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.

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