It isn't often that a National Football League team treats wide receivers as subordinates in the offense's playbook. Such, however, seems to be the case with the Browns.
How else can Brian Daboll, Eric Mangini, Gil Haskell and Mike Holmgren (as we climb the corporate ladder of responsibility and/or blame) explain why only nine of Seneca Wallace's passes in Sunday's loss in Baltimore were directed at wideouts? And eight of them were targeted for the hands of Joshua Cribbs. Mo Massaquoi, the team's so-called No. 1 wide receiver, saw only one (incomplete) pass thrown his way. And Chansi Stuckey was nothing more than window dressing.
The other 15 throws went to either Peyton Hillis on swings, dumpoffs and checkdowns, tight end Ben Watson and the no-gain dumpoff to fullback Lawrence Vickers. What in the world is going on here?
The fact that the Browns cannot stretch the field successfully through the air gives rise to the notion that opponents from this point forward will place no fewer than eight men in the box on every play and dare the Cleveland quarterback to beat them. Which is what the Ravens did Sunday, making Hillis' 144-yard day on the ground that much more remarkable.
If Holmgren doesn't see just how poor his receiving corps is on the flanks, then it is safe to assume he now wears blinders for the first time in his NFL career.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan tried just about everything in a desperate attempt to rattle Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco. He dialed up blitzes from just about every conceivable direction, but Flacco, sensing pending trouble, wisely called for max protection and made the Browns pay the price.
Flacco, not the most agile quarterback in the NFL, had an inordinate amount of time all afternoon to throw the ball as the Browns' pass rush stumbled and staggered. Would the presence of outside linebacker Marcus Benard, the club's best pass rusher who was unavailable due to injury, have made a difference? If so, then the club is hurting more than they think in that critical area.
It was not a coincidence the Browns' running game took a significant leap when Tony Pashos replaced the injured John St. Clair at right tackle in the first quarter. Pashos is a grinder and pounder who fits in well with Hillis' running style. Playing next to Pork Chop Womack, another grinder, the right side of the line is no longer seen as weak spot. St. Clair's best position is on the bench.
One of the unsung heroes of Sunday's game was nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin. For most of the afternoon, he commanded double teams as the Baltimore running attack suffered a large number of misfires. That allowed Cleveland linebackers to remain clean and rack up more tackles than normal.
And Rubin showed his versatility midway in the fourth quarter during a zone blitz called by Ryan. Rubin dropped off the line of scrimmage into shallow coverage and made a solid, open-field tackle of Baltimore running back Ray Rice for just a four-yard gain. His versatility and athleticism on the play has to have caught the attention of the coaching staff.
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the best fecal-matter disturbers in the business, was a virtual no show against the Browns. The normally active Lewis was neutralized for the most part by center Alex Mack, who was able to get to the second level most of the afternoon. Solid work by Womack and left guard Eric Steinbach freed up Mack to do his thing and frustrate Lewis.
Their work basically provided the little creases with which Hillis had to work and the big fullback took full advantage. He never lost yardage in any of his 22 carries. If Daboll is smart -- let's give him the benefit of the doubt here -- we'll see a lot more of Hillis Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. It seemed he did his best running with Vickers in front of him in either the I or offset I formation.
Slapping the Ravens in the mouth over and over had to have felt good in spite of the loss. The Browns basically did to the Ravens what the Ravens normally do to them. They took no crap and presumably sent a message to the rest of the AFC North that these aren't the same old pushover Cleveland Browns. "We might not win," they seemed to be saying based on their performance against the Ravens, "but you can bet you'll know you've been in a fight." We'll find out soon enough Sunday against the Bengals.