Charging into trouble
As the Browns head into San Diego Chargers week, I can’t help but remember something loquacious wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said midway through training camp in Berea.
“We have a talented core, our group,” he said speaking of the offense. “All it takes is time. We’ll let the doubters doubt. When we get on this field and work, we know what we’ve got as a team, the chemistry. When week one comes around, we’re going to show a lot of doubters how a high-powered offense really moves.”
Well, here we are three weeks into that offense and if it weren’t for the individual exploits of Travis Benjamin, who has scored five of the club’s six touchdowns and accounted for 30 of the team’s 58 points, high-powered is not exactly the adjective that fits that side of the ball.
Nowhere can be found the biggest mouth on the team and least productive part of that offense. A persistent hamstring problem has reduced Bowe to the role of spectator to the point where he was inactive last week.
But if he’s healthy this week, watch out. Bowe, as it turns out, loves playing against the Chargers. As a member of the Kansas City Chiefs for the first nine seasons of his National Football League career, he caught more passes (65) against them than any other team in the league.
If there was ever an opportunity for a bust out game by Bowe to disprove the doubters in Browns Nation, at least temporarily, this is it. Facing the Chargers twice a season, one would think he knows the San Diego secondary very well.
Only one problem: That secondary has surrendered just 194 yards a game this season despite the fact the defense has recorded one measly sack (by an outside linebacker). Maybe that’s because opposing teams have averaged 136 yards on the ground and don’t feel the need to throw the ball as much against the Chargers.
Kind of reminds me of the 2014 season when the Cleveland secondary was ranked misleadingly high because opposing teams didn’t have to go to the air because the Browns’ run defense was the worst in the NFL.
So how, then, should the Browns, whose offense sprang to life late in last Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders, attack the Chargers?
It would appear through the air since the Cleveland ground game seems to be plodding along at a tortoise-like pace. Unless, of course, the offensive line suddenly rediscovers how well it performed in the first five games last season before Alex Mack went down with a broken leg and replicates it.
But if it’s the overland route with the passing game setting up the running game, it could be Bowe and his cohorts, again if he is healthy, versus the doubters. And his extreme praise of Josh McCown in training camp can be put to the test.
The Chargers are not an opportunistic team on defense. They are turnover averse with a minus-3 ratio thus far. Then again, factor in McCown’s predilection of throwing an interception at the most inappropriate time. We saw an example of that in the waning stages against the Raiders.
The key to winning this one and evening the record at 2-2 lies on the other side of the ball for the Browns. While it’s incumbent the offense controls the ball as much as possible, it’s even more incumbent the defense gets off the field.
Too often this season, opposing teams have put up long, clock-draining sustained drives against the Browns that served two purposes: It wore out the defense and chained the offense to the bench.
The 1-2 Chargers, who won a five-point game and lost a five-point game before getting hammered last Sunday in Minnesota, excel at owning the ball, averaging 34 minutes an outing in that department.
They average about 400 yards a game with a balanced offense that features a 54-46 run-to-pass ratio despite the fact nearly three-quarters of their total yards have been gained through the air.
The running game averages just 106 yards a game, but that doesn’t mean a thing against a Cleveland defense that permitted Oakland running back Latavius Bryant to double his season output on the ground last Sunday.
The Chargers’ top running threat is Melvin Gordon, who tore up the Big Ten Conference the last two years. Right now though, the club’s top choice in the last college draft is a work in progress with only 190 yards.
What the Browns have to be aware of is quarterback Philip Rivers and an above-average corps of receivers in Keenan Allen, Stevie Johnson and Malcom Floyd. That trio has accounted for 50 catches (Allen is averaging nearly 10 grabs a game), 635 yards and five touchdowns.
Rivers, 2-1 lifetime against the Browns, is 55 of 87 for 738 yards and two touchdowns against them. If given time, he can shred a defense. But there is a beacon of hope for the Cleveland front seven, though. Rivers’ offensive line has permitted 10 sacks and the Cleveland defense is due for another big game.
The last time these two teams met, in 2012 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Browns eked out a 7-6 victory, holding Rivers to 154 yards. That was also the game Cleveland rookie running back Trent Richardson recorded what turned out to be his career-best game with 124 yards on 22 carries and the only touchdown of the game.
So until the Browns’ defense can prove it is not as bad as the statistics show, there is no way I can come to any reasonable conclusion that moves me to pick them to win a game, let alone this one. No matter what defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil tries, it isn’t enough.
The Browns won the Tennessee game because Johnny Manziel hit on a pair of long, poorly thrown passes (both were late and short) the Titans’ defense played just as poorly.
It certainly wasn’t due to the performance of the defense, which gave up nearly 400 yards, including 166 on the ground, and permitted the Titans to hang around and get closer than they should have been midway through the fourth quarter.
The Chargers’ offense is better than the Titans’ and the defense, if not respectable, is certainly good enough to shut down a hit-and-miss Cleveland offense. In 31 possessions this season, the Browns have rung up nine three-and-outs, or 29% of the time. Good enough to be tied with Chicago for 30th place in the NFL.
In case you’re wondering, the Chargers have had only six in 33 drives. And for that reason, although there are a few others, it would be foolish to pick the Browns to win this one.
Look for Gordon to have a breakout game on the ground, Rivers to play pitch and catch all afternoon with his receivers and the San Diego defense to effectively take the hit out of the hit-and-miss Browns offense and add fuel to the doubters’ doubt. Make it:
Chargers 27, Browns 10