, make it:

Steelers 21, Browns 18

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Browns will be better, but . . .

As the 2018 National Football League season approaches for the Browns, there are two absolutes in predicting their fortunes, and the distinct possibility of a third.

There is no question the 2018 edition of this team is infinitely better – it’s not even close – than what passed for a football team in last season’s very forgettable and unfortunate season, during which it underwhelmed opponents in every game.

And there is no question this team will not duplicate that sorry feat in spite of existing in the formative stages of what very well could be the development of the first honest-to-goodness team to reward its fans with a winning season.

As much as some of the national media has glommed on to the Browns and the club’s ardent and emotional fandom believe a corner will be turned, the brakes must be at least tapped if not fully pumped.

The Browns will win games this season. Along the way, they will probably win a game or two they’re not supposed to and lose at least that many to teams that are not as talented.

It is a football team that needs to learn how to win. Not just win. Discover the reasons behind victories and apply them in future games. And that is where the distinct possibility of a third absolute enters the picture.

Hue Jackson’s job as head coach depends largely on how the Browns perform out of the gate. It is not a schedule fraught with traps. There are winnable games in the first half of the season.

That being the case, Jackson’s hold on his job – he’s extremely fortunate he has one after a 1-31 record in his first two seasons – becomes tenuous and the short leash that tethers him to that job will be cut.

In order to keep his job as head coach, Jackson must win at least three games in the first half or else he runs out of excuses to draw a paycheck from Jimmy Haslam III.

He has solid coordinators in Todd Haley for the offense and Gregg Williams for the defense. His general manager has furnished him with as much talent as this franchise has seen in the last generation.

It will be interesting to see as the season unfolds just how much Jackson has learned how to be strictly a head coach. Delegating authority is one of the prime factors in the success or failure of a head coach.

Making the transition from coordinator or top assistant coach to the head job is met with failure far more than success. The jury -- at least on the ownership level -- is still out on Jackson, but it starts closing in on a verdict Sunday in the season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There’s an old saying when it comes to success/failure rate of assistant coaches in the National Football League. Some of them are lieutenants; the others are generals.

For example, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is a general. The likes of former assistant coaches like Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Bill Belichick. Sean Payton and Pete Carroll are generals. Jackson is a lieutenant.

The only head coach the Browns have employed since the return in 1999 who was a general was Butch Davis. The other seven were clearly lieutenants and failed miserably.

Davis departed because he took on way too many responsibilities in the front office, as well as on the field, and it short-circuited his tenure. He would have been the right fit if he hadn’t aspired to loftier goals, which badly interfered with his coaching and effectiveness.

This franchise needs a general, someone who can come in and win right away with the talent on board. Someone who can command the respect of his players and maximize their talents. That someone is not Hue Jackson.

As a result, look for the Browns to struggle until Haslam has seen enough and pulls the plug. That could happen as soon as the quarter pole after game four in Oakland or as far off as the second game of the season in Pittsburgh (game eight).

It is unfair for the fans to expect this team to completely turn around and be competitive in every game. The offense, at least as long as quarterback Tyrod Taylor remains vertical, will be all right. Nothing special.

Taylor plays in a fashion that can best be described as “not to lose.” His conservative approach minimizes interceptions, but can be extremely dull. Don’t expect him to air it out to a speedster like rookie Antonio Callaway. He doesn’t have that kind of an arm.

Don’t expect much out of the offense early on with a line that is still in flux. Jackson has hinted rookie Desmond Harrison might start at left tackle, bumping Joel Bitonio back inside to left guard. Cohesiveness up front will be a work in progress. That’s a problem.

The defense will not be a problem . . . unless the offense can’t stay on the field. If opposing defenses catch on that the Cleveland attack will be much more conservative than it has been the last couple of seasons, they might counter by squeezing the field.

If the offense does not cooperate with clock-eating drives that keep the defense fresh, that side of the ball will log far more playing time and lose their effectiveness. But they will be entertaining. Count on Williams to dial up as many, if not more, blitzes than he did last season, though. That will never change.

Myles Garrett, provided he stays healthy, will be among the league leaders in sacks. The addition of rookie cornerback Denzel Ward will factor in more than the paltry seven interceptions the Browns had last season.

The key to this season hinges on how well Taylor handles the offense and takes care of the football. Yes, he threw only four picks last season. But he also connected on just 14 scoring passes in 15 games. That number has to increase.

Bottom line: If the Browns win four games this season, it should be considered a strong step in the right direction. Anything more is gravy. Anything less and Jackson is history. Perhaps as soon as the second Steelers game.

Look for victories against Cincinnati (sweep), Baltimore and the New York Jets. They’ll be 2-3 after five games before losing five in a row and nine of their last 11, both victories coming against the Bengals.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Defensive line targeted

Now that the roster purge is complete (or is it?), at least we now know where John Dorsey believes one of the Browns’ weaknesses lies.

Having cleaned out last season’s talent-challenged team by nearly 60%, the general manager has identified the defensive line, especially the pass rush from within, as a chief weak spot on defense.

Never mind those seven sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles in exhibition game No. 3. In his first attempt at rearranging the roster since he named the final 53 Saturday, the defensive line was going to get a new look at tackle.

The final 53 was just that for less than 24 hours as Dorsey added defensive linemen Carl Davis and Ifeadi Odenigbo, linebacker Tanner Vallejo, defensive back Tavierre Thomas and offensive lineman Aaron Neary, and subtracted defensive linemen Carl Nassib and Jamie Meder, backup center Austin Reiter, linebacker Jermaine Grace and defensive back Jeremiah McKinnon.

The Browns the last few seasons have had a mediocre at best pass rush from the interior of the line, mostly because they ran a 3-4 scheme. But when the 4-3 look last season produced no better than average quarterback pressure, hurries and sacks, something had to be done.

Meder, Danny Shelton (traded to New England earlier in the year), Nassib and Nate Orchard and Caleb Brantley (trimmed in the big purge Saturday) lacked the kind of push toward the quarterback desired by Dorsey and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

That’s why Odenigbo, picked up from Minnesota waiver list, and Davis, plucked off the Baltimore  list, are now members of the Browns. Both most likely will become situational players depending on down and distance, while Larry Ogunjobi and Trevon Coley will be counted on to control the ground game.

Davis is a 6-5, 320-pound load, while Odenigbo checks in at 6-3, 275. Both are specialists adept at getting up close and personal with opposing quarterbacks. They will join Devaroe Lawrence, acquired from New Orleans for a late-round pick Saturday, in the semi-revamped position.

Nassib, a marginal defensive end who checked in with 5½ sacks in his two seasons with the Browns, was a hard worker whose production never seemed to match the effort he put forth. Meder was nothing more than a run stopper.

Vallejo, Tavierre Thomas and Neary, who will replace Reiter on the roster, probably won’t have the immediate impact as the others. And their tenure on the roster is subject to the waiver whims of their general manager, who is always scouring the wire.

Pending any other moves Dorsey plans on making between now and Sunday’s season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the roster breaks down like this:

Twenty-two returnees from last season; 31 new faces, including eight of the nine draft choices; 11 rookies, 12 players in their second season and seven more in their third campaign. In other words, nearly 57% of the roster has relatively little National Football League experience.

Other interesting roster facts: The Browns drafted 42 players over the last five seasons. Only 13 are left and that includes eight from this year’s class. During Sashi Brown’s tenure as the boss man (2016-17), the club made 24 selections. Only 10 are left. Duke Johnson Jr. is the lone survivor from the 12-player 2015 class and Joel Bitonio and Christian Kirksey are the only two left from the six-member 2014 class.

One can only imagine where the Browns would be today with only moderately intelligent drafting.