Friday, October 31, 2014

Taming unpredictability

Finally, a breather on the schedule for the Browns. Or is it?

After a cursory look at the 1-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it is very easy to immediately conclude they are the third straight soft spot in this portion of Cleveland’s 2014 schedule.

First, it was the Jacksonville Jaguars and we all know how pitifully and shockingly that one ended a few weeks ago. Then came the Oakland Raiders and the Browns had to scramble to win that one.

The Buccaneers roll into Cleveland for a Sunday date with the Browns on the heels of a season chock full of question marks.

For example, are they the team that upset the Pittsburgh Steelers – in Pittsburgh, no less – in week four? Or the team that took New Orleans and Minnesota to overtime before losing?

Are they the team that surrendered 165 points during a four-game stretch? Or the team that was blistered for 104 points in losses to Atlanta and Baltimore? Maybe the team that gave up 119 points in the other five games?

To say they are unpredictable would be an understatement. And if new coach Lovie Smith is honest, all he can do when asked what he expects from his team is give an I-have-no-idea shrug.

What he does know is his offense struggles. In five of the seven games, the Tampa Bay attack scored in the teens. It owns the football an average of just 27 minutes a game, converting only a third of its third-down opportunities.

The Bucs also have one of the National Football League’s worst running games, which must frustrate Smith, a run-first coach during his long tenure with the Chicago Bears. 

All he has is ex-Brown Bobby Rainey and rookie Charles Sims, who is expected to be activated for the game after spending the first half of the season mending an ankle injury suffered in the exhibition season.

Running against an injury-ravaged Cleveland run defense that ranks near the bottom of the league might be the panacea the Bucs need. It certainly helped the Jaguars and Raiders, who flourished on the ground after entering their games against the Browns with weak running games.

Mike Glennon will open at quarterback for the Bucs, but he’ll be on a short leash with Josh McCown healthy and ready to go after suffering a thumb injury in week three. The Bucs’ offense racked up just 100 total yards in the first three quarters in the overtime loss last week to Minnesota.

Favorite targets for Glennon and/or McCown are veteran Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel’s favorite receiver at Texas A&M the last two collegiate seasons. They have combined for 51 catches, 693 yards and four touchdowns.

The Cleveland secondary, which played well against the Raiders despite getting little help from the pass rush, most likely will be tested heavily unless the Bucs find success with the ground game.

But it’s the Cleveland offense that holds the key to this game. The Bucs have surrendered 124 yards a game against the run. That’s just as bad as Jacksonville and Oakland. And we all saw how poor the Cleveland running game was against them.

Unless the offensive line wakes up from its snooze the last two games, it looks as though Brian Hoyer again will have to shoulder the major burden for the offense. And he’ll be working without tight end Jordan Cameron, one of his favorite targets, out with a concussion.

The Tampa Bay secondary yields 295 yards a game, which might give Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan some pause. With a struggling offensive line, it’s not outside the realm of possibility he might turn Hoyer loose.

That, of course, would go against his offensive philosophy, which is run the ball first to set up the pass. Considering how often his team is in third-and-long situations, he might at least be thinking of throwing more often to create more second- and third-and-short situations.

The Cleveland offense has been horrible on third downs this season, converting only 28 times in 90 attempts, a 31% ratio. It is only 14-of-52 (27%) in the last four games. Figures like that contribute to a lot of punts and a tired defense in the latter stages of games.

Knowing that, look for the Bucs’ defense to try and create those third-and-longs for the Browns by stacking the box on first and second down. How effectively they can do that depends on how well their four-man front neutralizes Cleveland’s offensive line.

To that end, also look for Shanahan to employ a lot of two-tight-end sets with Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray in an attempt to get back to the running game that was so successful in the first five games.

Key matchup is Browns guard John Greco and center Nick McDonald against defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, one of the few bright spots on the Bucs’ defense. McCoy is quick, strong and a play disturber. If Greco and McDonald can handle McCoy, look for the strong Cleveland running game to make some noise.

Hints out of Berea suggest Isaiah Crowell, who has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff because of ball-security (read: fumbles) problem, will get more touches Sunday.

These two teams have not met that often over the years. After losing the first five games of this series against the original Browns, the Bucs have rattled off three straight victories against the new Browns. But those Bucs played at a much higher level than the current version. The 2002 team, for instance, won the Super Bowl and the 2010 version finished 10-6.

So which Tampa Bay team will show up Sunday? Better yet, which Cleveland team will show up? The way these teams have played lately, it wouldn’t surprise to see a repeat of last Sunday’s ineptitude bowl against Oakland.

This one is likely to be a defensive struggle (offensive inefficiency?) with a multitude of punts, field position playing a strong role in the outcome. After a low-scoring first half (6-3 Cleveland), a strong second half blunts Tampa Bay’s attempt for an upset and improves the Browns’ home record to 4-1 and season record to 5-3 at the halfway point of the season. Make it:

Browns 19, Buccaneers 7

Monday, October 27, 2014

Monday leftovers

How important can the absence of one member of the Browns’ offensive line be? When it’s center Alex Mack, the correct answer is extremely.

When Mack went down with a broken leg in the first half of the big victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago, a feeling of uncertainty immediately appeared in the 2014 season picture.

Make no mistake about it. Mack is the club’s best offensive lineman. Joe Thomas gets most of the praise when compliments are doled out for the sluggers up front. He is one of the best offensive tackles in the National Football League.

But Mack is better at what he does and much more valuable as the line’s linchpin. We’re beginning to find that out now in his absence. All you have to do is check how the offense has fared since he went down.

It’s not a coincidence the numbers have dived dramatically in the last two games. Or since Mack was carted off midway through the Steelers game.

When John Greco slid from right guard and took over at the pivot for Mack and Paul McQuistan came off the bench and was inserted at right guard, the Browns didn’t appear to miss a beat for the rest of that game.

The Browns led, 14-3, at that point midway through the second quarter and scored 17 more points in the 31-10 victory. Not to worry, some said. The skeptics advised them to wait.

After two games sans Mack, the results are in and the skeptics have won.

Before Mack went down, the Browns’ offense compiled 111 first downs (22.2 average), 1,916 total yards (383.2 per game) and 732 yards on the ground (146.3 a game) in the first five games.

In the stunning loss to Jacksonville and subsequent victory Sunday over Oakland, that offense totaled a meager 28 first downs (only one shy of the total accumulated in the Tennessee victory), 572 yards of offense (286 a game) and a mere 108 yards on the ground.

The rhythm of the latest iteration of the offense has looked ragged at best, sloppy at worst in the last two outings. There was absolutely no rhythm. And offense is all about rhythm.

The large holes that were there for running backs Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell disappeared. Jacksonville’s defense blew up the Cleveland offensive line and Oakland’s neutralized it.

It was 2013 all over again with Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya, Edwin Baker, Trent Richardson (for two games) and Fozzy Whitaker pounding away in total frustration and futility and gaining next to nothing.

The Browns scored just four touchdowns infantry style last season. Crowell alone has four of the club’s nine touchdowns this season.

Yes, it can be argued that Mack was a member of the line last season. So what’s the difference? Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, that’s what. Turner loves to throw the football. And he proved it last season when the Browns put the ball up a staggering 681 times. That’s 42.5 times a game.

Kyle Shanahan is the polar opposite of Turner philosophically. He believes the run sets up the pass and the excellent numbers in the first five games back that up. But the run game, of course, depends heavily on the offensive line.

It was more than obvious in the Jaguars loss that the Greco-McQuistan combo was not working. McQuistan was pushed around all afternoon. So the coaching staff put Greco back where he is more effective and brought up Nick McDonald from the practice squad to play center.

The line played better against the Raiders in a comparative sense. It didn’t play well, but its performance was an improvement over Jacksonville. How much a comeback the running game can make depends solely now on how much McDonald improves on a weekly basis.

With Mack lending a hand from a mental and preparatory standpoint, McDonald can’t get anything but better. But now fans have a better understanding why Mack is clearly the most valuable member of the offensive line.
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When safety Donte Whitner signed as a free agent with the Browns, it was expected he would add some attitude to the defense. His reputation as a hit man (in the football sense) preceded him and was welcomed by a fan base that craved such a physical presence.

But for some reason, Mike Pettine envisioned the Glenville High School and Ohio State University product as more of a cover safety, an element of the game that was somewhat foreign to him. He was much more of a physical strong safety with Buffalo and San Francisco.

Whitner’s role seems now to be changing at least based on what we saw in the Oakland victory. He’s been seen more in the box, where he can take advantage of his truculent approach to the game. It paid off against the Raiders.

With the Browns clinging to a 9-6 lead late in the third quarter and the Raiders in the midst of their longest drive of the game, Whitner imposed his will on the visitors and instantly turned the game around with one play.

His well-placed helmet collided with a football that nestled in the arms of Oakland running back Darren McFadden at the Cleveland 25-yard line and exploded it out into the waiting arms of Joe Haden at the 13. The cornerback returned it 34 yards to the Cleveland 47.

Four plays later, the Browns extended their lead to 16-6 on a short touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer to Andrew Hawkins and the Raiders were, for all practical purposes, finished. It was Whitner’s first contribution as a game changer.
*          *          *
The secondary, tested 56 times by Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, played very well for the first time this season despite being hampered by a pass rush that gave the rookie quarterback way too much time to throw.

At times, it appeared as though Carr had as many as seven or eight seconds to get rid of the ball. Improved coverage in the defensive backfield accounted for much of his indecision and contributed later on to three Paul Kruger sacks.

Haden had his strongest game in run support and led the club with nine tackles (eight solo) while playing nearly flawless coverage. Tashaun Gipson had his usual interception, Buster Skrine played tenaciously all over the field and rookie Justin Gilbert seemed to be more comfortable.
*          *          *
After being shut out in the second Pittsburgh game, Hawkins has made a nice comeback with 12 catches for 200 yards in the last two games and scored his first touchdown of the season against Oakland. And rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel continues to be a big-play guy. He caught only two Hoyer passes, but totaled 60 yards, one of them a 48-yarder.
*          *          *
The Browns ran only four plays in no-huddle mode against the Raiders. Tate was stopped for no gain in the first quarter; he gained seven yards on the next series; Hoyer threw an incompletion in the third quarter; and Tate gained a yard right before Hawkins scored his touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
*          *          *
Notebook: With the victory, the Browns matched their win total from last season and the season before. They are 4-3 for the first time since 2007, when they finished 10-6. . . . McDonald had a very good first game at center from a snapping standpoint. No bad snaps in 54, of which 26 were from either the shotgun or pistol. . . . Pettine, on Hoyer, who was erratic despite his 19-28-275-1 TD line: “He made the plays when he needed to make them.” Where were those plays early in the game? Left on the field. Three of those nine incompletions were drops by Oakland defenders. . . . Quick question: Why was Crowell designated the third running back behind Tate and West? The only possible answer is the coaches don’t trust his pass protection skills.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pretty ugly victory

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even attractive. In fact, it bordered on homely.

No other way to describe the Browns’ 23-13 victory Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, who appear to have cemented the title of worst team in the National Football League.

Don’t let the final score fool you. The Browns did not play nearly as well as it indicates. Not even close.

Had they played any other NFL team in front of the home folks on this day, they most likely would have lost. They looked nothing like the team that won three of the first five games and arguably were in a position to win all five.

That team was opportunistic, more on offense than defense, and made plays when plays were needed. It was fully capable of coming from behind in dramatic fashion, The team we have witnessed the last two weeks has made some plays on defense, but the offense encountered problems taking advantage of them.

That offense has disappeared. The running game, in particular, has been AWOL the last two games. As a result, Brian Hoyer has become nothing more than an adequate quarterback who can no longer rely on play fakes to be effective.

Not once against the Raiders did the Browns execute the kind of misdirection plays that proved so successful earlier this season. It’s as though offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan thinks the opposition is on to him and doesn’t even consider using them.

Not once did Hoyer send his offense in one direction and then roll out the opposite direction. The run offense most of the afternoon was of the vanilla variety with a bunch of dive plays, a few quick traps and a zone scheme every now and then.

There was no variety, no imagination. It was dumb football at its best and looked remarkably like last season’s poor excuse for a running game. It took a couple of big breaks by the defense in the fourth quarter to make the final look more respectable.

Running backs Ben Tate and Terrance West were clearly frustrated as the holes they anticipated were nothing more than slivers when they arrived at the point of attack as the Raiders’ defense effectively blunted the Cleveland running game. It totaled 37 yards with West ripping off the longest gain, a whopping seven yards.

The Browns generated just 54 plays and 306 yards of offense, converted only two-of-12 third downs against a team that has allowed more than a 60% conversion rate this season and owned the ball for only 25 minutes against the one of the worst defenses in the league.

In the first half alone, the Browns ran the ball 11 times and picked up a pathetic 17 yards. The second half produced only 22 more yards on 14 carries. That’s 1.6 yards a tote.

A major portion of the blame resides along the offensive line, which performed only marginally better than in last Sunday’s Jacksonville debacle.

Their performance in that one took on such a pungent aroma, the coaching staff made a couple of changes in order to avoid a repeat. Nick McDonald took over at center for John Greco, who moved back to his normal spot at right guard. It didn’t help much.

This is how bad it was.

From their final possession of the first half through their first three possessions of the second half, the Browns ran 13 plays for 38 yards. That included a 22-yard pass to Miles Austin. That’s a net 16 yards on the other 12 plays.

All of which required punter Spencer Lanning to earn his pay for the second week in a row, Lanning was called on seven times when the offense stalled. Fittingly, it was the same number of times he was summoned against Jacksonville.

The Browns’ longest drive of the afternoon was an 11-play, 78-yarder in the second quarter that wound up as Billy Cundiff’s third field goal, accounting for all of the club’s first-half points.

The only reason the Browns didn’t fall behind was because Oakland’s offense was moderately worse. Can’t say they were demonstrably worse because they ran 81 plays, but ineptitude played a major role with neither team playing what could, even generously, be called good football.

The Browns held just a 9-6 lead against the Raiders heading into the final quarter in what seemed eerily like a repeat of last Sunday’s game when the Jaguars clung to a 10-6 lead until breaking the game wide open in the final seven minutes.

The Cleveland offense finally awoke long enough to turn a pair of Oakland fumbles into 14 points in the fourth quarter and allow Browns Nation to finally relax and not worry about losing an embarrassing second straight game to a winless team.

Hoyer culminated a four-play, 53-yard drive on the first score with a four-yard strike to Andrew Hawkins – it was a pick play that should have been flagged – for his first touchdown of the season. And it took just two plays for Tate to score after Barkevious Mingo recovered a Derek Carr fumble at the Oakland 9 with 2:26 left in the game.

Last Sunday, the Browns intercepted Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles three times and turned them into just three points in the 24-6 loss. This time, they turned three turnovers, including yet another Tashaun Gipson interception, into 17 points. But something still seems to be missing.

The dramatic change on offense for the worse the last two weeks has to concern coach Mike Pettine and his staff. This was an offense that averaged 22 first downs and amassed nearly 382 yards a game in the first five games.

It was an offense that overcame a defense that was terrible in the first four games. The Browns literally had to outscore the opposition, exception for the second Pittsburgh game, in order to win. There is no way they can do that now, certainly not the way it has performed the last two games.

There is no question the Browns have fallen into a huge rut on that side of the ball. And with the meat part of the schedule looming following next Sunday’s visit by one-victory Tampa Bay, climbing out of that rut appears to be more of a monumental achievement than at first believed.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Getting it right this time

Here we go again.

A week later and the scenario is virtually the same for the Browns as they try to bounce back from an embarrassing loss last Sunday in Jacksonville.

The only differences between the Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, who arrive on the lakefront this Sunday, are the teams’ locales and their colors. Otherwise, they are almost the same team.

Both winless, both with problems running the football and stopping the run, both with rookie quarterbacks, both with defenses that can be scored on with relative ease and offenses that struggle to score, both with rookie linebackers who some day will emerge as stars.

The similarities are so striking, it’s almost as though warning signs should be placed all around the stadium that used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium when the Browns arrive Sunday morning.

Remember Jacksonville, they should read. This is a game you are not supposed to lose. You are the better team. Play like it.

Because of what happened last Sunday, pundits around the National Football League are calling this a trap game for the Browns, a loss away from slipping dangerously close to becoming irrelevant again.

The Oakland game rightfully belongs in the must-win category. We’ll find out soon enough whether the Browns’ come-from-behind ability and thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers a couple of weeks ago were merely flukes, aberrations.

Or was their performance in northern Florida the aberration, somebody’s idea of a cruel joke just to see if the fans were paying attention?

You can bet the Raiders, who have played better, albeit losing, football since Tony Sparano took over for the fired Dennis Allen a couple of games ago, noticed what the Jaguars did to the Browns.

The only difference is the Raiders have to travel cross country, whereas the Browns were the road team last week. The Raiders have been terrible road warriors, their 2-16 record since the 2011 season a jolting testament to their woes away from home.

So what do the Raiders do well? How about only five sacks allowed in six games. And . . . and . . . and . . . that’s about it. Unless, of course, one considers how well, comparatively speaking, they have done on the road.

In four home games, they have been outscored, 123-69. Their two road losses were 19-14 against the New York Jets and a 16-9 setback in New England against the Patriots. Playing away from the Black Hole seems to bring out their best.

Maybe that’s what Mike Pettine should stress when emotionally preparing the Browns for another battle against a winless team. Based strictly on what transpired down in Jacksonville, there appears to be some sort of a psychological barrier that needs to be hurdled.

Pettine should not tell his men the Raiders average only 69 yards on the ground. That’s good enough for 32nd place in the NFL. Then again, the Browns are worst in the league in stopping the run, allowing 155½ yards a game. This could turn out to be a battle featuring the resistible force against the movable object.

Pettine should also avoid telling his guys the Raiders have reached the end zone just nine times (reminder: in six games), just twice infantry style. Make rookie quarterback Derek Carr look like the second coming of Brett Favre, not his brother David.

Let them know Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew once rang up 5,386 yards from scrimmage, 4,321 on the ground, and 37 touchdowns from 2009 to 2011. That’s All-Star stuff.

Hand surgery early in the season has limited the stocky running back to just 18 carries thus far, but he has been pronounced “as healthy as he has been” by Sparano, who hinted he would get more touches against the Browns, sharing the position with Darren McFadden.

And for goodness sakes, do not tell the team the Raiders average 15.7 first downs a game, own the ball for just 25 minutes an outing, allow the opposition to convert 60.5% of their third-down plays, convert just 38.4% of their own third downs and might be worse than the Jaguars.

Make James Jones and Andre Holmes, who have each scored three touchdowns this season and combined for 666 receiving yards, sound like the best wideouts the Raiders have had since Cliff Branch, Tim Brown and Fred Biletnikoff.

This also will be the Raiders’ first road game since Sparano, an assistant under Chris Palmer in the expansion years with the Browns, was named the interim coach. Don’t think or a minute he won’t want to impress the front office in an effort to remove the interim from his coaching status.

It all adds up to a Cleveland victory. A big-time Cleveland victory. That, of course, is  what we said here last week. Somehow, some way, lightning will not strike twice. Nervously dipping the toes into the predicting waters, the Browns score early and often and render the Jacksonville loss just a blip on the radar. Make it:

Browns 34, Raiders 13

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Speed it up, guys

Something for Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan to ponder . . .

It’s time for the Browns to head back to the kind of offense that proved so successful in four of the first six games of the season. Time to go up-tempo and dial up more no huddle.

There was a very good reason the Browns scored a pathetic six points against one of the worst defenses in the National Football League last Sunday in Jacksonville. They all but abandoned the no-huddle approach to football.

Stop and think. What helped erase a 27-3 halftime lead by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener and tied the game with about five minutes left? That’s right, the no huddle.

OK, they lost that game. But they wouldn’t have been in it had it not been for the success of the no huddle. They actually had the Steelers breathless and running scared until the end.

And look what happened in the game against Tennessee. The Titans ran out to a 28-3 lead with about two minutes left in the first half of that one. The Browns were all but buried until they remembered . . . wait for it . . . the no huddle.

Didn’t take long to overcome that large deficit and finally take the lead with a few minutes left. Without the up-tempo game, they were looking at an embarrassing loss.

So why in the world would they all but forsake that offense that helped them win one game and scare the daylights out of another team in another? What in the world were the coaches thinking?

What possible excuse could they use to explain away that serious misuse of an offense that has produced mostly positive results? There are none. All they have to do is look at the numbers.

They used the no huddle only 13 times in the Jacksonville loss, a paltry four in the first half. And they did not use it with any consistency.

The beauty of the no huddle is to prevent the opposition from substituting and slowly wear them down. It also allows the quarterback, in this case Brian Hoyer, to pretty much run his own offense.

Shanahan can try and send in plays, but Hoyer is too busy in this case calling out the protections, making certain all skill players are lined up correctly and having enough time to read the defense.

The Jaguars were playing just badly enough on offense to keep the Browns in the game. It was their defense that needed to be slowed down and ultimately worn down and the no huddle is the perfect way to accomplish that.

So what if the Browns had two positions changes on the offensive line? It worked in the first half of the Titans game when John Greco moved over to play center when Alex Mack went down and Paul McQuistan replaced him at right guard.

The new setup along the line didn’t hinder the historic comeback against the Titans. And yet, that scheme was eschewed in Jacksonville probably because the offensive thinking was the Jags’ defense would buckle. Instead, it got stronger.

In the Steelers’ loss, the Browns, no doubt believing they had nothing to lose, went up-tempo in the second half after putting just a Billy Cundiff field goal on the board in the first 30 minutes.

Running 21 of their 31 plays no huddle on the first four series of the second half, they erased the Pittsburgh halftime lead with three touchdowns and a field goal before putting together a seven-play, 54-yard drive (six no huddle) that ended with  a punt.

Against Tennessee, Shanahan called for 19 no-huddle plays of the 68 the Browns ran. Four series without a no huddle produced a punt, field goal, interception and touchdown. The five possessions with at least one no-huddle play produced a field goal, touchdown, ball turned over on downs and touchdown.

In case you’re wondering how the no-huddle factored into the other three games . . .

In the victory over New Orleans, the Browns ran 19 of their 72 plays up-tempo, 16 in the second half. In the loss to Baltimore, they ran only four of their 55 plays without a huddle, just one in the second half. And in the Pittsburgh victory, nine of their 56 plays were no huddle, three in the second half. That’s because they wrapped up the game with a strong first half (21-3 lead) and coasted. The six no-huddle plays in the first half were either directly responsible for or led to three touchdowns.

It’s quite obvious the Browns have achieved much more success with the no-huddle approach than those plays where they huddled. There is statistical proof they fare far better on offense when playing up-tempo football.

They need to trust Hoyer more with that approach. With games against winless Oakland and one-victory Tampa Bay up next, faster football on offense should be given more consideration. A lot more. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday leftovers

OK, what went wrong Sunday down in Jacksonville?

That wasn’t supposed to happen. The manner in which the Jaguars (man)handled the Browns flies against a lot of football principles.

There were very good reasons the Jags were winless – and 5½-point underdogs at home – entering the game. They were terrible on defense (couldn’t stop the opposition) and terrible on offense (couldn’t score, either).

Coach Mike Pettine said he tried everything to get his team to realize the Jaguars were not going to roll over and become just another football corpse for the resurgent Browns.

Apparently the old bromide “on any given Sunday” didn’t penetrate those in the meeting rooms during the week leading up to the game. And when it finally did during the game, it was too late.

Of course, several strange coaching decisions by Pettine and his clueless staff didn’t help matters. But still, the Browns trailed by only four points midway through the fourth quarter. Someone had to blink. That someone was Pettine, whose two brain flatulations didn’t help.

Many Browns fans, perhaps spoiled by the club’s second-half heroics this season, mistakenly figured the coaches’ halftime adjustments would eventually place the result of the Jags game in the proper column in the standings.

The Jaguars’ game plan was extremely simple. Stop the Browns’ running game, force Brian Hoyer to throw the football, pound the football on the ground and stay away from mistakes against the Cleveland defense. Check, check, check and oops.

Three Blake Bortles interceptions sort of complicated that part of the plan, but the Jacksonville defenders more than made up for it with solid transition defense, limiting the Browns to just three points on the turnovers.

This one was ultimately won in the trenches. The Jacksonville offensive line bashed the weakened-by-injury Cleveland defensive line most of the afternoon, racking up 185 yards in relatively easy fashion.

Denard Robinson, who used to bedevil Ohio State’s defense as a quarterback at Michigan, looked more like a Pro Bowl running back than a fill-in for the injured Toby Gerhart, piling up 127 of those yards on 22 carries. Bortles added another 37 yards on five freeze-option runs.

In six games this season, the Browns have surrendered 933 rushing yards (155½ a game), at least half of them after contact. The Browns are adept at getting their hands on opposing runners. Bringing them down is an entirely different matter. The tackling on this team is amateurish.

If Browns defenders were in a better position to make tackles, they would. Arm tackling does not work in the National Football League.

The Cleveland running game, which hummed along at a 146-yard-a-game clip before the Jacksonville game, (sarcasm alert) amassed (end sarcasm alert) 69 yards against the Jags.

Why? Because the home team was determined to shut down the Browns’ run game. How? By crowding the line of scrimmage, often times playing seven men within two yards of it. Every now and then, strong safety Jonathan Cyprien would make it an eight-man front.

With one exception, an 18-yard Ben Tate run in the second quarter that led to Billy Cundiff’s second field goal of the afternoon, everything the Browns tried on the ground failed. Dive plays, trap plays and stretch plays proved futile. Take out the Tate run and the Browns rushed for 51 yards on 29 carries.

Hoyer’s success depends, in large part, on a successful ground game. Makes him more effective on his play-action passes. On this day, he was totally ineffective.

And since the NFL is the ultimate copycat league, you can bet future opponents will take note on how the Jaguars handled the Cleveland offense. It is incumbent now on the coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments with winless Oakland up next, followed by one-win Tama Bay.

The Browns can still be 5-3 at the midway point of the season, but they had better arrive at the stadium on game day believing the opposition is better than its record. That’s a lesson they learned the hard way in Jacksonville.
*          *          *
Coming into the game, the Jaguars had owned the football for just 26½ minutes a game. Against the Browns, it was 31½ minutes. The only reason it wasn’t higher was Bortles troika of picks.

It seems the Browns failed to take into consideration how determined the Jags were, especially on defense. They were flying to the ball on every run play, whereas the Cleveland offense pretty much allowed the Jags to dictate the tempo.

And the Jacksonville pass rush, which produced three sacks, seven hits, at least three knockdowns, and what seemed like double-digit hurries, was relentless against the Browns’ offensive line. Linebackers Paul Posluszny, J. T. Thomas and Telvin Smith seemed to be everywhere.
*          *          *
What was all that fuss regarding a long-term contract for Hoyer? Seems to be a bit premature. The afterglow of the big Pittsburgh victory probably had something to do with that. After what happened against the Jaguars, that afterglow has probably been reduced to a spark.

Hoyer is a nice quarterback. Nothing great. Nothing that would make you believe he is the quarterback of the future. There are too many more games, too many more defenses to beat, too many more roadblocks to hurdle before he can be anointed thusly. Time to rethink.

He might not like the label, but Hoyer is best at being a game manager. Make certain the offense runs smoothly and efficiently. Keep mistakes at a minimum. Don’t beat yourself.  The Jacksonville game is an object lesson in that regard. He some day might wind up as that quarterback of the future. He first has to grow into it.
*          *          *
The Jaguars, mainly a passing team coming into the game, were anything but against the Browns. Of their 68 plays, 35 were of the ground variety. That might have been a contributing factor in the Cleveland game plan, which appeared to marginalize the Jags’ run game.
*          *          *
Best player for the Browns Sunday? That one’s easy. Punter Spencer Lanning enjoyed his best day of the season, averaging 50.4 yards on seven kicks. Runner-up: Cundiff, who was perfect on two field goals and kicked the ball out of the end zone on his three kickoffs Second runner-up: Long snapper Christian Yount, also perfect on nine snaps.
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Great quote from Pettine: “I think we took a large step backwards (against Jacksonville).”  Ya think?
*          *          *
Notebook: The Browns maintained their standard two-sacks-a-game pace against the Jaguars and now have 12 on the season. Still waiting for the vaunted Pettine pass rush to show up. . . . How bad was the Cleveland offense Sunday? Thirteen first downs. For a team that averaged 22.2 first downs in the first five games, 13 would have been close to a halftime stat. . . . Posluszny suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the game and is out for the season. One game too late. . . . The Browns need to work more on ball control. The opposition this season averages nearly 32 minutes a game in that category – 4 for 17 on third down Sunday doesn’t help. . . . Neither do eight penalties.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Back to the drawing board . . . again

If there is a word worse than terrible to describe the game the Browns played in Jacksonville Sunday, apply it here. In bold letters and on a neon sign.

Striving to become something other than irrelevant in the National Football League, the Browns made major strides last Sunday with a resoundingly impressive victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sunday in Jacksonville, though, they not only took major strides in reverse, they did so with a performance so stench-riddled, it ranks among the worst showings since the resurrection in 1999. And that takes into account some pretty awful games.

The impressive Pittsburgh victory, coupled with a three-game stretch against teams with a combined record of 1-16, prompted many national pundits to actually visualize a 6-2 start for Cleveland.

Didn’t impress the Jacksonville Jaguars, who brought an 0-6 record this season and an 18-game losing streak in September-October games into the game. Didn’t impress them in the least.

Making every conceivable mistake in every phase of the game with a Cleveland coaching staff that should have been fitted for dunce caps, the Jaguars embarrassed the 3-3 Browns, 24-6.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer played as though it was his freshman year at St. Ignatius High School. To say he was awful would be a compliment considering how hopeless he looked all afternoon.

He didn’t get much help from his offensive line, which was manhandled by the Jacksonville defense, and his running backs, who never got untracked. But that would be short-changing the Jags’ defense, which suffocated the Cleveland offense to the tune of just 266 yards, 69 on the ground.

Falling back on a cliché, that defense came ready to play, totally blunting what can be laughingly called the Cleveland attack. If there was any attacking going on, it was done by Jacksonville.

No matter what Hoyer tried, the Jags had an answer for just about everything. Even when he led the Browns deep into Jacksonville territory, something always seemed to go wrong.

The Browns’ defense, meanwhile, picked off three Blake Bortles passes – two by free safety Tashaun Gipson in Jacksonville territory – and turned them into three points. The Jaguars converted their three Cleveland turnovers into 14 points.

Hoyer, who put the ball up 41 times and completed a miserable 16 against the worst pass defense in the National Football League, was abysmal. His timing was so far off, it looked as though his receivers were in another time zone.

The plays were there. Hoyer, who had four of his passes either batted down or deflected at the line of scrimmage, managed to screw up most of them with his awful display of throwing a football. If he wasn’t throwing high, low or wide, he threw behind his targets.

Several times, he rolled left on a misdirection play as the flow went right. That’s a play that has worked successfully this season. It worked just twice in this one. That’s because the Cleveland quarterback couldn’t hit the barn, let alone its broadside.

This is how bad that offense was. Trailing just 10-6 midway through the fourth quarter and with a chance to still get back in the game, Hoyer collaborated with Andrew Hawkins on a 65-yard catch-and-run to the Jags’ 29-yard line. Three plays later, Spencer Lanning punted for the seventh time from his 41.

A negative running play, a sack of Hoyer by Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny and an incomplete pass took Cleveland out of field-goal territory. It was backward march and served as a microcosm of the afternoon.

Despite playing so sloppily, Browns Nation still believed the team would come up with another fourth-quarter miracle to pull it out. But they failed to take into consideration there are just so many times a team can shoot itself in the foot and come out on top.

The Browns did not deserve to win this game and it would have been unfair had they done so. The Jaguars were by far the better team on defense and much more opportunistic on offense and special teams.

It was a total team breakdown by the Browns, who played as though all they had to do was show up and the pitiful Jags would disappear. Lesson learned? It was a classic case of playing down to the opponent’s talent level.

There are a number of other problems for coach Mike Pettine and his merry men to deal with this week.

Like what in the world was Jordan Poyer thinking when he muffed a punt at his 2-yard line midway in the fourth quarter? The Jags recovered the muff and scored on the first play, an eight-yard run by Denard Robinson to make it 17-6. Forty-nine seconds later, a Telvin Smith interception of a deflected Hoyer pass at the Cleveland 20 resulted in a Storm Johnson touchdown.

There is also some introspection Pettine and his coaching staff need to have regarding some of their hare-brained decisions.

With two minutes left in the first half and nursing a 6-0 lead, for example, the Browns operated out of the pistol on a third-and-a-foot from the Jags’ 24-yard line. Terrance West was stuffed for no gain.

Two questions: Has the quarterback sneak been yanked from the playbook? And why wasn’t fullback Ray Agnew in the game for blocking purposes? Isn’t he on the roster for such occasions?

Then on fourth down, Pettine must have had a testosterone rush because he allowed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to call a pass play to tight end Jordan Cameron that was, of course, overthrown.

Another question: Why not bring in Billy Cundiff for a 42-yard field-goal attempt and up the lead to 9-0? As that point of the game, which had all the makings of a defensive struggle, take the points.

As it turned out, the Jags took over on downs, marched 76 yards in four plays and grabbed a lead they never relinquished. It also gave them an emotional lift that carried over into the second half.

There’s more from Pettine, this time trying to get cute at the beginning of the fourth quarter while trailing, 10-6. Instead of punting on fourth-and-4 at the Jacksonville 42 and pinning the Jags deep in their territory, he initially took the offense off the field as if to punt, then sent the offense back out.

The Browns lined up as the Jacksonville defense scurried back onto the field, looking in partial disarray. It was Pettine’s intent to try and draw the Jags offside and get a first down. Center John Greco apparently did not get the message and snapped the ball to Hoyer, who seemed surprised, ran a few yards and pitched the ball to Ben Tate, who was smothered for a two-yard loss.

It was yet another example of a coach outthinking himself. As it turned out, it did no damage, but it took valuable time off the clock and gave the Jags, who have feasted off the Browns in this 16-game series, good field position.

It might serve Pettine well to use the tape of this game as a learning tool to prevent a repeat for at least the next two games against hopeless Oakland and hapless Tampa Bay at home.

Then again, maybe not.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Jags jinx? Not this time

Over the years, the Browns have had all kinds of problems with the Jacksonville Jaguars. They began even before the original Browns moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season

The Jags debuted as an expansion team in the National Football League in 1995 and were placed in the AFC Central with the Browns. They won four games that season – two against the Browns. That’s when the problems commenced and they still exist.

Even though they have received some competition from the Browns for the label of “worst team in the NFL” the last six seasons (not including this one), the Jags somehow manage to play well beyond their capabilities against Cleveland.

In their 15 meetings, Jacksonville owns a 10-5 lead over the Browns, who have averaged just 16 points a game against them. Makes no difference where they play, although the Browns have fared slightly better (3-4) in Jacksonville than at home (2-6). The Jags won the first six games of the series and eight of the first 10.

Perhaps the most famous game – for all the wrong reasons – in the series was the Dec. 16, 2001 meeting in Cleveland. That’s when replay, an officiating tool in its infancy at the time, became the cause célèbre for fan anger.

It resulted in what was immediately called “Bottlegate” by the media and brought infamy to the lakefront. But that was then. This is now.

When the two teams meet again Sunday in northern Florida, the Browns will be overwhelming favorites. By all rights, they should win this one handily. The winless Jaguars are a very bad team. The talent difference between the two teams is huge.

The Jags average slightly more than 13 points a game (worst in the NFL) and have allowed 31 points a game (2nd worst in the league). Their minus-104 point differential is comfortably the worst in the league.

A defensive surge in the last two games has enabled them to become competitive, albeit in a losing vein. That defense, which surrendered 38 points a game in the first four losses, has rebounded nicely and allowed just 33 points in the last two outings (the offense scored only 23).

The one area the Browns should be mindful of is the Jaguars’ pass rush, which has produced nearly twice as many sacks (19) as the Browns (10). But the way the Cleveland offensive line has played in front of Brian Hoyer, that should not be much of a problem.

On the other hand, the Cleveland pass rush, which has generated just 10 sacks (where is that famed Mike Pettine pass rush he promised?), will face an offensive line that has permitted 27 sacks. Time to fatten those stats.

Hoyer, who has been sacked only six times, will throw against a defense that yields 314 yards a game through the air. His quick release, as well as his ability to extend plays, should negate the Jacksonville pass rush.

Playing pitch and catch with his receivers against a secondary that has only one interception should enable Hoyer to come up with what could be his biggest statistical afternoon of the season.

Throw in the running of Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell against a Jags run defense that gives up 117 yards a game and you have, in theory, a solid formula for what should be an easy victory.

On offense, the Jags’ biggest hope is quarterback Blake Bortles, who relieved ineffective Chad Henne midway through game three. The big rookie has completed nearly 70% of his passes for 781 yards and a pair of touchdowns (and three picks) in three games as a starter. He has been sacked 11 times.

In last week’s 16-14 loss at Tennessee, Bortles completed 32 of 46 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown. The week before, Hoyer was 21-of-37 for 291 yards and three touchdowns in the come-from-behind 29-28 victory over the Titans.

The focus of the Jacksonville offense, which has scored just nine times this season, quite clearly is the pass. The Jags run the ball only 20 times a game, a break for a Cleveland run defense that has given up 150 yards a game and has been soft at best.

Toby Gerhart, the Jags’ lead back who has carried the ball just 48 times this season, will not play due to a foot injury. Storm Johnson and Denard Robinson most likely will split carries.

To give you some idea on how bad their ground game is, Bortles is the second-leading ground gainer with 106 yards.

Cecil Shorts III’s return to the lineup from hamstring problems provided a boost for Bortles against Tennessee last week. Shorts, who caught the game-winning pass against the Browns last season, was targeted 14 times and caught 10 for 103 yards. Other favorite targets are rookie wideouts Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who has scored three touchdowns, and tight end Clay Harbor.

It will be interesting to see how Pettine schemes this one. Does he dial up some sophisticated pass rushes to confuse the rookie? Or will he play it safe and routinely drop six and sometimes seven men back in coverage?

The Browns have proven thus far they could hang and bang with the big boys. That was the easy part. The hard part is doing it again and again and again. Sunday will be their first opportunity against the so-called dregs of the NFL. And they will succeed.

All they have to do is start strong. Or prevent the Jags from starting strong. In the first half of their two road games this season, the Browns have been outscored, 55-13. In the second half of those games, it’s the polar opposite. They own a remarkable 43-3 point advantage.

This is not a trap game, as some believe. The Jaguars are really that bad. The Browns, who seem to play their own brand of football no matter the opponent, will drop the Jags to 0-7. Convincingly. Make it:

Browns 34, Jaguars 13

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Monday leftovers

Brian Hoyer doesn’t need to be great in order for the Browns’ offense to hum. He just needs to be efficient and not make mistakes.

He was the epitome of efficiency in Sunday’s big victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. A quick look at the statistics reveals the Cleveland quarterback threw just 17 passes in the 31-10 victory.

With a running game that pounded out 158 yards against a defense that prides itself on stopping the run, Hoyer now has a weapon that enables him to manage the game and still be productive. He doesn’t need to put the ball up that often. He just needs to complement the ground game.

He completed only eight of those 17 passes, but totaled 217 yards in the process, an average of 27.125 a completion. He connected on passes of 42, 51, 31, 31, 24, 17, 12 and nine yards, a remarkable display of long-distance accuracy.

A majority of those completions came off a play fake or some sort or misdirection rollout action away from the flow. He struggled to find open targets in straight dropbacks, but flourished otherwise.

There is no question the strong Cleveland running game allows Hoyer to be more effective with his play fakes and overall ball-handling. Opposing teams are buying those fakes, opening up passing lanes in which the Cleveland quarterback can better operate.

The infantry portion of the Cleveland offense has gained 146½ yards a game this season, reinforcing Kyle Shanahan’s goal to revive that aspect of the offense. The offensive coordinator has worked a minor miracle thus far.

To give you an idea on just how much the ground game has improved, rookie running back Isaiah Crowell has scored four touchdowns already. The Browns scored four touchdowns in the entire 2013 season. 

There’s more.

Last season, the Browns rushed for 1,383 yards. This season, they are on track to pile up 2,342 yards. Shanahan can take a deep bow. He introduced the zone-blocking scheme (ZBS) to the offensive line, which took to it quickly and has thrived.

Even when center Alex Mack went down midway through the second quarter Sunday with what appears to be a season-ending broken leg, the line did not miss a beat when John Greco moved to center and Paul McQuistan replaced him at right guard.

There is no question the Browns will miss the leadership of Mack, arguably their best offensive lineman. The only damage is to the depth at the position.

Now that Ben Tate seems to be back at 100% and Crowell appears to have gained the confidence of the coaching staff despite a slight case of the fumbles, there is absolutely no concern with the ground game.

The beneficiary of all this largesse has been Hoyer, who balances that delicate equation with smart decisions. Like his mentor in New England, he keeps his mistakes to a minimum.

He doesn’t have the greatest talent with which to work in the passing game, but he is maximizing that talent. And there is not much more the coaching staff can ask of him.
*          *          *
A new wrinkle to the ground game seems to be paying off. Several times in the Pittsburgh victory, instead of a direct handoff, Hoyer tossed the ball to a breaking running back.

Rather than finding a hole straight ahead on a direct handoff, the toss enables the running back to catch the ball while moving, mostly toward the edges of the offense, then pick a hole against a moving defense.

The ZBS also allows the running back to look for cutback lanes on the backside against teams that have a tendency to overpursue. The Steelers, at least on Sunday, were easily influenced by zone blocking flows and overran plays.

Tate and Crowell used those cutback lanes on the backside to pick up significant yardage. Quality blocking by wide receivers on the weak side also seals off defenders who stay home.
*          *          *
The Browns appeared to have caught a break on Buster Skrine’s interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle John Hughes late in the third quarter.

It was ruled an interception on the field, but the replay appeared to show the ball barely skimming the ground before it settled in between the Cleveland cornerback’s arms.

Because it was a change of possession, the play was automatically subject to review. Referee Tony Corrente, after communicating with the replay crew in New York, announced the play, as called on the field, stood.

It might have been one of those rare situations where video replay was not conclusive enough to overturn the call. Had the call been no interception, that, too, would have stood.
*          *          *
In one of the great turnarounds in the venerable Browns-Steelers series (this was the 126th meeting), the Cleveland offense absolutely dominated in the final six quarters of this year’s two games. The Steelers raced out to a 27-3 lead at the half of the season-opening game in Pittsburgh. Since then, the Browns have outscored their rivals, 55-13. And that last Pittsburgh TD was a gimme.
*          *          *
From the department of what were they thinking: With the ball at the Pittsburgh 44 midway through the second quarter and the Steelers trailing, 14-3, Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on a third-and-1. With a running game that was gouging the Cleveland defense, why throw the ball?

The long throw down the left sideline for wide receiver Markus Wheaton fell incomplete. Has to make one wonder just what was going through the mind of Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The Browns drove 85 yards for a touchdown on the next series.
*          *          *
Nice to see Jordan Cameron back in Hoyer’s crosshairs. The big tight end, when healthy, can be a nightmare to opposing linebackers and safeties. If he can stay reasonably healthy, it opens up numerous possibilities for Hoyer.
*          *          *
Of some concern to defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has to be the tackling in the first quarter. Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount could have been stopped for small gains, but managed to break numerous tackles and pile up plenty of yardage after contact. Fortunately, the Browns’ offense built up enough of a lead where Roethlisberger was forced to go to the air.
*          *          *
Notebook: The Browns ran only 56 plays to pile up their 31 points. The Steelers ran 76 for their 10 points. . . . Use of the no-huddle intermittently worked beautifully against the Steelers, who had problems handling it. Crowell’s touchdown following the first Hoyer-Cameron connection in the second quarter was a prime example of the effectiveness of up-tempo. . . . An unusual sight on the sideline was Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III. Must like basking in the winning atmosphere. . . . Spencer Lanning averaged 40.7 yards on six punts. Not good enough. . . . Long snapper Christian Yount was perfect for the second week in a row. He can relax now. But not too much. . . . Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was shut out for the first time this season. He was targeted only twice. . . . With significant injuries to Mack, Armonty Bryant (knee) and K’Waun Williams (concussion) and a growing list of the injured and unavailable, Cleveland General Manager Ray Farmer will earn his keep this week.

Seeing is believing

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, and the way it does, the sweet taste of victory becomes that much sweeter.

What the Browns did to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at home falls under the category of a good, old-fashioned whupping. It was a beatdown the likes of which Browns fans have hungered for way too many years.

The 31-10 final in no way indicates how much the Browns owned this game and moved to 3-2 in the process. They embarrassed the Steelers in the final three quarters in a way the Steelers are not accustomed to.

Browns Nation enjoyed every second of it. It was only one game, but the amount of damage inflicted in the final 45 minutes in some small way made up for the club’s dismal performances against Pittsburgh in the past. A lot of demons were excised.

If this was a statement game, then the Browns punctuated it with a truckload of exclamation points. It was an unfair fight after the first quarter with the Browns playing bully to the Steelers’ 98-pound weakling.

It counted for only one victory in the standings, but oh, what a victory. At the same time, it sounded a clarion call to the rest of the National Football League that the dark clouds that have hovered over Cleveland are beginning to dissipate.

The Factory of Sadness was the Factory of Pure, Unadulterated Joy Sunday. You can bet that feeling will linger a few extra days longer this week, mostly because it was the dreaded Steelers.

For the first time this season, the Browns did not have to come back from an early deficit. No last-second game-winning field goals by the opposition to ruin a good effort.

No, this one was decided early and decisively with the Browns, trailing by three after a quarter, putting 31 unanswered points on the board, 21 in the second quarter, before the Steelers scored their only touchdown with 2½ minutes left in the game.

No wondering if the Browns were going to blow this one and if they were, how they were going to do it. No reaching for the nitro tablets or indigestion meds. This was a smooth ride for the game’s last 45 minutes.

It was as though the Browns were playing an April Fool’s joke on the fans in the first 15 minutes. The offense ran six plays for minus-8 yards and a couple of punts. After going three and out on their first possession, the Pittsburgh offense ran 18 plays (15 runs, three passes) from scrimmage for 81 yards.  

Many of those 81 yards came after contact with Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount shedding tacklers along the way as though they were not there. The Cleveland defense looked hopeless.

But the best the Steelers could get out of all that was a Shaun Suisham field goal. A bad hold by punter Brad Wing on a second field-goal attempt seemed innocent enough considering the way the Browns were playing.

Then, just like that, it turned. Everything turned. It was a though a switch was thrown. The defense started shutting down Ben Roethlisberger and the offense. And the offense began executing pretty much the way it has all season, moving the ball with comparative ease.

Just fooling, the Browns seemed to be saying to the fans. This is what you really came to watch. Sit back. Please enjoy. And they did.

The Steelers, who punted seven times in 13 possessions, owned the ball for 13 minutes and 23 seconds on their first three possessions and came away with just the field goal. It turned out to be a sign of things to come.

The Browns turned the second quarter, their demon quarter this season (outscored, 55-16, in those 15 minutes) into a Pittsburgh nightmare. The offense scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions and the defense started making plays.

On their third possession of the game, the Browns marched 68 yards in five plays, taking only 1:51 off  the clock, Isaiah Crowell blasting five yards off right tackle for the score. They key play was a beautifully conceived and executed 42-yard pass from Brian Hoyer to Jordan Cameron.

It should have been a touchdown on the misdirection, roll left and throwback right to the wide-open Cameron at the Pittsburgh 25, but it was slightly underthrown. Crowell finished the job on the next play  as the Browns went no-huddle.

Following a poor Pittsburgh punt, Hoyer and Cameron struck again on a play fake, the quarterback hitting his tight end in stride to compete a 51-yard scoring play just two minutes after Crowell scored. A great block in pass protection by tight end Gary Barnidge from the backside saved the play.

The offense was now on a roll, playing with a confidence that hasn’t been seen on that side of the ball since the 2007 season when Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards played pitch and catch and Jamal Lewis ran wild.

The defense took the cue, forcing a four-and-out, and the Cleveland offense crafted an 11-play, 85-yard scoring drive that burned 5:07 off the clock, Ben Tate capping the drive with an 8-yard cutback run. He scored again in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard dive following a Buster Skrine interception.

Three straight second-quarter touchdowns in just 19 plays covering 213 yards and just a little more than eight minutes is the kind of production one normally associates with a smooth-running offense. Not Cleveland’s. Until now.

The Browns are averaging a shade less than 27 points a game and have scored at least 21 points in all five games. And the defense came up with its best effort of the season.

There was no second-half comeback for the Steelers on this day. A late touchdown pass by Roethlisberger, who fell to 18-2 against the Browns, made the final more respectable if you consider a 31-10 drubbing more respectable.

The manner in which this victory was achieved is the surprising factor here. It was a shocking display of the kind of football for which Browns Nation has longingly yearned. It was enough to make those fans blink just to make certain their eyes were not deceiving them.

Were those really the Cleveland Browns? Were those really the Pittsburgh Steelers? Are you sure they didn’t switch uniforms while we weren’t looking?

We’ll know a lot more next Sunday when the Browns travel down to Jacksonville to meet the winless Jaguars, who surrender 31 points a game.

Danger, Will Robinson, danger.