Monday, November 3, 2014

Monday leftovers

The euphoria that now envelops the Cleveland sports community does not belong to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. At least not yet.

Right now, it belongs to the Browns, whose 5-3 start this season has captured the imagination of most of that community. Here’s another little tidbit that could heighten that feeling.

If the Browns knock off the Bengals on national television Thursday night in Cincinnati, then sit back and watch the Pittsburgh Steelers lose on the road to the New York Jets Sunday, guess who is in first place in the AFC North?

That’s right. Your 2014 Cleveland Browns.

That, of course, is a whole bunch of ifs to dream about and nothing can bring them crashing down faster and harder than the exact opposite. Considering the manner in which the Browns have played the game of football the last three Sundays, that is more probable than possible.

Yes, 5-3 is a great record to have at the halfway point of the National Football League season. Not many observers around the NFL universe saw this coming. But is a record fraught with caveats.

There is no question the Browns played outstanding offensive football in the first five games. That side of the ball unquestionably enabled them to win three of those games, and the other two were lost on the last play of the game.

Heading into what was believed the easiest stretch of the season – games against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay – led many of those league observers to envision a 6-2 Cleveland record.

Instead, the Browns chose on those three Sundays to play football much more reminiscent of the kind their fans have been subjected to for the most part ever since the resurrection in 1999. In short, embarrassingly bad.

There is no way they should have lost to the Jaguars, barely escaped the Raiders and hung on for dear life against the Buccaneers. They were three easily winnable games they turned into adventures.

If these three games are used as a barometer with regard to the progress of the Browns, then they are clearly heading in the wrong direction. Yes, they won two of those games, but they had to work too hard to do so.

These should have been walkover games based on how they performed in the first five outings instead of teeth-gnashing, medication-grabbing, totally unnecessary thrill rides.

Basically, the Browns played like the 1-8 Jaguars (the 1 representing their upset victory over Cleveland), 0-8 Raiders and 1-7 Bucs. In other words, like a team that played well enough to wind up once again in the top five in the next college draft.

The only reason they defeated the Raiders and Bucs was due to the ineptitude of those teams. The Browns were not quite as inept. There is no way they should feel good about themselves at this point, considering how they played the last three Sundays.

Yes, the record does not lie. That cannot be argued. But it is deceiving in that the quality of play has dropped off considerably and needs to be fixed quickly. If that’s possible.

The offense currently runs in fits and starts. You never know whether Brian Hoyer & Co. will come up with a well-executed 80-yard drive or a few three-and-outs. In order to regain the consistency it had earlier, the running game needs to make a comeback.

The last three games have produced 158 yards on the ground on 83 carries. That’s 1.86 yards a pop. You’re not going to win many games with a running game like that unless, of course, you’re playing teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay.

If you’re pointing fingers, try the five guys on the offensive line. Hoyer, who needs all the help he can get, needs that running game to be more effective. It needs to start up front. Without it, well . . . we’ve seen how bad it has been the last few weeks.

The defense, which had all kinds of problems in the first five games, is now beginning to show signs of tightening up. But that was against three pretty bad offenses. With the likes of Cincinnati, Houston and Atlanta up next, that could change in a hurry.

So while 5-3 looks mighty good right now, it behooves the fans to take a much closer and realistic look at what lies beneath the surface – and ahead – if the situation does not improve dramatically.
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It can be assumed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan noticed in Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay that Hoyer had all kinds of trouble when attempting to throw dropping straight back.

The offensive line was no match for the Buccaneers’ pass rush. It rarely gave him time to throw. In 34 dropbacks, he was sacked three times (twice by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who abused center Nick McDonald all afternoon), hit on seven occasions (thrice by McCoy) and hurried nearly 10 more times.

Hoyer either needs to develop a quicker release or Shanahan has to give him more quick developing plays in order to keep him vertical. The poor running game has rendered the play fake useless. Linebackers and safeties are not biting on it anymore.

In order to loosen opposing defenses, Hoyer has to become more mobile. We’ve seen proof of that recently with misdirection rollouts that have been relatively effective. In essence, it bought him more time to locate open receivers. His 58% completion, though, rate needs to get a lot better.

At 5-3, however, there is no question he is getting the job done. One can quarrel about how, but can’t deny the fact he does.
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Slowly but surely, little Taylor Gabriel is becoming one of Hoyer’s favorite targets and producers. The Smurfish Gabriel, who plays a lot bigger than his 5-7 stature, has gained 404 yards this season on just 21 receptions. That’s a per-catch average of 19.2 yards.

The undrafted free agent has registered catches of 70, 49, 24, 48 and 34 yards along the way and quietly has become a home run threat. His touchdown catch on a busted play was the game-winner against Tampa Bay Sunday.

He saw Hoyer in trouble on the play, instinctively broke off his route on the opposite side of the field from his quarterback and burst into the open at around the Bucs 15-yard line where Hoyer, thanks in large part to a blitz pickup by Terrance West, found him to complete the 34-yard scoring strike. That’s solid football instinct.

With Josh Gordon still two weeks away from rejoining the team, it will be interesting to see how much more Shanahan uses Gabriel in a three wide receiver package. Based on he has performed thus far, this smallish field-stretching playmaker deserves more playing time.
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Unsung hero award in the last three games goes to Billy Cundiff. The veteran placekicker has booted eight field goals in that period and scored 27 of the club’s last 51 points, or 53%.

If nothing else, it shows the incompetence of the offense in that period, necessitating Cundiff’s skills. Of course, he would much rather kick extra points than field goals, but it’s nice to know he provides an important lift for that side of the ball. He has hit every field goal in every game except the two he missed in the Baltimore loss.
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Notebook: It was on a Thursday night last season (Oct. 3 to be exact) when Hoyer went down in the first quarter with a torn ACL in the Browns’ 37-24 victory over Buffalo at home. Don’t look for lightning to strike twice. . . . Another bad game for punter Spencer Lanning, who averaged a puny 36.8 yards on five punts. Not nearly good enough. . . . The Browns are an incredible 2-29 against the AFC North on the road in the last 10 seasons, including the last 17 straight. . . . The Bengals are 4-0-1 at home this season, They haven’t lost a home game since Dec. 9, 2012 and are 13-0-1 since then. . . . If previous Thursday night games this season are any indication, look for a high-scoring game in Cincinnati. The eight previous games have produced 420 points, 52½ a game. The home team averages 29½ points a game. . . . The Browns haven’t won more than two road games in a season since 2008. . . . Tashaun Gipson has six interceptions this season, four in the last three games. The free safety has nine picks in the last 11 games.

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