Looking hard for something positive to say about the Browns following their extremely disappointing performance in the season opener Sunday against the New York Jets.
Besides punter Andy Lee, that is.
How about Travis Benjamin? The wide receiver/punt returner looks like a new man. The confidence he displayed as a rookie is back. He is fully recovered, mentally and physically, from his ACL surgery a little less than two years ago.
Last season, he played so tentatively, the Browns replaced him for a short period on punt returns and worked him only sparingly into three- and four-receiver packages.
This season, it has been different. The slender wideout from Miami of Florida has stood out in training camp, the exhibition games and now in the first game of the regular season. He had only three receptions for 89 yards against the Jets, but one was a 54-yard scoring strike.
The speed that was missing last season is back. And it’s that speed and lightning-like quickness that quarterbacks Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel are going to have to get used to. If Benjamin had not adjusted to Manziel’s underthrown pass Sunday, he might not have scored.
He is clearly not a possession receiver. Unlike just about everyone else on the wide receivers roster, he can stretch a field. It’s up to the two Cleveland quarterbacks to make the necessary adjustments to take advantage.
It’s also incumbent on offensive coordinator John DeFilippo to dial up at least two or three go routes a game for Benjamin just to keep opposing defenses honest. Why he didn’t go back to it later in the Jets game, especially after the Jets jumped out to a big lead, is puzzling.
When you have weapons such as Benjamin, you try to take advantage. Lord knows the DeFilippo offense is stodgy and boring. No reason not to spice it up with someone who can be useful deep in opposing secondaries.
And when you’ve got a weapon like Benjamin, sending him across the middle or out on a hitch or stop pattern is wasting his talent. This team has so little quickness and speed on offense, it makes much more sense to maximize what you’ve got.
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The Browns won one of the two pivotal battles against the Jets, owning the ball for nearly 32 minutes. That paled, however, to the turnover ratio. The minus-4 is the main reason they were drilled.
When you cough up the ball five times – Manziel had one interception and lost two fumbles – and force only one turnover, which they promptly gave back, that puts that much more stress on the defense.
That defense has an awful lot to atone for next Sunday in the home opener against the Tennessee Titans. That’s the same Titans team that scorched Tampa Bay, 42-14, Sunday with Marcus Mariota racking up a perfect passer rating of 158.3, completing 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards and four touchdown passes in his first game as a pro.
If the Cleveland offense ignites another stink bomb, it will be up to defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to make certain there is not a repeat of what happened against the Jets.
The strength of this team is the defense. Here it is only one game into the season and we’re already strongly suggesting that side of the ball start behaving and playing like most fans expect.
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One of these days, the Browns’ brass is going to realize that drafting Smurfish players for the secondary is an exercise in futility. All you had to do was watch Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall singe Browns cornerback Joe Haden time and again to realize something must be done to correct that height disparity.
Haden, listed at 5-11, gave away fine inches to the 6-4 Marshall, who made some easy catches over the much smaller Haden. Perhaps Haden feels more comfortable working against 5-7 teammates Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel and the 5-10 Benjamin in practice.
Pierre Desir, at 6-1, apparently isn’t good enough to play and 6-0 Justin Gilbert looks more and more like a huge draft mistake. Nickelback K’Waun Williams, who is 5-9, also was on the burning end of a touchdown pass to Eric Decker of the Jets. Decker is 6-3.
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A telling statistic: The Browns converted six of their first eight third-down situations against the Jets. They were still in the game at the time, trailing by just 14-10 early in the second half. They faced eight more third downs the rest of the way and converted just two.
Manziel’s lone interception on a poorly thrown ball to Brian Hartline was on third down with the Browns driving. Marcus Williams’ pick and subsequent 18-yard return set up a 28-yard Jets scoring drive that took all the momentum away from the Browns.
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Two of the inactives Sunday were outside linebacker Nate Orchard and defensive tackle Xavier Cooper. Unless we missed it, both men were healthy scratches. These two, at least we have been told, are highly regarded draft choices, both of whom, again we are told, excel at rushing the passer.
And since the Browns recorded a whopping zero sacks (and one measly hit) of Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, is it all right to wonder just why these two guys weren’t suited up?
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Notebook: The Jets arrived in the red zone six times against the Browns and put points on the board on four of those occasions. The Browns, meanwhile, arrived twice and scored once (a Travis Coons field goal). . . . On the way to that field goal, Hartline made a remarkable catch of a Manziel pass on a third-and-10 from New York 35 late in the second quarter. While on his knees 11 yards downfield, the veteran wide receiver from Ohio State reached back with his right arm, caught the ball and cradled it before completing the play. Jets coach Todd Bowles challenged the catch and lost. . . . Manziel’s TD pass was the first of his National Football League career. . . . Because of penalties, Coons attempted the extra point following the Cleveland touchdown three times before finally hitting. . . . It was that kind of an afternoon for everything Cleveland Browns.