Friday, October 30, 2015

Trench warfare fail

Taking stock of the Browns through the first seven games is a little like wading through a mud bog in bare feet. It’s awfully messy.

Let’s start with the offense. Warning: It’s a total mess.

There are two aspects of football on offense: Running the ball and throwing the ball. The Browns don’t do either well. The main culprits are the brutes up front, the highly overrated offensive line.

Simply put, the five grunts along that line cannot effectively run block and pass block. The dreaded double whammy. The ground game churns out just 90 yards a game and the quarterbacks are like sitting ducks when they drop back to throw.

That very, very offensive line has given up 26 sacks this season totaling 151 yards in losses. In the last five games alone, it has surrendered 21 sacks (all with Josh McCown at quarterback), a considerably higher number of quarterback hits and way, way, way too many hurries.

Last week in St. Louis, McCown looked like a piƱata as the Rams took full advantage of a Cleveland offensive line that looked as if it mailed it in.

No one would blame McCown if he asks to skip Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals if for no other reason than to regain a modicum of health. Not to mention the kind of protection (a very loose interpretation of the word here) he has received since coming back from a concussion in the season opener.

He won’t, of course, because nothing will stop him from facing for the first time the team that drafted him all those years ago. Either that or he is a glutton for punishment. Maybe both.

Entering Sunday's game, the Browns have scored just 13 offensive touchdowns in seven games and produced only 633 yards on the ground. Subtract the 109 yards scrambling by McCown and Johnny Manziel and the ground game shrinks to an embarrassing 75 yards a game.

One of the excuses offered up for that pathetic number is that running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr. and Robert Turbin don’t hit the hole quickly enough. That argument loses weight since it happens all the time. It can’t be the backs’ fault all the time.

The Cleveland offensive line cannot run a simple screen play, is not athletic enough to run counter plays and rarely springs a runner on the edge. It has to resort to simple dive plays or quick traps between the tackles.

If not for McCown’s three consecutive games or more than 300 yards in an offense that is almost totally tilted now toward the forward pass, Cleveland’s offensive totals would be anemic.

As it is, the Browns average a modest 364 yards a game, mostly because the opposition has virtually shut down anything resembling a ground game. It’s as though a McCown handoff to Crowell, Turbin and Johnson is thrown in as a pause in the action for the passing game.

Now let’s take a look at the defense, which was supposed to be the team’s strength. Warning: It, too, is a total mess.

There are two aspects of football on defense: Stopping the run and pressuring the opposing quarterback. The Browns don’t do either well.

After seven games, that defense has regurgitated 393 yards a game, 151 of those on the ground. Top draft pick Danny Shelton, whose girth was supposed to take up space in the middle of the line, is almost an afterthought after failing to do so. He averages two tackles a game and can be handled one-on-one.

He isn’t the only one to blame. He has plenty of company in a linebackers corps that has had a season-long problem sealing the edges, Time after time, fans have witnessed opposing running backs running free and clear around the flanks.

One sure way to lose a football game is failure to stop the run. The Browns have accomplished that in spectacular fashion thus far this season.

The only reason the passing figures (253 yards a game) aren’t higher is because the opposition has so much success beating up the Cleveland front seven on the ground. At the same time, the secondary has played respectably, allowing a 59% completion rate despite a weak pass rush.

That pass rush has produced just 12 sacks – another embarrassing figure – for 76 yards in losses. Incredibly, seven of those sacks and half of those yards were rung up against the Tennessee Titans in the second game of the season.

The secondary grows a little stronger against the Cardinals with Joe Haden expected back after missing a few games. And the Browns will definitely need him considering the Cardinals’ offense averages four touchdowns and 407 yards a game. It very well might be the best offense the Browns face this season.

Coach Bruce Arians’ offense is loaded with weapons starting with quarterback Carson Palmer, who has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions while completing 65% of his passes.

Palmer is complemented by a strong running game led by Chris Johnson, the former Tennessee Titans star running back who has three 100-yard games and averages 5.1 yards a carry since taking over for the injured Andre Ellington in the season opener. Ellington is being slowly worked back into the Arizona game plan.

Palmer completes most of this passes to a strong group of wide receivers (he rarely targets tight ends). Veteran future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald has rebounded nicely after a down season in 2014 and leads the Cards with 46 receptions for 622 yards and six touchdowns. He’s on pace for 105 catches and more than 1,400 yards.

Palmer also loves throwing to John Brown and Michael Floyd. This trio has combined for 11 touchdowns.

Oh and the Arizona offensive line has permitted just 10 sacks of Palmer. Not a bad hand with which Arians is playing. It’s the defense where the Cardinals are somewhat vulnerable in that the pass rush has produced just 12 sacks. So the Cleveland offensive line might catch a break Sunday afternoon.

But if the Browns continue their season-long trend of throwing about twice as often as they run, trouble lurks in the Cardinals’ secondary, which has picked off a dozen enemy passes with three pick 6s. Throwing against cornerback Patrick Peterson and safeties Rashad Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson is asking for trouble.

OK, let’s sum up the Browns thus far. The offensive line can’t run block or pass block and the defense can’t stop the run or the pass. All of which loudly screams that games are won and lost in the trenches. Other than that, everything is hunky dory when it comes to professional football along the lakefront.

So how in the world are they going to stay with a team that owns the best offense in the National Football League? The Cardinals are also coming off a Monday night victory at home over Baltimore and have to travel cross country.

It’s tough to win after playing on a Monday night and some western teams do not travel well. That said, who are we kidding? This one will not be close no matter who starts at quarterback for the Browns. They lose three in a row for the first time this season and drop to 2-6 as the Cardinals fly high. Make it:

Cardinals 37, Browns 10

(Full disclosure: I did not see the Browns-St. Louis game last Sunday. Family emergency. Any information gleaned from that game is from watching televised highlights and reading print medium reports.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Wanna coach Browns? Caveat emptor

Mike Pettine never banked on this when he took the job as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

This, of course, is being the head coach of arguably the most dysfunctional team in the National Football League.

Being head coach of any team has its headaches, its ups and downs, its highs and lows. But in Cleveland, where a black cloud hovers perpetually over 76 Lou Groza Blvd. and turmoil roils on a seemingly daily basis, it is quite different.

Pettine naturally would much rather deal with the Xs and Os of the game and the personalities of his locker room. You know, the kind of stuff most coaches experience.

Not in Cleveland.

Instead of totally concentrating on Sunday’s game in St. Louis against the Rams, especially after coming off a hard-to-take overtime loss to the Denver Broncos, Pettine has to deal with the latest misadventure of his troubled backup quarterback.

Instead of facing questions with regard to the Rams game, he has to deal with his thoughts on Johnny Manziel’s latest dalliance with the law. He is, in essence and seemingly whether he likes it or not, the club’s spokesman on matters such as this.

General Manager Ray Farmer is nowhere in sight. Now that he is a few weeks distanced from his four-game suspension for doing something he knew he shouldn’t, he should be the spokesman in this matter, not his coach, who has enough to be concerned about without dealing with this.

And where is the owner, who purportedly made the command decision to select Manziel in the college draft that fateful night about 18 months ago? He’s the man who signs the paychecks. Where in the world is Jimmy Haslam III? He should be front and center, too.

This little problem has been dumped squarely in the lap of a man whose job security very well could be teetering in the balance given the on-the-field woes of his defense thus far this season.

Pettine, who had to deal earlier with an assistant coach who had drinking and domestic abuse problems and was subsequently cashiered, is facing the same thing again with Manziel, who was stopped by suburban Cleveland police eight days ago for alleged domestic abuse.

Manziel, who underwent 10 weeks of rehabilitation at a Pennsylvania addiction treatment center earlier this year, admitted having a couple of drinks before being stopped for driving erratically. His live-in girl friend accused him of hitting and beating her, according to a police report. She later recanted the allegations.

Instead of trying to fix what might be irretrievably damaged with his defense, Pettine is now forced to put on a totally different kind of hat. He is in the unfortunate position of defending decisions over which he has no control. He is tap dancing without a safety net.

Why, the media wants to know, was Manziel allowed to dress for last Sunday’s game against Denver if the club knew of the incident? Pettine bristled about locker room accountability. “There’s accountability,” he said. “Some accountability is public, some of it is private.”

He labeled the Manziel police report “disturbing” and made it clear the team is not finished investigating. But he cautioned the club is basically in a holding pattern until the NFL completes its own investigation into the matter. Considering the league is investigating, it’s anyone’s guess as to when it will render a decision.

Asked if the Browns had given any thought about trading Manziel, Pettine diplomatically replied, “I’m not going to discuss potential roster moves.” At least he’s being honest rather than answering the question in a non-answer manner.

So where does all this fall in the football coaching manual? What chapter covers all things not football? Pettine should not have to go through all this. But he’s doing it very well while his GM seemingly hides.

When he took the job, little did Pettine realize he was stepping, quite innocently at the time, into a quagmire of trouble with a franchise that was reborn in 1999 and has experienced nothing but grief for the last 17 years.

At the risk of sounding repetitious, he doesn’t deserve this. And if Haslam decides to once again clean out the front office and Pettine is swept out, he won’t know it at the time, but the Browns will be doing him a big favor.

Coaching a professional football team in Cleveland has become a toxic job. Mike Pettine has found that out the hard way. This is not what he banked on when he said yes at the beginning of 2014.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Monday leftovers

It was about 10 days ago when Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil schooled the Cleveland media about the aspect of the game of football that helps pay his salary.

The Browns were at the time – and still are, in fact – scraping the bottom of the National Football League statistical barrel when it comes to stopping the opposition. O’Neil defended his position.

He used various forms of the word “execute” a lot. As in “at the end of the day, you have to execute it.” And “it’s an execution league.”

Now you have to take into consideration O’Neil was speaking following two losses in which his guys surrendered 907 yards. In the two games that followed, they improved that stat to 819 yards in splitting back-to-back overtime games.

So in theory, the Browns are improving in that area and executing better. Not necessarily much better, but better relatively speaking. Which, when you stop and really think about it, isn’t really better generally speaking.

O’Neil zealously defends his role with the Browns. Although technically a second-year coordinator, he is really in his first season in the role after receiving plenty of help from head coach Mike Pettine, his mentor, last season.

In falling on the old bromide of the NFL being an execution league, he fails to take one very important thing into consideration. It lies within the following statement: “I don’t feel like I need to over-scheme against the offenses we’re going against because we have good players at every level of the defense.”

Whoa.  Hold on there, pardner. Good players at every level of the defense? O’Neil is either delusional or trying to convince himself of something that is not there.

I can understand defending the guys who play for him. Criticizing them publicly is not the route to go. But to come out and call them – at least most of them – something they are not is just plain wrong.

No, O’Neil does not have good players at every level of the defense. He has a few. But most of the players on that defense, with only a few notable exceptions, are average at best.

“We just need guys to do their job,” O’Neil said. “We need to do a better job executing more consistently.” There’s that word again. He’s hiding behind it. It’s not my fault, he seems to be saying obliquely. It’s the players’.

Saying it is one thing. Doing it is entirely different.

Former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer always used to say, “Deeds, men. Not words. Deeds.” Right now, O’Neil is just spouting words and his men are not translating them into deeds.

The Browns, putting up worse defensive numbers than last season through six games, are bad at just about every aspect of defense. It’s a credit to the offense the club has won two games because the defense certainly can’t hang its hat on them.

It surrenders 407 yards a game (397 last season through six games), 150 on the ground (155 last season) and 268 through the air (241.5 last season).

When Ray Horton guided the defense in 2013 before Jimmy Haslam III blew out the front office and coaching staff, the Cleveland defense permitted just 312.5 yards a game, 214.3 through the air and 98.2 on the ground. And no, the last figure is not a typo.

Imagine where the Browns would be today with defensive figures like 2013. Certainly not at 2-4.

Apparently, if we are to believe O’Neil’s creed, Horton helmed a defense that executed well. Unfortunately, the Browns that season didn’t have an offense that enabled the defense to stay off the field for long periods at a time.

After winning three of the first five games, the Browns won only once in the last 11 games, the defensive stats plunging as the 2013 season wore down. The defense simply wore down along with it.

The current defense won’t get any better than it is right now. It will wear down as the season progresses. Last season, the defense was scorched for three 200-yard games on the ground, including two of the last three. That’s what fans have to look forward to this season.

The current defense scares no one. Opposing offensive coordinators need a bib to absorb the drool that occurs whenever the Browns’ game hits their schedules. Game planning made easy. Run against it? Of course. Throw against it? Why not?

It’s time O’Neil realized he has been saddled with a mediocre defense that hemorrhages not only yards on the ground, but real estate through the air. And that his men are incapable of executing what he draws up.

So falling on the execution bromide is nothing more than an exercise in futility. The Browns’ defense is exactly what it is. Statistics do not lie. In this case, they say the Browns’ defense is awful. They are absolutely correct.

And if the team’s offense is unable to sustain what it has produced thus far, the slide down the standings ladder this season will make last season’s five-game plunge at the end of last season look like a minor slippage.

Under O’Neil’s stewardship, the Browns have held an opponent under 300 total yards in a game just twice in 22 games (against Cincinnati and Buffalo last season). On 13 of those 22 occasions, they have given up at least 375 yards. Not exactly stats to be proud of.

Time to seriously think about either changing defensive philosophy or bringing in someone whose philosophy produces more positive results.
*       *       *
What happens when Browns quarterback Josh McCown is off his game as he was Sunday against Denver? When his receivers wander into the secondary of a team that plays solid pass defense? Like Denver’s Sunday? You discover why he’s nothing more than a journeyman.

When presented by his defense with a gift-wrapped opportunity to win the game moments into overtime, courtesy of a Barkevious Mingo interception in Denver territory, he failed to take advantage (trying to be nice here).

The Mingo pick might turn out to be the highlight of his season – especially considering how his reps have dropped – and McCown turned it into a study in frustration and no doubt anger for the fans, who saw a potential victory slip away.

Slamming his offense into reverse with three straight negative plays and winding up back in Cleveland territory serves as a microcosm as to why McCown was never able to become a quality NFL quarterback. That he has remained in the game for as long as he has is a testament to his ability to convince teams he still has it.

The main reason the Browns took the Broncos into overtime only to lose Sunday was the relative ineptitude of the Denver offense. The figures don’t reflect it, but Peyton Manning was no more effective than McCown. He just has a better defense to bail him out. A much better defense
*       *       *
Despite being on the field for around 30 snaps against the Broncos, rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton was parked at the bottom of the final stat sheet with one assisted tackle. Wasn’t he supposed to be a three-down player? If he’s not injured, he appears to have fallen into disfavor with the coaches. Another first-round bust?

Last season it was Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel. This season, it appears to be Shelton and offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who played just well enough in the exhibition season to earn a spot on the bench and become the first backup to everyone else on the line in the event of an injury.
*       *       *
More Browns stats if you can stand it: Their opponents average three touchdowns a game . . . The defense has caused only eight turnovers (three of them against the Broncos) . . . It allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 60% of their passes . . . In 71 drives thus far this season, the offense has a per-drive average of 5.8 plays, 30.8 yards and 1.79 points.
*       *       *
Notebook: Reason for Aqib Talib’s pick 6 at the beginning of the second quarter Sunday? A poor McCown throw on a sideline pattern to Travis Benjamin. Instead of firing the ball, he seemed to take something off it. The ball hung up and the Broncos’ cornerback took it 63 yards for an easy score. . . . Rhetorical questions: Why do the Browns have all kinds of problems stopping the opposition from running the ball on the flanks (or as they are called now the edges)? And why do the Browns have all kinds of problems running the ball on the flanks?. . . Pierre Desir, subbing for injured cornerback Joe Haden, sat quietly atop the Browns’ stats sheet with 12 tackles against Denver, 10 of them solo. Probably felt as though he was picked on. He was.  . . . If Karlos Dansby doesn’t get some sort of postseason recognition, he will be shortchanged. He is easily the Browns’ best defender. Too bad he doesn’t get much help. Maybe it’s because the veteran linebacker knows how to execute.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The one that got away

In a 16-game season in the National Football League, there are only a handful of games a team can look back on and say, “We deserved to win that game.”

Take, for example, the Browns’ unfortunate 26-23 overtime loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos in front of the home folks, whose emotions were toyed with all afternoon.

When Denver placekicker Brandon McManus connected on 34-yard-field goal – his fourth of the afternoon – that gently kissed the left upright before sneaking through with 4:56 left in the extra session, it served as a microcosm for how the season has gone for the fortunate-to-be -unbeaten Broncos.

It was also clearly an emotional wringer afternoon for Browns fans, who saw their team take their only lead of the game at 20-16 on a Karlos Dansby pick 6 midway through the fourth quarter.

Considering how poorly the Denver offense was playing, especially in the red zone, an upset of major proportions loomed as the unbeaten Broncos time and again failed to capitalize when reaching scoring territory.

And then without warning, just like that, the Broncos turned the four-point deficit into a three-point lead a mere 10 seconds after the Dansby pick when quarterback Peyton Manning hooked up with Emmanuel Sanders on a 75-yard scoring strike. It was the Broncos’ only offensive touchdown of the game.

Sudden joy became even more sudden despair for Browns fans. All that work to take the lead went poof. Almost as quickly as a snap of the fingers.

It was the first touchdown pass in more than eight quarters for Manning, who struggled all afternoon with his throws despite throwing for 290 yards. If he wasn’t uncharacteristically missing wide-open receivers, he was victimized by at least four drops as he resorted to the short and mid-range passing game.

And yet, the Browns had numerous opportunities to win this one, but misfired time and again on offense when presented with solid field position. A portent of things to come arrived early.

Like when Dansby picked off Manning on the first Denver drive of the game. Taking over at the Broncos’ 49, the Browns gained only 17 yards before turning the ball over on downs.

Like when the Browns began at the Denver 48 late in the third quarter following a 20-yard punt return by Travis Benjamin and quarterback Josh McCown was strip sacked two plays later by linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who came clean from the left side. That led to one of McManus’ field goals.

Like when a drive started at the Cleveland 40 late in the fourth quarter, stalled at the Denver 8 and Browns kicker Travis Coons was called on to tie the game at 23-23.

The Browns started eight of their 16 drives (not counting the short one at the end of the first half) from at least their 34-yard line and translated them into only 10 points. Two drives turned into a three-and-outs, another turned into the strip sack and an intercepted pass blunted a third.

Like when Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo made a rare play, using his height to pick off a Manning pass on the first Denver series of overtime. The Browns started at the Denver 39 with Coons warming up on the sideline. The fans were equally stunned and delirious.

Sweet victory in this one was oh so close. Beating the Broncos, who have brought a major portion of sorrow to Browns Nation over the years, was just a few precious yards away for Coons to wrap up everything and send them home happy, if not delirious. That close to ending a Denver 10-game winning streak over Cleveland.

And then McCown, who blows hot and cold so much you begin to realize why he is nothing more than a journeyman quarterback, went chilly in a hurry. Running back Robert Turbin, making his season debut, turned a pitch into a three-yard loss around left end on the first play.

(Why the Browns even try running the flanks is puzzling because they don’t have an offensive line talented enough to pick up meaningful yards on the edges. Strange play calling.)

Then it was backward march even more when McCown was sacked on consecutive plays, losing 10 yards in the process. So first and 10 at the Denver 39 wound up as a punting situation for Andy Lee on fourth and 28 at the Cleveland 43.

Dan Fouts, commenting on the game for CBS-TV, couldn’t believe his eyes. “It was there for the taking for the Browns,” he said, no doubt shaking his head at the same time. It surely was there. And what happened is one of the many reasons the Browns are 2-4 this season.

They needed to make just one play. One pass completion; one big run; one big play. Is that asking too much? Apparently it is. It never came. It’s the great separator between an average team and one that almost consistently plays below average. Color the Browns in the last category.

Lee punted to Denver 12, where Jordan Norwood nearly fumbled it away. And then the Cleveland defense, stout all afternoon in the red zone and on third down but nowhere else, looked gassed as the Broncos strong-armed their way down the field, converting two big third downs along the way. Entering that series, the Broncos were just two-of-16 on third down.

Ronnie Hillman, who ran for 111 of Denver’s 152 yards, and C. J. Anderson carried the ball eight times for 30 yards during the 13-play drive with Manning mixing in passes to tight end Owen Daniels and Demaryius Thomas, masterfully engineering the winning drive 72 yards to remain unbeaten against the Browns lifetime.

The game nearly didn’t make it to overtime when Sanders made what appeared to be a falling 23-yard catch at the Cleveland 20 with just 15 seconds left in regulation. He got up and continued to the end zone, but the play was ruled dead at the spot of the apparent catch.

It would have put the Broncos in field-goal territory, but replay overturned the original call of a completed pass when it showed Sanders failed to control the ball as it hit the ground.

The fact the Browns were even in this game, let alone with a lead at one point, seemed rather amazing considering how they looked in the first half.

Their offense, which seemed on life support in the first 30 minutes, awoke with an eight-play, 74-yard scoring drive to open the second half, McCown connecting with Gary Barnidge on an 11-yard toss early in the third quarter. He hooked up again with his favorite receiver on a 14-yard scoring catch early in the fourth quarter.

On the Denver drive following Barnidge’s second touchdown, Dansby picked off his second pass of the afternoon and tiptoed 35 yards down the right sideline to give the Browns their first lead of the day at 20-16. A two-yard conversion attempt failed.

McCown, falling woefully short of his fourth straight 300-yard game (he had 212), was victimized by a strong Denver pass rush and quality coverage in the secondary. He was sacked four times and whacked another half dozen. Once again, his immobility was costly at the wrong time.

Manning, even less mobile than McCown, threw the three interceptions, but was sacked zero times, the third game this season the Cleveland pass rush has posted that number in a game. The Denver quarterback was hit, if you can call getting close enough to tap him, twice.

This was a game the Browns will look back at when the season concludes and collectively shake their heads, wondering just how it got away when it was clearly within grasp of evening the season record at .500. They don’t have much time to dwell on it now with Rams in St. Louis Rams next up.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Do these figures lie?

A football statistics quiz in two parts. First, the offense.

Which National Football League team would you rather have based on the following five-game offensive stats?

Team A: 111 points, 94 first downs, a .480 percentage on third-down conversions, 1,887 total yards, 442 rushing yards, 1,557 passing yards, a quarterback who completes 67.8% of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception, an offensive line that has allowed 18 sacks and an offense that has produced 11 touchdowns.

 Or . . .

Team B: 92 points, 89 first downs, a .322 percentage on third-down conversions, 1.513 total yards, 358 rushing yards, 1.234 passing yards, a quarterback who completes 63.5% of his passes with six touchdowns and seven interceptions, an offensive line that has permitted 12 sacks and an offense that has produced eight touchdowns.

Which offense would you put your money on?

At first blush, it’s a no-brainer. Team A has more points, first downs, total yards, rushing yards, passing yards, is significantly better on third down, has a much more efficient quarterback and has scored more touchdowns. The only negative is in the sack department. 

Before the answer, let’s take a look at the same two teams, this time from a defensive standpoint.

Team A: 132 points allowed, 103 first downs, .412 third-down success rate, 2,002 total yards, 747 yards on the ground, 1,318 through the air, a 59% completion rate, one interception, 10 sacks and 16 touchdowns allowed.

Or . . .

Team B: 79 points allowed, 92 first downs, .296 on third down, 1,390 total yards, 426 on the ground, 1,108 through the air, a 64.8% completion rate, seven interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), 22 sacks and seven touchdowns allowed.

Which defense would you prefer?

Another no-brainer. Team B is clearly the better team with the exception of the completion rate of opposing quarterbacks, a minor difference considering the other category stats. One team stat not factored in: Team A is minus-3 in turnover ratio; Team B is plus-6.

Now put them all together, let the numbers ramble around in your brain and arrive at the bottom line. Do all those figures add up to a better Team A or Team B? Time to choose.

If you chose Team A, congratulations, you are truly a Cleveland Browns fan. And if chose Team B, say hello to the Denver Broncos, whom the Browns welcome to town Sunday.

That’s the unbeaten Denver Broncos, the most unassuming, least deserving undefeated team in the NFL. All of which points out the only thing keeping the Browns from at least contending in the AFC North is a solid defense.

The 2-3 Browns are right there with the 5-0 Broncos on offense and, in many cases, are better. Right now, Josh McCown is definitely a better quarterback statistically than Denver’s Peyton Manning, whose regression is sounding alarms in the Mile High City.

The venerable Manning, who threw 131 touchdowns passes in his first three seasons in Denver, is perceptibly slowing down. The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer has thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six) this season, three of those scoring passes coming in one game, and has been picked four times in the last two games.

Putting that in perspective, he threw five touchdown passes in the Broncos’ season opener last season.

His arm isn’t what is used to be. The deep passing game for the Broncos is merely a memory right now. Manning no longer has the arm to stretch the field and force opposing defenses to play honestly.

(Now factor in a porous Cleveland secondary that has intercepted only one pass this season and that was promptly lost when Tashaun Gipson fumbled it right back.)

Statistically speaking, Manning is at his worst this season when blitzed. His relative immobility is his only negative. It will be interesting to see whether Cleveland defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil recognizes that and dials up more blitzes than he did against Joe Flacco last Sunday or shows him respect and backs off.

Manning, who has won all five career starts against the Browns, hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since connecting with tight end Owen Daniels early in the third quarter of a 23-20 victory over Minnesota in week four. That’s nearly six quarters ago.

The Broncos have been winning mainly because of a stifling, aggressive defense that has bailed out the offense time and again all season. It has also put up three scores (a couple of pick 6s and a fumble return). That’s half as many touchdowns as Manning scoring passes.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was the team’s head coach in 1993 and 1994, returned this season after a couple of seasons in Houston and has molded one of the NFL’s top defenses.

Last season, the Broncos gave up 354 points while winning the AFC West. This season, they are on pace to surrender just 253. On offense, however, the Broncos scored 482 points last season. This season, they are on pace to score just 362. That’s a difference of almost eights points a game.

(At this point, a statistical oddity: The Broncos’ offense has scored just three touchdowns in the second half this season. So has their defense.)

All this proves, at least in this case, is solid defense does, indeed, translate into winning football. The Browns’ brass at the beginning of the season believed they had cobbled together the kind of defense that would elevate the team into at least a competitive mode.

That, of course, has not been the case. Far from it, in fact. If anything, the offense has been most responsible for the record thus far. And in the Broncos, they will face the toughest defense since the season opener against the New York Jets.

In that one, you’ll recall, the Cleveland offense jumped out to a 10-3 second quarter lead, but was blanked the rest of the way in a 31-10 loss.

The Browns will face problems on two fronts Sunday.

Manning is way, way overdue to have a good game. He’s got big receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Cody Latimer and the smallish Cleveland secondary has all kinds of difficulties with tall receivers. However, he is hampered because running backs Ronnie Hillman and C. J. Anderson average only 85 yards a game. (Remember the Browns can’t stop the run.)

On defense, the Broncos are as opportunistic as any team in the NFL. They have created 14 turnovers (seven picks, seven fumble recoveries), the three defensive touchdowns, two blocked kicks and the 22 sacks. Those sacks are distributed among 11 players with outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller totaling 7½.

There isn’t a better pair of cornerbacks in the NFL than Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., both of whom have a pick six.  Former Ohio State defensive back Bradley Roby is solid as the nickel back. Safeties Darian Stewart and ex-Brown T. J. Ward are strong against the run game.

Miller, who will be offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz’s responsibility, is one of the best pass rushers in the league. The Browns do catch a break, though, with Ware sidelined with a bad back.

This has not exactly been a storied series even though the Broncos won a couple of iconic playoff games in the late 1980s. Remember the Drive? The Fumble? Deeply buried memories for Browns fans. Heavily treasured memories for Broncos fans.

The Browns actually won three of the first four games in this 27-game series, but have emerged victorious only twice in the last 23 meetings. The Broncos, who have won the last 10 in a row in the series, last lost to the Browns in early October 1990 in Denver. The resurrected Browns are 0-6 against Denver.

The Browns, of course, are coming off a high with their 33-30 overtime victory last Sunday in Baltimore. McCown, banged up with ankle and throwing hand miseries, will attempt to register his fourth straight 300-yard game.

There will be a 300-yard game, but it won’t belong to the Cleveland quarterback. Manning will have all afternoon to throw the ball against a feeble Browns pass rush and torch the secondary for 323 yards and scoring passes to Bryant, Sanders and tight end Virgil Green. Hillman will run for 111 yards and a touchdown.

This will be one afternoon when the Denver offense doesn’t have to rely on the defense to get the job done. The Browns might score a couple of touchdowns late when the Denver defense slips into coast mode. Make it:

Broncos 34, Browns 14

Monday, October 12, 2015

Monday leftovers

So who is this Gary Barnidge and where did he come from? And why did it take so long for the Browns to recognize he could help their offense?

Heading into this season, Barnidge was nothing more than one-fourth of a quartet of tight ends on the roster. Known more for his blocking, he labored under the notion that catching a football was secondary in importance to his role in the run game.

Replacing the departed Jordan Cameron, who decided he liked sunny Miami more than Cleveland, was a carousel of tight ends featuring Barnidge, Jim Dray, Rob Housler and rookie EJ Bibbs. Round and round they went in the first two games with less-than-desired results.

And then quarterback Josh McCown came back from the concussion he suffered on the first series of the season. Little did the fans – and perhaps even McCown himself – know at the time that a new battery, football style, was about to give birth.

In the last three games, the McCown-Barnidge connection has clearly captured the attention of the professional football world. Since discovering one another, the duo has connected 20 times (in 26 targets) for 319 yards and three touchdowns. All of which has turned Jordan Cameron into Jordan Who?

And even though the Browns have won only one of those games, the spectacular results of this connection have emboldened the Cleveland offense. Considering the way the defense has played (porously), the uplift arrived just in time to avoid a total team disaster.

At the beginning of the season, it was expected the new defense would be the focal point with the offense just trying to hang in there in support. Instead, it has been exactly the opposite, much to the delight of the fans, who would much rather see points, anyway.

After scoring just 10 points in the season-opening loss to the New York Jets, the Browns have put up 108 points in the last four games, 101 by the offense. And one of the main reasons is the McCown-Barnidge connection.

So again, who is this Gary Barnidge, where did he come from and why has he been kept a secret?

The 6-6 tight end, originally drafted by the Carolina Panthers, was signed by the Browns as an unrestricted free agent in the spring of 2013 on the recommendation of then head coach Rob Chudzinski, who coached him with the Panthers.

He labored, mostly anonymously, his first two seasons with the Browns, catching 43 passes for 283 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was no better than the third, and sometimes fourth, option on passing downs.

That was because Cameron was the main man at the position. When he was healthy, that is, which wasn’t often enough. So when Cameron split for Miami, where he has caught 12 passes for 170 yards this season, Barnidge came more into focus.

But never in a million years would anyone believe the spotlight would be shining so brightly on him at this time. Now the nation knows him. His spectacular how-did-he-do-that, between-the-legs catch for a touchdown in Sunday’s overtime victory in Baltimore is all over the Internet.

Miraculous, amazing, incredible and ridiculous are among the many adjectives describing the catch. The Internet site thebiglead calls it “perhaps the touchdown catch of the year.” It will live forever on YouTube.

Now all Barnidge has to do from here on out is go out week after week and prove to the rest of the pro football world this isn’t a fluke, an aberration. That at the age of 30, he’s just coming into his own. It could become the feel-good story of the year in the National Football League.

But for the present, it’s safe to say he definitely is known more now for his pass receiving than his blocking.
*       *       *
It was obvious from the beginning of the game that Baltimore’s main intention against the Browns Sunday was to force McCown to throw the ball. And did he ever.

Crowd the line of scrimmage, take away the Cleveland ground game and the rest should come easy, the Ravens thought. But then Cleveland offensive coordinator John DeFilippo appeared to say, “Screw it,” junked the two tight end look, inserted a third wide receiver and then it was bombs away.

McCown threw the ball on two of every three plays against a Ravens defense that might be their worst since they moved to Baltimore in 1996. Because the secondary had a tough time in coverage, the Ravens resorted to blitzing on just about every down.

McCown recognized many of the blitzes and hit the proper receiver, but on at least a half dozen occasions failed to do so and was either sacked or forced to scramble. He could have avoided at least three of his four sacks by hitting his hot receiver in such situations, but failed to get the ball off.

What also worked very well were a few misdirection plays DeFilippo incorporated into the game plan. Each one worked as he took advantage of an overaggressive Baltimore defense. Would like to see more of those in the future. Nothing wrong with making the offense unpredictable.
*       *       *
Where is Paul Kruger? Is he still with the Browns? Did he play Sunday against his old team? Yes, he’s still with the Browns, but you would never know it when perusing the stats sheet following the overtime victory.

Yes, No. 99 was in the game. Played a good number of plays in fact. But his name did not appear anywhere on that stats sheet. No tackles, no quarterback hits and one hurry (a stat that doesn’t show up on the sheet). It was almost as though he didn’t play at all. He’s stuck at a half a sack this season.

He came close to sacking Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco once in the fourth quarter, but his lunging, flailing swipe at Flacco’s leg during a scramble was as close as he got to the stats sheet.

The Browns’ pass rush needs a spark. It has 10 sacks in five games, seven of them in one game. It can’t go on like this much longer, especially with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger in the next five games.

Kruger was brought to Cleveland to sack opposing quarterbacks. It’s incumbent on the defensive coaching staff to give him that opportunity rather than dropping him into pass coverage. It makes no sense whatsoever to totally misuse a player who has the ability to strengthen a weakness.
*       *       *
Danny Shelton was drafted last April with the sole intention of dropping him into the middle of the defensive line and forgetting about him. Don’t worry about stopping the running game anymore, the fans were told by the Browns. The rookie will take care of that.

Well . . . no he hasn’t. The heralded rookie nose tackle, known in college for his ability to handle the run as well as harass the quarterback, has just 13 tackles (five solo) and no sacks in five games. He had two tackles against the Ravens. He’s still looking for his first pro sack.

The Browns’ run defense is worse than ever, hemorrhaging nearly 150 yards a game. The defensive line rarely stops anything up the middle even tough Shelton doesn’t see nearly as many double teams as he did in the first two games. This is not the kind of production the Browns expected from the kid.
*       *       *
Beating a division opponent, especially on the road, means a lot, of course, but it won’t mean much if the Browns return home Sunday against the unbeaten Denver Broncos and flame out. Was the Baltimore victory a turning point? We’ll find out soon enough.
*       *       *
Notebook: The Cleveland defense registered only two quarterback hits and a sack (Armonty Bryant) against Flacco.. The Ravens dropped McCown four times, hit him five more times and racked up a whole bunch of hurries. . . . McCown sustained an apparent ankle injury in the second half, but you’d never know it from his performance. . . . The Cleveland quarterback has thrown a pass on 72% of the plays in the last three games. That’s nearly three out of every four plays. Talk about a turnaround in offensive philosophy. . . . Did anyone notice wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was a healthy scratch again? What a waste. Time to cut bait?. . . The Browns were penalized twice for delay of game, once right out of a timeout. That should never happen. . . . McCown now has as many victories with the Browns as he did last season with Tampa Bay.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What a pleasant surprise

It was generally believed at the beginning of the 2015 season that the Browns would be a run-first, pass-only-if-they-had-to team.

The offensive line returned intact once center Alex Mack recovered from a broken leg last season, Isaiah Crowell was back with his slashing, hammering style and rookie Duke Johnson Jr. provided third-down relief.

Quarterback Josh McCown was almost an afterthought with regard to his role with the offense. The journeyman arrived in town with the reputation of being extremely untrustworthy when it came to throwing a football. So it was easy to assume the Cleveland offense would live and die with the run.

Well, all that has changed in the last three weeks with McCown flirting with the Browns’ long and storied record book when it comes to passing the prolate spheroid.

What McCown did Sunday in the Browns’ gritty, had-to-be-seen-to-be-believed 33-30 comeback victory in overtime against the Ravens in Baltimore sent the media scrambling for the record books.

They discovered the 36-year-old McCown, playing with a busted-up throwing hand, broke Brian Sipe’s club record (444) for most passing yards (457) in a regular-season game en route to becoming the first Cleveland Browns quarterback ever to record three consecutive 300-yard games.

Bernie Kosar holds the overall club records for most attempts (64) and passing yards (489). He put up those numbers in a double-overtime playoff victory over the New York Jets in January 1987 with the old Browns.

McCown, in the face of a withering Baltimore pass rush, was brilliant when he had to be. He often steadfastly remained in the pocket and took four hurtful sacks (a fifth was wiped out by a Baltimore penalty), but started stepping up into the pocket and/or scrambling in the second half.

In his last three games since coming back from a concussion suffered in the season-opening loss to the New York Jets, McCown is 96 for 141 (a 68% completion percentage) for a gaudy 1,154 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. And all he has to show is this victory, which raised his personal road record to 5-20.

It’s a wonder his arm wasn’t dangling by his side from exhaustion at the end of this one. He put the ball up 51 times for the 457 yards in his 58 dropbacks.

This game featured just about everything, including successful challenges by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh on consecutive plays, numerous penalties that hurt and helped both teams and a miraculous circus catch for a touchdown by Cleveland tight end Gary Barnidge that defied belief.

Relying on just about anyone who could get open, McCown’s’ ball distribution was superb with nine different receivers, most notably Barnidge, who was targeted 10 times. He wound up with eight receptions for 139 yards and has become McCown’s favorite target.

His unbelievable touchdown catch, which gave the Browns a short-lived 22-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, falls into the category of odd and yet miraculous.

McCown, barely avoiding a sack by a Ravens blitz, heaved the ball toward the goal line, where the 6-6 Barnidge outjumped and outfought 6-1 safety Will Hill for the jump ball, which came down and landed awkwardly between the Cleveland tight end’s calves on the goal line.

As he worked the ball up into his grasp, it looked at one point as though he had either crapped a football or given birth to one. After maneuvering the ball up into his grasp, the officials huddled before signaling touchdown.

The Browns survived a sluggish first half where their three scores arrived in the form of Travis Coons field goals and the Ravens’ two scores arrived as the Joe Flacco Show, the quarterback running for one score and throwing for a second. He added a third touchdown midway through the third quarter with a one-yard sneak.

The defense had no answer for the Ravens’ ground game – 181 yards; shocking, no? – as little Baltimore running back Justin Forsett ran through, around and past the Cleveland defenders most of the afternoon. Ironically, he sprained an ankle in a 33-yard catch and run with a Flacco pass during the Ravens’ game-tying field-goal drive and watched overtime on the sideline.

For a while during that drive, it looked as though the Ravens, trailing by three at 30-27 following Crowell’s 22-yard scoring romp with a McCown pass and a successful two-point conversion, would win the game outright in regulation after marching easily down to the Cleveland 10 as the clock wound down to a minute.

But the Cleveland defense, which seemed to come to life in the second half, stiffened and forced a short Justin Tucker field goal with 25 seconds left.

Then the Browns did something daringly, and surprisingly, different. They actually tried to get into position to win the game with a Coons field goal even though they began the next drive at the 20-yard line. Instead of just taking a knee and taking their chances in overtime, they actually pushed the ball upfield.

Maybe it was because the coaching staff had tremendous faith in McCown that two Travis Benjamin receptions advanced the ball the Baltimore 34 before time ran out in regulation.

Then came the overtime, where the Browns’ defense, determined not to be the culprit again if this turned into yet another disappointing loss, really stepped up. The Ravens won the toss, but went three-and-out (their fourth of the afternoon) when Flacco twice was forced to throw the ball away due to solid coverage in the Cleveland secondary.

That’s when the Browns’ offense, feeding off the defense, seemed determined to hand the Ravens’ their second loss in two games at home this season. Working with meticulous ease, the Browns burned seven minutes and 11 seconds off the clock with a methodical, demoralizing (for the Ravens) 12-play, 51 yard drive.

Superbly mixing short passes in with the running of Johnson and Crowell, the Browns reached the Baltimore 20 following a five-yard blast by Crowell over left guard Joel Bitonio.

Surely well within reach for a game-winning field goal by Coons. So why prolong the agony? Kick the damn ball now and everyone will go home happy with a victory over the hated Ravens.

But no. Coach Mike Pettine wanted to prolong the agony (for Browns fans, as well as Ravens fans). A Johnson dive off guard produced nothing. Now the kick? Nope.

What was Pettine waiting for?  A McCown scramble, which is a bit of an oxymoron considering he isn’t the most nimble quarterback in the National Football League, netted a yard.

Finally, Pettine had seen enough and sent out Coons, who remained perfect on the season with a 32-yarder that sent Flacco crashing to his second loss ever against the Browns and first in Baltimore.

The most notable achievement for the Browns was their grit after falling behind, 21-9 in the first half. In the past, they would have fallen apart in such situations.  For whatever reason, they did it differently this time, which should make the next few days a little more enjoyable in Browns Nation.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ravens ripe for an upset?

Game planning for Sunday’s game in Baltimore against the Ravens should be easy for Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

The Ravens haven’t run the ball very well this season and Joe Flacco is a quarterback with no bullets in his gun belt.

Easy, no? Stack the line of scrimmage, force Flacco to throw the ball and everything else will fall into place, right? At least on the defensive side of the ball.

With veteran Steve Smith sidelined with a bad back, the rest of the Ravens’ receiving corps is loaded with scraps. Even Cleveland’s less-than-mediocre roster of receivers looks better right now compared to what Flacco has in his huddle.

He’ll see wideouts Kamar Aiken (who?), Marlon Brown (really?), rookie Darren Waller and/or recently acquired Chris Givens (that’s it?) and rookie tight end Maxx Williams. In addition to Smith, injuries have sidelined receivers Breshad Perriman, Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore.

Attack the Ravens’ weakness. Right now, that’s the passing game featuring Flacco and a bunch of never-heard-of-thems.

The Browns’ secondary gets cornerback Joe Haden back, but lose free safety Tashaun Gipson. Even so, if it can’t shut down that crew, this team is in big trouble. The key, of course, against a less-than-foreboding offense is to load the box and stop the run. Force second- and third-and-long. Make life uncomfortable for Flacco.

All the Browns have to do is stop running back Justin Forsett, who gets the vast majority of carries. Then again, the way the Browns have once again failed miserably at stopping that aspect of an opposing offense, that might be much easier said than accomplished.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old Forsett bounced around the NFL for six seasons before becoming a full-time starter last year in his first season in Baltimore after Ray Rice was released due to domestic abuse problems. After shedding his journeyman status, he ran for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns.

The 5-8, 195-pounder got off to a slow start this season with just 124 yards in the Ravens’ first three games before busting loose for 150 yards in an overtime victory in Pittsburgh last Thursday night.

Limiting Forsett seems to be the key. Stop him and the chances of knocking off the Ravens increase exponentially. The only statistic not factored into this equation is Flacco’s dominance against the Browns. It should not be ignored. He has lost just once in 14 games against Cleveland.

After becoming the Ravens’ top choice in the 2008 college draft, he reeled off 11 straight victories against the Browns, the only blemish against his AFC North rivals a 24-18 setback in Baltimore in 2013.

In those 14 games, he has completed nearly 62% of his passes for slightly more than 3,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions (just five in the last 13 games). Over the years, though, he had a lot of help on offense and one of the National Football League’s top defenses. That’s not nearly the case this season.

Defensive stalwarts such as Ray Lewis Ed Reed, Bart Scott, Haloti Ngata and Jarret Johnson are no longer around to help, and Terrell Suggs is out for season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Missing on offense are the likes of Rice, Todd Heap, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and a very good offensive line.

These are not your same Ravens, who are fortunate not to be entering this one with a winless record. The only reason they beat the Steelers in that Thursday night game was the inability of now former Pittsburgh kicker Josh Scobee to hit two very makeable field goals in regulation.

The current Baltimore defense surrenders 347 yards a game, nearly 260 of those yards through the air. And with Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown showing no reticence to throw the football, look for the Browns to take advantage and attack the Ravens more through the air than on the ground on Sunday.

The Baltimore defense has produced two of the club’s nine touchdowns, but also gives up 26 points a game, a pace that will produce the worst season on that side of the ball for the franchise since its inaugural season in 1996, when it allowed 441.

All of which means Flacco can’t rely anymore on a normally stingy defense to limit opponents’ scoring opportunities and make his job easier. Unlike the past, he finds himself in a position where putting points on the scoreboard is a must in order to give his team a better chance of winning because the defense has sprung leaks.

At the same time, the Baltimore quarterback has thrown interceptions in four straight games, something he has never done before in his eight-year career.

No longer is the Ravens’ defense capable of forcing its will on opposing offenses. Even with the likes of outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Shaw and inside linebacker C. J. Mosley, it’s just not the same.

If the Browns can scrounge up a pass rush – it has been missing since their seven-sack salvo in the Tennessee victory in game two – and harass Flacco in relentless fashion, the prospect of winning increases. Just know, however, the Ravens’ offensive line has been stingy in its protection of Flacco, giving up only seven sacks.

Because neither team dominates on either side of the ball, clearly reflective in their 1-3 records, the result of this one very well might depend on which team makes the fewest mistakes. Discipline will be a factor.

And since neither club is what you would call disciplined with regard to penalties, mistakes are likely to permeate the game. The Browns’ 34 penalties have cost them 290 yards this season; the Ravens’ 30 penalties have cost them 270 yards.

This one could get ugly in a hurry with both clubs floundering. Both teams will shut down the run (yes, that includes the Browns). So look for McCown and Flacco to go up top frequently with McCown continuing his annoying habit of throwing at least one interception at the most inappropriate time.

Flacco, however, is too good to extend his interception streak to five games. Somehow, he will find a way through the penalty-filled game to make a play and continue his dominance over Cleveland in a game featuring kickers Justin Tucker of Baltimore and the Browns’ Travis Coons. Make it:

Ravens 23, Browns 13

Monday, October 5, 2015

Monday leftovers

It’s still a bit early to draw any conclusions, but from what fans saw Sunday from Browns rookie running back Duke Johnson Jr., the future of the club’s running game is bright.

The youngster from Miami of Florida gives the Cleveland ground game a dimension it hasn’t for a long time. He is more than just a guy who lugs the ball from time to time.

Johnson, the youngest player on the roster, also has a great feel for the passing game, both long and short, and proved that over and over in Sunday’s loss to the San Diego Chargers. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t teach at an early age. Either you have it or you don’t. He does.

Get used to seeing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo use his prize rookie all over the field. Sometimes, he’ll be lined up in an offset I. Other times, you might see him in the slot or flanked wide.

Once word about Johnson spreads around the National Football League, it will eventually be a case for opposing defenses to identify where Johnson is in the formation. Against the Chargers, he caught his 28-yard scoring pass from Josh McCown after lining up in the left slot.

His ability to make himself available for checkdown passes adds another bullet to McCown’s gun belt and the quarterback took full advantage against the Chargers, often dumping the ball just as he was getting hit.

Johnson’s quick feet, which always seem to be moving, enable him to make chicken salad out of chicken feces. The 5-9, 205-pounder is difficult to pin down because he is always a moving target.

He was hemmed in a couple of times by the Chargers Sunday and turned a potential negative play into something positive. On the first play of the Browns’ third series of the game, he was trapped behind the line of scrimmage for a potential five-yard loss, but kept his feet moving, somehow wiggled free and delivered a three-yard gain.

On the third play of the final first-half possession, he caught a checkdown pass on a third-and-2, shook of a tackle at the line of scrimmage and picked up the first down with a three-yard gain.

It’s little things like that that often go unnoticed or unappreciated, but you can bet DeFilippo took notice. Johnson got 17 touches – watch that total rise significantly in the weeks ahead – that produced 116 yards. When you have a talent like Johnson, it should not be wasted.

After watching Cleveland running backs become almost non-existent in the passing game the last couple of seasons, it is refreshing to see Johnson give opposing defenses something else to think about when Cleveland has the ball. When he is in the game, there is nothing one dimensional about the Browns’ attack.

Johnson also has a knack for finding soft spots in opposing defenses, which has to be comforting to McCown, whose flirtations with possible sacks was becoming a concern due to holding on to the ball too long.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes DeFilippo to incorporate Johnson into the between-the-tackles running game. Right now, that job belongs to Isaiah Crowell, who enjoyed modest success against the Chargers.

And the chances of Johnson becoming an every-down back, as he was at Miami? Right now, not very high. But if he continues to improve on what we saw in San Diego Sunday, the likelihood of that changing is quite high.
*       *       *
There is one play in the Browns’ playbook that needs to be addressed in a hurry. It is a staple called the screen pass. Most, if not all, NFL teams have screen plays in their playbooks.

The Browns shouldn’t.

Why not? One look at how they execute one of the most basic plays of an offense and you would understand the best move the Browns can make is to remove those plays from the playbook and have a bonfire.

Successful screen plays are the result of good acting and exquisite timing, neither of which the Browns can come even close to providing. The last time the Browns ran a successful screen play was . . . was . . . hmmmm . . . I can’t even remember.

It seems the Cleveland offensive line is incapable of (a) acting as though it is pass blocking and then (b) drifting out into the flat in time to afford the ball carrier a screen to pick up significant yards. This group of offensive linemen doesn’t seem to be athletic enough to get into position in the flat in time to make a play.

It tried on a few occasions against the Chargers, but often was usually late to the spot or out of position to make a play. So why even bother when the odds of being successful are practically nil? Why not run plays that actually work?
*       *       *
If there is one aspect of the defense that has been consistent this season, it has been its awfulness (yep, there’s such a word), its inability to make plays when they are most needed.

Take the Chargers loss, for example. The team received an emotional lift when the offense tied the game at 27-27 with 2:09 left in regulation. All the club needed was one stop, one measly stop for a change to send the game into overtime.

The defense, which belches 411 yards a game, ole’d the San Diego offense with only a token challenge or two. Never in the process did it force a third down until the Chargers had run down the clock and maneuvered the ball to the center of the field to set up Josh Lambo’s winning field goal with no time left.

No one stepped up to make a play. And therein lies this team’s biggest problem. They either don’t know what it takes to play clutch football or don’t know how. If it’s the latter, that’s a big problem. Another problem is lack of a take-charge guy. Maybe it’s time for Mike Pettine to reintroduce himself to that side of the ball.
*       *       *
It appears the Browns made the correct decision when they anointed Travis Coons as their placekicking specialist. Coons, who beat out Mayfield High School graduate Carey Spear for the job, kept the Browns in the game with four field goals against the Chargers. He is perfect on seven attempts this season.
*       *       *
Gary Barnidge has been a pleasant revelation in the Cleveland passing game. The veteran tight end, known more for his blocking than receiving, is tied with Travis Benjamin for the team lead in catches with 16. His 235 yards rank second on the club, as do his two touchdown receptions. He has become a valuable weapon in McCown’s arsenal, making Jordan Cameron’s defection to Miami less painful at least for the time being.
*       *       *
Notebook: Justin Gilbert quietly has become the Browns’ main kickoff return man. While he seems lost as a cornerback, he appears much very comfortable returning kicks. He returned three against the Chargers for 110 yards, including a 38-yarder. . . .  Why in the world has defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil taken away what Paul Kruger does best, which is rush the passer? Dropping back into pass coverage negates why the club signed Kruger in the first place. Last season’s sack leader (by far) has just half a sack this season. . . . In case you missed it, silent Dwayne Bowe was in long enough to have one pass thrown his way in San Diego. It was one of McCown’s nine incompletions. . . . Rookie defensive tackle Xavier Cooper registered his first sack of the season. . . . The Browns intercepted 21 passes last season. This season, they are stuck on one.