Slowly but surely, as the Browns slide ever so gently toward the outhouse section of the National Football League, one reason for their plunge becomes more obvious by the game. Maybe even by the quarter.
What in the world happened to the team’s’ vaunted pass rush? That aspect of the game that contributes mightily toward the avowed goal – winning. Has anyone seen that pass rush lately?
The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns’ last two opponents, haven’t. All you have to do is ask and they’ll probably shrug their shoulders. “What pass rush?” they would ask, then wink knowingly.
The Browns have 31 sacks in their 11 games thus far this season, which isn’t bad by NFL standards. But when you check the statistics and realize they had 31 after nine games, that raises a bright red flag or two.
The last time a member of the Cleveland defense put a quarterback on the ground for a loss was Nov. 9, when Jabaal Sheard planted Baltimore’s Joe Flacco for a one-yard loss in the Browns’ 24-18 victory.
That sack occurred with about seven minutes left in the game, which means Cleveland hasn’t recorded a sack in the last 8½ quarters, or 127 minutes. Or, as far as defensive coordinator Ray Horton is concerned, too long.
It’s no coincidence the Browns have lost their last two games to division rivals. They didn’t get close enough to quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger to make a difference. They combined for five touchdowns passes as a result.
Breaking down the club’s pass-rushing stats thus far reveals strong outputs result, with one exception, in winning games. In their four victories thus far, they have 17 of those 31 sacks, including games of 6, 4 and 5. They had only 2 in the first Cincinnati game.
In the seven losses, they have just 14 sacks, including games of 2 1, 1, 0 (as in zero) and 0 (as in nil). That’s five games where the pass rush was almost non-existent. They had four in the season-opening loss against Miami and six in the Kansas City loss, both games that could have been won.
That right there should tell you how bad it’s been this season. There is no consistency whatsoever. In the two games before the latest drought, the Browns had 11 sacks in back-to-back games against Baltimore and Kansas City.
It’s feast or famine with this group. You never know what you’re going to get from game to game. Many fans expected Roethlisberger, who plays behind a below-average offensive line, to land on his keister hard and often Sunday. The Browns didn’t come close enough to see if he had bad breath.
Now it’s possible Horton and the Browns will try and spin this latest inability to bother the opposing passer by saying something like, “Well, at least we hurried those guys into throwing before they wanted.” That would be inaccurate.
Dalton and Big Ben had all kinds of time to go through all their progressions before dealing. Only problem was Dalton thought Joe Haden was a member of the Bengals and threw two passes right at the Cleveland cornerback, one of which was a pick 6.
How refreshing would it be to hear Horton or Rob Chudzinski say there’s a problem and they’re attempting to fix it.
Individually, Barkevious Mingo leads the way with a dazzling four sacks in relatively limited action. The rookie linebacker has become a situational rusher since the return of Sheard, but still leads the team.
A further check of the stats reveals 15 players have at least one sack and defensive linemen have accounted for 10½ of the team total. The most disappointing performer, by far, has been Paul Kruger.
The high-priced (and supremely overpaid) outside linebacker, playing on a three-down basis for the first time in his career, has an anemic 2½ sacks in 11 games. Contrast that with the two sacks rookie defensive lineman Armonty Bryant has in part-time play. Enough said.
Kind of makes one wonder just how important Kruger is to the defense. With only 30 tackles (14 solo), there is no question he isn’t even in the same area code when it comes to earning the big bucks the Browns shelled out to lure him away from the Ravens.
~ Josh Gordon is a treasure. The performance the second-year wide receiver put on Sunday in the loss to Pittsburgh almost defied belief. With the rest of the offense going through the motions, Gordon’s stats were that much more remarkable.
It wasn’t as though the Steelers allowed him to catch those 14 passes and compile those 237 yards. He made several tough medium-range catches, turning a few into long gainers with his very deceptive long strides.
Gordon is much faster than he looks and has a burst that is breathtaking. He can go from cruising to fast to super fast in a matter of two strides. He is the only weapon opposing defenses fear when game planning for the Browns.
It is incumbent the Browns find him the kind of quarterback that takes advantage of his marvelous skills. That he racked up those totals against the Steelers with Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden as his quarterbacks is strong evidence he can become a major superstar with better quarterbacking.
~ Also of great concern in the play of the offensive line the last two games. That overrated quintet has allowed nine sacks and 19 quarterback hits in the last eight quarters while opening virtually no holes for the running backs.
And have you noticed how absolutely futile it is for the Browns to run a screen play this season? They tried one Sunday against the Steelers and Weeden had to throw the ball into the ground at the feet of the running back in disgust because the Steelers blew up the play before it started.
College teams execute screens better than the Browns. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a high school game, but I’d bet a little that some high school teams run screens better than the Browns. There is no excuse why these well-paid professional athletes cannot run a simple screen play to keep opponents off balance.
~ Notebook: Is there anything Roethlisberger can’t do well? He even punts well. With a 20-3 lead and facing a fourth and 18 at the Cleveland 29-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin disdained a 47-yard field goal attempt and sent Big Ben back onto the field, ostensibly to go for the first down. After taking the snap in shotgun formation, the quarterback deftly left-footed a pooch punt than landed at the Cleveland 1, then trotted to the bench with a broad smile on his face. It seems he can do no wrong against the Browns. . . . Terry McAulay’s officiating crew called only four penalties (for a total of 18 yards) all afternoon Sunday. That has to show you how tame this rivalry (?) has become. I remember the good, old days when both teams would rack up at least 100 yards in penalties. . . . Offensive coordinator Norv Turner targeted Gordon more times (17) for passes than times (16) he called for running plays. . . . Question of the week: If Campbell is unable to go next Sunday against the invading Jacksonville Jaguars, will the Browns choose to announce the offense or defense in the player introductions?