Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday leftovers

There’s got to be a whole bunch of mixed feelings floating around the upper reaches at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. these days.

On the one hand, the Browns have won their last two games and taken up temporary residence with Baltimore and Cincinnati in first place in the AFC North.

On the other, it seems that one of the main reasons the Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts nearly two weeks ago was to weaken the team and position themselves for a high pick in next April’s college draft so they could get their franchise quarterback.

So while the vastly improved performance of the team recently has captured the imagination of Browns Nation and most likely put smiles on the faces of Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Jimmy Haslam III, it has seemingly jeopardized the possibility of nailing that really high draft pick.

In other words, Brian Hoyer and his cohorts on offense have joined what has become a very good defense and, at least on the surface, spoiled any plans of drafting a Teddy Bridgewater or Brett Hundley or Johnny Manziel.

To be in a position to do so requires bad football. Really bad football. And the Browns are playing anything but these days.

So those Mona Lisa smiles emanating from on high might be for show because, well, you know, this is not what they expected when Brandon Weeden banged his thumb against a helmet and forced coach Rob Chudzinski to choose Hoyer as his replacement.

After all, he could have picked Jason Campbell and nobody would have complained since he was No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart. And he has a brief history with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Who knows where the Browns would be with Campbell under center – 1-3, maybe 0-4?

So while the choice of Hoyer was surprising, it has turned out far better than anyone would have imagined. The Cleveland offense has looked like an entirely different unit since Chudzinski tapped him to replace Weeden.

It’s nice to win games, of course, but not this many. Each victory costs the Browns a position in the draft order. A few more and all of a sudden, they’re picking a cornerback instead of a quarterback.

Then again, maybe, just maybe, Hoyer is the guy the club has been looking for all these years of wandering in the National Football League desert of losers. The way he has played has definitely caught the attention of those who follow the league religiously.

Of course, we’re just four games into the season and anything can happen. Hoyer could get hurt and we see the reemergence of Weeden, returning to the abnormalcy that was the beginning of the season.

But until that happens, if it happens, Banner & Co. are stuck with a team that has shown a resilience not seen in these parts since 2007. And it could, with scrumptious irony, backfire and blow up their plans for the future franchise quarterback.

With the Buffalo Bills coming up Thursday night at home, it is conceivable the Browns could be 3-2 after week five and gaining more national attention as they strive to escape the list of NFL bottom feeders. (This just in: Hoyer will start that game for the Browns even if Weeden's thumb is healed. Shocking!)

Yes, the Bills knocked off the Ravens Sunday, so they won’t be a pushover. But the Browns are playing with such confidence right now, it’s hard to believe it won’t carry over to this game.

Who knows? Those Mona Lisa smiles could turn into the real thing if this short burst of good football continues. And if it does, who cares whether the club’s best-laid plans are blown up? Isn’t it all about winning? Makes no difference how you get there.

~ It’s somewhat humorous that some of the most successful plays Hoyer has executed were of the play-fake variety. In order to be successful with play action, you need a running game. The Browns don’t have one.

In the 17-6 victory over Cincinnati Sunday, Hoyer attempted 11 play-action passes and completed eight for 64 yards and a touchdown. The score was a little one-yard throw to Chris Ogbonnaya after faking a handoff to him in the backfield.

All the running back had to do was carry out the fake and then sneak into the right flat for Hoyer’s soft toss. The Bengals’ cornerback on that side bit on the fake and was late covering Ogbonnaya. It was almost too easy.

Hoyer’s ability to sell the run is the difference. If the Browns don’t come up with a running game soon, future opponents won’t buy the play fake and hone in on the Cleveland quarterback.

~ That said, it was encouraging to watch Willis McGahee run on the last scoring drive, a 91-yarder in the fourth quarter that took six minutes and 37 seconds off the clock and gave the Browns a commanding lead.

The veteran running back, who wound up with just 46 yards in his 15 carries, saved his best for that drive. The previous series wound up as a three-and-out, so it was essential for the Browns to milk the clock. McGahee was the driving force, carrying the ball six times and piling up 33 yards on the 12-play drive.

Turner effectively rotated McGahee, Ogbonnaya and rookie Bobby Rainey out of the backfield, keeping them all fresh and perhaps leading to the notion that the Browns have a decent running game.

~ The Browns’ secondary, fingered as the chink in the armor of the defense as the season began, has surrendered just two touchdown passes this season. Brian Hartline caught a 34-yarder in the third quarter of the opening-game loss to Miami and Marlon Brown caught a five-yarder in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore loss.

That’s it. Mute evidence that the symbiotic relationship between the front seven and secondary is working much better than at first believed. The fact the front seven has made life generally miserable for opposing quarterbacks thus far has been a major factor.

Add to the equation defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s sophisticated coverages and disguises to confuse those quarterbacks and it seems to be adding up, at least so far, to a solid year for the secondary.

~ Jordan Cameron is having himself a Pro Bowl year. With 30 receptions for 360 yards and five touchdowns, the third-year tight end has already bettered his career totals. In his first two seasons, he played in 22 games, caught 26 passes for 259 yards and scored one touchdown.

If he stays healthy, there’s no telling how good he can be. Right now, he seems to be Hoyer’s go-to guy with 43 targets. But it doesn’t take long for word to spread around the NFL regarding hot players. So Cameron can expect a lot of attention from now on.

What separates him from most tight ends are his soft hands. The way he catches the ball, you can tell he played some wide receiver in the past. Now let’s see if he can sustain this early success.

~ Notebook: No running back has had a 100-yard day against the Browns’ run defense this season. The closest was Adrian Peterson’s 88 yards in the Minnesota victory. They have given up only 316 yards in 110 attempts on the ground, a stingy 79 yards a game, or 2.87 yards an attempt. . . . The Cleveland running game, meanwhile, has mustered a meager 304 yards. . . . Irony of the day in Sunday’s victory: Billy Cundiff misses field goals of 37 yards (off the left upright) and 49 yards (partially blocked and wide right) in the second quarter, but hits on a 51-yarder with no problem in the third quarter. . . . Not certain why punter Spencer Lanning, subbing for Cundiff on kickoffs, squib-kicked the kickoff after the Browns’ first touchdown late in the first quarter. It gave the Bengals excellent field position near midfield and led to a gift field goal. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What's happening in Cleveland?

It was a seemingly innocuous play at the time. But it was one that made you sit straight up and wonder aloud, “Wow! Where did that come from?”

As it turned out, it was the play that got everyone’s attention and told you this was going to be a special afternoon for Browns fans. It also sent a distinct message to the Cincinnati Bengals.

With about five minutes left in the opening quarter of the initial game of the 2013 Battle of Ohio, the Browns lined up in a shotgun formation on a second-and-6 at their 39-yard line.

At the snap, quarterback Brian Hoyer head-faked quickly to his right, drawing Cincinnati defenders in that direction, then threw a strike to wide receiver Travis Benjamin in what appeared to be a bubble screen to the left.

The speedy Benjamin instantly looked up and saw he had a convoy of three blockers and turned the short pass into a 39-yard gain to the Cincinnati 22. It was executed to exquisite, almost immaculate, perfection. Browns fans haven’t seen a misdirection play like that in way too long.

And it sent a blaring signal to the Bengals. This game belonged to the Browns. Even though it was relatively early in the game, they owned it. Then they went out and played like it for the rest of the game. On both sides of the football.

That play so flustered the Bengals, they called a timeout immediately. They had no clue what had just taken place. But regrouping did not help.

Hoyer, operating his offense with the precision of a surgeon, completed a 95-yard drive with a two-yard, back-shoulder touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron for a 7-0 lead the Browns never relinquished en route to a 17-6 home victory Sunday.

The Bengals were never in charge in this one. Whenever big plays were needed, they were made by the Browns. On third down, for example, Hoyer was 9-for-18. What makes that noteworthy was Cleveland’s 25% conversion rate on that down entering the game. (The Bengals were 4-for-14),

The defense, playing as well as any team in the National Football League right now, made Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton look like a mere mortal rather than the star some have made him out to be.

The dynamic game plan of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who threw disguised coverage after disguised coverage at the baffled Dalton, worked to near perfection. It’s a wonder he was able to throw for 206 yards.

Browns cornerback Joe Haden blanketed outstanding wide receiver A. J. Green so beautifully, it seemed as though he picked up Green right off the bus, giving a whole new meaning to the label shutdown corner.

Green finished with seven harmless catches for 51 harmless yards, a 7.23-yard average. He entered the game with an average of 13.1 yards a catch. His longest grab was for just 16 yards. Haden made certain Green was not going to beat the Browns as he has done so often in the past.

He had plenty of help from his secondary mates. Free safety Tashaun Gipson played maybe the game of his life. When he wasn’t knocking down passes, he fearlessly stuck his nose in on running plays.

Chris Owens short-circuited a potential Cincinnati rally with a strip sack on a corner blitz of Dalton on the first drive of the second half. The Browns did not turn it into points, but it clearly told the Bengals this was not going to be their day.

It’s plays like that, plays that need to be made in clutch situations that separate good teams from bad teams, great teams from good teams. Right now, the Brown are learning to how to become a good team.

The stifling, suffocating Cleveland defense, which limited Cincinnati to just 266 yards in 10 drives, racked up only two sacks, both of the coverage variety. But it often forced Dalton to throw the ball before he wanted. Timing is an important ingredient to his success.

D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson were outstanding in the middle of the Cleveland defense, piling up 20 tackles between them as the Bengals managed just 63 yards on the ground.

The most surprising aspect of the Cleveland defense, though, was the tackling. It was crisp. It was immediate. It was hard. And it was of the gang variety.  No cheap yards were given up.

The offense, meanwhile, was extremely efficient. The most important statistic on that side of the ledger was zero. As in no turnovers. Whenever you can move the chains and keep the opposition defense on the field, you’ve done your job.

For the second week in a row, Hoyer has given coach Rob Chudzinski no reason to switch quarterbacks when Brandon Weeden’s thumb heals. For whatever reason, the Cleveland offense seems to operate smoothly with Hoyer under center.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner also appears to feel more comfortable giving Hoyer plays he probably wouldn’t call for Weeden. The Benjamin screen pass, for example, was successful because Hoyer was able to sell it.

It’s been only two games, but the Browns’ offense with Hoyer at the controls seems to play a different style of game that produces positive results. There seems to be more creativity in the play calling.

The body language on both sides of the ball also seems to be different. It’s almost as though they can’t wait to run the next play on offense. Or come up with a big play on defense.

Last Sunday, the Browns beat an average team in the Minnesota Vikings. The Bengals are not an average team. While the Vikings’ victory got the Browns off the schneid for the season, this one was much more meaningful. And well earned.

In the end, it’s not as though the Bengals blew this one. They didn’t play well because the Browns prevented them from doing so.  The Browns just played better. A lot better. Maybe the best all-around game they’ve played in a very long time.

So now, the Browns are an improbable 2-2 and (amazingly) in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC North with the Buffalo Bills up next at home Thursday night on national television.

Imagine that. Week five around the corner and the Browns are in first place with a chance to show a national TV audience what all the fuss is about in Cleveland.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A two-game winning streak for Browns?

The Browns have had all sorts of problems with AFC North opponents since the resurrection in 1999, especially the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s an historical fact.

They are just 7-22 against the Ravens and 5-24 against the Steelers. There is no such thing as home-field advantage when the Ravens and Steelers invade Cleveland. The Steelers are 11-3 there, one game better than the Ravens at 10-4.

But when it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, the problems somehow are minimized and the victories become somewhat more plentiful. The Browns are a respectable (drawing a comparison here) 10-18 against Cincinnati, including a 6-8 record at what used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium.

When the Bengals arrive in Cleveland this weekend, they’ll find themselves four-point favorites to end the Browns’ one-game winning streak. This despite the club’s mediocre success on the lakefront.

Now some of those Cleveland victories were accomplished when Cincinnati was known as the Bungles and the Browns matched them in extreme badness. However the Bengals haven’t been the Bungles for a couple of years. In some quarters around the National Football League, they are favored to win the division title.

But for some reason, the Browns play Cincinnati much tougher at home. Perhaps it’s a Battle of Ohio thing, sort of a prideful situation. Then again, the more logical conclusion is they match up better with Cincinnati’s personnel.

And Sunday’s battle will be no different.

Both teams have solid defenses, although you’ll have a tough time convincing Bengals fans of that after last Sunday’s 34-30 escape against Green Bay. After scoring the game’s first 14 points, the Cincy defense surrendered 30 straight points to the Packers before rallying to win the game.

The biggest difference between the two clubs is offense. Cincinnati has a good one; the Browns are struggling to find one.

The big question is whether the Bengals will look at this game as a relative breather after knocking off a solid Green Bay team last week and suffer a letdown. Football is a game loaded with emotion. Lack of it causes problems.

This one most likely will be won through the air since neither club has what you’d call a scary running game. The Bengals have rushed for just 272 yards, which looks outstanding next to the Browns’ 215.

Both clubs own aggressive defenses. Coordinators Ray Horton for Cleveland and Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer are two of the best at making certain their players are in the proper frame of mind at the snap. Emotional preparation is paramount in their philosophy.

That’s why Brian Hoyer’s second start at quarterback for the Browns will be a terrific litmus test to see just where he is in his development. What he’ll face Sunday will make what he saw in last Sunday’s victory in Minnesota look like child’s play.

The Bengals’ front seven are among the best on the NFL. They are hurting is in the secondary, however, with three players labeled doubtful for the game, including their top cover corner Leon Hall and free safety Reggie Nelson.

Advantage Browns? That depends how effectively the offensive line can protect Hoyer and open holes for the Browns’ small cadre of running backs. If the running game continues to churn in mud, as it has done all season, then Hoyer had better dial up his quick release of the football before he takes a beating.

That quick release helped save him from at least three or four sacks last Sunday, a fate that more than likely would have befallen Brandon Weeden had he been in there. It would not be surprising to see offensive coordinator Norv Turner load the play-calling this week with quick-developing plays,

But with the Bengals’ secondary operating at less than peak efficiency, Turner might just load up the passing game as he did against Minnesota and hope to tire out the pass rush.

Look for the Bengals to load the box and force Hoyer to throw with Zimmer throwing in several blitz packages against the pass and run. No doubt he’ll try to confuse Hoyer with a variety of disguised looks.

They’ll try to win first and second down and force the Browns into third-down situations, where they have failed miserably this season.

The Browns’ defense, meanwhile, faces a tougher test against a Cincinnati offense that averages nearly 20 first downs and 350 yards a game, most of it (266 yards) through the air.

Andy Dalton, who struggled with his accuracy in his first two seasons, has completed two of every three passes this season. He has thrown only five scoring passes (three to Pro Bowler A. J. Green) and just three interceptions, but he has been able to keep the chains moving, especially on third down (18-of-39).

The biggest battle will be up front where the Cleveland defense puts its 12 sacks up against a Cincinnati offensive line that has allowed just five sacks. Whoever wins the battle in the trenches wins this game.

While the Bengals are hurting in the secondary, the Browns are short-handed at outside linebacker with Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves out. Top draft pick Barkevious Mingo gets his first start, but it’s questionable how much he can play.

In what could wind up as a war of attrition, this one will go down to the wire. Like last week in Minnesota, the team that has the ball last will be the winner. No fakes this week.

So how will it turn out?

Hoyer does it again in the final minute of the game. Trailing, 17-14, he leads a long drive that stalls at the Cincinnati 2 with 20 seconds left. A failed fade to Jordan Cameron in the end zone brings up a third and goal. The Browns line up with four wide receivers and Hoyer in shotgun formation in an empty backfield.

At the snap, Hoyer drops back one step as if to set up to pass and, like Christian Ponder for the Vikings last Sunday, bolts for the end zone on a quarterback draw and scores as the Browns even their season record to an improbable 2-2. Make it:

Browns 21, Bengals 17

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Going forward, it's got to be Hoyer

There he goes again.

Rob Chudzinski is being coy when asked about who will play quarterback for the Browns Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Lemme help you here, coach. Here are a couple of clues. It won’t be Brandon Weeden. And it certainly won’t be Jason Campbell.

I guess that leaves – ta da – Brian Hoyer.

Now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

You tell the media you’re going to “wait to make my determination on that until I have all of the information.”

What kind of information? Like 321 yards passing by Hoyer in the upset victory over Minnesota Sunday? Or the Browns' first comeback victory in the final minutes in who knows how long?

How about only one penalty by the offensive line all day? Even Oneil Cousins went penalty free. Now that’s something on which to hang your hat.

Now try this one on. Hoyer accomplished this feat without a running game. Think that’s easy? You were an offensive coordinator. You know the importance of a running game.

You say the health status of Brandon Weeden could factor into your decision. Even if his sore thumb is healed sufficiently enough to allow him to practice this week, that still should not be a factor.

Assuming you have looked closely at the tapes of the first three games this season, you must have noticed a significant difference between Weeden’s two games and Hoyer’s debut against the Vikings.

Is there any doubt that Hoyer, based solely on that game, is the better choice right now to open against Cincinnati? Of course he is. Even Marvin Lewis down in Cincy knows that.

Wait a minute. Now I get it. You don’t want Lewis to know which quarterback will play and thus prepare for him, right? Weeden or Hoyer? Which one will it be?

“We’ll see in the next day or two where that (Weeden’s sprained right thumb) is at and be able to determine going forward,” Chudzinski.

By the way, has any one noticed how much Joe Banner and Chudzinski have used the term “going forward” lately? Is that some sort of buzz phrase for anything past today?

He might be a rookie head coach, but you can tell he’s been paying attention to the language spoken on a plane higher than the one on which he resides.

I think Chudzinski already knows who’s going to be under center against the Bengals. I think he’s just messing with the media.

If it isn’t Hoyer, a lot of Browns fans will be mighty upset. Being a Cleveland kid, it would be a public relations disaster to stick him back on the bench.

So let’s go forward a few days and predict Chudzinski will not disappoint and name Hoyer as his starter even if Weeden’s thumb is completely healthy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Monday leftovers

Maybe it was the body language. Then again, maybe it was the new face in the huddle.

Whatever the reason, the Browns looked as sharp on offense in Sunday’s victory over Minnesota as they have in a long time.

With one exception, plays reached the huddle in plenty of time. Everyone seemed to know exactly what he was supposed to do. Of the 14 drives, only two wound up in a three and out. A third was aborted by one of Brian Hoyer’s three interceptions.

The most surprising aspect of the offense was the crispness with which it was operated. All exchanges between the center and quarterback were clean. The whole offense just seemed to run smoother with Hoyer at the controls.

Don’t know why. Don’t really care why. It just looked much better to the naked eye. Even in the second half, when the Vikings started putting pressure on Hoyer, he did not seem to fluster. 

He owns attributes that clearly separate him from Brandon Weeden. While his arm isn’t as strong as perhaps he’d like, his vision of the field is definitely superior. On passing plays, he scans the field in a 180-degree arc.

To him, everyone is a potential receiver on any given play. He is quick to look off the primary in search of a better opportunity. Unlike Weeden, who usually locks on to his primary target, Hoyer’s goal is to complete the pass to the first open receiver he sees.

He probably learned that in his three seasons in New England, where he watched Tom Brady surgically take apart opposing defenses. He no doubt was a sponge during that time and now he has the opportunity to put all that knowledge to practical use.

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Hoyer and Brady discussed quarterbacking on a full-time basis. Learning the tricks of the trade from a future Hall of Famer certainly couldn’t hurt. And you could see some of that in his performance against the Vikings.

Two of his three interceptions were clearly his fault. In both cases, though, he didn’t see first safety Harrison Smith and then linebacker Chad Greenway appear from out of nowhere to pick him off. It wasn’t as though he threw the ball right at them.

Both passes were headed for their targets (Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron) and looked like completions until the Minnesota defenders stepped in and made nice plays. The good news was that neither pick resulted in Minnesota points due to strong transition defense.

Blame the third pick on the offensive line, which permitted Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd way too much penetration. Floyd hit Hoyer’s right arm and the pass floated to linebacker Erin Henderson, whose return set up the Vikings’ tying touchdown.

You can see Hoyer has complete faith in his receivers, affording him the luxury of throwing the ball before those receivers make their breaks. It is imperative, however, that those receivers run the correct route and be where they are supposed to be.

His 321 passing yards and overall performance was refreshing. Now all the front office has to do to make him an even better quarterback is give him some help with the ground game. Considering he had none Sunday makes what he accomplished somewhat remarkable.

~ Even though it gave up 27 points, the defense looked much better than it did in the first two games. The aggressive nature was evident from the first snap. Strong safety T. J. Ward spent a large part of his afternoon in the box. It was obvious the No. 1 goal was stopping Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

It worked, as evidenced by Peterson’s 88 yards in 25 carries. Gang tackling and not permitting Peterson to use the edge on cutbacks worked well all afternoon. When you hold the National Football League’s best running back to those numbers, that gets the attention of other teams.

Peterson’s longest run was nine yards. Can’t remember the last time he had a game when he did not run for at least 10 yards on at least one play. All the linebackers had strong games, especially inside backers D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson.

~ For the third week in a row, Joe Haden had a big game. This time, the cornerback shut down Minnesota’s Greg Jennings, limiting him to just three catches. He had plenty of help from his secondary mates.

Buster Skrine made two solid plays in the end zone to prevent touchdowns. And the tackling was crisp most of the afternoon.

The overall coverage was the best it’s been all season. Most of the six sacks on Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder were of the coverage variety. And four of Ponder’s scrambles were caused by strong coverage. As long as the Browns put adequate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the secondary has a chance to be effective.

~ Barkevious Mingo wasn’t supposed to play much as he recovers from his bruised lung injury. But when Jabaal Sheard went down late in the second quarter after strip-sacking Ponder, the rookie outside linebacker stepped right in and made a difference.

Mingo recorded his second sack in two games, but also applied enough pressure on Ponder to make him either throw before he wanted or was the causal factor in a sack credited to a teammate. If Sheard can’t go this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, there won’t be a talent dropoff.

~ In the run-up to the Browns-Vikings game, Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen declared, “We’ve got to stop the run.” He didn’t take into consideration one very important thing. The Browns no longer have a running game. By the time the Vikings realized that, Cleveland had scored 24 first-half points.

Allen, as it turned out, was a non-factor in the game. The normally hyperactive defensive end was completely neutralized by Joe Thomas. The only number for Allen on the stat sheet was one quarterback hit. No tackles, no assists and no sacks.

~ Notebook: Strange sight on the sideline as the Browns drove toward what turned out to be the winning touchdown. Kicker Billy Cundiff, who strained a quad earlier in the game and was ruled out, was playing holder as punter Spencer Lanning practiced placekicking for a possible field goal. As it turned out, Hoyer held for Lanning on his extra point. . . Referee Bill Leavy, who screwed up a ruling in the Green Bay-San Francisco season opener, did it again in the Browns-Vikings game. After the Browns’ Travis Benjamin muffed a punt at the Cleveland 26-yard line late in the second quarter, it was recovered and advanced by the Vikings. Leavy and his crew ruled a muff cannot be advanced, prompting a red-flag replay challenge by Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier. By rule, it was not a reviewable play and a timeout should have been assessed the Vikings. Instead, Leavy assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. So instead of starting the drive at the Cleveland 26, it began at the 41, first down and 25. Leavy acknowledged the mistake after the game. The Vikes settled for a 43-yard Blair Walsh field goal. . . . Third-down update: The Browns were 6-for-15 on third down against the Vikings, bringing their season total to 11-for-44, an awful 25% conversion ratio. Yikes! Of the 11 conversions, seven have been made by wide receiver Davone Bess. Cameron has two and Gordon and Greg Little have one each. Conversely, the defense has stopped the opposition only 25 times in 49 third-down attempts. That’s almost a 50% success rate for the opposition.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

That was not an illusion

OK, who were those football players masquerading as the Browns Sunday in Minnesota?

The uniforms looked the same. The names on the backs of those uniforms appeared to be the same. They seemed to look different, though. In a good way, of course.

They sure didn’t look anything on offense like the Browns who lost the first two games of the season against Miami and Baltimore. And they sure ran a bunch of different plays than those Browns.

The 31-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on an afternoon full of special-teams surprises didn’t have your typical Cleveland Browns feel, especially the late fourth-quarter comeback. The real Browns would have somehow, some way gagged this game. Fourth-quarter comebacks are not them.

So when Brian Hoyer connected on his third touchdown pass of the game – and second to Jordan Cameron – to give the Browns the lead with 51 seconds left, eyebrows all around Browns Nation shot up in amazement.

These things don’t happen to the Browns. The real Browns. C’mon now. Were those really the Browns? You know the ones I mean. The hapless, can’t-make-a-play-if-their-lives-depended-on-it Browns? Did they miss the flight to Minneapolis?

What, you say? Those were the Browns? No way. Couldn’t have been. They scored more points in the first half (24) than they did in the first two games. Combined. It was truly a where-in-the-world-did-that-come-from kind of performance.

Yeah, I know the Vikings entered the game at 0-2, but this was their home opener and that building can get kind of loud and has been known to throw off the timing of some very strong teams.

The Browns were starting their third-string quarterback in Hoyer, had a running game that was missing their star running back because he had been traded and operated with an offensive line that had sprung more leaks that an old hose.

What most fans had hoped for, but didn’t realistically expect, was a surprisingly solid game from Hoyer. Yes, he threw three interceptions to neutralize his three touchdown passes, but one was not his fault.

The most pleasant aspect of his game was the poise he showed throughout the afternoon, especially in the second half when the Vikings began overwhelming the Cleveland offensive line with a variety of blitzes.

You could see that three years playing backup to Tom Brady in New England paid off for Hoyer,  He never looked flustered in the pocket, was confident with his throws and got the ball out quickly. His head was on a swivel all afternoon. He looked like a veteran, not someone making only his second National Football League start.

On several occasions, the Cleveland native managed to escape the pocket and keep the play alive just when it looked as though he was going to get sacked. That’s something the injured Brandon Weeden still hasn’t learned to do.

After connecing with the returning (from a suspension) Josh Gordon on a 47-yard scoring toss on the second series of the game after Gordon put a sweet double move on Minnesota cornerback A. J. Jefferson, one could sense this was going to be a solid partnership. Gordon wound up with 10 receptions for 146 yards.

Shannon Sharpe, one of CBS Television’s co-hosts at halftime, brought up what appeared to be a good point while commenting on the Browns’ 24-17 lead at the break.

After watching Hoyer complete one of his scoring passes to Cameron, Sharpe said, “Brandon Weeden on the sideline must be writing,  ‘Where was this play when I was playing?’ “

What Sharpe didn’t know was the play in question has always been there for Weeden. He just has trouble making it. Besides, offensive coordinator Norv Turner is not going to call the game differently because someone else is under center.

And then there are the special teams of coach Chris Tabor, who emptied the fake-play package. The first, a fake punt that punt protector Josh Aubrey turned into a 34-yard run, led to a second-quarter field goal. On the next series, punter Spencer Lanning, who holds on all placements, rose up and threw an 11-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Cameron.

The Cleveland defense, the true strength of the team, was another co-star for the afternoon, virtually shutting down the peerless Adrian Peterson, who scored once, but needed 25 carries to accumulate 88 yards. His longest gain was nine yards. It might be time to declare that the Browns have finally learned how to stop the run.

Those runs made by running backs, that is, because they had no answer for Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder, whose fans in the stands carried on a love-hate relationship with him all day. The Browns sacked him six times, picked him off once, and were well prepared for Ponder the passer.

Ponder the runner, however, gave them fits. He ran five times, four on scrambles, for 46 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including an eight-yard scamper that tied the game at 24-24, cashing in on Hoyer’s third interception of the afternoon.

It was at that point that the Browns’ luster on offense picked up plenty of tarnish, due mainly to a Minnesota pass rush that began overwhelming the Browns’ offensive line. They basically disdained the Cleveland running game, rendered impotent by Richardson’s departure, and targeted Hoyer.

The Browns had one last chance, starting at their 45-yard line with 3:21 left following a poor Jeff Locke punt. Hoyer, channeling Brady’s fourth-quarter heroics, was clutch when he had to be. He hit Gordon with three of his six completions in the drive, including a 12-yard slant on third and 10 to keep the drive alive.

Cameron, who contributed an important 13-yard grab on a second and 10, caught his third TD pass of the afternoon in the far left corner of the end zone on third and goal at the 7. It culminated an improbable afternoon.

If nothing else, the game proved Gordon and Cameron have stepped up and become solid playmakers for an offense that was on life support in the first two games. Hoyer’s performance was a pleasant revelation. And the defense, forced to play in transition mode a lot because of four turnovers, still came through when needed.

Only the diehards thought the Browns would win this one. Too many negatives to overcome, said the doubters. The skeptics remain skeptical despite the victory, however. All they would say about this victory would be something like, “Well at least they won’t go winless this season.”

Now it’s back home for the next three games against Cincinnati, Buffalo and Detroit. And there is no question who the Cleveland quarterback is going to be in at least one of those games. For the real Browns, that is.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Prediction time: Need you ask?

One look at the statistics of the Browns and Minnesota Vikings tells you all you need to know about what will happen Sunday in Minneapolis.

The Vikings can at least move the football. The Browns can . . . not.

So when these two teams meet Sunday in the home opener for the Vikes, the mystery of which team is better will have already been decided.

Factor in the most recent loss of the team’s best player on offense and that both teams enter with a 0-2 record. But Minnesota lost in the final 10 seconds of its game in Chicago last week when Jay Cutler and Martellus Bennett hooked up on a scoring pass.

The Vikings’ offense has found the end zone four times in their two losses. The Browns are relative strangers there with just one TD – Jordan Cameron’s score late in the second quarter against Miami.

The last six quarters for the Browns have produced four Billy Cundiff field goals, which for Cleveland these days is tantamount to scoring four touchdowns. Get close, screw up and give Cundiff a nod.

The most interesting aspect of Sunday’s game will be how well the team, as a whole, performs in the wake of losing Trent Richardson. If there is a demoralizing effect, it should show up early.

The Browns were bad to begin with on offense prior to Richardson’s departure and Brandon Weeden’s thumb injury. In fact, Richardson was the only Cleveland running back who carried the ball this season. So it’s unfair to expect Willis McGahee and Brian Hoyer to perform any better.

McGahee has been on the street as a free agent for a few weeks and Hoyer has started just one game in his National Football League career. How well they play falls under the category of unrealistic expectations.

On trial will be the run defense for the Browns, who have held opposing runners to a meager 119 yards, or about two yards a pop. In the past few seasons, that total would have been a one-game stat.

But this week, they face the best in Adrian Peterson. And it will be an angry, frustrated and motivated Peterson, who has compiled just 193 yards infantry style, 78 of them on his first carry of the season in the opener in Detroit

Since then, he has run for just 115 yards in 43 attempts, a 2.67-yard average. Right now, he’s on a pace to gain 1,544 yards overall, a figure most NFL running backs would love to have at the end of the season. But he is coming off a near record-breaking 2,097-yard campaign.

So it could be a long afternoon for the Browns’ front seven if Peterson, who owns 38 100-yard games, gets loose. Then again, this might be the game where that run defense steps up and proves the first two weeks were not a fluke.

Where the Browns catch a break is the Vikings actually have a weak link on offense. If they can scheme quarterback Christian Ponder the way Cleveland opponents scheme Weeden, then this could be a closer game than some believe.

Miami and Baltimore practically flooded the box against Weeden in the first two games, taking away the Cleveland running game, daring him to throw. It’s possible defensive coordinator Ray Horton might do the same with Ponder and shove eight, sometimes nine, men in the box all afternoon and challenge the Minnesota quarterback to beat them with his arm.

He hasn’t so far this season with a completion percentage of just 58.6. His two scoring passes have been negated by four interceptions. The Browns, however, have only one pick, on a deflection by safety Tashaun Gipson, in the first two games,

The Cleveland pass rush has produced six sacks, but the offensive line has permitted 11. Throw in about 20 knockdowns and nearly 30 hurries and the concerns about the line grow by the game. But Hoyer’s mobility should help that stat Sunday.

The once-proud Vikings pass rush has been a non-factor this season with Jared Allen registering the only sack. His battle with Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas bears watching.

The Minnesota offensive line, meanwhile, protects Ponder much better with just four sacks. At least he has the time to pick out his targets. Unfortunately for him, they’re not a group to get excited about. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the Browns’ receivers.

Josh Gordon returns after serving his two-game suspension, but his favorite quarterback will be a spectator. Weeden and Gordon hooked up for more than 800 yards and five touchdowns last season.

Hoyer’s relatively weaker arm most likely will necessitate more of a possession game, which means Gordon’s ability to stretch the field probably will not come into play against the Vikings. Look for offensive coordinator Norv Turner to feature short- to intermediate-range passes to Jordan Cameron and Davone Bess.

Interest in how the Browns will fare the rest of this season was diminished severely when the front office decided to deal Richardson. The flag-of-surrender waving in week three has soured a lot of fans.

The next 14 weeks will seem like 14 months. The end of the season can’t come soon enough. Playing the games one at a time seems much more than a cliché now. But that’s all the players can do.

This Sunday, there is no question which team is better. But you know they say anything can happen on any given Sunday in the NFL. Just not this Sunday. Or most of the other 12 Sundays (don’t forget about the Thursday night game against Buffalo on Oct, 3). Make it:

Vikings 21, Browns 6 

Ode to absurdity

Here it is slightly more than 36 hours after the stunning trade of Trent Richardson and there is nothing but silence emanating from Berea.

What’s going on here?

It is quite obvious the Richardson deal was the first shot in what soon will be called the rebuilding of the Cleveland Browns. So why stop now?

If you’re going to break up a team, do it the right way. If you’re going to stockpile draft picks, don’t sit around with your thumb up your hind flanks. Do something. There are other moves to be made.

Why are Joe Thomas, D’Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden, Mitchell Schwartz and T. J. Ward still on the roster? Certainly there are other National Football League teams that could use their talents.

The Denver Broncos, for example, recently lost offensive tackle Ryan Clady for the season. A quick call to John Elway out in Denver can remedy that situation in a hurry.

Thomas would look great in orange and blue and fetch yet another first-round pick. Maybe two. You can bet Elway wouldn’t mind parting with a couple of No. 1s if he could plug Thomas in as Peyton Manning’s protector on the left side of the Broncos’ offensive line.

So who, the critics would ask, replaces Thomas in that case? Who cares? The front office didn’t care who replaced Richardson after that deal. It makes no difference. Stockpiling for the future is what’s important.

So . . . wouldn’t Haden look terrific in New England’s secondary? Think Bill Belichick would give up a No. 1 for him? Damn right he would. Maybe even throw in a third-rounder.

Let’s not stop there as Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi take dead aim on 2014.

How about Ward to the Oakland Raiders – he’s their type of smash-mouth safety – for another third-rounder? And the Arizona Cardinals are looking for an offensive tackle. Why not Schwartz? Jackson sure would look nice in silver and Hawaiian blue making tackles behind Ndamukong Suh in Detroit.

If you’re going to purge a team, you might as well weaken it to the point where you’re the odds-on favorite to wind up with the top pick of the college draft. Don’t just sit there, guys. Move.

Make it as difficult on your head coach as you possibly can. Take all the bullets out of his gun belt. And then you can make the ultimate move at the end of the season. Thank him for his efforts. Then fire him.

Absurd? Preposterous? You bet.

Will it happen? No. That would be absurd and preposterous. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Berea insanity level reaches critical mass

Is there any question now that the Browns have every intention of tanking the 2013 season?

After dealing Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts Wednesday for a first-round draft pick next year, how could anyone reach any other conclusion?

This is crazy. It is an absurdity. It makes absolutely no sense at all. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, something like this comes along to destroy the notion that Murphy’s Law had finally departed Berea.

This baffling move now makes it official. The building at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea has been converted into an insane asylum. And the inmates, currently being fitted for straitjackets, are running the show.

Call them Joe, Mike and Ray, otherwise known as Banner, Lombardi and Farmer, the Three Unwise Men. You might as well add Rob to that list, although there probably wasn’t much Chudzinski could do to stop this incredibly stupefying move.

And now Rob is left with just two (maybe three) running backs, Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey, for ostensibly the rest of the season. One is marginal at best and the other is a virtual rookie. They’re going to take a hellacious beating running behind a less-than-mediocre offensive line.

It is now being reported the Browns will bring in Willis McGahee and sign him if he passes his physical. That’s the same Willis McGahee, a 10-year veteran with knees that resemble shredded wheat on the inside.

Three below-average running backs on a roster of 53 men. Insanity.

Of all the players who might have been considered trade bait on the roster, Richardson had to be near the bottom of the list. No way would the Browns trade him. Too much was invested in him. He was going to be the face of the franchise. He’s still learning how to play the game on the professional level. That’s what it makes it so stunning.

This incredibly bold move is clearly a blatant signal that the front office has every intention of drafting a quarterback next year. The earlier in the draft, the better chance of getting their man. That means bottom feeding once again.

Apparently, the resident of the Ivory Tower have seen enough from the position thus far to reach that decision. A bountiful class of quarterbacks is headed to the National Football League next year and the Browns hunger for one.

We don’t know all the details yet of how the stunning deal went down, but one can only imagine the astonished look on Colts owner Jim Irsay’s face when the trade was proposed.

He had to have an “are you kidding me?” look on his countenance. Imagine being offered the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft for only a pick that most likely will be in the 20-25 range next year. He probably couldn’t say yes fast enough after being assured this was real. More like surreal.

The Colts are headed to the playoffs. All they needed was a stud running back and now they have one, gift-wrapped courtesy of the Lunacy Squad in Berea. And all Irsay had to surrender was one measly pick. Mortgaging your future for the likes of one of the best running backs to come out of college in the last half decade is a no-brainer.

You watch. It might take some time because running backs don’t fit in quickly with a different scheme, but Richardson will become an elite NFL running back now that he’s been set free by the Browns.

The shock of this deal most likely will linger for a while because of the timing. But it won’t match the shock of releasing Bernie Kosar a generation ago. That's in a class by itself. Richardson was a newcomer to the Cleveland sports scene. Kosar was an icon.

The cries of “Trent, we hardly knew ye” will soon die down. At the same time, one has to wonder just what kind of an effect this will have on the rest of the team. The trade of the club’s best offensive threat has to be demoralizing.

It’ll be curious to see if the Browns, at least on offense, just go through the motions in the remaining 14 games. Richardson’s departure significantly weakens a unit that isn’t strong to begin with.

Wonder what the new over/under for Browns victories is now. One? Two? That might be too optimistic. Zero?

That offense has been AWOL for the first two games and now that Brandon Weeden is down for who knows how long, this could be the worst attack (clearly an oxymoron in this case) in the NFL.

The next 14 games will present a stern test for Chudzinski in his rookie season as a head coach. He undoubtedly didn’t expect to be headed into the third game of the season minus his starting quarterback and saying goodbye to his top running back.

When all the chaos dies down, look for Banner to come out and ask for your trust. He’ll claim this is for the long-range betterment of the team and convince the dwindling number of sycophants that he’s right.

However, there comes a time when you push the fans – and Browns fans are among the most loyal in the NFL despite the awful football they’ve had to put up with since 1999 – just so far. Banner, relatively new to Cleveland, may have pushed a little too far this time.

He’ll be able to handle it, though. Surviving all those years in Philadelphia has broadened his shoulders. He’s going to receive a lot of flak for this move and probably lose some season ticketholders along the way.

And that’s when Jimmy Haslam The Third enters the picture. The billionaire owner, who has enough troubles off the field, hired Banner and trusts him. We think implicitly, but he has to at least wonder just what the hell is going on with his team.

“This was more about the moment presented itself,” explained Banner at a hastily called news conference Wednesday evening. He also revealed that initial talks took place Tuesday. “It wasn’t something where we could say, ‘Wait three weeks. . . . We had to make that decision now,” he said.

“ . . . as we look forward, this was good value and gave us the opportunity to accomplish what we want to accomplish going forward.” That’s two forwards and two accomplishes in the same sentence. “The value we were getting back . . . made this a thing we wanted to do.”

 What a bullroar artist.

Third-down blues

There is no question that the most pivotal down in any series is third down. Convert a majority of them and chances are you’re going to win a lot of games. Don’t and you become the Cleveland Browns.

Any wonder the Browns are 0-2 at this juncture? Try 1-for-14 on third down in the opening-game loss to Miami and 4-for-15 in the loss to the Ravens in Baltimore last Sunday. That’s mighty ugly territory.

Conversely, the Cleveland defense has faced third down on 32 occasions in the two games and shut down the opposition just 16 times. A chain-moving stat like that almost guarantees a tired defense in the second half. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far.

An exhaustive (slight exaggeration) perusal of the offensive statistics in the two games reveals one gigantic problem: The Browns are awful on first and second down on that side of the ball. With very few exceptions, there has not been anything remotely resembling a manageable third down yet this season.

The five conversions’ distances were four, two, four, three and four yards. Eighteen of the 29 attempts were eight yards or more, 13 of which were double digits. Four attempts wound up with a Brandon Weeden sack.

Favorite target on third down is (surprise!) Davone Bess, who caught four of the five conversions. Greg Little caught (yes he did) the other, a four-yarder on third and 3 in the Ravens game.

The Browns’ average distance to go on third down thus far is 8.93 yards. That unbelievably is the average. Breaking that down, it was 10.22 yards in the Miami game and 7.13 yards in the Baltimore game. Some would call that progress.

Is it any wonder Spencer Lanning has punted 13 times this season? He’s on a pace to boot the ball an astounding 104 times by the end of the season finale in Pittsburgh. That, of course, is if his right leg doesn’t fall off by then.

Remarkably, that’s 10 punts shy of the National Football League record for most punts in a season, held jointly by Chad Stanley of the 4-12 Houston Texans in 2002 and Bob Parsons of the 6-10 Chicago Bears in 1981.

Now comes my favorite stat: Three of the third-down attempts resulted in delay-of- game penalties. All you can do is shake your head and wonder just what you, as fans, did to deserve this kind of football.

When the offensive coaches break down game tape, or whatever they use these days, the above numbers have to leap out at them. They have to be embarrassed by what has transpired.

Yes, it’s still early in the season, early enough to use the word “correctable” regarding these mistakes and safely mollify those who still believe this team has the talent to mount a comeback.

Sometimes, however, the numbers do not lie. This sure looks like one of those times.

THIS JUST IN: Brian Hoyer will start at quarterback for the Browns Sunday in Minnesota. Wise move, Rob Chudzinski, no matter what happens. Who whispered the loudest in your ear, Joe Banner or Mike Lombardi? Or was it a team effort?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

If Weeden can't go, it should be Hoyer

If Brandon Weeden’s sore thumb prevents him from playing against the Vikings Sunday in Minnesota, Rob Chudzinski would be wise to elevate Brian Hoyer to replace him as the Browns’ starting quarterback.

Yes, Hoyer is the third stringer. The guy the Browns brought in strictly as insurance should Weeden and Jason Campbell go down. And yes, Campbell is more familiar with Norv Turner’s offense, having played one season in it.

But Campbell is nothing more than a journeyman, a guy whose career has been hit and miss to the point where you’re never going to win anything with him. He’s up, he’s down. You never know what you’re going to get on any given Sunday.

Hoyer, on the other hand, is the X factor. You don’t know what you’re going to get from the Clevelander, either, because he has no track record from which to make a judgment. He’s also four years younger than Campbell and much more mobile.

Bill Belichick thought enough of him to keep him around in New England for a few seasons before deciding to keep only two quarterbacks. And we all know that Cleveland General Manager Mike Lombardi has a crush on his talents.

Chudzinski will make the final decision should Weeden be given the week off to heal, but it will be interesting to see how much influence Lombardi has should he choose to weigh in on the decision.

Of course, we’re dealing with a potential hypothesis here. But what the heck, why not try Hoyer at this time? Give him a shot. What does the coach have to lose? Another game? He’s lost his first two already.

Let’s see what Hoyer can do when the game is much more meaningful than looking decent in a few exhibition games. You never know.

So he doesn’t have the throwing arm to successfully implement Turner’s down-the-field offense, especially now that Josh Gordon is back. Campbell, of course, does, But Hoyer’s positives outweigh his negatives.

He plays the game as much between the ears as he does from a physical standpoint. That’s right. He’s a thinking man’s quarterback. Now whether that translates into something that would generate positive results remains to be seen.

Time to find out and a good enough reason he should be the starter against the Vikings if Weeden can’t go. This might be his best opportunity, but only if Chudzinski chooses wisely.

Stranger things have happened to quarterbacks who weren’t deemed good enough and languished only to ultimately find themselves under center due to an injury. I give you Tom Brady and Kurt Warner. 

Obviously not comparing Hoyer to either man. Only the circumstances under which they eventually found their way to superstardom. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Monday leftovers

One of the key ingredients in establishing a winning franchise in any sport is the ability to produce playmakers. Those players who make clutch plays when needed. Those players who step and consistently say, “Follow me.”

The Browns have none. You can’t name one player on this 53-man roster who comes even close to qualifying for the title of playmaker. No one comes even close. They haven’t had one for a long, long time. And that’s why they continually bottom feed in the National Football League.

Scan the rosters of those teams that annually have winning programs and you’ll find at least a modicum of playmakers. No need to be specific with names here. There are too many to delineate.

There are times during football games when just one play can make the difference between winning and losing. Such a play – actually a series in this case – played a large part in the Browns’ 14-6 loss in Baltimore Sunday.

After pretty much controlling the Ravens’ offense in the first half, the Cleveland defense, getting little or no help from the offense, needed to maintain its superiority. And failed. Not once. Or twice. But three times.

In the Ravens’ opening second-half drive, the Browns thrice forced a third and long situation. And all three times, the Ravens converted.

It was a momentum changer. With an 80-yard scoring drive, the Ravens took over the game emotionally even though they led by just a point. It regenerated the Baltimore defense, which wasn’t playing that badly to begin with, and ultimately sealed the Browns’ fate.

The Browns needed to make just one play. One stinking play to produce a punt. Whether it was a sack, an interception, an incompletion or making Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco do something uncharacteristic. Anything.

If nothing else, those three conversions emboldened Flacco and his offense, which, in turn, emboldened the Baltimore defense, which choked off any chance the Browns had at winning the game.

So on the one hand, there’s no way the Browns would have been in the game – it was a one-score game until the end – had it not been for the defense. On the other, it could have been a much different result had the defense come up with that one big play.

The offense, after just two games, is a lost cause in the playmaking category. The line is a shambles. It can’t run block. It can’t pass block with any degree of effectiveness. Whoever is under center is going to absorb a lot of punishment when dropping back to pass this season.

And the running game is laughable. Running between the tackles has become an exercise in futility and frustration. It’s almost like running into a brick wall. Over and over and over again.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is a smart man. His reputation as an offensive guru preceded his arrival in Cleveland. Based on what we’ve seen in the first eight quarters of the season, it’s taking a huge hit.

This week, the offense welcomes Josh Gordon back after serving his two-week suspension. Who knows? That might make a difference. It will help, however, only if Gordon can do something no one else seems capable of.

Make a play.

~ This is Greg Little’s third season with the Browns. And the way it has started, it could very well be his last.

There is no excuse for Little to be dropping passes, especially those that wind up not just in the vicinity of his hands, but directly in them. Last season, the wide receiver appeared to have solved his catching problem with some clutch grabs, including a few that were thrown badly and required extra effort to catch.

This season, he has reverted to the form of his rookie campaign, when he led the NFL in drops. He has been targeted 22 times in two games and produced eight catches for 59 yards. One has to wonder (a) why he is in the starting lineup and (b) why he is targeted so much.

He’s got the size and the hands. His concentration – or lack thereof – appears to be his biggest problem. And that, unfortunately, is something that might be extremely difficult to correct. If it’s between the ears, good luck.

~ You’ll have to excuse Weeden if he thinks he’s the team token piñata. He has been sacked 11 times, knocked down 20 or so times and hurried another 35 times in two games. His popularity among opposing pass rushers has reached news heights. Or is it depths?

If he’s still vertical by midseason – and we don’t know yet whether his injured thumb will prevent him from playing Sunday in Minnesota – it will be somewhat of a miracle. His mobility in the pocket and recognition of opposing defenses is mindful of Tim Couch.

~ Based on what we saw in his limited play against the Ravens, Barkevious Mingo could be the spark the Browns need on defense. His quickness and speed off the edge is what prompted the Browns to make him the surprise sixth pick in the college draft in April.

He embarrassed Baltimore offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie on his first play and dropped Flacco, caused a holding penalty on a punt that gave the Browns better field position and hurried Flacco on one other occasion.

It’s obvious the Browns are going to be careful with Mingo from a health standpoint, given the severity of the lung injury he suffered early in the exhibition season. They do not want any setbacks. But I’d sure like to see a lot more of the outside linebacker in obvious passing situations as the season unfolds.

~ Notebook: It seems that just about every time Jordan Cameron gets his hands on the ball, good things happen. So why not target the tight end more often than 20 times in the first two games? Like maybe every play, considering the success he has (14 catches in 20 targets for 193 yards and the lone touchdown of the season). . . . The main reason the Browns signed linebacker Paul Kruger was his reputation for finding, sacking and making life generally miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Thus far, that has not happened. Kruger has just seven tackles and one sack while playing full-time. Fact is, he’s a situational pass rusher and shouldn’t be a three-down guy. . . . The Browns have quietly become quite solid against the run in the first two games, limiting the opposition to just 119 rushing yards. But the secondary has been torched for 452 yards. Flipping that coin, the Browns have rushed for an embarrassing 112 yards and passed for 438 more. . . . Flacco was 7-for-8 on third down in the second half. That’s what a playmaker does.