Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday leftovers

Even though Johnny Manziel made a guest appearance in the Browns’ dramatic last-second victory Sunday over the New Orleans Saints, Brian Hoyer is firmly entrenched as the club’s starting quarterback.

Why Manziel was inserted into the game on the first series of the third quarter is puzzling since the Browns, for the most part, had everything under control. They led, 16-10, at the time and Hoyer was playing mistake-free football.

Perhaps it was Mike Pettine’s way of warning the rest of the National Football League that he has another weapon in his offensive gun belt and isn’t afraid to use it. You know, give the opposition something to think about.

“Just as a change-up, we had that package ready to go,” Pettine said after the game. “It’s something we had worked on. . . . I thought we had stalled a little bit on offense and just wanted to see if we could catch them off guard and get a spark. To their credit, they defended it well.”

Coaches oftentimes think too much. To call Manziel’s contributions a package is a bit of a misnomer. A package consists of more than one or two plays at a time. This “package” was pedestrian at best.  

Manziel’s contributions were, at best, brief and unspectacular. He entered the game about a minute into the third quarter shortly after a Hoyer incompletion on first down. Isaiah Crowell gained three yards on a freeze-option handoff from Manziel, who was lined up in the pistol. And just like that, he was gone, back on the sidelines.

He appeared again for a couple of plays on the next possession, Crowell was dropped for a three-yard losss on virtually the same play, same formation. Manziel then hit Ray Agnew on simple out in the left flat near the sideline, but the rookie fullback dropped the ball when hit. And then Manziel was gone again, this time for good.

If this is the kind of package to which Pettine was referring when alerting the media –and, of course the opposition – that there was a possibility Manziel might play, time to go back to the well-used drawing board.

All that does is threaten to destroy whatever timing and rhythm Hoyer builds up during the course of a game. For all the cleverness offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dreams up, it is counterproductive to the end goal of the Cleveland offense.

It wasn’t as though Hoyer, who admitted he was upset when informed of Pettine’s plan to use Manziel, was struggling against the Saints. They didn’t need to see a new look. The way the Saints reacted to Manziel’s sudden appearance, it was as though they expected it and were ready for it.

Right now, Manziel is not nearly ready to run this offense. He might some day improve to the point where he can be trusted to come in and run a series. Not just a play here or two there. A whole series from start too finish.

It’s unfair to both quarterbacks to take this tack. It begs the hackneyed sports term – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Hoyer did not need any help against the Saints. He was in control. Sure he made a few bad throws, but they did not hurt.

Sometimes – no, make that too many times – a head coach or coordinator tries to get cute and drop the unexpected on the opposition. Too often, they get too cute and outsmart themselves. That’s when negatives things take place. Fortunately for the Browns, Manziel’s contributions turned out to be benign.

Before Shanahan thinks about pulling that same stunt down the road, it behooves him to make certain Manziel is ready to perform. He wasn’t this time.
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For those of you still missing D’Qwell Jackson, take a close look at how his position should be played because his successor so far is putting on a clinic. Take a real close look at Karlos Dansby.

The strong side inside linebacker is the oldest and easily craftiest man on the roster. He is the glue of a defense that, at times, can be extremely stingy. He’s the captain of that defense and calls the signals, making sure everyone is where he needs to be.

At the same time, he seems to be everywhere. If he is not policing the line of scrimmage, he’s either dropping back into a zone in pass coverage or blitzing from just about anywhere. And his tackling is superb.

Last season, he was the glue on an Arizona defense that surprised a lot of people around the NFL and the main reason the Cardinals came awfully close to qualifying for the postseason. Many observers thought he should have been elected to the Pro Bowl.

Dansby, who will be 33 in November, is picking up where he left off in the desert. He led the Browns in tackles with 12 against the Saints, eight solo, was credited with two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and a sack of Drew Brees in one of the key plays in Sunday’s victory.
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Fellow linebacker Paul Kruger looks like a different player this season. Maybe it’s the Pettine style of aggressive defense. Whatever, the linebacker is making plays and justifying the nice contract the Browns rewarded him with last season.

He was relentless from the strong side all afternoon, registering a sack, three quarterback hits, one tackle for loss and a pass defensed. His harassment of Brees caused the New Orleans quarterback to throw what turned into a Tashaun Gipson pick 6 in the second quarter. He’s finally looking a lot like the linebacker who helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl a couple of years ago.
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Nice to see Miles Austin contribute to the cause. No telling how the Saints game would have turned out had the veteran wide receiver not helped Hoyer and made himself available on the final drive for a 13-yard reception that moved the ball to the Cleveland 48 and ultimately led to the play that set up the winning field goal.

Austin broke off his route down the left sideline when he saw Hoyer in trouble and scrambling. Instead of just staying put, he maneuvered back toward Hoyer, giving his quarterback a target. The completion survived replay. Two plays later, Hoyer hooked up with Andrew Hawkins. If Austin does not make the play, the Browns are second and 10 at their 38 with just 19 seconds left.
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So how did the Saints blow up the Cleveland defense after a slow start? By forcing the Browns’ secondary into mismatches with tight end Jimmy Graham, tightening up the pass protection and setting the edge for running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

Graham, a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, was unstoppable. But for some reason, the Saints used him sparingly on their final possession and holding a one-point lead. They took a shade more than six minutes off the clock, but Graham saw the ball just once, an 11-yard completion on the third play of the drive. They believed he was more valuable as a blocker.
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Notebook: The Browns were penalized twice for having 12 men in the huddle, once on offense and once on defense. Inexcusable. It’s only a five-yard penalty, but it shows confusion by the coaching staff. . . . Speaking of penalties, the Browns were flagged just four times for 30 yards. A distinct improvement. The worst was a 10-yard holding penalty on Joe Thomas following a 23-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins on third down on the first possession of the second half . . . The Browns are now 2-14 in home openers since 1999. The only other victory was the season-opening 20-3 triumph over the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. The Browns finished 4-12 in Butch Davis’ last season. . . .  The victory improved the Browns’ all-time record against New Orleans to 13-4. They won the first eight and now five of the last six. . . .  Hawkins leads the Browns with 14 receptions in the first two games for 157 yards, but has yet to score.

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