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 piñata 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.)