Saturday, September 23, 2017

A winnable game

It’s refreshing every once in a while to look back at what the Browns did in the exhibition season. To remember what it was like to actually win a football game. 

Then the regular season commenced following an unbeaten exhibition season and remembrances of those four fake game victories have all but disappeared in the wake of yet another miserable start.

The 2017 National Football League season is barely a couple of weeks old and the Browns find themselves languishing in the same position with regard to winning football games.

Pairing the words “winning” with “Cleveland Browns” in the same sentence is oxymoronic at best. Winning football games on a fairly regular basis during the regular season has been stupefyingly near impossible for this franchise.

And now, just two weeks into the brand new season, the Browns again find themselves in a familiar – and still uncomfortable – position, looking up at the rest of the AFC North.

Yes, I know Cincinnati is down there, too, but the Bengals are more talented. We’ll find out soon enough who wins the race for the bottom of the division next week. But first, a Sunday date with the Indianapolis Colts is next on the docket.

An interesting team, these winless Colts, trying to slog through the early part of the campaign without their best player, quarterback Andrew Luck. The Browns catch a break with Luck off again for the third week in a row, recovering extremely slowly from off-season shoulder surgery.

The Colts’ offense sans Luck means the Browns actually have a chance to win and snap the 14-game road losing streak they drag into the game. This just might be their best chance to win away from home this season.

After facing quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco in the first two games, this week they get Jacoby Brissett, who is just as big physically as the aforementioned, but far less experienced and, thus, far less talented.

Brissett, who replaced the awful Scott Tolzien in the season opener, is not a neophyte to the NFL wars. When Jimmy Garoppolo was injured while filling in for the suspended Tom Brady at the beginning of last season in New England, Brissett took over and was 1-1 in two games.

Tolzien flamed out in the season-opening drubbing by the Los Angeles Rams – he threw a pair of pick sixes in the 46-9 rout – and has firmly entrenched himself as the backup to Brissett until Luck returns.

The Colts also catch a break with news Browns rookie defensive end Myles Garrett is not ready to return from a high ankle sprain and veteran outside linebacker Jamie Collins is out with a concussion.

The teams are in some respects mirror images of each other. Neither team has an offense that will scare you, especially with Luck idled. And their defenses give them the best chance to win games.

If there is an edge on offense, it belongs to the Colts, who boast of wide receivers T. Y. Hilton, Kamar Aiken and Donte Moncrief and tight end Jack Doyle. The Browns counter with Kenny Britt, Rashard Higgins and . . . and . . .

There are those who believe Jordan Leslie, who flashed during the exhibition season, was cut, brought back and placed on the practice squad, then activated off the squad Friday, will be this week’s Higgins, the surprise no one saw coming. It will be interesting to see much coach Hue Jackson involves Leslie in the game plan.

The Colts rely heavily on running back Frank Gore to set the tone for the offense. Gore might be 34 years old – that’s ancient for a running back in the NFL – and not nearly as quick and fast as he used to be after 13 seasons, but he is still a threat.

The Colts, who pushed the Arizona Cardinals to overtime last week before falling, 16-13, in overtime, are starving for any kind of awakening on offense. They have registered only 28 first downs, 491 total yards and just two touchdowns, both on the ground. 

Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – hmmmm, that name rings a bell – has yet to unlock the mystery of how to effectively run an offense with one of the best quarterbacks in the league in civvies on the sideline.

In theory, the Cleveland defense should not have much of a problem slowing down the Indy offense. Conversely, the Browns do not pose any great threats against a Colts defense that is better than the stats show.

Last week against the Cardinals, the pass rush dropped Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer four times and held the offense in check until the fourth quarter before the Cardinals rallied to win.

The Cardinals’ offensive line is average at best, which just might be the best description of the Browns’ offensive line. And even that might be a little too charitable.

After embarrassingly leading the NFL last season in giving up sacks with a club-record 66, the guys up front this season for Cleveland are off to a roaring start with 10 surrendered, several of those because DeShone Kizer held the football way too long. And the running game has yet to get untracked.

This one shapes up as a low-scoring affair that very well might be determined by whoever wins the special teams, time of possession and field position battles. In other words, have the No-Doz ready just in case.

Get ready for some dull, unimaginative football for the most part as two young, hard-throwing quarterbacks try to figure it all out with the defenses dominating. The critical edge that separates the teams belongs to the Colts – the wide receivers.

It won’t be pretty and will look downright ugly at times. In a game many consider winnable for the Browns, their road losing woes continue. Make it:

Colts 16, Browns 7

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Time to address one of the Browns’ biggest problems on offense. . . . third down. They have faced 24 of them in the first two games and converted a measly five. That’s barely 21%, second worst in the National Football League

A key contributor to the lifeblood of any offense is the ability to convert third downs, which not only prolongs drives, it improves time of possession and, most important, keeps the defense rested on the bench.

The average distance to go in those 24 instances is a little more than 10 yards, which basically shouts to opposing defenses that a pass is coming up. On only six occasions has the distance to go been less than seven yards. In other words, the offense has struggled to get close to the so-called makeable third-and-short.

It all begins with succeeding on first down and staying away from second-and-long situations. Winning first down seems like such a simple approach to playing at least competitive football

Only one problem there. This offense has failed abysmally at winning arguably the most important down in the game. They have managed 10 or more yards on first downs only 11 times in 44 opportunities covering 23 possessions. That increases the pressure to succeed on ensuing downs.

If that doesn’t change, if that doesn’t improve, if the importance of winning that down does not penetrate the minds of those in charge of the Cleveland offense, get used to the same results on a weekly basis. 
*       *       *
The next three games on the schedule for the Browns are against Indianapolis, Cincinnati and the New York Jets, teams with a combined victory total of zero after two weeks.

So if they emerge from the Jets game still looking for their first victory of the season, batten down the hatches. Last season’s 1-15 record might look like a walk in the park by comparison.

They catch a break heading into Sunday’s game in Indianapolis with news that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck still isn’t ready to make his 2017 debut because of shoulder issues related to off-season surgery,.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have not scored a touchdown. And the Jets’ front office conducted an off-season roster purge that all but guaranteed nailing one of the top two picks in next year’s college draft.

That is what the Browns, starving for a victory any way they can get one, face as they attempt to blunt talk of repeating last season’s monstrosity of a season.

Get ready for some bad football for the next three weekends. The bar is so low, fans wont be able to really get a good feel as to whether the Browns, depending on how well they play, are improving or just playing down to the level of the opposition.
*       *       *
Danny Shelton played 35 of the defense’s 68 snaps against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday. I know he played. His No. 55 shone brightly on the television screen. So why was a the team’s top draft pick a couple of years ago a no-show on the final stats sheet?

The big defensive tackle appears to have recovered from a knee injury early in the exhibition season. Maybe. The explosion that was there in his first two seasons, when he played nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, is not there anymore.

Could it be the new 4-3 look of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is not suitable for his talents? Instead of playing nose up on the center, he is responsible now for only one gap.

So why nothing on the stats sheet against the Ravens? At least an assist or two on a tackle. He had one solo tackle in the season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, so there’s something there. It has to be a great mystery to the coaching staff.
*       *       *
Another defensive lineman, Emmanuel Ogbah, is also underperforming. The defensive end made the Ravens game stats sheet only because of one pass defensed. Otherwise, zeroes across the board on 54 snaps. He had one solo tackle and a pass defensed on 42 snaps in the Pittsburgh game.

That’s the total contribution the club’s second-round draft selection a year ago has delivered. What was expected of Ogbah this season was a strong pass rush based on 5½ sacks in his rookie season, but even that aspect of his game seems to be missing.

Right now, the Browns do not have what even charitably could be called a decent pass rush. Unless, of course, you consider getting close to the opposing quarterback sufficient. In that case, never mind.

What this pass rush needs is Myles Garrett, who has missed the first two games with a high ankle sprain that could sideline him for as long as half the season depending on the severity. A healthy Garrett would add a much-needed spark.
*       *       *
Whatever happened to the defensive plans to rely heavily on a 4-2-5 look on a majority of the snaps this season? With the NFL becoming a pass-heavy league, it made sense to play a lot of nickel.

So why then has Joe Schobert played every one of Cleveland’s defensive 128 snaps this season? The middle linebacker was thought to be the one who would leave for the nickelback.

Schobert has been a wonderful surprise at his new position in the middle with 14 tackles (seven solo) and does not come out in obvious passing situations, a nod from the coaching staff with regard to his ability to defend against the pass.

Unless Williams changes his mind, which is entirely possible for the mercurial coordinator, the 4-3 look appears to be a staple now for at least for the first couple of downs on each series.
*       *       *
Why does it seem as though Browns quarterbacks line up in shotgun formation a whole lot more than they do in a pro set? It’s because they do and in large numbers.

In the first two games, the Browns have run 128 plays on offense. Of those 128, only 22 (17%) were executed with either DeShone Kizer or Kevin Hogan under center. Everything else was out of the shotgun.

Maybe those numbers are skewed in favor of the shotgun because Kizer played nothing but shotgun throughout his entire high school and college career and is more comfortable lined anywhere from five to seven yards behind center JC Tretter.

Quarterbacking in the pro set requires a totally different kind of rhythm, a rhythm that apparently Kizer has yet to master. After 15 snaps under center in the Pittsburgh game, coach Hue Jackson reduced the number to just seven in the Baltimore loss. Hogan ran four of them.

When Kizer returned to play most of the second half after his migraine subsided, the Browns ran 27 plays. All were from the shotgun. Jackson apparently considers him a work in progress. Barring a sudden epiphany for the pro set, Kizer’s problem could linger the entire season.
*       *       *
And finally . . . Fullback Danny Vitale was on the field for only six of Cleveland’s 66 plays on offense against the Ravens. Let’s try this one more time: Why is he on the roster? . . . Pre-snap penalties continue to hurt the Browns’ offense. They are tied with three other teams for the league lead with eight in two games. Inexcusable. . . . Overall, they have been flagged 15 times for 126 yards. The Steelers are the runaway leaders with 216 yards. . . . Is it time yet to label wide receiver Corey Coleman as injury prone? The club’s top draft choice last season will miss two months to mend a broken right hand, the same injury that caused him to miss six games in his rookie season. . . . How long will it be before the Browns promote wideout Jordan Leslie from the practice squad to the varsity? He led all the wide receivers in the exhibition season with nine catches and two touchdowns. He certainly can’t be any worse than what they are trotting out there now (with the exception of Rashard Higgins).

Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday leftovers 

When the Browns selected wide receiver Rashard Higgins with the third of their four fifth-round picks in the 2016 National Football League college draft, I believed it was a solid choice.

I thought he would be drafted higher and was happy to see he was there for the Browns. Of the four receivers they selected in that draft, I thought he had the best chance of doing well in an offense that badly needed quality wideouts.

One draft guru labeled the 6-1, 200-pounder “one of the most pro-ready” wide receivers in the lottery because he had grown up in a pro-style offense at Colorado State.

He established numerous receiving records for the Rams, catching 239 passes for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns. In 2014, he was named an All-America after leading the nation with 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.

So it was puzzling when the CSU standout caught only six passes for 77 yards for the Browns last season and was targeted just a dozen times all season. He became an afterthought when game-planning.

Had Browns scouts simply made a mistake in evaluating him? It was apparent the coaching staff didn’t think much of him.

Drafting in the NFL is somewhat of a guessing game to begin with. In selecting four wide receivers, perhaps they figured the odds of uncovering a standout were in their favor. None really panned out.

When 2017 training camp convened in August, Higgins seemingly continued to be an afterthought. He caught only three passes – he was targeted six times – for 26 yards and a couple of first downs in two exhibition games.

He made the final cut, was waived a week before the season opener against Pittsburgh in order to pick up other roster cuts off waivers. He then was signed to the practice squad, where he languished until several days ago, when he was promoted to the varsity.

It raised more than a few eyebrows. What in the world had Higgins done to warrant the promotion? The Browns – and the Baltimore Ravens’ defense – found out Sunday in the 24-10 loss.

The fact he can be effective when playing slot receiver enabled coach Hue Jackson to incorporate him into the offensive game plan and he responded with seven catches for 95 yards, one more grab and 17 more yards than he compiled all of last season.

He displayed a soft pair of hands, the ability to get open, the willingness to go over the middle and a knack for making plays. He just might be the best receiver on a team desperate for receivers who can make plays.

The Browns certainly are not getting production from any of the other wideouts, most notably Kenny Britt, who is doing a pretty good imitation of Dwayne Bowe circa 2015.

With Corey Coleman, the top pick of that 2016 draft class, out now with a broken hand, Higgins just like that moves up as the Browns’ No. 1 receiver. He caught three of his passes and 79 of his yards with DeShone Kizer in charge of the huddle. His diving catch of a 35-yarder late in the opening quarter was a thing of beauty.

His motivation? “I don’t want to be cut no more,” he said following the game.

If Jackson is looking for a hot hand, it appears as though he unknowingly has unearthed one in Higgins. From practice squad to No. 1 receiver. Not a bad jump.
*       *       *
Jackson remains solidly in Kizer’s corner despite the rookie’s uneven performance against the Ravens. He labeled the quarterback’s four-turnover afternoon “unfortunate.”

 “There were some unfortunate things that happened and those were unfortunate things he will grow from,” he said in a pep-talk sort of way. “He’s not going to get rattled by this. He’s going to go back to work with more resolve . . . He’ll grow from this. No question about it.”

What was so surprising Sunday was the revelation Kizer has a history of migraine headaches. When he left the game after four series, speculation arose that maybe he had suffered a concussion. An hour or so of quiet in the dressing room appeared to have alleviated the migraine.

It is unknown whether the Browns had knowledge of his migraine history prior to drafting him. I’m not a doctor and could be arrested for practicing medicine online without a license, but this could be a problem given the unpredictable nature of migraines.

There might be others, but the last known NFL players with a history of migraines are wide receiver Percy Harvin, who played for eight NFL seasons with four different teams, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, who played seven seasons in Denver.
*       *        *
Is it me or is the Cleveland offense stodgy with regard to the running game. There is no imagination or creativity to what Jackson, who has all but pledged to run more this season, is trying to accomplish when his quarterback hands the ball off to a running back.

In two games thus far, the Cleveland running game has compiled 150 yards, a deceiving figure when you notice running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr. and Matthew Dayes have only 98 of those yards. Doesn’t take a math major to figure out that’s 49 yards a game.

It seems everything is up the middle or off tackle. Where are the quick- toss plays, the misdirection plays, the counter traps? If they are in the playbook, it sure would be nice to see them hauled out on game day. If they aren’t, why aren’t they?

As for the passing game, where are the designed rollouts? When was the last time fans saw the very mobile and very athletic Kizer either roll out with a moving pocket or roll out one way as the flow heads in the opposite direction? That’s one way to fool opposing defensive linemen.

Based on the first two games, the playbook looks more than a bit old-fashioned. Pre-snap shifting of skilled personnel, especially on run plays, means absolutely nothing if the end result is another Crowell run up the middle for two yards.

Is it because the offensive line is better and more comfortable at pass protection? Is it because they aren’t quick enough or athletic enough up front to, for example, pull and lead a quick-toss sweep? How unique would that be? The quick opener, it seems, has lost its quick.

And what ever happened to the screen pass? That and the draw play were innovations the late Paul Brown introduced to the NFL. Perhaps a running back running a wheel route out of the backfield.

Anything to get away from the dull and boring exercise of watching Crowell, Johnson and Dayes up the middle or off tackle for a couple of yards on first down. Try winning first down with something innovative and creative for a change.
*       *       *
Riddle me this: Why does free safety Jabrill Peppers play anywhere from 20 to 25 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap? Is it defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ way of keeping everything in front of the rookie?

When he was drafted, it was thought the versatile Peppers would be all over the field, sometimes showing up as a box safety. Sort of make opposing quarterbacks account for his whereabouts.

Peppers quite often is so far back, he is out of television camera range even on wide shots. There appears to be a canyon between him and everyone else near the line of scrimmage. Is it any wonder tight ends take advantage of that space?

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco targeted tight ends Benjamin Watson, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle 13 times Sunday and completed every one for 121 of his 201 passing yards. On way too many of those passes, they were wide open and not because of a busted coverage. It was because they roamed the canyon freely.
*       *       *
The Ravens won in true formula style Sunday. The defense caused five turnovers for the second straight week, the running game churned out 135 yards and Flacco kept mistakes to a minimum. He doesn’t overwhelm you with his statistics. He just beats you.

Yes he had one interception, but that was more like a long punt, heaving the ball about 60 yards to the Cleveland 9, where Jason McCourty picked it off early in the second quarter. Five plays later, Britton Colquitt was punting.

It’s not necessarily how many interceptions you throw. It’s where you throw them. All of Kizer’s interceptions were in Baltimore territory, including one in the end zone.
*       *       *
The Browns had hoped to improve the pass rush numbers on both sides of the ball this season. Last season, they were far and away the worst in the NFL at protecting their quarterbacks, allowing 66 sacks. Defensively, they recorded only 26, one more than the worst team in the league. 

It’s worse in one category this season and barely better in the second after two games. The offensive line has allowed 10 sacks (only six last season) and recorded three (two last season).
*       *       *
Finally . . . Jackson made it quite clear, and rightly so, there will be no quarterback controversy. Kevin Hogan did a nice job filling in for Kizer Sunday, but he is the backup quarterback and will remain there pending Kizer’s health status. . . . Why does it seem Peppers is so timid on kickoffs? He returned only one of five kickoffs for just 18 yards Sunday. On two others, he caught the football one yard and three yards inside the end zone and chose to take a knee. . . . The Browns this season have run 46 plays on the ground, representing 36.2% of the offense. Breaking that down even further, the three non-quarterbacks account for 34 of those plays, or 29.7%. So much for Jackson’s goal of an improved run/pass ratio. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 21 yards; three receptions, 59 yards. Seven touches, 80 yards. Oh and one costly pass deflection.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Haven’t we seen this before?

So when did it all go wrong for the Browns Sunday in their first road game of the 2017 season?

Cynics would say when they decided to fulfill their schedule obligations and actually show up and try to play a solid game of football with the Baltimore Ravens.

Others, the more practical, objective and realistic ones, would say same old, same old. Different names, different approaches, just about different everything except for one thing.

The losing continues in spite of all the differences. It is the only constant.

The Browns hauled in a 12-game losing streak against the AFC North Division and 13-game losing skid on the road into the game. They left with both streaks intact following a 24-10 loss that looked strikingly similar to the outrageous number of losses since 1999.

Since that eventful season, the Browns have played 289 games and won 88, a winning percentage of .304. Sunday’s setback against the Ravens looked almost eerily like a replay of what has transpired with this franchise for the last 18-plus seasons.

The 2017 version of the Browns Sunday followed a pattern that led to a vast majority of those 201 losses. You name it, they did it in maddeningly benevolent fashion.

Turnovers? You bet. How about five of them? Four interceptions and a fumble recovery, the result of a strip sack the Ravens turned into their initial touchdown 11 minutes into the game.

Bad tackling? Yep. Throw that one in, too. And don’t forget about the dropped passes. They also count.

The Browns on both sides of the football depressed the self-destruct button repeatedly and paid the price just about every time.

The defense, easily the hallmark of this team thus far this season, played up to its capabilities only on occasion, but did not come even close to displaying with the consistency it showed in the loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener.

Last Sunday, the Browns ran into a good defense. This time, they ran into a very good defense that should serve as an object lesson and continuing education for rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who saws things he didn’t see against the Steelers.

The young and inexperienced Cleveland offense was hit-and-miss all afternoon. The only time it showed any consistency was when Kevin Hogan entered the game in the second quarter after Kizer was felled by a migraine.

Hogan was in for four series and did a nice job, compiling 148 yards of offense and accounting for all of Cleveland’s points with a 23-yard scoring strike to rookie tight end David Njoku that halved the score at 14-7 in the second quarter and a 38-yard field goal by Zane Gonzalez on the first possession of the third quarter.

A Terrance West four-yard run in the first quarter and a Joe Flacco-Buck Allen connection on a nine-yard pass in the second quarter accounted for the Ravens’ early scoring until a key series of events unfolded with time running out in the first half.

What turned the game around was a sequence of possessions with less than a minute left in the half that only the Browns could screw up. Both sides of the ball contributed to what can only be called typical Cleveland Browns ill fortune, a.k.a. Murphy’s Law. You remember that one: If something can go wrong, it will.

After Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was wide right – he had the distance – on a 58-yard field goal attempt with 57 seconds left, Browns coach Hue Jackson decided to gamble in effort to narrow the margin. 

Not second-guessing here. When the team starts a drive at its 48 with almost a minute left to halftime, you have to go for it. A couple of completions to Rashard Higgins, who stunned just about everyone with a seven-catch. 95-yard afternoon, picked up a dozen yards.

So far, so good.

After a false start on right tackle Shon Coleman, Hogan tried to force a pass into the middle – and double coverage – with Higgins as its target and was picked off by rookie linebacker Tyus Bowser, who returned it 27 yards to the Cleveland 40.

Only 30 seconds remained in the half. How much damage can be done from 40 yards with only one timeout left? Keep thinking Murphy’s Law.

With 15 seconds left and the ball at the 39, Allen took a Flacco handoff and slashed over left guard, then cut back against the flow and found himself open. Briean Boddy-Calhoun’s tackle at the 2 saved the touchdown with just five seconds remaining.

Only temporarily.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh figured why not go for it. These are the Cleveland Browns. Harbaugh is 16-2 against them. Flacco is 15-2. What did he have to lose?

Murphy’s Law.

Boddy-Calhoun had Jeremy Maclin in the slot, but allowed him to get position on an inside move and could only watch as the veteran wide receiver cradled the 2-yard scoring pass to make it 21-7. It was at least a 10-point swing that all but sealed the Browns’ fate with 30 minutes left.

Little things like that can mean the difference between winning and losing. Teams that make plays in crucial situations usually win. And this was a classic example on both sides of the football.

Kizer’s migraine apparently calmed down early in the third quarter and he finished the game, running his turnover total to four with two more picks, no doubt giving his coach a different kind of headache. He futilely piloted eight possessions overall, generating 219 yards.

The Browns failed all day to make crucial plays on offense and defense. And it was a defensive lapse that enabled the opportunistic Ravens to take the 21-7 lead into the dressing room.

The offense under Kizer and Hogan teased at times, completing six passes of 20-plus yards, then imploded as they threw the quartet of interceptions at the most inappropriate times.

Two of Kizer’s three picks were the result of not delivering the ball on time, giving defenders a chance to recover. The first interception skipped off the usually reliable hands of running back Duke Johnson Jr. in the opening quarter, a microcosm of how the afternoon went.

All in all, it was just another day of abject futility at the office for the Browns.

What else is new?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Back-to-back blankings?

Coming off a better-than-it-looked-on-the-scoreboard loss last Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns travel to Baltimore for a Sunday showdown with the Ravens in hopes of evening their record in the AFC North.

They haul a 12-game losing streak in the division into Baltimore, where they won their last division game, a 33-30 overtime victory on Oct. 11, 2015. They take on a team trying to find its personality on one side of the football and playing boastfully outstanding football on the other side.

Don’t be fooled by the Ravens’ impressive 20-0 victory against the Bengals last Sunday in Cincinnati. When you remove the blinders, blemishes exist.

Not on the defensive side of the ball, of course. It’s quite an accomplishment when you pitch a shutout in the National Football League. The Ravens have hurled 10 since 2000, tying Seattle for the league lead in that department. The Browns, on the other hand, have been blanked 12 times in that span, by far the most in the NFL.

But when you take a close look at the current Ravens offense, that’s where you discover the blemishes. It starts with Joe Flacco, the large man under enter who has tormented the Browns over the last nine seasons. Not Ben Roethlisberger torment, but awfully close.

Since entering the league in 2008, Flacco is 15-2 against the Browns with losses of six and three points spoiling an otherwise perfect performance against them. He has thrown for 3,835 yards and 24 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions.

Not exactly overwhelming quarterback figures, but Flacco was the beneficiary of a solid defense and strong running game in many of those victories. He basically did not make enough mistakes to alter the outcome of games.

He was bothered by back problems enough this year to miss all of training camp and the entire exhibition season. The rust showed in the Bengals victory. He completed only nine of 17 passes for 121 yards, all in the first half.

With a cushy 17-0 lead at the half and the defense playing lights out, the coaching staff buttoned down the attack in the second half, relying almost exclusively on the run. Flacco attempted five passes in the half and completed none. Two of his four incompletions were nullified by defensive penalties and one pass was picked off.

The defense, meanwhile, made life miserable for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton with four interceptions and the recovery of a Dalton fumble. The Bengals’ offense threatened only once. How bad was it? Six first-half possessions resulted in three punts and three picks.

Now factor in that the Cleveland offense is worse than Cincinnati’s – although fans can reasonably argue that is not the case given the Bengals have yet to score a touchdown in two games – and you get some idea of what awaits the Browns as they help the Ravens open their home season.

The Steelers pointed the way on how to control the Cleveland running game in the season opener. The Ravens are every bit as stingy against the run, featuring a pair of 340-pound defensive tackles in Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, who take up a lot of space and are hard to move.

Also factor in Terrell Suggs, playing what the Ravens term their rush linebacker. Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas calls Suggs, who seems to have been around forever, one of the best pass rushers he has ever faced. The 15-year veteran recorded two of the Ravens’ five sacks against the Bengals.

The ultra aggressive Suggs has 17 sacks in 25 games against the Browns. As much as anything, that’s a testament to the greatness of Thomas, who usually draws Suggs as his assignment.

The Cleveland offensive line, which struggled against Pittsburgh last Sunday, might be challenged even more by the Ravens. Winner of that battle most likely will be the determining factor as to the outcome.

The Browns’ defense, which starred in the season opener, is much like Baltimore’s defense in that it gives its team the best chance to win. The new aggressive approach on that side of the football is extremely popular with the fans and should have been made long ago.

Flacco has four new receivers this season in wideouts Michael Campanaro, Chris Matthews and Jeremy Maclin and a new starting tight end in Nick Boyle, who moved up when veteran Dennis Pitta was released.

Maclin, signed as a free agent, teams with Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman to give the Ravens outstanding speed on the outside, an attribute that could be problematic for the young Cleveland secondary. 

Former Brown Terrance West and Buck Allen, who combined to compile 151 of the Ravens’ 155 yards on the ground against the Bengals, handle the running game behind a good offensive line.

Look for more of the same kind of offense from the Ravens in this one with an emphasis on the ground game, pounding the ball until the Browns prove they can stop it and force Flacco to throw. That undoubtedly will be the major goal of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ front seven.

A couple of statistical facts with regard to Ravens coach John Harbaugh. He is 16-2 against Cleveland and 6-0 against rookie quarterbacks at home (allowing only two touchdowns and picking off eight passes). Browns quarterback Cody Kessler was the latest victim last season. Now it’s DeShone Kizer’s turn.

That opening-game shutout over the Bengals was the Ravens’ first since blanking (you guessed it) the Browns midway through the 2009 season.

The last time the Browns failed to score a point in a game was a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati at home back in 2014.  And the last shutout they recorded was an 8-0 triumph over the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard at the Cleveland lakefront in December of 2007.

Shutting out a team in the NFL is difficult of course. Doing it two games in a row is as rare as an eclipse. The St. Louis Rams last accomplished the feat in 2014, knocking off Oakland and Washington back-to-back.

The Ravens now have a chance to duplicate that rarity. Posting back-to-back shutouts is nothing new for them. The 2000 team recorded four shutouts, including back-to-back blankings of the Bengals and (you guessed it again) Browns in weeks four and five.

First the Bengals last Sunday and now the Browns on deck this Sunday. Will history repeat itself? No, although the Browns like last week will make it close for a half. Make it:

Ravens 20, Browns 9

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Meandering through the notebook while the Browns practice for their first trip of the season to Baltimore . . .

Much has been discussed about the performance of the offensive line in the season-opening loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday. More than a few fans were disappointed with what transpired.

The good news? The five plug uglies along the line played every snap. No disabling injuries. That’s really good news.

The bad news? They watched as quarterback DeShone Kizer was sacked seven times and running backs Isaiah Crowell and Matthew Dayes had to scrounge for 57 hard-earned yards. That’s really bad news.

One of the reasons for the high sack total was a quarterback playing in his first National Football League game. Either throwing the ball away or more effective scrambling or better pocket awareness could have reduced it. Kizer is smart enough to eventually correct that problem.

The ground game is an entirely different animal. Based solely on this one game, this line is neither physical enough nor athletic enough to produce a high-octane infantry attack.

As strange as this might sound, the unit is better, but not by much, at pass protection. And even then, Kizer could be provided with even better protection by keeping either a tight end or fullback in to block.

The line opened up several holes against the Steelers, but they disappeared quickly while Kizer was handing off to either Crowell or Dayes out of the shogun. The timing was way off from that formation.

Kizer rarely worked from a pro set under center against the Steelers. Fullback Danny Vitale was absent except when the Browns tickled the Pittsburgh goal line in the final minute of the first quarter.

When Kizer sneaked in from the 1 behind blocks from Joel Bitonio and Joe Thomas, it was Vitale who trailed the quarterback and literally shoved him into the end zone from behind.

Coach Hue Jackson throughout training camp told the media he would place a greater emphasis on the ground game. Ostensibly, that meant more reps for Vitale in power run formations.

So why then was Vitale in for only four offensive snaps the entire game? If he is going to be used sparingly, why in the world is he on the roster? He can’t block from the bench.

If you are going to commit to the run game, at least give those who operate it a chance to succeed. Continuously running from the shotgun, at least with this personnel, appears to be futile.

Two more thoughts about the OL: Right tackle Shon Coleman is a decent pass protector. He is not quick enough or athletic enough to be anything more than adequate, at best, in the run game. And center JC Tretter is not strong enough in pass protection. The Steelers several times pushed the pivot right back practically into Kizer’s lap.
*       *       *
Now on the other side of the ball, it is a totally different story.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ aggressive stance when it comes to the game is such that opposing teams will have problems advancing the ball that way this season. That, of course, is based on just one game.

Shutting down Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers was a significant accomplishment and forced Ben Roethlisberger to turn to the weakest area on the Cleveland defense. The secondary.

The line did its job well. Playing a very good Pittsburgh offensive line to a virtual standoff is quite a feat. And since consistency is the hallmark of any good defense, the next litmus test lies dead ahead Sunday in Baltimore.

What made the performance against the Steelers revealing was the absence of rookie Myles Garrett, who was expected to figure prominently in Williams’ confusing schemes. As a result, the defensive boss rushed only three men more than he usually would. Even then, the Pittsburgh run game was stopped cold.

That’s one reason Roethlisberger was sacked just once and sported a relatively clean uniform at the end of the game. Another was the quick-developing plays in the Pittsburgh game plan with regard to the forward pass. 

In order to keep everyone as fresh as possible, Williams rotated starters Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Trevon Coley with Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi, Nate Orchard and Tyrone Holmes and, to a much lesser extent, Jamie Meder, who was in on only 10 snaps.

With Garrett out for at least the next month, those eight can expect a lot of playing time against the next drive or six rivals.

By causing enough havoc up front, this group kept Steelers offensive linemen from getting to the second level and taking out linebackers. It enabled linebackers Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey, who run-blitzed a lot, to be in position to make plays at and sometimes behind the line of scrimmage.

Games, as has been mentioned here many times, are generally won and lost in the trenches. Right now, the Browns’ offensive trench is in need of repair. The trench on defense is hurting somewhat physically (i.e. Garrett), but in much better shape than the offense.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Monday leftovers

The most remarkable part of Sunday’s 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh was rookie DeShone Kizer’s ability to remain upright and exchange pleasantries with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after the game.

The severe beating the Cleveland quarterback absorbed, most of which was attributable to inexperience in his National Football League debut, should be filed and used as an object lesson.

All he has to do is look at the tape of the game and watch how quickly Roethlisberger got the football out of his hands. Numerous quick-developing pass plays negated whatever pass rush the Browns mustered.

By the time they arrived at Big Ben, the ball was gone. Conversely, by the time the Steelers’ pass rush arrived, Kizer was either still looking to throw or tardily scrambling, most of the time unsuccessfully. His pocket awareness deserted him.

Much of the blame was unfairly put on the offensive line, which offered decent protection had the ball been delivered on time. They can hold the pass rush for just so long.

Count to four from the snap on passing plays. If the quarterback still has the ball at four, odds are a negative play will follow. Ball gone inside four and the odds on a positive play rise significantly.

On many of those sacks, the Cleveland line held long enough where Kizer had the opportunity to make a play and failed. He apparently has been coached that scrambling is to be utilized only as a last resort.

Actually, most of the blame for Kizer’s problems lies with the receiving corps, who failed to help their quarterback by getting open. That’s the reason the rookie holds on to the ball as long as he does. It’s not that he can’t find them. It’s that he can’t find them open.

As has been mentioned here many times, offense is all about rhythm. Mess with that rhythm, which the Pittsburgh defense did with regularity, and chances of executing successfully diminish. Disrupt and destroy.

By watching how Roethlisberger operates, Kizer will see how the veteran moves around in the pocket to buy himself time. He did that a few times Sunday with wide receiver Antonio Brown, who broke open late after the initial rhythm of the play had been destroyed.

It is obvious Kizer has the physical tools. Learning the nuances of playing the position is the next step in the development process.

He kept making the same mistake Sunday when dropping back to throw. He decided too late the best course of action and by then, he sometimes ducked right into a sack.

So let’s place this blame where it really belongs in an effort to resolve the problem. It’s the coaching staff’s job to put players in a position to succeed. Based on Sunday’s performance, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is succeeding a lot more than coach Hue Jackson, who controls the offense.

Jackson’s task is much more challenging because the talent level with which he works, especially at wide receiver and quarterback, is young and inexperienced. Once he fixes that, assuming he can fix it, the rhythm of the offense should return.
*       *       *
There is no question Joe Haden’s best days as a professional football cornerback are behind him. And when the Browns released him for monetary reasons just before the start of the regular season, he was still the best corner on the roster.

That was more than proven with Brown’s 11-catch, 182-yard afternoon against a Cleveland secondary that had no clue as to how to stop him. Roethlisberger targeted the peerless wideout 12 times. The only incompletion was negated by a 41-yard pass interference penalty on Jamar Taylor.

I can guarantee you if Haden had not been cashiered by the Browns and had played opposite Brown Sunday, there is no way Steelers wide receiver would have put up gaudy numbers like that. That was undoubtedly one of the reasons Brown lobbied hard for the Steelers to pick him up.

The two faced each other eight times in the past in this rivalry. Haden missed three games with injuries. In the eight games they clashed, Brown caught 33 passes for 717 yards and four touchdowns. In the three Haden missed, Brown had 31 catches for 413 yards and three touchdowns.

Watching Brown work from the sideline had to make Haden feel some empathy for his former secondary mates in Cleveland. Now they knew what he had gone through all those years. Brown’s three best days against Cleveland were with Haden injured and unable to play.

Nothing Williams tried against Brown Sunday worked. If the football is anywhere near Brown’s hands, he will catch it, He proved that with a 50-yard reception late in the second quarter after linebacker Joe Schobert deflected the ball in flight. It led to a Steelers touchdown.

And in the fourth quarter, when the Browns were desperate for a stop after climbing to within three points late in the quarter, Brown outfought Cleveland defenders Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Derrick Kindred and Schobert for the ball for a 38-yard gain that nailed down the victory.
*       *       *
Schobert had an interesting afternoon in his debut as the Browns’ middle linebacker. He racked up nine tackles (four solo) and spent a lot of time covering Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James, who caught six passes for just 41 yards.

Two throws, a four-yarder and two-yarder, wound up in the end zone with Schobert in coverage on each. He was duped on the shorter one. James lined up in the slot on the left side and blocked Schobert toward the outside at the snap. He then quickly released, cut right, popped open and Roethlisberger hit him on a short slant.

It is unusual for the middle linebacker to be tasked with covering the tight end, a job usually handled by either the strong safety or one of the outside linebackers.  Perhaps responsibilities change when the opposition is in close proximity of the goal line.
*       *       *
Kenny Britt is in his ninth season as a professional wide receiver. The first seven of those seasons were spent in mediocrity, failing spectacularly to live up to his first-round selection by the Tennessee Titans back in 2009.

Britt, who turns 29 a week from Wednesday, has nice size at 6-3 and 215 pounds. But that’s all. Unfortunately, the rest of that package is lacking all the ingredients to be a positive force with the Browns.

No need to go over his below-average numbers. We’ve done that here before. You are witnessing in the exhibitions and now the first game of the regular season why the St. Louis Rams allowed him to part. Clutch and Kenny Britt is an oxymoron.

All you need to know is it appears as though the Browns have made the same mistake by signing him as a free agent as they did a couple of years ago when they signed Dwayne Bowe in similar fashion.

The perfect pass he dropped near midfield against the Steelers Sunday is unforgivable. He is supposed to be the leader in the wide receivers room. He is anything but.
*       *       *
What helped the Cleveland offense as much as anything Sunday was the undisciplined way the Steelers played defense. They compiled 13 penalties for 144 yards, often sustaining Browns drives that otherwise were breaking down. The Browns achieved five of their 20 first downs by penalty.

Multiple personal fouls at inappropriate times kept the Pittsburgh offense tethered to the bench. The Steelers basically hurt themselves as much as, if not more than, they hurt the Browns, who were flagged just four times for 61 yards, 41 of which were marched off for the aforementioned pass interference penalty.
*       *       *
If the opener is any indication, the Browns’ problems with stopping the run are over. The Steelers ran the ball 17 times and picked up just 35 yards. Running back Le’Veon Bell, looking as though he had missed all training camp in a salary dispute and signed a contract mere days before the game, ran for 32 of those yards.

Isaiah Crowell of the Browns experienced similar problems with only 33 of the Browns’ 57 yards on the ground on 17 carries. He had trouble identifying holes and by the time he did, they closed quickly. It’s all about the rhythm.
*       *       *
Defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who was expected to miss at least the first two or three games of the season with a knee injury, entered the game in the latter stages in a goal-line situation and was in on two tackles.
*       *       *
Finally . . . The Cleveland defense limited the Steelers to only 18 plays and 42 total yards on their first four possessions, forcing four punts and taking only 6:59 off the clock. . . . With the victory, Roethlisberger became the winningest quarterback to play in Cleveland, not for Cleveland since 1999. Big Ben has 11 victories, one more than Derek Anderson. . . . Best player on the field for the Steelers was rookie outside linebacker T. J. Watt, who sacked Kizer twice, intercepted one of his passes and had a pair of quarterback hits and two tackles for loss among his seven tackles. . . . Duke Johnson Jr touch watch: On 50 snaps, he had only two touches, both pass receptions, for 20 yards. (sarcasm alert) Jackson must be saving him for the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday (end sarcasm alert).

Sunday, September 10, 2017

No ordinary loss

They lost their 13th straight season opener, their rookie quarterback was sacked seven times in his National Football League debut and Ben Roethlisberger improved his record against them to 22-2 Sunday.

But the Browns, particularly members of the defense, have nothing about which to be dismayed after their 21-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that was unusually taut right down to the final minutes.

No question is was a tough setback after battling back to within three points with 3:36 left in regulation and plenty of emotional momentum built up after having stopped the Pittsburgh offense on the previous two possessions.

Corey Coleman’s three-yard scoring reception and a successful two-point run by Isaiah Crowell behind Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio provided the late-game impetus.

The defense, the clear star of the game for the Browns, needed one more stop (they forced six punts by Jordan Berry) after shaving the lead to three. Just one more stop. Get the ball back and rock the joint.

By this time, though, coordinator Gregg Williams’ defense, which limited the outstanding Steelers offense to just 247 total yards up to that point, appeared spent. The crusher was a 38-yard reception by Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown among three defenders at the Cleveland 44 on a second-and-12 with 2:28 left in regulation.

Coach Hue Jackson challenged the call, but replay correctly upheld it, costing him his final timeout. It showed Brown was down with total control of the football before losing it well after the whistle blew.

A pair of gutsy fourth-down gambles by Jackson (both won) and a self-destructing Steelers defense, which was penalized repeatedly for major infractions, had energized the offense. The infractions accounted for five of the Browns’ 20 first downs,

The difference in the outcome, though, seemed relatively innocuous when it happened. It eventuated in the embryonic stages of the game.

After the first three plays of the game, during which the Cleveland offense marched backward nine yards to the 16-yard line, Britton Colquitt lined up in punt formation at the 1.

Charley Hughlett’s snap was true. His blocking was not. He sort of nudged Steelers backup linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who burst into an open lane and was on Colquitt just as he was bringing up his right foot up to meet the football.

The ball squirted into the end zone, was on its way out of the end line and a safety, then improbably took a 90-degree turn and remained in the end zone, where Anthony Chickillo, another backup linebacker, fell on it for the touchdown.

Here we go again, some Browns fans no doubt thought. Damn Steelers luck. Four plays into the 2017 season and those damn, hated Steelers own a 7-0 lead on a blocked punt of all things. And wouldn’t you know it? Colquitt had never had a punt blocked in his first seven NFL seasons. That was 555 punts ago.

Without that touchdown, the Steelers still might have won because Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown worked their magic, coming up with clutch play after clutch play when no one else could because of the Cleveland defense. Every time Roethlisberger targeted Brown, he connected.

Brown did not score – tight end Jesse James caught both of Big Ben’s short scoring passes – but he caught 11 passes for 182 yards against a secondary that seemed to be in zone mode most of the afternoon, Whether it was short, mid-range or deep, the veteran wideout too often found the soft spots in the zones.

Brown’s uncanny ability to do so certainly eased whatever pressure the Steelers must have must have felt after the Cleveland offense showed some punch late in the game.

Other than the fact bad things happen to the Browns whenever the Steelers visit Cleveland, a blocked punt seemed relatively insignificant. In fact, it sort of seemed normal. The Steelers beat you on offense, defense and now special teams.

Kizer, who scored the first Cleveland touchdown on a one-yard sneak behind Bitonio in the opening quarter, was extremely poised in his pro debut despite being decked seven times for 42 yards. If not for his ability to scramble, it might very well have been as many as a dozen times.

While it’s easy to blame the offensive line, take into consideration Kizer’s main problem was finding open receivers. That’s what happens when half of the team’s six wideouts joined the team earlier this week. He doesn’t know them and they don’t know him. Many of those sacks were of the coverage variety.

It also doesn’t help when Kenny Britt – the eight-year pro is the most veteran of the wide receivers – flat out drops a pretty 18-yard pass down the middle with nary a defender near him early in the fourth quarter on a second-and-19 from the Cleveland 22-yard line.

The ball hit him squarely in the hands in first-down territory. The drop aborted what would have been at least a 25-yard play. Instead of winding up in Pittsburgh territory, the drive died one play later. Britt wound up with one catch for 12 yards.

Of course it’s just one game, but this seems to be a different crew with a different vibe coursing through it. At the risk of belaboring the idea, it seems as though Williams’ defense will set the tone this season. The offense will be a work in constant progress.

There is also no question the Browns, again mainly because of the defense, deserved a better fate in a game they might very well have won against just about any other team.

The reality of the outcome of this game is the notion that barely losing by just a field goal to the team favored to win the AFC North championship indicates a step forward, not a step back. It showed it can play with the big boys, at least on this day.

The Steelers were near double-digit favorites to win – on the road. That’s an enormous slap in the face at the Browns. No doubt they took it personally. And it showed.

Did the better team win? Of course it did. But is that team going back home with a new-found respect for its chief rivals? Of course it is.

Friday, September 8, 2017

It won’t be pretty

There is nothing quite like winning the first game on the schedule for a football team. The fan base is excited. The team is unbeaten.

It immediately eliminates the remote possibility of losing every game. It also establishes an attitude that takes on a life of its own, albeit temporarily, until the next game on the schedule. Sort of sets a tone.

Such a feeling has existed only once in Cleveland for its professional football team since the resurrection of the franchise known as the Browns in 1999. Winning the first game on the schedule is totally foreign to them.

Eighteen times since ’99, the Browns have diligently played the first game on the regular-season schedule. And only once did they eliminate the possibility of losing every game. Only once did they take a bounce-in-your-step attitude into game two.

That was in 2004, a 20-3 home victory over the Baltimore Ravens in a season that saw coach Butch Davis quit after 11 games and the Browns wind up with a 4-12 record. Winning the season opener turned out to be a portent for disaster.

The litany of losing has traveled along a path that has seen the schedule makers seemingly attempt to give the Browns some emotional help by scheduling a preponderance of openers in Cleveland. After all, how much negativity can be given a team that hasn’t lost a game yet?

That has been tried 14 times, including the first 11 seasons, with the one victory. Just to be different, five of the Browns’ last seven seasons have begun on the road, including the last three in a row. Time to try the home field thing again.

Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh marks the Steelers’ third opening-game visit to Cleveland. The first one back in ’99, a 43-0 thumping in the first game back from National Football League purgatory, exists forever in the annals of extremely forgettable football games. The second resulted in a 34-7 thumping in 2007.

The Browns have been so bad on opening day – how bad have they been? – it has taken eight head coaches to compile the remarkable 1-17 march into opening-game oblivion. Think about it. Eight coaches in 18 seasons. From Chris Palmer to Hue Jackson, only the faces change. The results maddeningly remain the same.

They have come close to winning other openers with a couple of one-point losses, including the 40-39 devastating loss to Kansas City in 2002 when linebacker Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss gave the Chiefs an extra play and Morten Andersen kicked a 30-yard field goal with no time left.

The Browns finished 9-7 that season under Davis – one of only two winning seasons since ’99 – and lost to the Steelers in the wild-card game when they blew a 33-21 fourth-quarter lead in their lone playoff appearance since the return.

Ten of the Browns’ opening-game 17 losses have been by at least 10 points. They have been outscored, 447-246, along the way.  That’s an average loss of more than 11 points a game.

Those numbers very well could take another severe hit Sunday with the Steelers’ powerful offensive troika of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

This trio loves playing against the Browns no matter when or where. Roethlisberger, getting a little long in the tooth now at 35, is 21-2 against them, throwing for nearly 5,500 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Brown, who has lost to the Browns once in 11 games, has caught 75 passes for 1,130 yards and seven touchdowns. Bell, who sat out the exhibition season in a contract squabble, signed his franchise tender this week and will play. He has run for 507 yards in five Cleveland games – sitting out a few games due to injury or suspension – and scored thrice.

Along with an improved offensive line, this is what the young Cleveland defense will face Sunday. It will be a stern challenge for new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who lost prized defensive end Myles Garrett to a high ankle sprain in midweek.

Williams tinkered liberally with a variety of exotic blitzes during the unbeaten exhibition season with positive results. The team that had only 26 sacks last season racked up 16 during the fake games. Whether that carries over into the regular season is a different story. Advantage Steelers.

Another advantage the Steelers own is on defense against the very young and very inexperienced Cleveland offense. DeShone Kizer makes his NFL debut at quarterback for the Browns after a very average exhibition season, during which he completed 51% of his passes for 351 yards, a touchdown and two picks.

As has been stated here before, the kid from Toledo and Notre Dame is a raw rookie and won the starting job pretty much by default since no one else stepped up. The Steelers will provide a painful lesson as he quickly learns how much different the regular season is from exhibitions.

Kizer is figuratively playing with one arm tied behind his back because the Cleveland front office has failed to provide him a reasonable assemblage of wide receivers. One has trouble staying healthy. Another has flirted with mediocrity practically his entire career. A third is still taking baby steps in the NFL.

To make matters worse (if that’s possible), the other three wideouts joined the club after all the exhibitions had been played and can’t be expected to have any kind of aerial rhythm with the rookie quarterback. That is patently unfair to Kizer and you can bet the Steelers will take advantage.

Experience is the biggest dictator in this one. The Steelers, especially after picking up ex-Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, have it in abundance on both sides of the ball. The Browns do not.

It is entirely possible the Browns will stay with the Steelers for as long as a quarter and a half before the Steelers figure out what’s going on and adjust. They will try to run the ball per Jackson’s commitment to that aspect of the offense, but will eventually have to put the ball up once the Steelers start pulling away.

The good news? Kizer will still be vertical at the end of the game, somewhat bruised but a lot wiser. The bad news? Make it:

Steelers 31, Browns 10

How the 2017 season will unfold

Predicting the outcome of a football season on a game-by-game basis is always a fun project when it comes to the Browns because it engenders a variety of responses from the franchise’s rabid fan base.

Suffice it to say such a venture is done on a strictly subjective plane. That is a given in the precarious world of sports prognostication.

Objectivity be damned, here is how the Browns will finish this season, game-by- game, drip-by-drip, loss-by-loss as the 2017 edition meanders though the season. They play only seven games in Cleveland this season. The eighth “home game” will be in London against the Minnesota Vikings in week eight.

It all starts Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland in the facility that used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium and concludes New Years’ Eve afternoon in, you guessed it, Pittsburgh. Many rough roads lie in between. A caveat: These are merely guesses and are presented strictly for entertainment purposes.

Sunday Sept. 10 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. – The National Football League schedule makers must be masochists. Scheduling the Pittsburgh Steelers again for the season opener is downright mean. Let’s be honest. The Steelers have owned the Browns since the resurrection in 1999, whether it’s at home or on the road. The Browns have won only six of the 37 meetings since that year. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 21-2 against them. The Steelers will make sure DeShone Kizer’s professional football debut will be one he will never forget and not in a good way. Why? Because it won’t be pretty and will clearly set the tone for the rest of the season. The much better team romps. Record: 0-1

Sunday Sept. 17 at Baltimore, 1 p.m. – Playing game No. 2 against another division rival doesn’t help matters, especially since it’s on the road. The Ravens are 27-9 against the Browns since 1999. That includes a 16-2 mark since 2008. Joe Flacco returns to quarterback the Ravens after spending the entire exhibition season rehabbing a back problem. He’s another quarterback who loves facing the Browns, winning 15 of his 17 starts against them. Kizer again discovers in more ways that this isn’t Notre Dame anymore as his NFL education speeds up. It won’t be another romp because the Cleveland defense challenges, but the first victory is still a dream. Record: 0-2

Sunday Sept. 24 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. – The big question in this one is whether Andrew Luck, slowly recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, will be under center after missing at least the season opener. If not, the Browns have a chance because of the defense, which develops some consistency since the Steelers debacle in the opener. If Luck plays, all bets are off because his quick release negates the Browns’ pass rush and he will play pitch and catch with wide receiver T. Y, Hilton most of the afternoon. Kizer, meanwhile, is still standing after taking beatings in the first two games and keeps the game close. Not lose enough, though. The Colts, 7-1 against the Browns since 1999, improve to 8-1. Record:  0-3

Sunday Oct. 1 vs. Cincinnati, 1 p.m. – Finally a game the Browns have a chance to win. They are 12-24 against the Bengals since 1999, winning seven of those games at home. That is, indeed, a rare advantage for the Browns. And it will play out that way for the most part with the Cleveland defense stopping rookie running back Joe Mixon, forcing quarterback Andy Dalton to throw more than he wants. That also means a big afternoon for Bengals wide receiver A. J. Green, who longer has to face Joe Haden, at least not against Cleveland. When healthy, Haden handled Green more than Green handled him. The Browns have no one who can handle Green now. Big day for the big wideout. Record: 0-4

Sunday Oct. 8 vs. New York Jets, 1 p.m. – Label this one the race for the bottom of the NFL, or the race for the top pick in the next college football draft. The Jets have not been bashful in purging (trashing?) a decent roster in order to be so bad, no team can possibly be worse. The Browns are not trying to be that awful, but losing their first four games isn’t helping.  These are arguably the two worst teams in the NFL playing the kind of game that might embarrass football purists. Any team (the Jets) with Josh McCown as its starting quarterback is a team spiraling rapidly out of control. The Browns can attest to that. Kizer finally put together a strong game against a terrible New York defense as the Jets cruise toward that top pick. Record: 1-4

Sunday Oct. 15 at Houston, 1 p.m. – A couple of stats to ponder for this game: The Texans were 7-1 at home last season and made the playoffs with an offense that scored only 15 more points than the 1-15 Browns. That’s because it had one of the AFC’s best defenses despite losing perennial All-Pro end J. J. Watt after three games to a series of back surgeries. Well, Watt is back and healthy, which is bad news for the Browns. The Texans’ offense is still a shade better than ordinary, though, which gives the Browns a chance. But Kizer learns another valuable lesson as Watt & Co. abuse the Browns’ offensive line and drop the rookie quarterback a half dozen times. Record: 1-5

Sunday Oct. 22 vs. Tennessee, 1 p.m. – Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has faced the Browns twice in his young NFL career and seemed to enjoy himself. He completed 38 of his 61 passes (62%) for 593 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. A strong offensive line affords him the opportunity once again to strafe the young Cleveland secondary, which has had its problems this season. The Browns try and rattle Mariota with a variety if blitzes, but his ability to find tight end Delanie Walker time and again neutralizes that strategy. Kizer, getting better support this week from his line, manages a couple of touchdown passes, but they are not nearly enough as the record tumbles. Record: 1-6

Sunday Oct. 29 vs. Minnesota in London, 9:30 a.m. – The last time these teams met four years ago, Rob Chudzinski was the Cleveland coach and the Browns recorded one of their four victories that season with tight end Jordan Cameron catching three touchdown passes, one on a fake field goal. The Vikings do not overwhelm you with their personnel. On offense, top draft pick Dalvin Cook shoulders a majority of the run game, while Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph are reliable targets for quarterback Sam Bradford, who riddles the Cleveland secondary And coach Mike Zimmer’s strong defense keeps Kizer & Co. in check. It will be a long flight home from England. Record: 1-7

Sunday Nov. 5 – Bye. Thank goodness.

Sunday Nov. 12 at Detroit, 1 p.m. – These two teams have met only 23 times since 1952, just four times since 1999, and the Browns have won just five of those games, four at home. In other words, playing the Lions in Detroit is hazardous to the health of the Browns. Based solely on history and the fact the Lions made the playoffs last season, the Browns’ chance of stopping their three-game losing streak are slim at best. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford loves, loves, loves playing against the Browns. In two games, he has thrown for 670 yards, nine touchdowns and only three picks. In the 2013 victory, tight end Joseph Fauria caught three passes for 34 yards and three touchdowns. Stafford now has standout receivers in wideout Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron. It’s going to be a long day for the Cleveland defense, which welcomes back top draft pick Myles Garrett after mending the high ankle sprain he suffered preparing for the season opener. Record: 1-8

Sunday Nov. 19 vs. Jacksonville, 1 p.m. – Normally, this would be an easy pick. There is no way the Browns lose to the Jaguars, especially at home. Until you look at the history of this rivalry. The Jags, who knocked off the Browns in their inaugural season in 1995, hold an 11-5 series lead, but the teams have split the last six games, two of the Browns’ three victories coming at home. So maybe there is hope. A quick look at the records of the teams the last five years shows the Browns with a 20-60 record and the Jaguars at 17-63. And then you notice hotshot rookie Leonard Fournette is their running back. That won’t make a difference, however. The Browns find a way to shatter their four-game losing streak. Record: 2-8

Sunday Nov. 26 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. – Once again, Andy Dalton and A. J. Green have fun in a post-Thanksgiving feast at the expense of the Cleveland secondary. Joe Mixon, who was stopped cold in the first meeting, makes up for it with his best game of the season against a Browns defense that is weary from being on the field so long this season. Kizer is still vertical to the surprise of more than a few, but the Bengals swipe three of his passes, sack him numerous times and shut down the running game en route to their easiest victory of the season. Record: 2-9

Sunday Dec. 3 at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:05 p.m. – Traveling to the west coast and Denver has not been kind at all to the Browns. Since 1999, they have journeyed that long distance from home on 20 occasions and returned a winner only four times. That includes three non-productive trips to San Diego to play the Chargers, now relocated in Los Angeles. Traveling long distances seems to adversely affect the Browns. This trip will be no different even though the Chargers will play their home games for the next two seasons in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center while their new stadium is being built. Philip Rivers is merely the next quarterback to torment the Cleveland secondary. Joey Bosa will lead the sack parade against Kizer, who will be benched in favor of Kevin Hogan. Record: 2-10

Sunday Dec. 10 vs. Green Bay, 1 p.m. – The Cleveland defense greets another quarterback who loves to throw passes against them. Aaron Rodgers has played the Browns only twice and has enjoyed extreme success. He is 40-of-56 (71.4%) for 506 yards, six touchdowns, zero interceptions and one sack. He has the luxury of throwing this season to the likes of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Martellus Bennett. If the Browns have trouble against quarterbacks far inferior to Rodgers, how can anyone expect them to keep up with the man in Green Bay who got his chance after patiently sitting for three seasons behind Hall of Famer Brett Favre, whom he will join five years after he retires. This one won’t be close. Record: 2-11

Sunday Dec. 17 vs. Baltimore, 1 p.m. – The Browns last season were winless against the AFC North or the first time in five seasons. They enter this game winless after four division games with the Steelers looming in two weeks – in Pittsburgh. Since returning in 1999, they have never put winless seasons back-to-back in division play. The Browns haven’t defeated the Ravens at home in four years. That is about to change. Jackson decides to give Kizer a mental day off from rugged NFL warfare. Hogan steps in, throws a pair of scoring passes and the defense shuts down Joe Flacco & Co. for the club’s first AFC North victory since edging the Ravens in overtime in October 2015. That was 15 straight losses ago. It’s also Hogan’s first victory as a pro. Record: 3-11

Sunday Dec. 24 at Chicago, 1 p.m. – Hogan’s reward is a second straight start as he squares off against Cleveland-area native Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky, who has experienced an up-and-down season since replacing Mike Glennon four games into the season. Game in Chicago: Advantage Trubisky. The kid from Mentor has an up day, throwing a pair of scoring passes on a cold Christmas Eve day.  His defense helps mightily with four sacks of Hogan and a pair of picks. Kizer returns, but does not fare any better. Close for only a quarter as the season winds mercifully down. Record: 3-12

Sunday Dec. 31 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. – It was exactly 366 days ago today that the Steelers closed out the 2016 season at home against the Browns. The Steelers had clinched the division championship and could gain no more home-field advantage in the playoffs by winning. So Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin wisely held out several of his star players on both sides of the ball in order to avoid possible injury. That included his prize trio on offense of Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. The Browns were coming off their first victory of the season over San Diego. A situation ripe for an upset? Uh, no. The Steelers spotted the Browns a 14-0 lead in the first 29½ minutes, then roared back behind backup quarterback Landry Jones and running back DeAngelo Williams to outscore the Browns, 27-10, in the next 30½ minutes to win. Will lightning strike again this season? Yes. Record: 3-13

That’s the bad news. The good news? Hue Jackson returns for a third season, which will be the season the Browns finally turn a corner and become more than just competitive, signaling a revival in Browns Nation.