We’re three games into the 2014 season and still waiting for Mike Pettine’s wonderful, aggressive, beat-the-snot-out-of-you defense to arrive.
Thus far, Browns fans have been treated to a defense that has been most offensive in a most unflattering way. Weak pass rush, almost no resistance against the run and a secondary that has become soft pretty much sums it up.
The offense, for the most part, has done its job. But the defense, which was supposed to be the strength of the 2014 Browns, hasn’t come even close to living up to its advance billing.
Some will argue that numbers – we’ll get into those shortly – do not tell the whole story. They say with any kind of break, the Browns very well could be 3-0 heading into the bye week.
If only the offense had awakened sooner in the season-opening loss in Pittsburgh. Or come through with a simple clutch play in the latter stages of the loss to Baltimore Sunday at home.
Maybe so, but there is a common thread in those losses. The defense had a chance to pick up the offense in both cases and failed. It failed when it mattered the most.
The Steelers maneuvered into position to kick the game-winning field goal with precious little time remaining. The Ravens did the same thing with the same result. In both cases, the defense collapsed.
Those breakdowns serve as a microcosm for the way the defense has performed this season. It has to be embarrassing for a head coach who has been nicknamed Blunt Force Trauma. The manner in which the defense has performed has been anything but blunt, not very forceful and hardly traumatic.
In three games, opposing offensive lines are controlling – no, make that beating up – the Cleveland defensive line. If it were a boxing match, standing 10 counts would be the norm.
In football, it all starts up front. It is a fact that games are won and lost in the trenches. You can have all the skill players you want, but if you don’t have the big, bad guys up front who do their jobs, your chances of winning drop dramatically.
The Cleveland offensive line has upheld its end of the bargain after a slow start in the first half of the Pittsburgh game. The same cannot be said about their brethren on the other side of the ball.
Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore have bashed the run defense for nearly 154 yards a game, as opposed to just 111 a game last season, and 426 yards a game overall. Unless you have an offense like Denver or New England, that’s a recipe for disaster.
This whole disappointing scenario falls on the shoulders of Pettine, whose reputation as a solid defensive coach preceded him to Cleveland. He talked intimidating defense and boasted that he brought the hammer (57 sacks) as defensive coordinator in Buffalo last season.
So how many sacks do the Browns have this season? Five. An average of 1.67 a game. They are on pace for 27. They had 40 last season.
Stats geeks, checking deeper into Pettine’s scheme last season, will tell you the Bills’ defense surrendered 358 yards a game, nearly 230 of them through the air. If it weren’t for the high sack total, the Buffalo defense last season was nothing special.
Making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks is Pettine’s calling card. So where is the intimidation? Where is the fear-based defense that was supposed to strike terror in the opposition?
Right now, the defensive line is nothing more than a highway to the secondary. Too often, we’ve seen running backs crash through the defensive front as if they weren’t there. Opposing offensive linemen have been getting to the second level with astonishing regularity.
Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant are merely taking up space. Whenever a big play is needed, Pettine’s system fails much more frequently than it succeeds.
One last criticism: Why all the 12-men-in-the-huddle penalties on defense? It appears as though the various situational defensive packages the Browns use are confusing the coaching staff. The Browns have been flagged five times for an extra man in the huddle and forced to take a timeout on two other occasions.
Pettine maps out the game plans, but defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is thought to be responsible for making certain the right men are on the field at the right time. Perhaps it’s time to simplify the game plans because the current ones are not working.
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Where was the no-huddle in the Baltimore loss? For some reason, it was abandoned. Maybe because Pettine thought the Ravens were expecting it. If so, that’s overthinking.
Never give an opposing coach any credit for anything until he proves it is warranted. The Ravens have had problems with up-tempo offensive this season, allowing 6.2 yards per play. Not once did the Browns run consecutive plays without a huddle.
The manner in which the Browns’ offensive line handled the Ravens up front should have triggered at least a thought about going no huddle. Kyle Shanahan seemed too interested in gadget plays involving his backup quarterback to be bothered by something so comparatively mundane.
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Ask Browns fans if they know who Christian Yount is and many of them will reply, “Christian who?” That’s the kind of lonely life a long snapper lives in the National Football League. All Yount gets paid to do by the Browns is snap a football. He doesn’t yearn to become famous. He loves being anonymous.
Lately, though, Yount’s name has popped up in game stories or sidebars. And when a long snapper’s name appears in stories, there goes the anonymity. It’s more like a clarion call to start preparing your resume.
Yount’s sloppy snaps have caught the attention of the coaching staff. Some have been too high. Some have been too slow. Others have been dangerously low and skidded to holder Spencer Lanning. Too many of them have required Lanning to bail out his snapper with good holds.
One bad snap on an extra point attempt against New Orleans was so bad, it forced Lanning to pick up the ball and run unsuccessfully for two points. On the eventual game-winner, the snap was so slow, the Saints nearly blocked it.
Both of Yount’s field goal snaps in the fourth quarter against Baltimore were slow back to Lanning, one of them low. Billy Cundiff hit the upright from 50 yards on the first and the second one was blocked. Make either of those kicks and the Ravens would have been forced to score a touchdown to win the game.
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Brian Hoyer still seems to be having minor problems timing up with his receivers. Too many times we see those receivers having to reach back for the ball instead of reaching in front of them and catching it in stride.
His lack of arm strength on long throws has forced wideouts to either slow down or come back for the ball. Underthrown passes are an invitation for interceptions. Hoyer is fortunate thus far that he hasn’t thrown one.
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Hoyer called the Ravens’ loss “heartbreaking” after the game. Now he knows how most Browns fans feel after such a loss. “It’s going to be a long two weeks (until the next game in Tennessee). . . We had some opportunities to put this game away and we didn’t do it. It’s on us.” A familiar lament. Only the names change.
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Notebook: Three games, all decided on the final play by a field goal. That’s got to be some sort of record. . . . Is it correct to say the Browns lost the Ravens game more than the Ravens won it? Played just well enough to lose it? . . . How much closer is Isaiah Crowell to being the No. 1 running back? . . . The Browns have allowed 73 first downs (24 a game) and owned the ball just 28 minutes a game. . . . Opposing quarterbacks are completing 65.7% of their passes against the Browns. . . . Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins is on pace to catch 112 passes this season. . . . Rookie fullback Ray Agnew is quietly looking like the best fullback the Browns have had since Lawrence Vickers.