There is no question the Browns’ defense is better this season. Better, in fact, than it has been for several seasons.
But stop and think of what that defense would be like with a legitimate, honest-to-goodness playmaker. Someone, say, like Vontaze Burfict.
We all saw how impactful a playmaker can be on defense with Burfict’s performance in the Browns’ loss Sunday to the Bengals in Cincinnati. It looked as though the Bengals’ weak side outside linebacker played ubiquitous football all afternoon.
He was everywhere, it seemed. The ball was like a magnet. Follow the ball and you likely found Burfict in the vicinity. You can’t coach instincts like that. He’s been that way ever since his playing days at Arizona State University.
In his two games against the Browns this season, he had 29 tackles, 15 of which were solo. And in Sunday’s victory, he embellished those numbers with a caused fumble, which he recovered and took to the end zone.
It was one of the plays in the second quarter that wiped out a 13-0 Browns lead and help put up 31 points in less than 15 minutes.
Why point this out in an otherwise strong season for the Cleveland defense? Fact is the Browns do not have a standout playmaker on that side of the ball. It is more of a group effort. But group efforts are magnified with someone who sticks out, someone who makes clutch plays.
In Baltimore, for example, the Ravens had a terrific defense. But Ray Lewis made it special because that defense could almost always count on him to come up with the big play when it was drastically needed.
Same thing in Pittsburgh, where Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was the catalyst for that terrific defense for all those years. The Browns do not have such an animal. But they could have had one with some intelligent drafting in 2012.
As the National Football League’s college draft wound down on day three and the names fell off the board rapidly, one name that remained on the board stuck out. Vontaze Burfict was still there for the picking.
The Browns had the 245th and 247th picks (both compensatory) at the lower end of the final round. And Burfict was still there. Why? Because he came adorned with red flags, that’s why.
He was a great player, a playmaker at ASU (I know because I saw him play many a game for the Sun Devils), but he had issues. He had a temper. And that temper often drew penalty flags, costing his team. His anger issues served as a warning to NFL general managers: Stay away from this guy. He’s trouble.
The Browns dutifully did, taking defensive back Trevin Wade and tight end Brad Smelley with those picks. Burfict went undrafted before signing as a free agent with Cincinnati.
But how bad, how damaging, how cheap would it have been to take him with one of those seventh-round picks? This is not in the nature of a second guess. Your humble blogger questioned at the time the wisdom of Tom Heckert Jr., then the Cleveland general manager.
In a May 2, 2012 blog entitled Grading Time, which critiqued the draft, I wrote the following: “Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict was on the board at the time. Why not take a shot at him despite all the red flags he brings? What did Heckert have to lose by drafting him in the seventh round? They’ll find out soon enough.”
So which guy with the funny name would you rather have, Vontaze Burfict or Brad Smelley? Don’t bother answering. That was a rhetorical question.
Burfict was there for the taking. This tackling machine who plays from sideline to sideline and makes plays all over the field was there for the taking. And the Bengals got him. To think the Browns now will have to face him twice a season for who knows how long.
The statistics for Burfict, who seems to play every game with a chip on his shoulder in an effort to prove how wrong everyone was about him, verify how valuable he is to the Cincinnati defense.
In his rookie season last year, he led the team with 127 tackles and 73 solos. Thus far this season, he has the team lead again with 111 tackles and 77 solos, a pace that will give him 162. And while he still draws the occasional penalty flag, he now displays a discipline that was absent in college. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has calmed him down.
There’s an old saying in general managers’ circles in all sports: Sometimes the best deals you make are the ones you don’t make. In this case, that couldn’t be more incorrect.
~ Can’t remember the last time a Browns punt was blocked or even partially blocked. So Spencer Lanning’s daily double Sunday came as a complete surprise. But is Lanning the ultimate culprit?
Not really. Has anyone noticed Christian Yount’s snaps on punts? Unlike the seven yards he has to snap for placements, the punt snap has to be delivered to a man roughly 15 yards behind him.
The placement snap has to be quick and on a straight line into the holder’s hands. The punt snap also must be made quick and on a straight line into the punter’s hands. In both cases, that kind of snap prevents blocks because the opposition can’t reach the kicker in time.
In Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati, some of Yount’s punt snaps were not line drives. They floated instead and arrived in Lanning’s hands a tad late, giving the Bengals a shot at a block. They got only a piece of it the first time and didn’t miss the second.
~ There’s something about gambling on fourth down on offense that occasionally lures Rob Chudzinski into the realm of the stupid. You can’t argue about his success rate on that down (11 for 23), but sometimes he just doesn’t think.
Take, for example, what he did in Cincinnati early in the fourth quarter with his club trailing, 38-20, and facing a fourth-and-3 at its 27-yard line. With 11 minutes left in the quarter, conventional wisdom called for a punt. Concede the Bengals stuffed everything the Browns threw at them on offense and move on.
Captain Gambler couldn’t resist, though. Instead of punting and getting better field position for his defense, which had been playing well, he opted for the gamble. Jason Campbell was strip sacked, the Browns recovered, but surrendered the ball on downs, gifting the Bengals with excellent field position that resulted in a field goal that produced the game’s final score.
~ Chris Ogbonnaya ripped off a 43-yard run on the second series, causing a lot of Browns fans to wonder “where did that come from and how come we don’t see more of it?”
It was a stretch play with the offensive line angle blocking together toward the right side of the formation. That kind of play sometimes results in a cutback lane if the backside blocker, ususally a tight end, seals off the backside.
The runner has the option to follow the line or look for the cutback lane. In this case, it was cavernous. Ogbonnaya cut it back to the left, encountered Bengals cornerback Terence Newman about 10 yards downfield, deked him to the ground and wound up with his 43 yards. It resulted in the first of the club’s two field goals.
So why can’t they do it more often? Good question.
~ Notebook: The director of the CBS telecast of the Browns-Bengals game kept showing Brandon Weeden on the sideline. Why? The only way he was coming in was if Campbell had to leave on a stretcher. . . . If Campbell’s ribs were hurting so badly, how did he connect with Josh Gordon for a 74-yard scoring bomb in the third quarter? That throw must have hurt like hell. . . . Another rhetorical question: In the first quarter when the Browns knocked on the Cincinnati goal line twice and came away with just field goals, why wasn’t Jordan Cameron targeted? . . . Where was the Cleveland pass rush? No sacks and just a couple of hits on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton. . . . Quite a stat from the game: The Bengals had 31 points and only three first downs at the half.