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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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