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.

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