Saturday, November 30, 2013

Keep Weeden healthy

As sick as this sounds, it would not surprise to hear fans Sunday root for Brandon Weeden to get injured early against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Not seriously, of course. But just enough to ensure he doesn’t play the rest of the game.

Many fans really don’t like Weeden because, well, he isn’t the quarterback the Browns envisioned when they selected him in the first round of the 2012 college football draft.

His mere presence on the field at home engenders boos. And they increase in volume with every mistake. Anything less than perfection triggers the angry chorus.

But this time, the bloodthirsty section of the Browns Nation probably will be more anxious to take a look at Alex Tanney, the team’s latest quarterback signing.

For the initiated, Tanney is the Monmouth University quarterback who attempted to sell himself to National Football League teams last year with a five-minute video of things he can do with a football.

It wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill video that showed him throwing all kinds of passes to receivers in order to prove he should get at least a shot at the NFL. No receivers appeared in the video. Only his buddies in school.

Tanney, you see, is a trick-shot artist with a football. He can make some remarkable non-football shots with the spheroid. Like hitting the cab of a truck speeding away from him; swishing a football through basketball baskets from long distances; or bouncing a football off various parts of a goalpost, also from long distance.

There are other amazing feats on the video that will make you blink your eyes in wonderment trying to figure out just how he did them. It’s a fun five minutes. And now he’s a member of the Browns.

Yep, it’s official. Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi have turned the 2013 Browns into a sideshow with this move. Surely there had to be better choices out there other than Tanney.

The kid is quite the football artist. The big question is whether he can stash all the tricks and prove he’s a lot more than a novelty. By playing a real game of football where the best trick is staying healthy and not making mistakes.

He’s had exhibition experience with Kansas City and Dallas (he played quarterback for the Cowboys in the second half of the Pro Football Hall of Fame game last summer). He played in all the exhibitions, was released and then signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad from where the Browns plucked him.

There certainly had to be someone better than Tanney for the Browns to sign. Vince Young, for example, is available. OK, so he’s a journeyman, but at least he can play representative football.

Throwing someone like Tanney into the remaining schedule against the New England Patriots, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers should Weeden go down is asking for trouble.

If Weeden, indeed, goes down, Tanney will become the fourth man setting up under center this season. The last time the Browns needed a quartet of starting quarterbacks to finish the season, the year was 1988 and Marty Schottenheimer was the coach.

Due to numerous injuries, the season began with Gary Danielson and ended with Mike Pagel with Don Strock with Bernie Kosar also getting in work. Kosar missed the first seven games with an injury before getting hurt again in game 15.

Here’s hoping Sunday’s crowd will be more civil toward Weeden than in the recent past. Tanney needs to stay tethered to his clipboard.

A Jaguars upset?

OK, Browns fans, all together now. Click your heels three times and repeat after me.

The Browns will not lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at home. The Browns will not lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at home. The Browns will not lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at home.

Now take a deep breath and pretend you don’t know the Browns have lost five of their last six games and are beginning to look like they have most of the time since the resurrection in 1999.

Now pretend you don’t know the Jaguars have won two of their last three games (both on the road) after dropping their first eight of the season. Yep, those Jaguars.

Entering the game, the Jags are playing better football than the Browns in the last three weeks. And yet, oddsmakers have installed the Browns as seven-point favorites to hand Jacksonville its 10th loss of the season.

Never mind the Jaguars have knocked off the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans to take their November record to 2-1, which is better than the Browns’ 1-2. So why isn’t the smart money tilting Cleveland’s way?

Well, maybe it’s because the Jaguars are a very bad team. Last Sunday’s 13-6 victory over Houston was the first time they held a team under 19 points.

Their offense has scored more than 20 points just once (29-27 against the Titans) and makes the mediocre Cleveland offense look like a bunch of All-Pros by comparison.

Their 142 points for the season (13 a game) is, by far, the worst output in the National Football League. The Browns, as bad as they are with the football, have produced 203.

The Jags defense, which can’t stop the run or pass, allows 29½ points a game and is on pace to permit 471 for the season. Fans of the Titans and Texans have to wonder how in the world they lost to this team.

Certainly, the Browns can beat this awful football team, right? Even with Brandon Weeden at quarterback, this should be a relative walk in the park.

So how bad are the Jaguars? Let’s start with just 175 first downs this season. That’s 16 a game. Then we move on to 3,113 total yards. Seven NFLd quarterbacks have thrown for more yards by themselves.

The offense averages 2.9 yards per pop. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew has racked up 73% of the team’s run total. If the Browns pay attention to any other running back Sunday, shame on Ray Horton.

The Jags have produced just 14 touchdowns, two by the defense, and only seven scoring passes through the air. Quarterback Chad Henne has thrown four of those passes, but has been intercepted nine times.

The offensive line has permitted 37 sacks. But the way the Cleveland pass rush has looked in the last two games (zero sacks), the Jags should not expect that total of rise. Conversely, the defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks just 17 times.

That defense, which has been gouged for 1.468 yards on the ground, has trouble getting off the field. The opposition owns the ball on the average for nearly 33 minutes as game.

So as one can see, Sunday’s battle should amount to a walkover even though the Jags are on what for them is considered a roll. And the Browns are due to bust out of their doldrums.

Never mind that the Jaguars have won nine of the15 games the teams have played since the series began in 1995. After losing the seven of the first eight, including the first six, the Browns have won four of the last six, including three of the last four.

The most famous game of the series was also the most infamous. On Dec. 16, 2001 in what turned out to be a 15-10 Jaguars victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium, Dawg Pound fans vented their wrath by throwing plastic beer bottles at the officials following a decision that robbed the Browns of a chance at a go-ahead touchdown.

Cleveland wide receiver Quincy Morgan appeared to make the fourth-down catch of a short Tim Couch pass at the Jags’ 9-yard line with less than a minute left in regulation. Couch immediately spiked the ball on the next play, which would have automatically eliminated the possibility of looking at a replay.

But referee Terry McAulay called for a replay review after determining the replay official in the press box buzzed him before the Couch spike. He subsequently ruled Morgan did not catch the ball cleanly and the Jags took over on downs.

That’s when the bottles flew and Cleveland once again became a national joke with its crowd behavior. McAulay and his fellow officials walked off the field and declared the game over. But the league office overruled him and the game was finished.

Now we know McAulay won’t officiate Sunday’s game. That’s because he had the Browns-Steelers debacle last Sunday. So . . .

Don’t look for Jags to slow down Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron or give Weeden grief in the pocket. Given all that time, he should be able to calm the boo birds and play representative football. The defense, meanwhile, will finally get a sack. Feeling pretty confident about that one (sarcasm noted).

Repeating the original mantra: The Browns will not lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at home. Of course they won’t. Make it:

Browns 27, Jaguars 13

Monday, November 25, 2013

Monday leftovers

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?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Yep, this party is over

With sincere apologies to Willie Nelson and the late Don Meredith, consider the following as the Browns’ obituary for the rest of this season.

“Turn out the lights, the party’s over; they say that all good things must end.” In the Browns’ case, substitute season for party and that about sums up where the rest of this season lies.

Nelson wrote the song and Meredith popularized it at the end of Monday Night Football games on ABC for many seasons. It also might as well be the Browns’ theme song for the rest of 2013.

The lights went out on the 2013 season for the Browns on the wings of a 27-11 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at the edifice once known as Cleveland Browns Stadium. Once again, the Steelers arrived ready to play. The Browns did not.

If anyone in Browns Nation believes there is still something to salvage this season, he or she is dreaming. Do not even think about using Browns and playoffs in the same sentence. That laughable thought is officially now known as an oxymoron.

The club will try to sell you on the notion that there is still a chance. Technically, that is correct. Realistically, though, that’s not even close. Certainly not after the way the team played against the Steelers. It was the men against the boys.

This one had so much on the line for the Browns. First of all, it was against their archrivals. If that wasn’t motivation enough to play well, then there’s no hope for this team. Second, even more important, a victory would have produced the first stepping stone toward relevance in the National Football League.

Entering next Sunday’s game at home against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars with a 5-6 record and the distinct possibility of playing .500 football after a dozen games was a strange, but pleasant, thought throughout the week leading up to this game.

The Browns then proceeded to add another chapter to the Factory of Sadness saga and plunge it to depths that have been achieved in the past only by far lesser teams.

For a game with this much meaning, the Browns (with one notable exception) mailed it in.

Josh Gordon was the only Brown to show up, putting on a virtuoso performance that landed him in the team’s record book. The second-year wide receiver, who is too good to play with such a bad team, caught a record-tying 14 passes for a record-smashing 237 yards.

Growing up a Browns fan, coach Rob Chudzinski certainly knows the importance of any game against the Steelers. Apparently, the players never got the message as they prepared for the game this past week.

For whatever reason, this team was not ready to play a game of football Sunday. There is no excuse for the way they played. None whatsoever. Everyone in the organization is culpable. From Joe Banner on down, this was one game that had to be won.

There aren’t that many must-win games in a season for a team like the Browns. And this was their best effort? Instead, they came up with a game whose stench will linger for quite a while.

For the first time this season, the Browns got pushed around on both sides of the ball. The Steelers, who owned the ball for 33½ minutes, jumped all over them almost from the opening kickoff and did not let up.

It was almost as though they toyed with their AFC North patsies, improving Ben Roethlisberger’s record against them to a remarkable 16-1. The Pittsburgh quarterback sliced and diced the Cleveland secondary all afternoon.

When it came to the battle in the trenches, the Steelers won just about every one. The offensive line provided pristine protection for Roethlisberger, who was not sacked and wound up on his back just once. That same line had given up 36 sacks in 10 games before Sunday.

And the Pittsburgh defensive line, which had a measly 18 sacks in those 10 games, dropped Cleveland quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden five times, knocking Campbell out of the game twice, the second time permanently with a concussion in the third quarter.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau showed his protégé Ray Horton, Cleveland’s defensive chief, how it should be done as his defense mauled the Browns all afternoon. It was an unfair fight.

Troy Polamalu, a shadow of his All-Pro self of several years ago, looked like a spry rookie, disrupting the Cleveland offense with glee. The 11-year veteran free safety seemed to be everywhere causing all kinds of trouble, including a pair of fumbles.

Cornerback William Gay joined the parade with a pick six (of Weeden) and a strip sack of Campbell that led to an easy Pittsburgh touchdown and the Cleveland quarterback’s departure for the rest of the game midway through the third quarter.

Gay clearly struck Campbell’s helmet with his hand as he swooped in untouched from the blind side, but referee Terry McAulay nor the umpire chose to yank a flag for roughing the quarterback. Look for Gay to be fined by the league and McAulay at least admonished.

But that’s not what lost this game. What won it was plays of aggression made by the Steelers. If it wasn’t Polamalu, Gay and the pass rush for the Steelers, it was Roethlisberger’s steely resolve and a determined offensive line.

If there was a play to be made, the Steelers made it. The Browns didn’t. Perfect example was Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the afternoon.

A short Spencer Lanning punt was returned to the Cleveland 48-yard line by Antonio Brown with 3:17 left in the first half and a 3-3 game.  On the second play, Roethlisberger found Brown behind Joe Haden, who made the mistake of looking back as he ran with Brown. That fateful glance cost him and his team a touchdown.

On the next Cleveland series, Polamalu pried the football loose from Chris Ogbonnaya and recovered it near midfield. The Steelers turned it into a field goal. Just like that, the 3-3 tie turned into a 13-3 lead and the rout was on.

The Steelers, who lost their first four games of the season, have now won three in a row and reside at 5-6. The Browns, who began the season at 3-2, have dropped five of their last six games and taken up residence once again in a familiar place: The AFC North basement.

That victory over Baltimore a few weeks ago seems now like an aberration. It was thought at the time to be a sign that maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned. Turned out that corner led back to a very familiar place.

To say the Browns are in a state of disarray right now would not be an overstatement. They are headed suspiciously in a direction with which Browns fans are all too accustomed.

What looked like a promising start this season has devolved into the realm of same old Browns. So much to look forward to; so little in return.

And to think there are still five games left on the schedule. The age of torture continues.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

There's nothing like Steelers week

It’s always the game most fans circle on the Browns’ season schedule. It’s the game that generates more attention emotion than just about any other.

The only other game that provokes such a bellicose and exciting feeling is the second time that same opponent appears on the schedule.

That team, of course, is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The dreaded Steelers. The team Browns fans want to beat more than any other. Beat the Steelers twice in a season and lose the other 14 games constitute a successful season.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but only Browns fans know the absolute and unmitigated joy one feels after beating the Steelers.

Playing the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens twice a season is one thing. Those meetings engender visceral feelings, too. But it’s nothing like when the Browns play the Steelers.

And Sunday in Cleveland, the two teams will meet for the 123rd time in one of the classic National Football League rivalries. Although it’s a rivalry in name only lately because of the Steelers’ dominance, they are still the most anticipated games of the season.

For whatever reason, this Ohio Turnpike-Pennsylvania Turnpike rivalry captures the imagination of what a rivalry should be about. Fans in the respective cities really do not like – or respect – one another.

Losing is hard to swallow. And Browns fans have had to swallow hard the last 20 years. Since the Browns ended the 1993 season by knocking off the Steelers, they have won just five of the next 35 games in the series, winning those games by 1, 3, 20 (where did that come from?), 7 and 6 points.

The Steelers have dominated this series so much, it’s difficult to call this a rivalry anymore. The definition of the word has lost its meaning. One-sided is a much more apropos term whenever these two teams get together now. Since 2000, for example, the Browns are 3-23 against their rivals.

When this series began in 1950, the Browns dominated in the manner Pittsburgh does today. They won the first eight games, 12 of the first 13 and 16 of the first 18. After 41 games, the Browns built up a 32-9 lead by the middle of 1970.

Since then, it’s been nearly all Steelers with the exception of a seven-game winning streak the Browns put together during the Bernie Kosar era in the late 1980s.

The constant losing stopped for the Steelers when they hired Cleveland native Chuck Noll as coach in 1969. Since midway through the 1970 season, the Steelers are 56-25 against Cleveland, winning numerous division and conference championships along the way. Oh yes, Super Bowls, too. Six of them in eight attempts.

The Steelers under Noll became what the Browns so proudly boasted as the teams of Paul Brown and Blanton Collier resided almost annually in the league’s penthouse: The Greatest Show in Football.

The Steelers, who resided in the NFL outhouse on an annual basis until Noll arrived, became the league’s glamour team along with the Dallas Cowboys. And it has been that way, with a few belches along the way, ever since with only three head coaches.

This season has proven to be, at least at the beginning of the season, one of those burps. After losing their first four games in untypical Steelers fashion (bad defense and no running game), they have rebounded nicely, winning four of their next six.

They arrive in Cleveland Sunday feeling pretty good about themselves, having won their last two games and putting up 91 points in their last three outings. Conversely, they have surrendered 92 points in those games.

This is not your typical Steelers team. They don’t scare anyone like they used to. Intimidation, especially on defense, used to be their modus operandi. No longer is that the case.

Hard to believe, but the Steelers have racked up just 18 sacks this season (outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds have half of them). That’s less than two a game for a team that used to thrive on getting up close and extremely personal with opposing quarterbacks.

The Pittsburgh run defense, which always seemed to set the standard for excellence in the league, now gives up 125 yards a game. All of which should make Norv Turner’s game plan for Sunday an interesting topic of conversation. If his running backs don’t touch the ball at least 30 times, there’s no hope for the Cleveland offensive coordinator.

Four of the Steelers’ five leading tacklers are members of the secondary. That right there tells you the Steelers’ strength up front is non-existent. And that secondary has produced five of the club’s six (that’s correct, only six) interceptions.

The Pittsburgh offense, much like the Browns’, is one-dimensional. It’s Ben Roethlisberger and that’s it. Big Ben, who has lost to the Browns just once in his career, averages 38 passes and nearly 300 passing yards a game with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

He has to throw that often because he has no ground game on which to rely. The Steelers average 76.5 yards a game and frighten no one. Rookie Le’Veon Bell, who missed the first three games of the season with a foot injury, is the best they have to offer. He averages just 42 yards a game.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has been hot lately with nine TD passes in his last three games. Chief targets Sunday will be Jericho Cotchery (seven TDs), Antonio Brown (five TDs), Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller.

Where the Browns have a substantial advantage in this one is in the pass-rushing department. The Steelers’ offensive line is much more porous than that of the Cincinnati Bengals, who shut down and shut out the Cleveland pass rush last week.

Roethlisberger has gone down 36 times already this season, been hit on substantially more occasions and been hurried just about every time he drops back. Look for defensive coordinator Ray Horton to dial up blitz after blitz against Big Ben, who is not as agile as he used to be.

Horton might just want to show his mentor, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, that he was paying attention when learning the coaching ropes.

A couple of statistical oddities in this game: The Browns have never defeated Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the same season. And they have never defeated all of their division rivals at least once in the same season. They have beaten Cincinnati and Baltimore in the same season four times and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati thrice.

Now that they have knocked off the Bengals and Ravens this season, they have two shots at ending that little note of misery. The call here is they won’t have to wait until the season-ender Dec. 29 in Pittsburgh.

Jason Campbell plays just well enough to throw a couple of scoring passes to Josh Gordon and the rediscovered Jordan Cameron, while the defense drops Big Ben five more times and intercepts him twice. Make it:

Browns 17, Steelers 13

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday leftovers

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. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Big Mo slaps Browns around

It is truly incredible how quickly momentum can turn in a National Football League game.

Take, for example, what happened to the Browns in their 41-20 loss Sunday in Cincinnati. Playing their first meaningful game in nearly six years, they were cruising along with a stunning 13-0 lead over the Bengals late in the opening quarter.

Beat the Bengals and the notion that the Browns could start dreaming of the playoffs would begin. Everything was going their way at that point. Well, almost everything.

It very easily could have been – and should have been – a 21-0 lead late in the quarter had the Browns been more productive in the red zone, squandering two precious opportunities to score touchdowns.

The defense was playing well. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was picked off twice by Joe Haden and the Bengals looked confused on both sides of the ball. A third straight Cincinnati loss began taking shape.

But bad play calling by Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner turned those opportunities into field goals instead of touchdowns and gave the Bengals the necessary breathing room to stick to their game plan.

The pass-happy Turner ran the ball just once on a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 on the second series of the game. On the next series, after Haden made the first of his picks deep in Cincinnati territory, Turner plucked three straight passes out of his playbook. Six plays, five passes, two Billy Cundiff field goals.

The second Haden interception wound up as a pick six as he showed the Cleveland offense where the end zone was. Eleven minutes into the game and the sweet aroma of an upset began to waft around Paul Brown Stadium. It momentarily took the crowd out of the game.

While most Browns fans thoroughly enjoyed the scoring bonanza, the nagging feeling lingered among the more skeptical that those lost eight points might come to haunt them. If nothing else, the Bengals are good at coming from behind.

Putting them in a 21-0 hole is far more damaging than a 13-0 deficit. Two touchdowns create a lead. At 21-0, they create a one-possession deficit.

It was at that point of the game where the Browns began to get into the holiday spirit. That holiday of gift giving lurks just around the corner.

Just after the Browns’ defense had forced the Bengals’ third three-and-out to begin the game, the dam burst and the gift giving commenced.

It began quite innocently when Cincinnati linebacker James Harrison – yep, the former Pittsburgh Steeler who used to bedevil the Browns – picked off a Jason Campbell pass on a deflection deep in Cleveland territory and began knocking over Browns offensive linemen (Joe Thomas, Shawn Lauvao and Alex Mack) as if they were bowling pins on a 21-yard romp into  the end zone.

An illegal block penalty on the Bengals nullified the score, but Dalton connected with tight end Jermaine Gresham (more tight end troubles) two plays later on the first play of the second quarter and the rout was on.

What? How could there be a rout when the Browns led by six points? That’s where momentum enters the flow of the game.

On the next Cleveland series, Spencer Lanning’s punt was partially blocked and the Bengals needed just five plays to score and take the lead (instead of trailing, 21-14). Missed opportunities proved costly in a hurry.

A couple of series later, Lanning lined up again in punt formation at his 32-yard line and this time, the Bengals did not miss. Rookie reserve linebacker Jayson DeManche got all ball. Safety Tony Dye stumbled before grabbing the ball and scoring.

To recap: A pick, a couple of blocked punts, three touchdowns, a 21-13 lead and a boatload of momentum. The Cleveland defense, still playing well, had virtually shut down the Bengals’ offense and yet trailed by eight. And that wasn’t the end of it.

On the second play of the next series, a swing pass to Chris Ogbonnaya, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict stripped the Cleveland running back of the ball, grabbed it and romped 13 yards into the end zone, then disappeared into the players’ runway. Two Cincinnati touchdowns in a minute and 50 seconds.

But wait, there’s more.

The Browns took over the ball for the third straight series. The drive resulted in another Lanning punt, this one successfully executed. So the Browns owned the ball for nearly seven and a half straight minutes as the second quarter drew to a conclusion and had nothing to show for it on offense, but gifted the Bengals with two touchdowns.

The only thing missing was the bow. That came with about 30 seconds left in the half when another Lanning punt was returned 27 yards to the Cleveland 32. Three plays later, Mike Nugent’s field goal swelled the Bengals’ second quarter point total to 31. Two turnovers and two blocked kicks turned into 28 of those points.

Turnovers and awful special teams play turned the afternoon ugly in a hurry. Thirty-one straight points in 15 minutes. That’s how quickly momentum can turn in an NFL game.

One look at the game statistics and you wonder how in the world the Bengals put up 41 points and won by 21. They racked up just 10 first downs (one by penalty), 118 yards passing and a meager 224 total net yards. They were 1-for-14 on third down. Pro Bowl wide receiver A. J. Green was held to just two catches for seven yards.

Campbell, on the other hand, couldn’t have spent a more frustrating afternoon. The cool, calm quarterback of the Kansas City and Baltimore games seemed rattled and unsure of himself. He looked confused and frustrated. Give the Bengals' defense credit, though.

It was as though they were willing to give him the short, harmless stuff. Of his 27 completions, 20 were to running backs and tight ends. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took away his long game.

On almost every dropback, the Cleveland quarterback looked everywhere before finally checking down to either a running back or tight end. Zimmer was determined not to let Campbell beat him deep.

A 74-yard scoring bomb to Josh Gordon, who beat Dre Kirkpatrick deep down the left sideline midway through the third quarter, was the only slipup in the Cincinnati secondary. But by then, it was nothing more than a meaningless stat for Gordon. He and his fellow wide receivers failed to get open all afternoon.

The height of the afternoon's frustration was reached on a 76-yard Cleveland drive in the fourth quarter that consumed 19 plays and took 5:09 off the clock. It produced zero points. All that work resulted in giving the ball back on downs at the Cincinnati 4. It was a microcosm of the kind of afternoon they least expected.

There is no question the better team won this one. The Browns' offense and special teams were the culprits this time, playing the worst 15 minutes of football imaginable. It cost them dearly.

Good teams take advantage of opportunities. That is exactly what the Bengals did Sunday. And while the scoreboard does not accurately reflect how close these two teams are in talent, the final score is still the barometer by which we judge teams.

It was an afternoon when the contenders turned back into the pretenders.

Friday, November 15, 2013

So close, yet . . . 

Winning one football game against a team in a season is hard enough in the National Football League. Winning two in the same season is another matter altogether.

That’s what the Browns must do Sunday in Cincinnati if they have any thoughts of post-season play dancing around in their heads. Beat the Bengals and all of a sudden, the AFC North race is a tossup with six games to go.

And don’t think for a minute the Bengals won’t have revenge on their minds. The 17-6 licking they suffered in week four in Cleveland still resonates. It arguably could be pointed out as the game that turned the 2013 season around for the Browns.

Why? Because they proved to themselves they could play not only representative and competitive football against one of the best teams in the NFL, they proved they could play winning football against that team.

In that first meeting, Brian Hoyer was the Cleveland quarterback, the defense made gigantic strides toward becoming one of the 10 best in the NFL and Jordan Cameron stepped into the spotlight with a brilliant 10-catch performance. The team played with an immense amount of confidence.

Hoyer, of course, is gone now, but Cameron and that defense are still around. Jason Campbell has more than capably filled in for Hoyer after Brandon Weeden, for the umpteenth time, failed to show he was NFL ready. And the confidence has returned with two straight strong performances against Kansas City and Baltimore.

The team they face Sunday is frustrated. Losing two games in a row in overtime can ramp up that frustration. The fact that first-place is slipping away in a season they were favored to win the division can play tricks on the mind.

Coming off back-to-back three-interception games, quarterback Andy Dalton’s confidence can’t be very high. The AFC’s player of the month in October threw 104 passes for 612 yards and was sacked 10 times in losses to Miami and Baltimore. That’s way too many passes for an offense that prides itself on being balanced.

The only positive right now for the Bengals is that the game is at home, where they are unbeaten this season. Pair that with the Browns’ inability to win on the road and it’s easy to see why the Bengals are favored by six points (take the points).

Counting this season, during which they’ve won only once (Minnesota) on the road, the Browns are 5-23 away from home since 2010. Stretch that back to 2008 and the road record plunges to 8-36.

The last time the Browns swept the season series against Cincinnati was in 2002, whey they finished 9-7 (6-2 on the road) in Butch Davis’ second season as coach. That was the club’s only winning season on the road since the resurrection.

For whatever reason, the Browns seem intimidated when playing in front of unfriendly folks. That’s one obstacle Rob Chudzinski must hurdle if the Browns are serious about becoming relevant this season.

He can use this game as a challenge to his men. Prove you can go into another team’s home and make it seem like your home. The best way to do that is to take the crowd out of the game. Easier said than done, of course. But the confident way the Browns’ three units have played recently proved it can be done.

Holding a very good Cincinnati offense to just two field goals in the first meeting is a good base on which to build that confidence.

Coming off a bye week as the Browns are can’t hurt. Or can it? The off week gives all the wounds, major and minor, some time to heal. Getting an extra few days off sometimes helps recharge the batteries. And yet, the Browns have proved mediocre after the bye week.

They are 5-7 after a week off, including a 2-6 mark on the road. One of those victories was in 2002 – at Cincinnati. So if you’re a history-repeats-itself- theorist, have some fun. This is your game.

With regard to the matchups, the Browns are most vulnerable covering tight ends in pass coverage this season and Dalton likes to throw to his tight ends. Jermaine Gresham is back after missing one game with a groin injury and will team with Tyler Eifert to put pressure on the Cleveland secondary.

That group also will get enough work with A. J. Green again getting a major portion of Dalton’s attention. In the first meeting with the Browns, he targeted Green 15 times, connecting on seven for just 51 yards, thanks in large part to solid coverage by Joe Haden.

In the last two losses, Dalton has thrown to Green an astounding 34 times with 19 completions, 279 yards and one lucky touchdown last week against Baltimore. Haden can expect more of the same Sunday.

But the Bengal who most likely will produce the largest headache for defensive coordinator Ray Horton and his staff is rookie Giovani Bernard, the little scatback from North Carolina. He has become offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s favorite back, increasing his touches every week.

Bernard has run the ball 95 times and caught 38 passes for 723 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s a per-touch average of 5.44 yards. He will clearly be the most dangerous Bengal on the field on offense because he can beat you in many different ways.

He has wonderful vision that enables him to see and then scoot through cutback lanes. If the Browns’ linebackers do not exercise gap integrity and overrun plays, Bernard definitely will take advantage. The backers must stretch him wide and seal off the cutback lanes.

On defense, the Bengals are hurting with tackle Geno Atkins, their best player, out for the season; cornerback Leon Hall is also done for the season with an Achilles’ injury; and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is recovering slowly from a knee injury.

Don’t underestimate the loss of Atkins, who some believe is the best defensive tackle in the league. He was equally adept at stuffing the run and rushing the quarterback with six sacks in nine games.

Maualuga’s injury is tempered by the play of Vincent Rey, who stepped right in and played extremely well in the Baltimore loss, leading the team with 15 tackles. Look for a lot of Rey, outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and smallish defensive end Wallace Gilberry in or very near the Cleveland backfield.

Also look for the Browns to attack the Bengals’ offense with quick developing plays with Cameron and Josh Gordon in Campbell’s crosshairs. And if Greg Little can replicate the feistiness and athletic ability he showed in the Baltimore victory, it would place that much more pressure on the Bengals’ secondary.

Trench warfare could very well be the decisive factor in this one. Both offensive lines are just average, while both teams have very active and productive defensive lines and linebackers. The team that wins those battles wins the game. It’s that simple.

The big question is whether the Browns will be rusty after taking off last week or will the rest rejuvenate them with all batteries charged? The Bengals, meanwhile,  head into their bye week after this game and certainly don’t want to do so on a down note, holding just a half game lead in the division.

It will be hard fought, well played and tightly contested. Neither team is going to run away and hide. It will come down the final five minutes. Whoever has the ball with that amount of time left wins the game.

That team will be Bengals, who will overcome a six-point deficit with a 72-yard drive that ends in the final 30 seconds as Dalton executes a perfect naked reverse from the 2-yard line while the Browns concentrate on stopping Bernard and Green on a third-and-goal. Mike Nugent kicks the game-winning extra point. Make it:

Bengals 21, Browns 20

Monday, November 11, 2013

Talking about the P word

“Playoffs?! Don’t talk about . . . playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs?! I just hope we can win another game. Another game.” – Indianapolis coach Jim Mora, after the Colts fell to 4-6 when drilled, 40-21, by the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 25, 2001

That iconic quote from an incredulous Mora was brought to mind again by a thought related to the Browns. The word “playoffs” seeped into those thoughts after the Baltimore-Cincinnati game Sunday.

When Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal cleared the uprights, enabling the Baltimore Ravens to knock off the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime, it triggered a thought process that seemed unimaginable as recently as the Browns’ loss in Kansas City.

Believe it or not, it is extremely and startlingly possible the Browns and playoffs can be mentioned in the same sentence after they play the Bengals this coming Sunday in Cincinnati.

No. I have not misplaced my sanity. Instead, I am using a hypothesis to buttress those thoughts. Follow me here.

With Cincinnati’s overtime loss to Baltimore Sunday, the Bengals fell to 6-4, a game and a half ahead of the Browns and Ravens. Now let’s suppose (here comes the hypothesis) the Browns go into Paul Brown Stadium and deal the Bengals their third straight loss, winning the season series for the first time since 2002.

After all, they are playing solid, representative football and the Bengals, who lost to the Browns in Cleveland in week four, have been stung in overtime the last two games and might be reeling a little bit psychologically.

Dizzying? You bet. Wishful thinking? Of course. But it’s based loosely in reality.

A victory over the Bengals would move the Browns to within a half game of Cincinnati for the AFC North lead and give them the tie-breaker (sweeping the season series) in the event of any tie for the division championship between the two teams.

It’s still too early to break down the tie-breakers in the event of a three-way tie for the division should Baltimore remain in the picture. The closer we get to that point, assuming the Browns are still in it, the closer we’ll scrutinize.

Still, the fact the Browns could elevate themselves into such a position should they win this Sunday is rather remarkable considering the problems the club has encountered thus far.

This is a team that has started three different quarterbacks, has what can honestly be called a joke of a run game, tempers its aggressive defense depending on whom the opposing quarterback is, lost its ace return specialist and is still searching for consistency on both sides of the ball.

But the fact it can legitimately be brought up at this point of the season is head-scratchingly (I made that up, but it fits) amazing. No one in his right mind would have predicted such a scenario midway through November.

And it’s not as though this is a fluke. Slowly, but surely, coach Rob Chudzinski appears to be hitting the right buttons as the season unfolds. If the Browns can stay healthy, there’s no telling what the future holds.

This team is playing with a confidence, at least from a body-language standpoint, that hasn’t been seen since the 2007 season, when the Browns came oh so close to playing in January.

The remainder of the Browns’ schedule is littered with danger (road games against New England and the New York Jets and a home game against the Chicago Bears), and very winnable games (twice against Pittsburgh and a home date with Jacksonville).

The remaining schedule for the Bengals, whose bye week follows the Browns game, takes them to San Diego and Pittsburgh with home dates against Indianapolis, Minnesota and Baltimore.

Now if the Browns fail to win this Sunday and fall to 4-6, all bets are off and Chudzinski might want to at least consider replicating Mora’s rant of a dozen years ago.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mid-season report card

Time to take a look at the Browns at the halfway point of the season. For the first time since the 2007 season, it’s not unrealistic to think something good is beginning to take shape so deep into a season.

Unlike many of the previous 14 seasons, the Browns have played representative football in the first nine games. They haven’t been blown out of a game nor have they blown out anyone.

No longer are they the patsy on other teams’ schedule. No longer are they the doormats that can be stepped all over. No. This team is beginning to build a lot of respect around the National Football League.

Slowly and so very surely, the Browns are learning how to win. That’s a bigger step than many would have believed this club would be capable of at the dawn of the season. To be 4-5 at this juncture with some impressive victories bodes well for the future.

Coach Rob Chudzinski has done a solid job of not allowing the season to get away despite some setbacks. He has made a few mistakes, but that is to be expected with rookie head coaches. But he’s shown he is smart enough to learn from those mistakes.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the Browns grade out thus far. Warning: This grader has a tendency to take a harder look than most. His grades are rooted in perceived reality.


If it weren’t for the efforts and performances of Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, the Browns would not be 4-5 at this point of the season. And if weren’t for the performances of Brandon Weeden, the Browns might be undefeated.

OK, so the last part is laced with hyperbole, but the personality of this football team is entirely different depending on who steps under center on any given Sunday.

In games Hoyer and Campbell have started, the Browns are 4-1; with Weeden, it’s 0-4. That’s s bit deceiving, though, since Weeden replaced Hoyer, injured early in the Buffalo game, and the Browns went to win.

Nevertheless, the Cleveland offense is noticeably better with Hoyer and Campbell in control. That’s because Hoyer, lost for the season in game five, and Campbell, who replaced an ineffective Weeden in game eight, waste no time in getting rid of the ball in the passing game.

Weeden, on the other hand, looks worse than he did in his rookie year last season. His indecisive manner and inability to read opposing defenses cause the Browns’ offense to stutter and stammer whenever he’s in there.

Many fans no doubt blame Chudzinski, wondering why he waited until game eight to make the switch to Campbell, arguing that the veteran should have replaced Hoyer instead of Weeden.

There is no question, however, that offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense clearly is better with Campbell, who has thrown five scoring passes with no interceptions, at the controls. With him at quarterback, the Browns now stand a good chance of finishing the season with at least seven victories.

Mid-season grade: C+

Running backs:

Without question the weakest position on the team. And it’s not even close. To be perfectly honest, the Browns’ running game is an embarrassment to the legacy of the team.

This is the franchise of Marion Motley, Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Greg Pruitt, Mike Pruitt, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. No, not Eric Metcalf, who was a wide receiver masquerading as a running back.

The current running game is a joke. It has compiled a paltry 38 first downs, only 734 yards in nine games, a per-game average of 81.5, and one touchdown. Willis McGahee, whom they picked up of the street after trading Trent Richardson to Indianapolis after game two, leads the team in rushing.

McGahee is the master of the three-yard gain on first down. He has run for 262 of those 734 yards. In 100 carries. Doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out his per-carry average.

Chris Ogbonnaya is the second-leading rusher with 101 yards on just 19 carries, but Tuarner, for some reason, refuses to give him the ball on a consistent basis. It seems to think he’s a better blocking back for McGahee.

No, he’s a better running back than McGahee. A better receiver, too, with 28 receptions for another 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Maybe the coaching staff will wake up and discover that before the second half of the season commences a week from Sunday in Cincinnati.

What makes matters worse at the position is that there is no depth whatsoever with only Fozzy Whittaker and MarQueis Gray on the bench. Yikes!

Mid-season grade: D- (and that’s being charitable)

Wide receivers:

If not for the wonderful talents of Josh Gordon, this position would rival that of the running backs as the worst on the team. He is the major reason the Browns’ offense came alive in the third game of the season.

That’s when he returned from his two-game suspension and put a charge into the offense with his ability to stretch the field and make clutch receptions. His uncanny ability to get open made Hoyer and Campbell better quarterbacks.

It’s not a coincidence that his return sparked the club’s three-game winning streak after losing the first two games of the season. He averages five catches a game and leads the team in receiving yards (626) and average per catch (17.9 yards). He‘s a weapon opponents pay close attention to.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much help on the flanks with only Greg Little and Davone Bess to help. Both have been inconsistent and cannot be relied on from game to game. And now that Travis Benjamin is out for the season, there is no quality depth at the position.

Mid-season grade: C- (only because of Gordon)

Tight ends:

Of the surprises thus far this season, this has been the biggest and most pleasant. Most observers knew Jordan Cameron had all the tools to be a difference-making tight end in the National Football League.

He was big, strong, had great hands and decent speed. But the former college basketball player couldn’t stay healthy. Nagging injuries robbed him of proving he belonged. He played only eight games in his rookie season and sparingly in 14 last season, piling up only 26 receptions.

This season, Cameron has caught the attention of the NFL with what, so far, could be considered a Pro Bowl type season. His 50 catches nearly double his first two seasons’ output and his 600 yards more than doubles the first two seasons. Thirty of his catches have produced first downs and he has scored six touchdowns.

Gary Barnidge provides solid support as a blocker when the Browns go to a two tight end look and is occasionally used in short-yardage situations as a receiver. The position overall is solid.

Mid-season grade: A

Offensive line:

Of all the positions on the team, this one caused the most excitement among the fans at the beginning of the season. Everyone returned from last season except guards Shaun Lauvao and Jason Pinkston, who began the campaign on the injured list. But John Greco filled in nicely for Pinkston last season, so the optimism remained high.

When grading this unit, close attention was paid to one part of its job – opening holes for the running backs. The statistics above is ample proof that the performance has been disappointing. What holes there are at the handoff disappear quickly.

And when it comes to executing screen plays or anything of a sophisticated nature, the Browns have to be among the NFL’s worst. Without the ability to keep the opposition off balance with screens, the quarterback’s job becomes that much tougher.

At the beginning of the season, this unit struggled with Oneil Cousins (a natural tackle) playing right guard between Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz. It was disastrous until Lauvao returned from injury. The only aspect of the game that improved upon his return was pass protection.

Joe Thomas, the bellwether of the line, has had a decent season. But for the annual Pro Bowler, that’s not good enough. Numerous times this season, Thomas has been flagged for holding and false starts. Flags for the latter infraction are inexcusable.

Blocking for the run is supposed to be easier than pass pro for offensive linemen. That’s why the ineptitude of this line in the run game is so puzzling. Better coaching is not the answer. Better talent is.

Mid-season grade: C

Defensive line:

By far the most consistent position on the team. In the span of just nine games, the Browns have gone from one of the worst teams against the run to one of the best. No longer do we see opposing runners racking up 100-plus yard games against the Browns, who have not allowed a 300-yard passer or 100-yard runner this season.

What makes this unit special is the depth. There is no dropoff in quality when the so-called second string enters the game. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton leans on his seven-man rotation. They rush the passer every bit as well as stuff the run.

When Billy Winn, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, John Hughes and rookie Armonty Bryant enter the game for starters Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, the status of the quality remains quo. Taylor and Kitchen at nose guard are the main run stuffers, while the other five bring pressure from the edge. Armonty Bryant has been the most pleasant surprise with his pass rushing ability.

The only reason this grade isn’t higher is an inability to create turnovers. And too often, the defense has trouble getting off the field. The third-down defense is atrocious, ranking near the bottom of the NFL. Clean up those problems and the grade here is an A.

Mid-season grade: B+


This is the most important position in Ray Horton’s hyper aggressive defensive scheme, especially the outside backers. And they have responded with 14½ of the position’s 19 sacks (the team has 31 overall).

But it must be pointed out that Paul Kruger, the ex-Baltimore Raven who was signed as a free agent because he specialized in dropping quarterbacks, has just 2½ sacks. He also has just 23 tackles, of which only a dozen are of the solo variety. The man is not earning his money.

On the other hand, fellow outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who filled in when Jabaal Sheard went down early in the season with an injury, has four sacks and the same 23 tackles (16 solo) in far less playing time. The return of Sheard a couple of game ago seems to have made a difference, however, returning Mingo to the role at which he excels – situational pass rusher.

The grade slips somewhat because the inside backers have had trouble covering tight ends this season. The opposition has picked on Craig Robertson quite a bit and we can see why. He’s usually a step slow when dropping into coverage.

When one looks at the tackling numbers, inside backers D’Qwell Jackson and Robertson are near the top of the list. That’s because the defensive line attempts to funnel all ground activity their way.

Mid-season grade: C+

Defensive backfield:

One look at the Browns’ inability to pick off opposing quarterbacks and give the ball back to the offense tells you all you need to know about the Cleveland secondary. It’s not very opportunistic.

Opposing quarterbacks have put the ball up 351 times in nine games and the Browns have picked off only six. The team plays a lot of press coverage as part of its numerous blitz packages and still cannot get the ball back.

Safeties Tashaun Gipson and T. J. Ward have four of the thefts (Ward made it a pick six in the Buffalo victory), while cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine have one apiece. 

To be fair, Gipson and Ward have played well on a consistent basis this season, especially Ward, who leads the team in solo tackles with 49 (second overall to Jackson’s 79 with 64 solos). Both men have enjoyed solid seasons in the tackling department.

Two of the biggest surprises have been Skrine, rebounding nicely from a poor 2012 campaign, and Chris Owens, used frequently by Horton on corner blitzes (he has 2½).  Haden has been his usual reliable self, shutting down the opposition’s top receiver with regularity.

Mid-season grade: B- (but getting better)

Special teams:

For the most part, the special teams have played very well. They have not given up any long returns on punts or kickoffs, ranking in the top third in the NFL in average starting position on kickoffs. They also rank seventh in average start of a drive on kickoffs returns.

The only negative might be the reluctance to remove Greg Little as the return man on kickoff returns. It took special teams coach Chris Tabor seven games before realizing Travis Benjamin could be just as effective running back kickoffs as he was returning punts. Benjamin returned his first kickoff 86 yards against Green Bay.

The following week, he went down in the Kansas City loss with a season-ending torn ACL. His most important contribution was club record 179 yards in seven punt returns in the Buffalo victory, including a 79-yard jaunt for a touchdown. The Bills never kicked away from him. They fired their punter the day after the loss.

Mid-season grade: B


If it weren’t for his stubbornness in keeping Weeden at quarterback when it seemed so obvious the team was not responding to him following the injury to Hoyer, Rob Chudzinski earns a higher grade here.

He was the guy who was not afraid to choose his third string quarterback over the second stringer to replace the injured Weeden in game three. It seemed the right decision at the time because Campbell was a journeyman and Hoyer had never really received a shot.

He also trusts his coordinators. Turner and Horton have not let him down. The Cleveland offense has rebounded nicely under Hoyer and Campbell and the defense, for the first time in who knows how long, ranks in the top 10 in all three categories.

As an unabashed Browns fan, Chudzinski also seems to really enjoy where he is in life. He understands the rivalries with his AFC North opponents (unlike most of his predecessors), owning a 2-1 record within the division. And the only loss (to Baltimore) was closely contested.

Believe it or not, the club still has a shot (albeit remote) at the division championship. If they knock off a banged-up Cincinnati Bengals team coming out of the bye and take advantage of the down season the Pittsburgh Steelers are going through, who knows where this could lead?

Right now, Chudzinski has his team believing in itself. And that's more than half the battle. Now that Campbell is ensconced at quarterback and the offense is not playing embarrassing football, the Browns can concentrate on playing some of the best defense seen in Cleveland in a long time. That's a formula that could lead to big things.

Mid-season grade: B