If there was any question Johnny Manziel doesn’t belong on a National Football League field, it was dispelled in Sunday’s 24-10 romp over the San Francisco 49ers.
Yes, he still has a tendency to leave the pocket early and doesn’t seem to have a good feel yet for the amount of pressure applied by the pass-rushing component of opponents’ defenses.
Slowly but surely, though, he is beginning to become more comfortable with – and confident in – what offensive coordinator John DeFilippo lays out for him on a game-to-game basis.
Right now, Manziel’s biggest problem is his height. At a tick under six feet, he often fails to see open receivers because he has trouble peering over onrushing linemen. And if he isn’t in complete rhythm, that’s when he bails and tries to make a play improvisationally.
For example, he failed to see tight end Gary Barnidge break wide open down the seam late in the second quarter as the Browns were driving nicely downfield. He pirouetted out of the pocket, moved to his left and spotted Brian Hartline wide open in the middle of the field at the 49ers’ 31-yard line.
Throwing across his body, he heaved a floater that was intercepted easily by safety Jaquiski Tartt (a Key & Peele alumnus?) and returned 25 yards into Cleveland territory. After watching the play on his Surface tablet, Manziel realized the error of his ways and banged the tablet against his head five times.
If he’s smart, he’ll never again throw against his body late over the middle because that’s always a recipe for failure. Besides, he’ll save himself from repeatedly giving himself headaches.
His most impressive throw, though, came on the first play of the second possession of the second half. It kicked off a 78-yard drive that consumed eight plays and gave the Browns a 17-3 lead.
On the play, Manziel faked a handoff to Isaiah Crowell, faked another handoff on a reverse, dropped straight back two steps and launched a perfect strike to Hartline in stride crossing from right to left near the left hash mark that went for 34 yards.
It was a thing of beauty, an exquisitely timed play that looked as though he had done it his entire career, and definitely one DeFilippo should dial up much more often. The confused San Francisco defense had no idea what was happening.
It showed Manziel has the ball-faking ability to pull off such a play. Certainly there are other companion plays in the Cleveland playbook that DeFilippo can incorporate to make his young quarterback that much effective.
Right now, Manziel is clearly a work in progress, but there is definite progress being made. He is no longer the wide-eyed kid of a year ago who had no idea what he was doing when thrown into the fire at the tail end of the season.
He now has a pretty good idea of how to read a defense, change the call at the line of scrimmage if need be and has developed a ton of confidence in his ability to throw the football. But he is still far from being a finished product.
What he did Sunday was against a very bad defense. Let’s see what he can do against much better defenses in Seattle and Kansas City and in his second game against invading Pittsburgh in the season finale.
In the first meeting against the Steelers in week 10, the Browns put up only nine points, but Manziel raked for 372 yards on 33 of 45 and a touchdown pass to Barnidge, but was sacked six times.
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The emergence of Hartline as a reliable receiver lately is no doubt the result of injuries to fellow wideouts Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel.
He was treated almost like a lost cousin for the first seven games of the season, when he was targeted just 25 times and had only 12 receptions for 150 yards. In the last five games, Hartline has been targeted 52 times with 34 catches for 373 yards. He was Manziel’s favorite target against the 49ers with 10 and grabbed eight passes for 107 yards.
Unfortunately, the former Ohio State Buckeye, who played his high school ball at GlenOak High School in Canton, will watch the rest of the season on injured reserve with a broken collarbone suffered in Sunday’s victory.
So unless either Hawkins or Gabriel make miraculous comebacks, DeFilippo is challenged to come up with some new wrinkles as he tries to get as many reps for the likes of Travis Benjamin, Dwayne Bowe (no joke), Marlon Moore and maybe Terrelle Pryor, who made a brief appearance against San Francisco.
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Was that really Isaiah Crowell who ripped off runs of 50 and 54 yards against the 49ers? The real Isaiah Crowell who bashed the San Francisco defense for 145 yards on 20 carries?
Where has that Isaiah Crowell been this season? Racking up one-, two- and three-yards gains all season has been his specialty. C’mon, that wasn’t really Crowell, now, was it? He even caught a pass for nine yards on a checkdown.
Granted you take away those 104 yards on two runs and Crowell ran for only 41 yards on the other 18 carries. (He also had a 19-yarder nullified by a holding penalty.) But he did, in fact, make those runs, hitting the hole quicker than at any time this season. All of which proves he can do it. He just needs to recognize where the hole is and hit it quickly.
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How good was the Cleveland secondary against the Niners? So good, in fact, it held veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin to just two catches for 22 yards and speedster Torrey Smith to a lone grab for 17 yards.
San Francisco quarterback Blaine Gabbert, when he was vertical long enough to get off a pass, was forced to throw to the likes of rookie tight end Blake Bell and little-used Quinton Patton and Travaris Cadet. Boldin and Smith, who have bedeviled the Browns in the past while with the Baltimore Ravens, were targeted just five times.
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And how efficient was the Cleveland offense? It reeled off 10 plays for 15 yards or more yards that counted (not including Crowell’s 19-yarder). The Browns had touchdowns drives of 84 yards (six plays), 78 yards (eight) and 91 yards (nine) that took nearly 13 minutes off the clock.
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Notebook: Crowell’s first touchdown of the game with 5:38 left in the first quarter, was only the second TD scored that way by a running back all season and the first since Crowell scored in game two against Tennessee. The other score infantry style score was by quarterback Josh McCown in the 33-30 victory against Baltimore in week four. . . . Pryor made his Browns début with 3:45 left in regulation and the game already wrapped up. He appeared as a wide receiver flanked wide to the right side on a run play. . . . The 49ers’offense generated just 48 total yards in the first half. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: The rookie running back touched the ball 14 times (once as a receiver) for 84 yards (78 on the ground). . . . Defensive end Armonty Bryant was easily the most active Brown on that side of the ball with seven solo tackles, a pair of sacks, a couple of hits on Gabbert and a whole bunch of hurries. . . . The defense limited the 49ers to just a pair of third-down conversions in 13 attempts. . . . Travis Coons’ third blocked field goal in the past few weeks just might prompt the Browns to scour the list of free agents in that department.