Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Steelers romp

There was some question earlier this week whether Ben Roethlisberger would be under center when the Pittsburgh Steelers journey up a couple of turnpikes for their second meeting with the Browns this season on Sunday.

A high ankle sprain suffered a few weeks ago, courtesy of a vice-like, high-low sack by Browns defensive tackles Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxson, finally put Big Ben on the bench last week against St. Louis.

But come Sunday, he’ll be ready. Count on it. Why? Because it is Cleveland week and there’s nothing Roethlisberger loves more than Cleveland week. Who can blame him?

In 14 games against the Browns, the big guy from Findlay has lost just once, the second meeting of the 2009 season. No wonder he loves playing against the Browns.

Added incentive for a Roethlisberger return, despite the fact he still can’t adequately step into his throws because of the bad ankle, is that the Steelers can still claim the AFC North championship. A Baltimore stumble in Cincinnati and a Steelers victory gives the title to Pittsburgh.

From a motivational standpoint, this game has significantly more meaning to the Steelers than Cleveland, which is simply playing out the string as it heads toward a yet another pathetic finish.

The Browns, who will close out the season ingloriously with six straight losses if they lose, have been Pittsburgh’s patsy in their last 23 meetings. In that span, during which the Browns have won just twice, the Steelers have outscored them, 565-285.

Translated, the Steelers have nearly doubled the Browns’ scoring total despite drafting much lower than Cleveland the last dozen seasons. And when it comes to Cleveland week, the Steelers always arrive at game time expecting to win. The Browns, on the other hand, hope to win.

It didn’t use to be that way in this great rivalry, which has become less of a rivalry in the last generation. Young fans of the Browns blink disbelievingly when the early history of this rivalry is recounted.

When the Browns first entered the National Football League, the Steelers were perennial doormats, resembling in many ways the current iteration of the Browns. The old Browns of coaches Paul Brown and Blanton Collier won 32 of the first 41 games in the series.

Hard to believe now that the Steelers have overtaken the Browns in the series and own a 62-56 lead, a 53-24 swing in favor of Pittsburgh since 1970. A seven-game winning streak by the Browns during the Marty Schottenheimer era prevented it from being even worse.

Which brings us to Sunday’s game. The Steelers have the edge in every statistical department in this one They generate 373 yards of offense a game, convert third downs at a 45.5% clip, hold the opposition to less than 17 first downs a game and yield just 274 yards on the average.

Now let’s look at the Browns, who have been marching in reverse on offense nearly the entire season, scoring as many as 20 points on just two occasions. Hmmm. Wonder what side of the ball they’ll address in the offseason.

Entering this game, they’re the second-lowest scoring team in the AFC and third-lowest in the NFL. They have scored just 21 touchdowns in 15 games, 20 on offense. At home, they have found the end zone an embarrassing seven times in seven games.

Last season, the Browns scored 271 points, This season, they’re on a pace to finish with 223 as they head toward the worst season on offense since 2000 when they scored just 161 points and were shut out four times. The 1999 expansion team scored 217 points.

Cleveland’s four victories this season (all against teams with losing records) have been by a total of 16 points. Five of the 11 losses have been by double digits. The defense doesn’t blow many leads because there haven’t been many leads to blow.

The only bright spot – and we’re reaching here – is the Browns’ 3-4 record at home despite their offensive ineptitude. On the road, they lost their last seven after knocking off Indianapolis in game two.

This will make the ninth season out of 13 since the rebirth in 1999 that the Browns will finish with a record of 5-11 or worse. Over the last four seasons, not counting Sunday’s game, they are 18-45, a winning percentage of .285. A litany of incompetence that causes one to wonder just why Browns fans keep coming back for more punishment season after season.

The Steelers unquestionably hold the edge in the talent department, coaching department and fan department in this one. Odds are that Steelers fans will outnumber Browns fans by a wide margin in a stadium that figures to be no more than half full by opening kickoff.

It’s a sad state of affairs that threatens to give rise to a pro team’s worst enemy: apathy. If there’s one thing the Browns fear, it’s that the fans might cease to care about this franchise. And it would be no one’s fault but their own.

OK, enough about doom and gloom.

Given all the dynamics, Sunday’s game should be a Pittsburgh blowout. Roethlisberger, despite playing at about 70%, is still a big threat as long as he can hobble out to the huddle. His defense, while showing signs of age, remains one of the best in the league.

However, this game could very well be a litmus test for the Browns as they try to convince Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. they deserve to be back next season. I look for them to play one of their best games of the season and give as much as they take.

But I’m not foolish enough to think they can surprise everyone and win. That’s not going to happen, but the Steelers will have to ratchet it up in a game they might think the Browns will mail in.

Look for the Browns to hang in for the better part of three quarters, sacking a relatively immobile Big Ben a number of times, before the Steelers wear them down and win with a late field goal. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 14

Monday, December 26, 2011

Monday leftovers

Just when you think there’s no way the Browns want Peyton Hillis’ autograph on a new contract, he starts running like he did last season and makes you rethink your position.

Which Peyton Hillis is the real Peyton Hillis? The one who surprised everyone last season and emerged as one of the young stud running backs in the National Football League? Good enough to be the Madden 12 cover boy?

Or is he the one who battled numerous injuries and ailments the first three-fourths of the season, got married in the middle of the week during rehab, missed a personal appearance and angered many of his teammates with his antics?

Just which Peyton Hillis exists in the minds of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. as they turn their attention to next season and try to figure out exactly what holes need to be filled? Is running back one of those holes?

After gaining more than 200 yards the last two games and looking every bit like the ramrod running back he was last season, Holmgren and Heckert now have to decide which Hillis they see now and then make a decision.

Tough call. It could be that the Hillis of the last two games is trying to make a contract run in the final few weeks in hopes of landing a large contract when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season and it really makes no difference where he lands.

Do Holmgren and Heckert take the chance that the current Hillis is the real deal and go hard after him? He says he likes being a Cleveland Brown. Only the naïve buy into that one.

Or do they pass on Hillis, let him go somewhere else and rely on the talents of the returning Chris Ogbonnaya, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson? Maybe they think about striking draft gold with someone like Alabama’s Trent Richardson, who is certain to be there when they pick in April.

That’s the dilemma. Roll the dice with Hillis or finally be done with him and move on. The guess here is that Hillis will play his last game as a Cleveland Brown Sunday afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Too much potential baggage for H&H to gamble on.

* * *
It was interesting to watch his Browns teammates console Phil Taylor after the rookie defensive tackle ruined any chance his team had of winning Sunday in Baltimore when he jumped offside on a fourth and short. It was painfully obvious the Ravens were trying to draw the Browns offside and Taylor accommodated.

But when D’Qwell Jackson patted Taylor on the helmet and said, “Hold your head up,” that in a nutshell should tell you about the culture of the Browns. It’s nowhere close to where it needs to be.

If that had ever happened to the Ravens, can you see Ray Lewis reacting that way? Can you see Lewis consoling a crestfallen teammate? I don’t think so. He would have ripped the offending teammate a new one and in no uncertain terms.

That’s one of the many differences between the Browns and Ravens, between the Browns and Steelers. They don’t stand for silly mistakes like that and just dismiss them. And until the Browns get someone like Lewis or Terrell Suggs or James Harrison on their roster, the situation is not going to change.

* * *
Interesting that Seneca Wallace absolved Pat Shurmur of any blame in the clock management fiasco in the waning seconds of the first half of Sunday’s loss in Baltimore.

But Shurmur declined absolution for Wallace. He said he yelled “clock, clock, clock” in Wallace’s helmet headset after a short completion to Evan Moore with less than 20 seconds remaining and no timeouts. It should have been “spike, spike, spike” in an effort to kill the clock.

Asked why Wallace didn’t spike the ball, the coach said. “I need to communicate it better, OK? Let’s just leave it at that.” In other words, he screwed up, but declined to take responsibility.

That no points resulted in the totally fouled-up situation led to a late-game strategy that ultimately backfired. Facing a fourth-and-5 at his 45 with four minutes left in regulation and needing a touchdown to take the lead, Shurmur gambled and lost when Hillis was smothered for no gain after catching a swing pass in the flat.

* * *
The Cleveland offense seems to flow a lot smoother with Wallace under center. The blocking seems crisper, receivers make themselves available more often and the timing is better all round.

For obvious reasons, Wallace seems much more comfortable in this scheme than Colt McCoy, but make no mistake about it, the kid from Texas is going to be the Browns’ starting quarterback next season barring any unforeseen moves by Holmgren and Heckert.

* * *
Stream of thought: The Browns would be wise to shut down McCoy for the season. It makes no sense for him to suit up against the Steelers Sunday unless he’s ready to play. . . . The Browns’ offensive line did a nice job against the Ravens’ front seven, permitting only two sacks and opening up some nice holes for Hillis. Lewis, Suggs and Ed Reed, who normally bedevil the Browns, were relative non-factors in the game. . . . Shurmur: “We’ve got to play a little smarter in some of those critical situations.” No kidding. And “a little smarter” isn’t going to cut it. It’s got to be a lot smarter. . . . Jackson, with the best remark of the day: “Today told the story of our season.” . . . Nice to see Moore involved in the offense. Seven targets, five catches, 35 yards and a touchdown for the tight end, who has been misused this season. How much playing time does he get if Ben Watson and Alex Smith aren’t on injured reserve? Rhetorical question. . . . Wallace self-examining his performance: “I should have played better and I should have made better decisions.” The quarterback’s post-game lament. . . . Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco on Taylor’s offside: “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in position for that to happen. It’s never worked.” Now it has.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


The Browns played a game of what-if with the Baltimore Ravens Saturday and lost in spectacular fashion.

The 20-14 final score was more a product of the Ravens trying to lose a game against a decidedly inferior football team than that same inferior team trying to win it.

A number of questionable coaching decisions by Cleveland’s Pat Shurmur ultimately paved the way for the Ravens to sweep the season series, move one step closer to clinching the AFC North championship and nail a first-round bye in the playoffs.

We’ll deal with them one at a time as we dissect why Shurmur is in way over his head as a head coach in the National Football League.

Most egregious of the blunders was the inexplicably poor clock management at the end of the first half that left Shurmur with a perplexed look on his face as the clock ticked off the final seconds and the Browns, with no timeouts left, just a few yards from the Baltimore goal line.

The Browns, down 17-0 at the time, reeled off their best drive of the first half and found themselves at the Baltimore 5 with less than a half minute left in the half. A Seneca Wallace to Evan Moore connection moved the ball to the 3, but Moore failed to get out of bounds to stop the clock.

For some reason, Shurmur called for a Peyton Hillis run. No timeouts, the clock winding down to the final 15 seconds and he calls a run, which, of course, was stuffed with seven seconds left.

What in the name of stupid coaching is wrong with this picture? The only worse call would have been a quarterback sneak. Is there any question this man should not be allowed to making command coaching decisions and call plays at the same time?

And then to make matters worse, if that was possible, Shurmur wondered why Wallace couldn’t get his team lined up with mere seconds left and spike the ball to stop the clock to get at least a field goal out of the drive.

Failure to accomplish even that played a large role in the outcome later in the game, forcing Shurmur to make another bad decision.

After the game, Wallace took the blame for losing track of the time, and talked about “everyone not being on the same page . . . and it’s not the head coach’s fault.” Brownie points for that one. Never blame the head coach.

Shurmur said he “never would have called a run in that situation with that much time (left),” then blamed himself for the “communications breakdowns.” Someone has to take the blame and we all know where the buck stops.

If Mike Holmgren, who was watching from his ivory tower seat, doesn’t seriously begin to question his choice of Shurmur as the coach of the Browns, then there’s something wrong with the team’s hierarchy.

Not that this one would have wound up in the victory column, but better coaching decisions would definitely have given the Browns a chance to win.

Another instance of stupefyingly dumb play calling took place on the opening drive of the game. The Browns resolutely marched from their 20 to the Baltimore 34 mostly on the strong running of Hillis, who gained 30 yards on six carries. He ran hard, looking more like the Peyton Hillis of 2010.

So when the Browns had a third and inches at the Ravens’ 30-yard line, Shurmur inexplicably called for a pass. Not a Hillis run or a sneak by Wallace. A pass. Element of surprise? No, element of stupidity.

Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb read it perfectly, jumped the route of Mo Massaquoi and snuffed out the Cleveland scoring opportunity. Once again, Murphy’s Law triumphs.

The Ravens went on to score on three straight possessions to take the 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter and the romp was on. Only one problem. The Cleveland defense began to stiffen, and Joshua Cribbs ripped off an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter to swing some of the momentum the Browns’ way.

The Ravens’ offense had seven possessions in the second half and scored on just one, due mainly to a poor Brad Maynard punt that gave them good enough field position to get close enough for the second of Shayne Graham’s two field goals.

Their longest possession lasted seven plays, ending in a Sheldon Brown interception in the end zone when Joe Flacco got greedy. The Browns converted that turnover into seven points with a Wallace-to-Moore TD hookup with 8:22 left in regulation, culminating an 80-yard drive that saw Wallace convert three third-down plays.

What got lost in the shuffle was the two timeouts the quarterback took during that drive. And that would come back to play a big part in what turned out to be a another disappointing outcome with Shurmur again in the starring role.

So here were the Browns, down by just six points – it would have been just three if Shurmur hadn’t botched the final seconds of the first half – with more than eight minutes left and a Baltimore team back on its heels.

The Ravens cooperated and went three and out on the ensuing series and the Browns had the ball back with 6:50 left and a gigantic upset looming. But they couldn’t overcome a Shawn Lauvao holding penalty and faced a fourth-and-5 at their 45 with 4:03 left.

They still had one timeout left and the two-minute warning timeout. Two timeouts, decent field position and still plenty of time left to get the ball back. With the defense playing well, pin the Ravens back deep in their territory and play the field-position game.

Instead, Shurmur panicked. He did not foresee any of the above and made his third critical mistake of the afternoon. After taking his final timeout to discuss the situation, he inexplicably went for it. What in the world was he thinking?

Hillis was drilled by linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo after taking a swing pass from Wallace. A swing pass on fourth-and-5 in your territory with no timeouts left? Are you kidding me? Aren’t many plays worse than that in that situation.

Still, the Browns believe it or not had a chance. The Ravens went conservative, played it safe on three straight running plays and found themselves in a fourth-and-2 at the Cleveland 37. Nearly two minutes remained.

Now what do you suppose the Cleveland coaches told the players in the defensive huddle before going out for the fourth-down snap? We now take you into that huddle for what we think might have been said.

“Nobody moves,” says defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. “Stay onside. Do not move until you see the ball move. When the ball moves, you move. Is that clear? Any questions? Does everyone have that straight? Do not move until the ball moves.”

So what happened? What happened is what happens to dumb teams: Murphy’s Law.

It was obvious Flacco was trying to draw the Browns offside. Even Browns fans watching on television were screaming, "Don't move."Flacco tried a head bob. He appeared to change the inflection and rhythm in his cadence. As the play clock wound down to the final several seconds, the Browns didn’t budge. Good discipline.

And then inexplicably (there’s that word again), rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor charged before the ball was snapped. The Baltimore offensive line applauded the move and then ran out the clock. Take a bow, Mr. Taylor.

Just another disappointing Cleveland Browns loss? Yeah, but one has to wonder what the outcome would have been if Shurmur hadn’t called that first-series pass on third and inches; if Shurmur had a better handle on time management at the end of the first half; and if Shurmur had punted instead of going for it on fourth-and-5 with four minutes left in the final quarter.

We’ll never know, of course. And that’s what makes it so frustrating.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Another Ravens romp

It has been just a few weeks since the Browns and Baltimore Ravens last met on a football field, but little has changed.

The two teams, who meet again Saturday in Baltimore, have maintained their respective trajectories as the 2011 winds down. While the Browns nose dive and plumb the depths of the AFC North, the Ravens inch closer to clinching the division title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

A victory Saturday would just about nail the division championship for the Ravens, coming off their worst showing of the season, a 34-14 spanking last Sunday night in San Diego. So you can be certain they’ll be in a nasty mood by the time the Browns arrive.

The first time the teams met this season, a Cleveland crowd watched embarrassingly as the Ravens pushed the Browns all over the field on both sides of the ball. Had it not been for a couple of missed field goals by Billy Cundiff and a garbage-time touchdown by the Browns, the Ravens would have won, 30-3.

The Ravens, who have won seven straight in this lopsided series (18-7) and threaten to sweep the season series for the eighth time in 12 seasons, play like a different club against the Browns.

Perhaps it’s the fact they were the Cleveland Browns for the first 50 years of their existence before moving to Baltimore in 1996 and changing their name. Then again, perhaps it’s because they have a much better team.

Whenever these teams collide, the Baltimore coaching staff appears to put a much greater emphasis on winning. The acrimonious relationship between these two franchises and their cities seems to resonate stronger in the Ravens’ front office.

To the Browns, this is just another AFC North game. To the Ravens, this is a lot more than just another AFC North game. It’s a lot more meaningful in part because Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome retired as a Cleveland Brown.

The emotional attachment between these franchises seems to be lost on Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert Jr. and Pat Shurmur. They don’t get it. Beating the Ravens is just as sweet – sweeter to more than a few – as knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Maybe they haven’t been around long enough to appreciate and understand just what makes a Browns fan tick. Maybe they need to ramp up their efforts to spare the fans from annual disappointments, especially against division teams.

Since arriving in Cleveland last year, H&H teams have played 10 division games and own just one victory. And the latter number is unlikely to change in the next couple of weeks. Not exactly the formula for building competitive – let alone contending or championship – teams.

Certainly not with so much on the line for the Ravens and Steelers in that time, especially with the Browns in their way. The conclusion of this season could get very ugly for the Browns as they stumble to the finish line in disappointing fashion.

The Ravens, despite the loss of wide receiver Anquan Boldin with a knee injury, can still beat you in so many different ways. A few weeks ago, they plundered the Browns’ defense for 290 yards on the ground, 204 of them by Ray Rice. Quarterback Joe Flacco was a relative bystander as the huge Baltimore offensive line manhandled the Cleveland front seven all afternoon. A repeat performance Saturday is possible, but not likely.

Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is no dummy and you can bet he’ll scheme to put a lid on Rice, forcing Flacco to throw the ball. That, of course, puts that much more pressure on the secondary.

The Ravens, however, are not shy when it comes to throwing the ball. They are a pass-first team under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, averaging more than 35 passes a game The only reason they didn’t throw as much in the last game against the Browns was because they didn’t have to.

Even without Boldin, the club’s second-leading receiver this season, Flacco has no problem directing passes toward tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta and rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith. And when they don’t make themselves available, the quarterback has no problem dumping the ball off to Rice, the club’s leading receiver with 71 catches. The little running back has touched the ball 315 times this season for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Ravens are that much stronger with the return of middle linebacker and inspirational leader Ray Lewis. After missing four games (all Baltimore victories) with a toe injury, the 36-year-old Lewis returned just in time to see his team’s four-game winning streak shattered in San Diego. Still, he’s the club’s leading tackler.

For whatever reason, Lewis always plays well against the Browns. He seems to be just about everywhere the ball is. Whether it’s making a hit at or behind the line of scrimmage or dropping back into coverage, chances are Lewis will be in the vicinity.

The Baltimore pass rush also hums along at a pace that will see the front seven drop opposing quarterbacks 52 times. To put that in perspective, the Browns’ four-man pass rush is on a 33-sack pace.

The Ravens, who average nearly 24 points and 342 yards a game, owned the ball for 37 minutes and 34 seconds in the first meeting in Cleveland. With the Browns concentrating on shutting down the Ravens’ running game, a repeat of that stat is unlikely.

Unless, that is, the Ravens keep the Cleveland offense off the field with third-down conversions. They have a 42.7% success rate on third down, holding the opposition to just 30.3% The Browns convert third downs at a 39.3% clip, but allow the opposition to convert 40.6% of the time. In their first meeting, the Ravens converted nine of 19 third downs, while the Browns struggled with just three conversions in 14 attempts.

So where does that all lead for Saturday’s little get together in Baltimore? Need you ask? Have you not been paying attention? With Shayne Graham replacing the injured Cundiff and making easy field goals, make it:

Ravens 33, Browns 13

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday leftovers

Back from a short jaunt out of town, but taped the latest Browns loss and watched it late last night. Some observations . . .

Let’s get one thing straight right. Seneca Wallace is not an every-game quarterback in the National Football League. Not now, not ever.

So get the notion out of your thought pattern that the Browns have a quarterback controversy now because Wallace played reasonably well Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. The only controversy will be whether Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. decide their future quarterback is not on the current roster.

After watching how well Wallace ran the west coast offense in the first half against the Cardinals, they have to wonder whether Colt McCoy will ever pick up the nuances of the scheme. He has his moments, but they are too few and too far between.

Wallace has a distinct advantage, having run the west coast when called upon while a backup with Holmgren’s Seattle Seahawks. He looked comfortable from the opening snap as the Browns jumped to a 17-7 lead late in the third quarter.

But the nine-year veteran from Iowa State is (a generously listed) 5-11 and short quarterbacks do not succeed in the NFL. Unless, of course, your name is Drew Brees. Don’t for a minute think Wallace is the answer to the Browns’ problems at the position. He’s a stopgap at best.

When Wallace sets up under center Saturday in Baltimore, the Ravens should have no problem disarming anything he hopes to throw against them. The Ravens most certainly will be in a nasty mood after getting spanked by the Chargers Sunday in San Diego.

* * *

Another more important dilemma is what the Browns plan to do with Peyton Hillis. The 2011 season’s bad boy is starting to run like he did last season when he romped for 1,117 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

The Browns all but begged him to sign at the beginning of the season, but Hillis and his agent of the moment thought he should be paid like he was Arian Foster or Chris Johnson or any other elite NFL running back. That wasn’t going to happen.

Now that Hillis has been humbled, it’s possible the Browns might retry to get the big guy’s name on a contract, particularly after it appears that Montario Hardesty has become the club’s new Mr. Fragile. With the emergence of Chris Ogbonnaya and the expected return of Brandon Jackson from injured reserve next season, Hardesty could become an afterthought.

Here we are nearly two seasons into Hardesty’s NFL career and all he has to show for it is nine games played, four as a starter, 268 yards gained and no touchdowns. He has spent much more time either on injured reserve or the sidelines due to some ailment.

Perhaps it’s time for the Browns to cut their losses and release him so some other team can find out what Browns fans already know. He’s an injury waiting to happen.

* * *
Did anyone notice how nonplussed Pat Shurmur looked when Larry Fitzgerald made that game-altering catch in overtime in Sunday’s 20-17 loss? It was no different than the expression on his face during a routine dive play.

Show some emotion, coach. If only a slap on your play sheet to show some anger. Let us know you have feelings. Let us know you can get angry or upset or happy or whatever. At least Mona Lisa had a smile on her face.

If you believe in the trickle-down theory when it comes to emotion in football, then a team is a direct reflection of its coach. But if that coach resembles a statue on the sideline, it has to have some sort of deleterious effect on the team.

Its one thing to be in control at all times. It’s quite another to act like something more than a robot.

* * *
The Browns’ three linebackers totaled 29 of the team’s 69 tackles against the Cardinals with D’Qwell Jackson accounting for 13, 12 of them solo. Chris Gocong added a couple of sacks and combined with Kaluka Maiava on five tackles for loss.

Gocong and Maiava were extremely strong during a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter when a Wallace fumble gave the Cardinals a first and goal at the Cleveland 5. Jay Feely ended up kicking a game-tying field goal after the Browns’ great red-zone defense stiffened.

If there’s any one area that Shurmur and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron can point to with pride, it has been the defense’s terrific showing whenever the opposition crosses their 20-yard line or creates a turnover deep in Cleveland territory.

* * *
Stream of thought and some stats: Jabaal Sheard continued his late run for all-league rookie honors with a two-sack game. He has been the lone bright spot along he defensive line in the last six weeks. . . . Hillis was held to only 30 yards in 11 attempts in the second half after ripping off 69 on 15 carries in the first 30 minutes. Almost a third of his first-half yards were gained on his first two carries (18 and 12 yards). . . . Wallace’s showing Sunday in Glendale, Ariz., was no fluke. In his previous game there on the final weekend of the 2008 season, he threw for 250 yards, a pair of touchdowns and a couple of interceptions in a 34-21 loss. It was also Holmgren’s final game as the Seahawks’ coach. . . . A statistical juxtaposition for the Browns in the loss to the Cards reveals the weak run defense limited Arizona to just 74 yards, while the high-ranked pass defense surrendered 289 net yards. . . . The Browns did nothing to stem the tide in the dropped-passes department with another four, raising their season total to a league-leading 43. . . . Once again, the Cleveland secondary was burned by tight ends. Todd Heap caught seven passes for 69 yards and Jeff King grabbed one for 24, accounting for 93 of the Cards’ yards through the air. Heap used to abuse the Browns while a member of the Ravens.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Desert dust

A month ago, Browns fans looked at the club’s finishing schedule and cringed. The team was 4-6 and the fans feared the final outcome because five of the remaining six games were against Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

The only breather in that gantlet was the Arizona Cardinals, who had lost six of their first seven games. At least the Browns had a chance in that one even though the game was in Glendale, right?

Guess again.

The Cardinals have been one of the hottest teams in the National Football League since opening the season at 1-6. When the Browns arrive in the desert for Sunday’s game, they’ll face a team that has won three straight games and five of its last six.

No longer is Arizona the patsy. No longer can teams chalk up an automatic victory against the Cardinals. No longer do the Cards sulk and feel sorry for themselves because the season, for all intents and purposes, was over midway through the schedule.

And no longer are they the breather in an otherwise brutal finishing schedule for the Browns. What looked like a 5-11 finish this season now looms large as a 4-12 record in Pat Shurmur’s rookie season as a head coach.

You can bet Eric Mangini’s large support group in Cleveland will more than rise to the occasion if Shurmur sports a worse record than his predecessor, who fashioned a brace of 5-11 campaigns. That doesn’t make Mangini necessarily a better coach. It just makes him a coach with a slightly better record.

A quick look at the Cardinals this season shows they lost four of those early games in the losing streak by 1, 3, 4 and 3 points. Conversely, they have posted victories by 6, 4, 3, 6 and 2 points in their comeback.

Captain Obvious would say the Big Red, as they are known in the desert, play close games. Others more familiar with the club would say it was because it took half a season to acclimate to the new system of defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

Mistakes made early in the season have been eliminated dramatically as the opportunistic defense is more comfortable with the schemes of their coordinator, a disciple of Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Yes, that means the Browns are going to see a variety of looks Sunday, including the famed zone blitz. And the Cleveland offensive line, already shaky at best after the first 13 games, had better be up to the challenge or else it could be a long afternoon for whomever starts at quarterback.

The Cardinals have allowed just six touchdowns in the last six games mainly because they have been exceptional on third down. Their 31.8% conversion rate against opponents on that down is third best in the NFL. They get their offense back on the field quickly.

The best chance the Browns have of winning this one is to attack the Cardinals’ offense, which sputters more than it hums, especially with an abysmal 29.7% conversion rate on third down. Whether it’s John Skelton or Kevin Kolb at quarterback, you can count on at least one interception a game.

It is entirely possible backup quarterbacks will start. Unless Colt McCoy makes a miraculous recovery from the concussion he received last week courtesy of a James Harrison cheap shot, Seneca Wallace will make his first start.

It’s quite the opposite for the Cardinals. Skelton, who has filled in for the oft-injured Kolb this season, most likely will be under center since Kolb went down with a concussion last Sunday.

The big difference here is that Wallace has been in for only two plays this season. Skelton, although the numbers don’t reflect it, has been the savior on offense for Arizona with a 4-1 mark as the quarterback of record. The big guy from Fordham has thrown seven touchdown passes, including three in last Sunday’s upset of the San Francisco 49ers, but he has countered that with nine interceptions.

However, he has the luxury of throwing the football to Larry Fitzgerald, one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers. Wallace enjoys no such luxury. He’s got Greg Little, Mo Massaquoi and Jordan Norwood.

Fitzgerald catches everything within his zip code. He counts his career drops on one hand. Receivers like Little and Massaquoi count their drops on both hands over a season. Fitzgerald has 62 catches this season for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Cardinals, however, are vulnerable along the offensive line. With any kind of pressure, opponents can get up close and personal with the quarterback. That line surrenders an average of slightly more than three sacks a game.

If Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron ever wanted to unleash an afternoon full of blitzes, this would be the perfect time. If you play conservatively against the Cards’ offense, you most likely will pay a dear price.

Running back Beanie Wells, the kid from Akron and Ohio State, has finally learned to play with pain and is having a very nice season. Even though he's banged up from head to toe, he has run for 943 yards and nine touchdowns.

On defense, players to watch include defensive end Calais Campbell, who has seven sacks and uses his 6-8 frame to knock down numerous passes at the line of scrimmage; linebacker Daryl Washington, who has 71 solo tackles on the season and is playing well enough to be considered strongly for the Pro Bowl; rookie linebacker Sam Acho, who has five sacks in limited duty since replacing the injured Joey Porter; and strong safety Adrian Wilson, one of the hardest hitters in the league.

And then there’s Patrick Peterson, the rookie cornerback who has all the makings of one of the best punt returners in history. He has already returned a record-tying four for TDs, including a 99-yarder that beat St. Louis in overtime a few weeks ago. Now factor in the Browns’ season-long poor special teams performance and a record-breaking fifth return for a score is a distinct possibility.

All in all, this will not be the breather most fans thought when the schedule came out. It looks as though the Browns, losers of three in a row, six of the last seven and eight of the last 10, very well might finish with a flourish. The wrong kind of flourish. Make it:

Cardinals 24, Browns 19

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mon, er, Friday leftovers

The National Football League had better crack down – and hard – on Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison before he kills someone.

The vicious hit he laid on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy in Thursday night’s 14-3 loss to the Steelers looked just like another pelt on Harrison’s Cleveland Browns bounty belt.

Last season, it was Mo Massaquoi and Joshua Cribbs. And now McCoy joins the club after suffering a neck-snapping blow to the head. At least it wasn’t ignored, but referee Ed Hochuli made a ridiculously bad penalty call.

He labeled it a personal foul for roughing the passer when it was plainly obvious McCoy had left the pocket and was more of a runner even though he was able to dump a pass off to Montario Hardesty.

Harrison, who has become a serial offender when it comes to cheap shots, had a clear shot at McCoy, who was defenseless in the open field after delivering the ball. The linebacker had time to either lower his pad level or dip his helmet and strike McCoy in the chest area.

Instead, he lowered his helmet and struck McCoy just above the facemask with the crown of his helmet. If that wasn’t a deliberate attempt to injure, then I don’t know what is.

Hochuli should have called it what it was. It should have been personal foul, unnecessary roughness, blow to the head. It happened right in front of him. How could he not see it?

Of course, that’s not going to make McCoy feel any better, but at least it would send a message to the NFL that a helmet was involved in the play.

It has taken the NFL several years, but it has finally become skittish when it comes to plays that either do -- or could -- result in concussions. And this was clearly one of them. Hopefully, the league sees that on the videotape of the game and acts.

Harrison has been fined as much as $75,000 in the past for illegal and damaging hits. It would appear the only way to get his attention would be to suspend him. And not for just one game.

Then bring him in, show him the proper and legal technique of tackling and warn him that the next time this happens, an even stiffer suspension will be meted out. If necessary, use him as an example of how not to play the game.

Humiliating him might be the only way to get through to him. Before he kills someone.

* * *

What in the world has Chris Ogbonnaya done to warrant bench duty? When the Browns desperately needed a running back due to injuries earlier this season, the young man from the University of Texas stepped in and did a commendable job. Even threw a 100-yard game in there.

So why is he picking up splinters on the bench? Is it because Peyton Hillis is reasonably healthy and Montario Hardesty can stand upright, carry a football and not fall down injured again? Is that why?

Here’s another question. Why bother using him like Pat Shurmur did early in the second quarter of the Steelers game when he ripped off a 28-yard run on a third-and-20 from the Cleveland 17 and then sit him back down?

He didn’t reappear until late in the fourth quarter when he contributed a three-yard run in the Browns’ final drive of the game. In between those runs, Hillis and Hardesty flailed unsuccessfully for 49 total yards.

So . . . what in the world does Chris Ogbonnaya have to do to get some PT? Correct answer: Be patient until Hillis and Hardesty once again find themselves unable to play because they got hurt again.

* * *

Poor Chris Gocong. He plays his best game of the season against the Steelers, especially in the great goal-line stand in the fourth quarter when Pittsburgh threatened to blow the game wide open, and has nothing to show for it but another L.

“We thought we were going to win it,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s one of those things. "If four or five plays had turned out differently, we could have won this game.”

Joe Haden joined Gocong in the frustration. “It really hurts for us to play so well all game and have it end like this,” said the cornerback, who played well, but was victimized by a well-executed back-shoulder throw by Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown late in the game with the Steelers clinging to a 7-3 lead. It wound up a 79-yard scoring hookup.

* * *

Roethlisberger thought he had a broken leg when Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering sandwiched him in the second quarter. “It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I felt like my foot was outside my leg.”

That’s saying something considering the unusually high number of injuries he has suffered in his career. So why did he reenter the game in the third quarter, limping all the way to the end of the game? “I just didn’t want to let the guys down,” said Roethlisberger, who is like the Energizer Bunny. He just keeps on going and going and going.

* * *

Stream of thought: Shurmur, on going for a field goal instead of a touchdown on the first drive of the game: The first drive of the game . . . you want to get points.” The idea, though, is to come away with six, not three, points when you have a first and goal at the 5, second and goal at the 2 and third and goal at the six-inch line. . . . More Shurmur: "We kept them out of the end zone until that last big pass. There are some things we can build on.” Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them. . . . Is it too early to call Massaquoi a bust? It’s year three for the wide receiver and his progress chart has flattened out. Maybe the Browns should trade him to Detroit, where he can hook up again with his buddy Matthew Stafford, his college quarterback. . . . McCoy is 6-15 as a starter in the NFL, but 0-8 against the AFC North. Simple math says he is a much better 6-7 against everyone else.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Big Ben the indestructible

It seems the only way the Browns can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers is to break Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. No, make that both arms. And throw in a fractured leg.

Even then, the tough-as-nails quarterback probably would find a way to get back on the field and beat the Browns. Again.

The young man from Findlay, Ohio, is indestructible. His pain threshold is clearly off the charts. That became abundantly clear after his performance against the Browns Thursday night.

Just when it appeared the Browns knocked the big guy out of the game midway through the second quarter with what was later diagnosed as a high ankle sprain, he grabs a helmet at the beginning of the second half and leads the Steelers to a 14-3 victory.

Most players miss several games with high ankle sprains. Not Roethlisberger. He’s clearly a different dude. He plays the game with the mentality of a linebacker.

After Cleveland defensive linemen Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxson made a Big Ben sandwich out of Roethlisberger with a second-quarter sack, there was only one person who thought he would return.

The quarterback required help just to get off the field after his left knee and ankle were caved in. The way he left, not even the most ardent Roethlisberger fan dreamed he would return.

After watching him hobble badly to the dressing room, then mount the meat wagon to be driven to the X-ray room, Browns fans silently began to believe that maybe, just maybe, the Browns could pull an upset, especially with Charlie Batch at quarterback.

Many Browns fans take delight in ridiculing Roethlisberger, making fun of his off-the-field exploits in snarky fashion. On the field, however, he has all the right answers against Cleveland. Each right answer puts a bigger smile on his face.

Cleveland fans might not like him, but ask them if they would love to see him or someone like him quarterback the Browns and most, if they were truthful, would nod in the affirmative. There’s a grudging respect and admiration Roethlisberger deserves but probably will never get from Browns Nation.

He’s a winner. That cannot be argued. Since he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2004, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and contended for the playoffs just about every season. He – along with a damn good defense – is an inspiration to the team. He makes Mike Tomlin’s job that much easier with his grit and determination.

And he has made Cleveland his personal toy. Since joining the Steelers, Roethlisberger has lost to the Browns just once. Colt McCoy, on the other hand, has faced AFC North teams eight times in his nearly two years in the National Football League and is looking for his first victory.

On this night, however, the Browns couldn’t have knocked off their archrival because the offense, with one notable exception, stammered and sputtered and coughed most of the evening. There was no way the Pittsburgh defense was going to let this one slip away, even with their starting quarterback seemingly incapacitated.

The Browns didn’t know it at the time, but their best chance to reach the end zone was on their opening drive when they unveiled an offense we had never seen before this season.

McCoy completed all four of his passes for 68 yards as the Browns marched smartly down to the Pittsburgh 5 as the Steelers’ defense looked dazed and confused. Passes of 33 yards to Evan Moore and 25 yards to Joshua Cribbs made it look easy.

And then McCoy appeared to score after being flushed out of the pocket on second and goal at the 2. But a replay showed his knee hit at the six-inch line. No problem, right? Wrong.

Rather than have McCoy sneak for the final half foot, Pat Shurmur called for Peyton Hillis to carry it in behind left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Jason Pinkston. That's perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. Hillis was stuffed at the 1.

On two third-and-less-than-a-foot plays later in the game, McCoy converted both with sneaks. Easily. So why not on the opening drive? When you have trouble scoring touchdowns, you try anything.

Then Shurmur went conservative on fourth down and called on Phil Dawson for the chip-shot field goal. Why not go for it? What in the world do you have to lose? You’re 4-8 on the season for goodness sake. Give it a shot. If you don’t make it, the Steelers start with their backs touching the goal line.

The Steelers were in a similar position at the tail end of an 89-yard drive early in the fourth quarter and a 7-3 lead. Tomlin OK’d four straight Rashard Mendenhall dive plays from the 2 and all four failed with Chris Gocong and Mike Adams taking turns stuffing him.

The difference is Tomlin coaches aggressively. The Steelers play as their head coach coaches. Shurmur coaches passively, timidly. And the Browns play as their head coach coaches.

But it all became moot for the Browns when Roethlisberger stunned just about everyone at Heinz Field when he jogged onto the field at the beginning of the second half. Even though he did so with a pronounced limp, you just knew the Browns did not stand a chance. There was no way Big Ben was going to let the Browns steal this one.

The Cleveland defense, which played as well as it had all season, couldn’t overcome the ineptitude of the offense. McCoy didn’t help by throwing three interceptions, and the running game was a no-show. Again.

The Browns couldn’t take advantage of an Adams pick that set them up with a short field near midfield midway through the fourth quarter. McCoy drove the Browns down to the Pittsburgh 5, but the effort was ruined by an intentional grounding call and the Steelers’’ third pick of the evening in the end zone.

Two plays later, Big Ben the playmaker made one of those plays that has made him one of the NFL’s top clutch performers by linking up with Antonio Brown on a 79-yard scoring play.

Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden misplayed the back-shoulder throw and fell down, allowing Brown to run freely down the right sideline. He then zigzagged between safeties Usama Young and Adams to score to wrap up the Browns' their third straight loss and sixth setback in the last seven games.

If there’s any good news that came out of this one, it’s that the defense played well enough to win a lot of games even though it got beat by a quarterback who played on a leg and a half.

The offense, per usual, left an awful lot to be desired. And that’s going to be a problem the rest of the season as the Browns stumble aimlessly toward talking about 2012.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Steel City blues

The last time the Browns won a football game in Pittsburgh, Tim Couch was the quarterback and a national television audience sat in on the upset.

Playing arguably his best game ever as a professional, Couch that Sunday night in October in 2003 threw for only 208 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-13 victory. But he completed 20 of 25 passes and was masterful as the Browns controlled the ball for 37½ minutes.

The Cleveland defense sacked Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox three times and limited the Pittsburgh offense to just 209 yards and 11 first downs. It was the most complete Browns victory in Pittsburgh in recent memory, or at least since the return.

No Browns fan will ever forget Couch’s nine-yard touchdown run around right end on the final play of the first half, the quarterback pumping his right arm up and down triumphantly as he cruised into the end zone.

Nor will they forget Daylon McCutcheon’s 75-yard pick 6 of Maddox late in the third quarter that gave the Browns a 30-10 lead in front of what had to be a stunned crowd. Nor William Green’s 115 yards on the ground.

Why do we bring that up? Because the Browns make their annual trek to the Chamber of Horrors, a.k.a. Heinz Field, Thursday night in front of another national TV audience.

Since that 2003 game, the Browns have dropped seven in a row at Heinz and been outscored 212-103. On average, that’s 30.3-14.7. Since that game, Cleveland has not been to the playoffs and the Steelers have won two Super Bowls.

What is labeled as a rivalry is a rivalry only from a geographic standpoint. The two cities are roughly 120 miles apart. From a competitive standpoint, however, their pro football teams are galaxies apart.

Since the Browns returned to the National Football League in 1999, they have played the Steelers 25 times and lost 21, including the infamous 36-33 loss in the AFC wild card game in Pittsburgh in the 2002 playoffs.

That’s the one where the Browns blew leads of 24-7 early in the third quarter and 33-21 early in the fourth quarter, and coach Butch Davis decided to play prevent-defense football after taking over play-calling duties from coordinator Foge Fazio.

As the old saying goes, the only thing that strategy prevented was the Browns from winning their first playoff game since 1994 as the Steelers scored 22 fourth-quarter points to steal the victory.

This season, there is no reason to believe the Browns can replicate what happened in 2003. There is no reason to believe Colt McCoy can come close to matching what Couch did. And there’s no reason to believe the Steelers will fall that far behind as they did eight years ago.

These two teams are heading in opposite directions. The Steelers share first place with a 9-3 record in the AFC North with Baltimore only because they can’t beat the Ravens, who are responsible for two of Pittsburgh’s three losses.

And the Browns are careening toward another dismal season. Losers of two in a row and five of their last six, they are flirting with their third straight 5-11 season. That’s only if they can beat the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz., in 10 days. If not, 4-12 will serve as Pat Shurmur’s debut record.

The way they are playing, it’s definitely not outside the realm of possibility that the Browns will finish their fourth straight season with at least 11 losses. No other NFL team can make that claim.

So what can we expect Thursday night in Pittsburgh? A blowout of some proportion to be certain. First of all, it’s a short week and we all know how poorly the Browns’ offense performs even when given the standard seven days to prepare.

In their last seven games, they’ve scored 84 points on six touchdowns and 14 field goals. Placekicker Phil Dawson is the runaway scoring leader this season. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has produced 72 points in winning its last three games after losing to the Ravens in the rematch.

The Steelers win games the old-fashioned way. Nothing fancy. Nothing flashy. They beat you with sound, fundamental football. On both sides of the ball and on special teams. They rarely beat themselves.

Not with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger running a balanced offense that features the running of Rashard Mendenhall and receiving of speedsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.

And certainly not with an opportunistic defense that might be getting a little old. But it should have no trouble shutting down McCoy as Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confuses him with his zone blitz schemes.

Roethlisberger enters every Cleveland game knowing, not thinking or hoping, knowing he is going to win. In 10 games against the Browns, Big Ben owns nine victories. His only loss was couple of years ago at Cleveland Browns Stadium when the Browns sacked him eight times in a 13-6 victory. The Cleveland quarterback that day? Brady Quinn.

On paper, this one looks and sounds like a mismatch, right? Factoring in all the factors, is there any question the nation will witness a blowout Thursday evening?

Uh, no. Make it:

Steelers 38, Browns 6

Monday, December 5, 2011

Monday leftovers

Talk about delusional.

Here’s what Browns quarterback Colt McCoy had to say after the Baltimore Ravens all but pistol-whipped the Browns Sunday.

“If we do everything right every play, then we can play with anybody,” he said. Yes he actually said that. And then he made a mistake. He continued to talk.

“We can move the ball down the field. Maybe we will just look at that last drive (against the Ravens when they scored their only touchdown in the 24-10 loss) and carry that on to Pittsburgh (Thursday night). Let’s remember that and then let’s move on to Pittsburgh and have a short memory.”

It looks as if all those hits the second-year quarterback has absorbed this season are beginning to take their toll on his thought processes and have scrambled his brains. Either that or he’s trying to convince himself everything is all right even though the Browns are 4-8 and sinking fast.

First of all, the Browns have played seven home games this season. And in those seven games, they have scored a grand total of eight touchdowns. That’s 28 quarters of football that have produced eight touchdowns.

Two of those TDs were scored in garbage time, when the Browns trailed hopelessly (against Tennessee and Baltimore), which means they have scored just six meaningful touchdowns in front of the home folks in seven games. Now that’s something of which to be proud . . . if you’re delusional.

What in the world does McCoy see that we all don’t see? What in the world makes him think the garbage-time touchdown against the Ravens will carry over in a positive vein against the Steelers? In Pittsburgh!!

Perhaps he should listen to teammate Scott Paxson, who spoke with much more measured reason following the game. “We got slaughtered,” said the defensive tackle. “They kicked out butt up front. We’ve just got to swallow it and move on.”

Maybe Paxson should have a sit-down with McCoy to get straightened out before the Steelers game.

It’s not as though McCoy hasn’t taken one too many hits this season. He passed that plateau a few games ago. He’s well on his way to becoming another Tim Couch or Charlie Frye, Cleveland quarterbacks who just weren’t good enough to play on a consistent basis in the National Football League.

If McCoy is the starting quarterback for the Browns next season, this franchise will have taken yet another step back toward being the team they fielded in the 1999 season when the NFL so graciously allowed Cleveland back into the league.

* * *

From the department of absurdities comes this gem from Ravens linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs: “They’re a good offense. They’ve got some Pro Bowlers up front, so they’re always going to be good.”

Nice try, Terrell, nice try. One of those Pro Bowlers you mentioned was Joe Thomas, who is definitely not playing at a Pro Bowl level this season. You know Joe, don’t you? He’s the guy you blew by when you sacked McCoy midway through the third quarter.

Last time I looked, the Browns were 4-8 and your club was 9-3. There’s a very good reason for that. The Browns are every bit as bad as their record, maybe worse. And your club is every bit as good as its record, maybe better.

So cool it with the rhetoric. Just because you have to play them again in three weeks doesn’t mean you have to go overboard with the platitudes. We know – and I suspect you do, too – that when the two teams meet again, the results will be the same, if not worse.

* * *

Ravens coach John Harbaugh must teach his men to be overly kind to the opposition. Why else would Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb call McCoy “a great quarterback and he will make the throw if you give him time. But our D-line was in his face all night.”

First of all, any quarterback will make throw if he has enough time. That said, at least Webb got the last part right. But great quarterback? Is he talking about the fourth-best quarterback in the four-team AFC North? Webb, by the way, took a Brad Maynard punt 68 yards for the final Ravens TD.

* * *

More Suggs: “The game was a lot closer than the score said. These guys brawl with us. They have a Rocky Balboa kind of mentality.” And he said it with what was presumed a straight face. Who writes his stuff?

Evidently Suggs didn’t factor in the two missed field goals by Billy Cundiff and the garbage-time touchdown the Browns scored late in the game with the Ravens holding a three-touchdown lead. He probably didn’t realize he was on the field for only 22 of the 60 minutes required to play the game.

* * *

Stream of thought: McCoy averages a pitiful 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Embarrassing for a team that runs a west coast offense. Average is around 7 yards. One of the main reasons is that Browns receivers catch most of McCoy’s passes with their feet planted firmly in the ground and are dropped in their tracks. . . . In their 12 games this season, the Browns have allowed eight running backs to run for 100 yards or more. . . . . Suggs should take reality lessons from Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “They just whipped us up front,” he said. “They embarrassed us. It was a slap in the face today.” . . . For opening up his mouth and caring last week, wide receiver Joshua Cribbs was rewarded with no targets against the Ravens while his teammates dropped another five passes. That prompted Shurmur to note that “you can’t drop the ball, especially when it hits on the hands.” Shades of Romeo Crennel. Shurmur nonetheless remains optimistic, saying he was “not discouraged.” Well, he should be.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Toyed and manhandled

So what else did you expect?

The Baltimore Ravens showed up at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday, as scheduled and as advertised, and did just about what everyone expected them to do.

In short, the former Browns toyed with the current woebegone Browns for the better part of 60 minutes and waltzed away with a 24-10 victory that seemed more like a 30-3 victory. That’s what the final would have been had the visitors not self-destructed at times.

They ran at will. Not almost at will. Not virtually at will. At will.

They racked up 290 of their 448 totals yards on the ground against a Cleveland defense that ranked 29th in the 32-team National Football League against the run entering the game. Safe to say that number will settle safely in the statistical basement in that category this week.

The Ravens also owned the ball a ridiculous 37 minutes and 34 seconds as the Browns failed time and again to get off the field on third down.

Say, didn’t the Browns draft a couple of defensive linemen with their first two picks in last April’s college draft in order to strengthen their ability to shut down the opposition’s running game? And get off the field on third down?

Is it time to head back to the drawing board on that one? Again?

Actually, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, one of those picks, had a pretty good game against the Ravens with nine tackles, a strip sack and a pass defensed. But he had little or no help from his mates in other phases of the game.

Here’s one more interesting stat. The Browns entered the game No. 1 in the NFL against the pass. The entire league. And they improved on that by limiting Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to just 158 yards passing and no touchdowns.

Statistically, no one defends against the pass better than the Browns. And this is where stats become extremely misleading.

Now stop and think why the Browns are tops in the league in that category. Here’s a clue: It isn’t because they’ve got a good secondary. Or a good pass rush.

Could it be that teams don’t need to pass on them in order to win games?

So how did the Ravens self-destruct? For starters, kicker Billy Cundiff missed two relatively easy field goals (34 and 41 yards) in the first half. There’s six points right there.

Cundiff had been perfect this season from inside the 40 and six of seven between the 40 and 49. But in the rainy mist that fell all afternoon, he somehow managed to push a couple of them right.

He did, however, put one between the uprights in the final seconds of the first half thanks to a coaching blunder by Pat Shurmur. Following Cundiff’s second miss, the Cleveland coach foolishly decided to throw the ball with a minute left in the half and down just 7-0.

Not content to go in trailing by only a touchdown, he called four straight pass plays from his 31 even though quarterback Colt McCoy was struggling in the tough weather conditions. The first resulted in a Baltimore holding penalty, which seemed to embolden the coach.

The second pass was nearly picked off by linebacker Terrell Suggs, who dropped it probably because he was surprised the Browns were actually throwing at the time. Brain cramp. He forgot this was the Browns.

The next pass was intended for Ben Watson, but the tight end never turned around and the ball skipped to Ravens free safety Ed Reed. That right there should have been a broad clue to Shurmur. Two passes, two near interceptions.

Even though your running game stinks, run the damn ball and wind down the clock. That’s the smart thing to do. Not with this coach.

McCoy dropped back again and fired – no, make that lobbed – a pass toward Mo Massaquoi, who ran a sloppy out route. Rookie Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith jumped the route and made an easy pick with 37 seconds left in the half. It was almost as though he was in the Browns’ huddle when the play was called.

The Cleveland defense bailed out Shurmur with a strong stand, forcing a field goal by Cundiff, this one from 21 yards, where he couldn’t miss, and the Ravens had a 10-0 lead. The Browns are not a good enough team to overcome giving up gifts like that.

The Ravens had compiled 260 total yards in the first 30 minutes and all they had to show for it was a 10-point lead. But considering whom they were playing, it was the safest 10-point lead possible because there was no way the Browns would threaten it.

So they came out in the second half and doubled their dose of Ray Rice running the ball and Flacco completing third-down pass after third-down pass. And when Rice left the game periodically because he was gassed after running through, around and past Cleveland defenders for 204 yards, Ricky Williams picked up the slack for 76 more yards.

Even though the score did not reflect it, the Ravens really did toy with the Browns. For example, after Sheard separated Flacco from the ball at midfield midway through the third quarter, the Browns had a first-and-goal at the Baltimore 5 after Peyton Hillis slipped behind the Ravens’ secondary for a 52-yard pass and run.

After Evan Moore uncharacteristically dropped a touchdown pass, the Browns settled for a 21-yard Phil Dawson field goal. The 10-3 deficit lasted exactly 59 seconds.

It became a 14-point game three plays and 73 yards later when Rice ripped off a 67-yard run to set up a Williams touchdown two plays later. Why not Rice? He certainly deserved the honor of scoring this one. Too tired. Smiling and on the bench, he watched as Williams sent the message loud and clear: OK, boys, the men are taking over this game again.

And let us not forget about the special teams. It seems special teams is a weekly subject for the Browns and not in a kind way. If it’s not botched snaps or missed field goals, it’s poor returns or poor coverage.

And the winner this week is poor punt coverage with Lardarius Webb in the starring role. The Ravens cornerback went 68 yards virtually untouched with a Brad Maynard punt with seven minutes left in regulation.

By then, the Ravens probably felt a little sorry for the Browns, who took advantage of garbage time and put together a 10-play drive, 73-yard drive that resulted in a 22-yard scoring strike to Moore, who was so wide open, it looked like a blown assignment.

Even that could have been worse. A lot worse. Two plays earlier, Ravens corner Danny Gorrer dropped a sure pick 6.

Though the scoreboard did not reflect it, the Ravens manhandled the Browns, who fell to 4-8 with two games with the Pittsburgh Steelers, including Thursday night in Pittsburgh, and one more in Baltimore dead ahead.

That’s the bad news. The good news? The Browns have the same record as the Philadelphia Eagles.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Get serious

There are good times to play the Baltimore Ravens this season. And then there are not-so-good times to play them.

A little awkwardly put, to be sure, but a quick perusal of the 2011 season for the Ravens reveals one interesting observation. And it obliquely involves the Browns, who play the Ravens Sunday at CBS.

The Ravens rest comfortably atop the National Football League’s AFC North Division with an 8-3 record, which includes victories over division leaders San Francisco and Houston.

Actually, they share first place with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The comfort factor lies in the Ravens sweeping the season series from the Steelers and owning any tiebreaker should the teams tie for the division championship or any other playoff position.

So how did the Ravens lose three games this season? That’s where the Browns game comes into focus.

Six of Baltimore's eight victories have come against teams that own a winning record. Only St. Louis and Arizona sport losing seasons among the victims. Now let's check the other side of the ledger.

Two of those three losses were against teams with losing records: Jacksonville and Seattle, each on the road. And each inexplicable loss came after a significant victory; Jacksonville the week after the Ravens defeated Houston, and Seattle after they won the previous week in Pittsburgh.

There’s something about playing on the road against a bad team following a big victory that seems to bother the big, bad Ravens to the point where they play just poorly enough to lose.

And we all know who the Ravens played and beat their last time out. How can you not remember the famous Harbaugh brothers battle on Thursday night football a week ago when big brother John’s Ravens smothered younger brother Jim’s 49ers?

Well, smothered might be a little harsh for a 16-6 result, but the Ravens sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith nine times, hit him on 12 other occasions and were firmly in control of the game despite the absence of middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

So now, the scenario is set for the Ravens’ visit to Cleveland: Big victory in their last game, and heading into the lair (using that term loosely) of one of the really bad teams in the NFL. The only difference is the Ravens have had 10 days to prepare for this one.

Even so, there’s a good chance Lewis might miss his third straight game with what has been diagnosed as turf toe. Now that might not seem like much of an injury, but turf toes have been known to end careers. That’s what forced Jack Lambert to retire from the Steelers.

Brendon Ayanbadejo, a nine-year veteran, has stepped in and performed well in Lewis’ absence in victories over Cincinnati and San Francisco even though he doesn’t possess Lewis’ extreme – and often over-the-top – passion.

There’s a very good chance the Browns don’t know of Baltimore’s predilection to lose games no one expects them to lose. And that could be a blessing even though they haven’t knocked off a team with a winning record yet this season.

Believe it or not, the Browns have not played that badly at home this season. They are one bad snap away (remember the loss to St. Louis?) from a 4-2 record at the so-called Factory of Sadness. They’ve saved their really bad football (except for the Tennessee loss) for the road.

Oddsmakers have made the Ravens 6½-point favorites even though the game is in Cleveland. Perhaps they are unaware of just how bad Baltimore is following a big victory. Then again, maybe they know something we don’t know.

Maybe they figure Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will strafe the Cleveland secondary like he has the last three seasons, during which Baltimore has won six straight games and outscored the Browns, 151-67.

Flacco, who has never lost to the Browns, completes 67.5% of his passes against them with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. And he seems to have bonded nicely with rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has become a major threat for the deep pass. He has caught 31 passes, but averages 19.8 yards a catch and has five TDs.

Then again, maybe the oddsmakers figure Ray Rice and Ricky Williams will shred one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. Together, they’ve run for nearly 1,000 yards. Rice, also the Ravens’ leading receiver, has scored 10 TDs this season.

No doubt the oddsmakers were impressed that the Ravens have given up the second-fewest points in the league with 183, just four more than the Texans’ 179.

It’s interesting to note the club does not appear to miss Lewis that much, given their big wins over Cincinnati and San Francisco. That’s probably because they have the most active and aggressive front seven in the entire NFL.

Their hybrid 3-4 becomes a 4-3 depending on where Terrell Suggs lines up. At once, he is a linebacker and defensive lineman. When he crashes (he’s got nine sacks), he becomes one of the most feared pass rushers in the league. When he drops into coverage, he is nearly as effective with two of the team’s 12 interceptions.

The line consists of three defensive tackles. Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding and Terrence Cody are strong, quick and nasty. The nastiness continues at linebacker with Jameel McClain and Jarret Johnson. And whenever defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano wants to ratchet up his pass rush, he brings in ends Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger. Suggs, Ngata, McPhee, Redding and Kruger have combined for 26 of the club’s 38 sacks.

If there’s a weakness on defense, it lies in the secondary with third-year cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. But that’s also where Ed Reed lives. The veteran free safety is having a down season with just three picks, but that’s because he hasn’t played the Browns yet. In 17 games against Cleveland, Reed has racked up 10 of his 57 career interceptions, returning three for touchdowns.

All in all, there seems to be only one possible outcome in this one. There is no question the Ravens are the better team. It’s not even close. But then there’s that nagging fact about Baltimore losing focus for 60 minutes against a lesser opponent on the road following a big victory.

Will that happen to them for the third time this season? Can the Browns shock the NFL again and do what Jacksonville and Seattle, two teams the Browns have beaten, did to the Ravens?

Of course not. Make it:

Ravens 34, Browns 7