Monday, July 29, 2013

Not taking training camp seriously

Here we go. It’s starting already.

It’s been just a few days since training camp opened for the Browns and the microscopes have been hauled out.

In this need-to-know-now world we live in, immediacy is paramount. It is essential to keep everyone up to date, seemingly by the minute, in this camp with quarterback Brandon Weeden squarely in the crosshairs. The tweets are flying.

Brandon Weeden has a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage. Brandon Weeden is intercepted in the end zone. Brandon Weeden looks awkward while running a naked bootleg.

Can’t he do anything right? Apparently not. Not, that is, yet. Meanwhile, his competition for the starting job flourishes.

Jason Campbell makes a great pass to Jordan Norwood for a 37-yard TD pass. How exciting (sarcasm intended). Can’t wait for “Brandon Weeden displays a nice touch with a touchdown throw in the end zone.”

This camp has become one gigantic Brandon Weeden Show, starring Brandon Weeden, co-starring Brandon Weeden and Brandon Weeden with a guest appearance by Brandon Weeden. Give the guy a break.

In the dizzying world of the Twitterverse, the news must be disseminated NOW. Doesn’t make us any smarter or more knowledgeable. Just makes us more immediately informed.

Practically every move by the players is being scrutinized by the media and fans. Unfortunately, they are being taken seriously. The first exhibition game is 10 days away for goodness sakes. Even then, the four practice games should not be taken too seriously.

What the players are going through in the early stages of camp is relatively meaningless. It’s more of a familiarization with brand new systems on both sides of the ball. It takes time.

Mistakes are going to be made. That’s inevitable. Football is a game is mistakes. The team that makes the fewest usually wins.

Some coaches believe that how you practice is how you’ll play. Other coaches know better. It’s nothing more than a philosophical difference.

I’ve seen lazy, terrible practice players show up on Sundays and play well, making solid contributions. Conversely, I’ve seen great practice players show up on Sundays. That’s it. They showed up.

It’s OK to report who is injured or not participating. But c’mon, let’s not give this blow-by-blow stuff much credence. 

So Greg Little drops a pass. Big deal. Doesn’t mean he’ll drop a similar pass in the regular season. You know . . . in a game that counts.

Rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo is looking good. Seems to making the transition from defensive end smoothly. That’s nice to know. Let’s wait and see what he can do when the player across from him is wearing a different uniform.

And Jabaal Sheard’s similar transition has received some high marks. We’ll see how well that translates when he’s asked to drop into pass coverage in the home opener Sept. 8 at what used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium (I can’t wrap my head around that other name yet).

That’s when I’ll begin to take seriously just what kind of a team Rob Chudzinski has in his rookie season.

Friday, July 26, 2013

You're going to like this defense

While it’s going to be a lot of fun watching the Browns on offense this season, it’s the defense that intrigues me more.

The most significant signings the Browns made this season were not players. It was convincing Norv Turner and Ray Horton to join Rob Chudzinski’s first coaching staff.

Turner’s reputation precedes him. While his head coaching record is spotty, there’s no denying he’s a much better offensive coordinator than he is head coach. The numbers don’t lie.

Horton, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to coordinating with just two seasons as the boss. And in those two seasons, he turned the Arizona Cardinals from one of the National Football League’s worst defenses into one of the – well, not best, but certainly one of the most improved.

Living out here in Arizona, I’ve taken an up close and very personal look at the Cardinals the last two seasons and have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly Horton turned the program around.

So if he was so good, how did he wind up in Cleveland? New Cardinals coach Bruce Arians wanted his own man heading the defense. That’s his prerogative. And Cleveland’s gain.

There are many questions surrounding what fans can expect from Horton’s up-tempo defense. We’ll attempt to answer many of them. One thing is certain, though: This defense will be unlike any other seen on the lakefront in a long, long time.

Let’s begin with the most obvious question.

In what ways will the Browns’ defense this season be different?

First off, it will be much more aggressive than in the past. The days of the read-and-react defense in Cleveland are gone. No more nonsense of allowing opposing offenses to dictate tempo.

Cleveland is a hard-working, blue-collar town where the timid approach is frowned on. Too many times in the past, the Browns lost close games because they played conservatively so as not to lose. That won’t happen this season.

Horton’s main goal is simple and very direct: Put as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as possible. Make them feel uncomfortable in the pocket. Force them into mistakes. Make them throw before they want.

The new coordinator’s defense is based on mystery. You know there’s going to be pressure on every play, but where is that pressure going to come from? And who will apply that pressure?

The goal is to confuse the opposition with different looks. Be unpredictable. Show one look and come with something entirely different. It’s the kind of philosophy that requires smart players who make smart plays.

It took nearly a half season for Horton’s schemes to click in Arizona, but when they did in the second half of the 2011 season, the Cardinals turned a 1-6 start into an 8-8 record, due mainly to the performance of the defense.

So what can we look forward to more specifically?

Blitzing at least 50% of the time from just about anywhere on the field. They might come from cornerbacks and safeties, stunts and twists designed to fluster opposing offensive lines.

Horton is quite adept at mixing piece and parts. On one play, you might see a 2-5-4 alignment. The next might show the opposition a 3-3-5 look with the pressure coming from who knows where.

There is no rhyme or reason for what Horton yanks out of his magical mystery tour box. His unpredictability is the only part of him that is predictable. His goal is to beat the offense on every play any way he can.

As he recently said, “We teach legal punishment of the quarterback. You have to get after him.” Gotta love the expression “legal punishment.”

In what way does the 3-4 base defense factor into Horton’s scheme?

It doesn’t. It’s merely a starting point from which it can – and often will – morph into something entirely different by the time the ball is snapped. Confusion plays a large part of what the defense is trying to accomplish.

One thing is certain, though. Opposing quarterbacks will get to intimately know just about every member of the front seven at one time or another during a game. Pressure will arrive from just about every angle on the field.

It’s going to make the opposition play a game similar to “Where’s Waldo.” But it’s a game they’ll never figure out because Waldo won’t be in the same place two plays in a row. That’s the beauty of a Horton defense. It’s a continuous guessing game.

Who will be the key players?

Just about everyone because it’s all about the scheme. The players are merely a part of it. There will be no individual stars on defense.

On one play, it might be outside linebacker Paul Kruger on a blitz. On another, it might be fellow outside backer Jabaal Sheard who intercepts a pass after faking a blitz and dropping off into coverage.

Defensive linemen, whose sole purpose is to get to the quarterback, will be interchangeable because the talent dropoff is negligible. In order to keep his men fresh, Horton might sit the first group down every third series or so and still not lose quality with the replacements.

How much of a factor will inside linebackers be in the Horton defense?

Keeping D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson (assuming he wins the job alongside Jackson) clean is one of Horton’s goals. It’s similar to what the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens do to make certain their inside backers lead the team in tackles.

The big difference this season, though, is the aggressive nature of the pass rush will gain enough penetration to allow Jackson and Robertson to come clean and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.

What role will Barkevious Mingo play?

A small, but vital role. The rookie will probably start off as a situational rusher in obvious passing situations. He’ll most likely also be part of a three-linebacker scheme with Kruger and Sheard with one side overloaded in an effort to bring maximum pressure.

It’s unlikely, however, that he’ll be asked to drop into coverage, something he rarely did in college. That part of his game will have to brought along slowly as he grows from a college defensive end into an NFL outside linebacker.

What can we expect from the secondary?

Much, much more press coverage and a drastic reduction in zone coverage. That, in and of itself, is a tremendous improvement. With the pressure being applied up front, the secondary’s job becomes somewhat easier.

Why? Because that pressure will serve to disrupt the timing of the quarterback to the point where he will have to either release the ball before he wants, run with the ball or take a sack.

Cornerbacks like Joe Haden and, presumably, rookie Leon McFadden won’t have to chase receivers all day if the front seven do their jobs. It’s a joint cooperative effort designed to lessen the load.

As for the safeties, look for strong safety T. J. Ward to play a lot closer to the line of scrimmage this season, much like Troy Polamalu does in Pittsburgh. The big question is whether Ward is athletic enough to be as successful as Polamalu.

The free safety job is wide open. The new coaching staff likes Johnson Bademosi, but he’ll have to unseat incumbent Tashaun Gipson. Rookie Jamoris Slaughter is now healthy enough to challenge.

Finally, what about special teams?

New punter, new placekicker, new return specialist. Only the long snapper, Christian Yount, returns. It’s a whole new look that will furnish answers only after playing the games that count.

Right now, it looks as though Spencer Lanning will succeed Reggie Hodges (a distinct improvement) and veteran kicker Shayne Graham takes Phil Dawson’s place in a sideways move.

Travis Benjamin replaces Joshua Cribbs on kickoff and punt returns, another improvement since Cribbs’ talent level in the return game fell substantially the last couple of seasons. Where Cribbs will be missed most is as a gunner on punts and kickoffs.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's question time

Questions. We’ve got questions. We’ve got lots and lots of questions.

As the Browns open training camp and the annual glows of hope and promise burst through, it’s difficult not to be sanguine.

When the players reported Thursday to the training complex in Berea, no one was injured. Everyone was optimistic. And the team was unbeaten.

The heroes of fall (even though it’s still summer) sure looked good under the late afternoon sun to those true Browns fans who treat this time of the year as though it were a religious happening.

The aroma of the freshly-cut grass wafted gently through the air as the sounds of training camp suddenly replaced the silence.

The ever-present sound of the air horn signaling a change in assignments; the sound of the football slapping the hands of a receiver; the sound of those footballs as they spin through the air off the fingertips of the quarterbacks; the smacking of pads as they collide with each snap of the football.

Football is back in Cleveland and the fans joyfully soaked it all in as the 2013 season began to unfold.

But they, too, had questions that could be answered only by being there. First, the offense.

Who will be the starting quarterback this season? Can Brandon Weeden hold off the challenges of Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer?

The answer, of course, is yes. The job is Weeden’s to lose. He’s as close to being a perfect fit for Norv Turner’s offense as the team has. Campbell is a journeyman at best. And Hoyer is nothing more than a hometown kid returning home.

Turner realizes Weeden is his best bet for success in Cleveland. He’s got the arm, the hunger to learn, the overwhelming desire to be successful and probably the best coach to maximize those qualities.

Weeden’s critics point to his less-than-inspiring performance last season. They do not factor in Weeden’s season-long discomfort with the stifling offensive scheme of Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress. They’ll see a different quarterback this season.

How much of a factor will Trent Richardson be in Turner’s offense, which is so quarterback centric?

The coordinator says he wants Richardson to log at least 300 carries this season after he ran 267 times during an injury-plagued (he missed the final game) rookie season. All well and good, but that factors out to only one more carry per game. A larger number, say 320 or more, would produce more significant numbers.

Richardson, who played most of last season with broken ribs, says he’s 100% healthy entering training camp. It will be interesting to see just how much more involved the running back is in the overall offensive scheme.

He also caught 51 passes last season, a little more than three a game, a stat that no doubt caught the attention of Turner. So it wouldn’t surprise to see Richardson’s touches go up dramatically.

Richardson averaged only 3.6 yards a carry last season. How important is it to improve that number as opposed to the number of carries?

Extremely important. Improve the average carry to at least 4.0 yards a pop and 300-plus carries elevates him to a select statistical neighborhood in the National Football League.

Most of the 2013 season, we saw Richardson run behind an offensive line that underperformed. How often last season did we watch him get hit mere seconds after taking a handoff? Too often. His longest run was only 32 yards. That’s got to improve.

And just how does that improve?

Unfortunately, the Browns did not address the offensive line in the last college draft or in free agency. It has a sizable weakness at both guards. And that is the key position in the running game.

Rarely do you see the Browns run sweeps or counters with the guards pulling out and advancing to the second level. That’s because they are not quick. They plod. They are best at drive or zone blocking. When you can’t run the flanks, you become predictable.

When was the last time you saw the Browns run a successful screen pass? Quickness and agility are prime requisites to successfully execute this maneuver, which also requires exquisite timing. The guards have none of the above.

How does that impact of Turner’s thinking?

It has become obvious the last several years that the NFL has become much more of a passing league. It used to be that the run set up the pass. No longer. And that works to Turner’s advantage.

He loves to throw the ball and the front office has given him some weapons with which to work his magic. Although he favors the deep game, do not discount him using the quick-developing, short passing game to open up opposing defenses.

He is a master at play calling and keeping those defenses honest. Chances are he will use veteran wide receivers Davone Bess and David Nelson in the slot in three wide receiver sets, especially on third down. The Browns’ third-down conversion rate should improve as a result.

But what about youngsters like Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Travis Benjamin? Where do they fit in?

Quite nicely in Turner’s stretch game, especially Gordon and Benjamin, who will fill in while Gordon serves his two-game suspension at the beginning of the season. He should be dialing long distance much more than at any time since 2007.

OK, then, how does fullback Owen Marecic fit into Turner’s offense?

He doesn’t. It will be surprising if he makes the final roster.

Turner’s offense is basically a one-back set with a variety of looks in receivers. He loves tight ends and won’t hesitate a four-receiver look featuring a couple of tight ends. Mixing it up and becoming less predictable is going to be more impactful assuming, of course, his tight ends can stay healthy and produce.

So what can we expect the Cleveland offense to look like this season?

It definitely will not be the almost predictable offense we’ve been subjected to under Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and most of Romeo Crennel’s tenure. Those days are, thankfully, long gone.

In their place, we will witness more creative football, more daring football and more entertaining football when they own the ball. It might not be as wild and crazy as the Brian Sipe-Sam Rutigliano era, but it will be far less dull than what we’ve had to endure in recent years.

Coach Rob Chudzinski promised an aggressive approach to the game on both sides of the ball. As a former offensive coordinator himself, especially when he planned Cleveland’s attack during the memorable 2007 season, you can count on plenty of fireworks for the new season.

Tomorrow: Questions for the defense and special teams.