Friday, August 19, 2016

Browns-Falcons autopsy

Observations after watching the Atlanta Falcons dominate the Browns in exhibition game No. 2 Thursday night in Cleveland . . .

There are two ways to look at the 24-13 loss. One, the Browns actually led, 13-10, at the half with the first units on both sides of the ball playing a majority of the time. Two, there is still a lot of work to be done with those units.

Forget how the Falcons’ reserves toyed with Cleveland’s in the second half. Most of those players with either play on special teams, sub package teams or be looking for a job in a few weeks.

What should trouble coach Hue Jackson is his team’s inability to play offensive football the way he likes it. It’s all about ball control and sustained, clock-draining drives on offense and getting off the field on third down on defense.

One of the most telling statistics in any game is time of possession. Own the ball a vast majority of the time and your chances of winning increase exponentially. The Falcons game was a classic example of that. In fact, the first two exhibitions have provided what could be a portent of what lies ahead for the Browns if the stats can be used as a guide.

In the opener in Green Bay last week, the Cleveland offense controlled the ball for an embarrassing 20 minutes and 16 seconds. Against the Falcons, they shaved 15 seconds off that abysmal time, owning it for just 20 minutes and a second.

The offense ran 44 plays against the Packers and racked up just 11 first downs, three via penalties. They improved to 12 first downs against Atlanta (again three via penalties), but ran a meager 40 plays.

By contrast, the Falcons, who amassed 498 yards on offense, attempted 36 passes (four shy of the number of Cleveland’s total plays) among their 79 plays and compiled 31 first downs.

Oh, and one more important stat: The Falcons were 11of 17 on third down, The Browns were successful in one of eight attempts. That’s beyond awful.

If nothing else, that tells you the defense was on the field way too long. I know it’s just an exhibition game and defensive coordinator Ray Horton was more vanilla in his approach in this meaningless game than he will be during the regular season.  

But somewhere along the line, one would think the Browns would come up with a run defense that would be at least mediocre. Considering how badly this team has stopped the run the last several years, mediocre would not only be welcomed, it would be celebrated.

But didn’t Robert Griffin III throw a pair of touchdowns passes in the first half and complete six of his eight throws? And didn’t the starting quarterback run three times for 36 yards, including a 22-yard scamper on a naked reverse off an option? And didn’t he slide to avoid injury every time he ran?

Yes, yes and yes. His touchdowns passes to Terrelle Pryor and Gary Barnidge were exquisite, drop-the-ball-in-the-bucket tosses that seemed to leap off the pages of the playbook. And he was the leading ground gainer, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

If the defense does not improve significantly, then the offense will find itself in shootouts throughout the season. And there is no evidence this offense has the kind of firepower to sustain such an approach.

If the defense – and I realize it’s only two exhibition games and many of Horton’s more aggressive schemes will be plugged in by the season opener in Philadelphia – cannot help the offense by getting off the field with more dispatch, the pressure on Griffin & Co. to keep up will be enormous.

If these first two games serve as a microcosm to the regular season, then Jackson’s upbeat approach will be put to a severe test early and often. It has to be demoralizing to an offense to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the defensive unit struggles.

The Browns had the ball for eight full series (not counting the kneel down at the end of the first half), five in the first half Thursday night. With The Third in charge, they ran just 23 plays in the first 30 minutes, the longest a six-play drive that ended in the Barnidge touchdown.

With Josh McCown and Cody Kessler in charge of the huddle, the Cleveland offense ran 17 plays on three drives to Atlanta’s 40 in the second half. Its only final-quarter possession lasted five plays and just three minutes and five seconds.

It’s still too early to point fingers of blame with the coaches still experimenting on both sides of the ball. But the so-called dress rehearsal for the season opener coming up next Friday in Tampa Bay against Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers had better unlock a few secrets or else . . . you fill in the blank.

Other observations:

If the defensive coaches are placing an emphasis on tackling in camp, they need to work even harder because it sure isn’t working. Don’t know the actual numbers for such stats, but the Falcons must have gained at least 125 of their 498 yards on offense either after contact or after the catch.

Too often, Browns defenders either were out of position to make a tackle or overran the play. Instead of fundamentally tackling a ball carrier by driving through them with the shoulder, they were guilty almost all evening of arm tackling.

It falls under the category of not just bad tackling, but amateurish tackling, the kind we see on the high school level. . . .

Nose tackle Danny Shelton was drafted last year to be the linchpin of an improved run defense. Instead, he put about 30 more pounds on a 330-pound frame and severely underperformed.

This year, he dropped the 30 pounds. That’s about the only thing that has changed. Based on the first two exhibition games, Shelton has continued to underperform. Playing well into the second half against the Falcons, he was a relative non-factor as the Falcons ran relentlessly.

When he went one-on-one with former Browns enter Alex Mack in the first half, Shelton rarely made it past the line of scrimmage. Mack outmuscled him. If he can’t keep his inside linebackers clean, it will be a long season for Demario Davis and Chris Kirksey. . . .

Overheard: Following the Griffin-Pryor 50-yard connection for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter, Browns television analyst Solomon Wilcots exclaimed, “The long ball is back in Cleveland and I’m not talking about the Indians.”

When the game was winding down and the final score all but obvious, play-by-play man Mike Patrick waxed philosophical. “When there is hope on the horizon,” he said regarding the Browns’ future, “that’s a good thing.”

The good . . . Inside linebacker Dominique Alexander once again stood out in the second half. On one play in particular, he shot the gap on a sweep and brought down the ball carrier for a loss. . . Defensive end Carl Nassib showed nastiness in his pass rush that should earn more playing time. . . . Cornerback Jamar Taylor, a bust with the Miami Dolphins, was picked on several times, but responded with a couple of pass breakups. . . . Andy Lee averaged nearly 56 yards on five punts.

The bad . . . Justin Gilbert is moving closer and closer to becoming a roster casualty. While the former first rounder’s coverage skills have improved somewhat, his tackling skills have eroded significantly. . . . Shelton for reasons stated above.

And the ugly . . . Travis Coons had one shot at an extra point against the Falcons and blew it. His attempt following Barnidge’s touchdown drifted wide right. . . . Center Cameron Erving’s skyscraper snap with The Third in shotgun formation in the second quarter was a (sarcasm alert) thing of beauty (end alert) that sailed high and mighty for 24 yards. Looked like a bad punt. Fortunately, Atlanta’s Sean Witherspoon grabbed The Third’s face mark as he recovered the errant snap, thus negating the huge loss.


  1. Horton's defense wasn't any good when he was here before, why in the world Jackson thought that would change is beyond me!

  2. Let us wait until the regular season begins and see if the defense looks any different. That's when the speed of the game and the schemes change. If there is no palatable difference, then yes, you have posed a valid point.