Monday, October 6, 2014

Monday leftovers

Kyle Shanahan has taken his lumps for the way he calls football games for the Browns’ offense. He’s been doing it for four games now and a lot of fans are none too satisfied with his methods.

Like when the Browns fell behind the Tennessee Titans, 28-3, Sunday in Nashville. Some of those irate fans laid the blame at the feet (or headset) of the offensive coordinator.

But a much closer look at the statistics reveals Shanahan did not do what a lot of coordinators would have done given the same circumstances. He did not panic. And that’s what helped the Browns eventually win the game.

Most coordinators would have totally abandoned the running game with such a huge deficit and slightly more than two quarters left in the game. Shanahan did not.

What’s the quickest way to climb back into such a ball game? Throw the ball. As often as possible. Running the ball doesn’t move the sticks as quickly as a forward pass. Besides, it bleeds the clock and the clock is your biggest enemy.

Shanahan remained calm and did not kick it into panic mode even when it was obvious the Cleveland offense seemed to think it was still the bye week in the first half.

When the Titans made it 28-3 with 2:44 left in the first half and most of Browns Nation had either turned off their television sets or cursed a blue streak at them, the Cleveland offense had run just 22 plays for 92 yards and a Billy Cundiff field goal.

From that point on with the patience of Shanahan in the lead role, it became a different game. A nine-play, 90-yard scoring drive in the final minutes of the first half looked like nothing more than window dressing at the time.

It foretold what was to come in the second half and a breakdown of Shanahan’s play calling shows why.

Starting with that late first-half touchdown catch by tight end Jim Dray, the Browns owned the ball for seven series and 53 plays. Of those 53 plays, 27 were passes totaling 267 yards. The 26 running plays gained another 101 yards.

Shanahan knew he had a strong running game with Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Even though the score got out of hand, it did not mean shutting them down. He knew a strong running game helps a quarterback.

If he had panicked and resorted to nothing but passing the ball, the domino effect would have been felt along the offensive line. Dropping back to pass protect on every play can wear down even the strongest of offensive lines.

Mix in the running game and it keeps the linemen much fresher. The 278 yards of total offense in the second half is proof positive the big guys up front, even when playing in a no-huddle scheme, were much more effective.

It was also that way in the season opener in Pittsburgh. The effectiveness of the run game in that one, even after the Steelers had built a 27-3 halftime lead, made Brian Hoyer a much more productive quarterback as the Browns produced a similar comeback only to lose in the closing seconds.

This team cannot be counted out no matter how far they fall behind. Based on the first four games, no lead against them is safe. And one of the reasons it isn’t is the patience of an offensive coordinator.

Now if defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil can replicate Shanahan’s success and figure out a way to yank his men out of their doldrums, then we may have something.
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He’s not very big at 5-7. Nor is he especially heavy at just 167 pounds. In fact, he’s the littlest guy on the team. But he is making a surprisingly large impact lately on the Browns’ passing game.

Taylor Gabriel’s talent sort of sneaks up on you in a quiet and productive sort of way that leads you to believe he has quietly become one of Hoyer’s favorite targets. In the last two games against Baltimore and Tennessee, the little guy has caught six passes (in eight targets) for 176 yards, 119 of those on two passes.

The rookie free-agent speedster hasn’t reached the end zone yet (he came close in the Baltimore loss), but you get the feeling that as long as Hoyer keeps him in the rotation, he’ll get there eventually. He has a knack of getting open, which does nothing but increase Hoyer’s trust in him.

The coaches seem to like him, too, having enough faith in him to make him part of the three- and four-receivers packages. And he has not disappointed. Even though he’s a slight target, he seems to have no problems hanging on to the ball. So far, the biggest surprise on offense.
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It has been only four games, but it has been difficult to get a read on just what Mike Pettine is feeling as the game unfolds. He is maddeningly imperturbable.

When the Browns fell behind by 25 points late in the first half against Tennessee and he just witnessed his secondary burned badly on a 75-yard touchdown strike, the cameras zoomed in on Pettine, who wore the same nonplussed look that adorned his countenance at the beginning of the game.

It’s difficult to tell by the look on the head coach’s face whether the Browns are winning or losing. Not that it makes any difference to viewers or fans, but it appears to have a calming effect on his team if you believe in the trickle down theory.
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Based on how well they have played this season, it appears as though the Browns have finally figured out how to win games that seem hopelessly lost. Fans are no longer thinking “there’s no way they can win this game.”

They came close to ending a road losing streak in the season opener and found a way to smash it to smithereens in Tennessee in spectacular fashion. How they play this Sunday at home against Pittsburgh will be a definite litmus test as to just how good this team really is.
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There is no question Chris Kirksey’s well-placed forearm to the helmet of Titans quarterback Jake Locker on his second-quarter touchdown run Sunday was a cheap shot. Locker was on the ground about four yards into the end zone and clearly down when Kirksey arrived.

Retribution was achieved on the Titans’ first possession of the second half when Tennessee guard Andy Levitre leveled Kirksey with his own version of a cheap shot well after the play was over. The penalty blunted what had been a promising drive.
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Travis Benjamin has incurred the wrath of fans (and probably coaches) for his timid play as the club’s return specialist. But you gotta love what he has done as a receiver. He has caught only eight passes this season, but three have been in the end zone, including two in Sunday’s victory.
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K’Waun Williams, another free-agent rookie, shared playing time with top draft choice Justin Gilbert Sunday and came up with the defense’s biggest play in the waning moments of the game, sacking Titans quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on a cornerback blitz with about 15 seconds left.
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Notebook: The Titans were 8-of-14 on third down. That’s got to stop. Three of their first downs were the result of a penalty. That’s got to stop, too. . . . The Browns were penalized only five yards in the second half (a false start by Joel Bitonio) after compiling six penalties  in the first half for 69 yards. . . . Hoyer distributed the ball to eight different receivers in his 21-37-292-3 TD afternoon . . . The Browns have scored at least 21 points in every game (a 26-point average) this season. The last Browns team to do what was the 1969 team that accomplished it in its first seven games. . . . The Cleveland defense limited the Titans to just six first downs and 126 yards in the second half. . . . Long snapper Christian Yount is back in the good graces of the coaches (at least for now) with a strong game against Tennessee.

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