Catching up with the Browns (Part 2)
Again, in no particular order . . .
Browns coach Hue Jackson has made it perfectly clear his team will feature a much more balanced attack this season.
The disproportionate figures from last season more than illustrated why the Browns finished 3-13. For any number of reasons, they became very predictable when they owned the football.
Falling behind early, turning a blind eye to the running game and a lack of overall offensive talent were the main culprits.
The Browns last season put the ball up 61.5% of the time (38 passes a game) and recorded 20 touchdowns through the air. Running the ball 38.5% of the time (24 attempts) produced a measly five TD.
Those who argue there’s nothing wrong with passing a vast majority of the time cite that the National Football League has become a passing league. And they would be correct.
So why not continue in that mode this season? Because Jackson comes from a different school, one that relies as much on the ground game as it does throwing the ball. He more than proved that last season as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
The Bengals last season threw the ball 52% of the time, producing 31 touchdowns. The other 48% of the time, they ran the ball with great success, scoring another 18 TD. That’s the ratio the new Cleveland coach is shooting for.
But didn’t Jackson have more talent with which to work with Cincy? You bet he did with the likes of running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, wide receivers A. J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and tight end Tyler Eifert, not to mention a pretty good offensive line.
Jackson’s greatest challenge as he takes over the Cleveland offense is maximizing the talent on board. There are no Hills, Bernards, Greens, Sanus, Joneses or Eiferts on the roster. And the offensive line, minus free-agent departees Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, leaves a whole lot to be desired.
The coach is pinning his hopes on returning running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Isaiah Crowell, a new quarterback in Robert Griffin III and a wide receivers corps that includes four rookies drafted in Chicago.
Gone are veterans Brian Hartline, Travis Benjamin and Dwayne Bowe. There will be a distinctly new look as newcomers Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton and Ricardo Louis battle in what very well could be the best competition in training camp.
Coleman, the club’s top draft pick, has flashed early with his quickness and speed, but is relatively inexperienced as a route runner, having played in a run-first offense at Baylor. If he quickly picks up the nuances of the route tree, he could very easily become the No. 1 wideout.
After suffering through two seasons of General Manager Ray Farmer’s snubbed-nose approach to wide receivers, it will be refreshing to watch the kids (in addition of veterans Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Terrelle Pryor) contribute to the attack.
With the seemingly ageless and uber enthusiastic Al Saunders – he’s 69 going on 55, acting and looking about 15 years younger – as their position coach, the freshman quartet can’t help but improve that aspect of the offense.
But as much as Jackson will be hands-on with the offense, he must also rely as a head coach on the other side of the football to be a contributing factor to the team’s success. That could turn out to be his second-biggest challenge.
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In order for the Browns to have any degree of good fortune on offense, the defense must help. It certainly didn’t last season.
As pointed out numerous times throughout the 2015 season and into the offseason, the Browns could not stop the run, extending drives with their ineptitude and keeping the offense tethered frustratingly to the bench.
Opportunity knocked throughout the season, but the Browns failed to answer. They were minus-9 in turnover ratio, intercepting only 11 passes. They dropped opposing quarterbacks only 29 times. Conversely, the offensive line coughed up 53 sacks and that line, as previously noted, is weaker as a result of two departures..
It was obvious during the college draft that creating havoc for opposing quarterbacks was critically important with the selections of Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Joe Schobert to go along with second-year man Nate Orchard.
Ray Horton begins his second stint as defensive boss and you can almost bet the sack total will rise. His aggressive approach to defense, which produced 40 sacks as Rob Chudzinski’s coordinator in 2013, is certain to win favor among the pass-rushing specialists.
The creative Horton is a disciple of Dick LeBeau, which means fans can expect just about anything. That includes a sizable degree of blitzes, including the zone variety, with pressure coming from just about anywhere on the field.
But it must be pointed out the Browns surrendered 128 yards a game on the ground under Horton, the same as the past season. So while stopping the run and harassing opposing quarterbacks will be jobs one and two for the defense, the latter seems to be more realistically possible.
Unlocking the secret to a good run defense should be Horton’s top goal. It is imperative because if the woes continue in that department, the opposition won’t feel the need to throw as much, thus cutting down on the opportunity to compile sacks.
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Fans hoping rookie quarterback Cody Kessler shocks everyone and wins the starting job are in for a jolt. Unless The Third and/or Josh McCown suddenly develop serious brain cramps and sore arms, Kessler will begin his National Football League career in learn mode.
Unless he can come into training camp late next month and be the second coming of Russell Wilson, Kessler should get used to running the scout team and becoming a sponge on learning his craft on a much higher level.
Wilson, you probably recall, shocked everyone in the Seattle Seahawks training camp four years ago to not only become a starter as a rookie, but was the linchpin in reversing a trend for what had become a very average franchise.
When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll chose Wilson to start over highly paid free agent Matt Flynn, eyebrows were raised. After all, the smallish Wilson was only a third-round pick and had a lot of growing to do.
Four years later, the Seahawks are 46-18 with Wilson at the helm with four playoff appearances, advancing to two Super Bowls, and a hoisting a Vince Lombardi Trophy. Seattle fans will argue it should have been a pair of Lombardis.
So no, Kessler isn’t Wilson. Yet.
He will have to first get the opportunity and that’s not going to happen with Jackson’s quest to turn The Third into a viable NFL quarterback and McCown versatile enough to handle just about anything the new coach throws at him.
So unless The Third and/or McCown, no strangers to injuries, are unable to complete the season, the only glimpse fans will get of Kessler will be in exhibition games.
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Notebook: Gary Barnidge, who turned in a didn’t-see-that-coming season last season, said he would be ready for training camp after undergoing sports hernia surgery recently. You can bet the big tight end, who caught 79 passes for 1,034 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015, will have a big role in the offense again this season. He will be Jackson’s Eifert. . . . Center Cameron Erving said he wants to “be a nasty player” this season. He was anything but last season when he played mostly guard. “It’s time to play ball and get a mean streak,” he said. All well and good. Now he needs to go out and prove it. Free agent Mike Matthews, who does have a mean streak and plays nasty, might have something to say about that. . . . The Matthews-Erving battle and the fight for whoever replaces Schwartz at right tackle should provide some interesting camp fodder. Right now, Alvin Bailey and Austin Pasztor are the favorites with rookies Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango lurking.