Monday, October 31, 2016

Monday leftovers

It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out the Browns’ biggest and most aggravating problem this season. It’s this simple: They can’t keep the opposition from scoring.

Coach Hue Jackson had to talk Ray Horton into coming back to Cleveland to be his defensive coordinator. After the first eight games of the season, he wouldn’t be blamed if he had a second thought or three about that decision.

The following statistics do not lie. In fact, they tell a grim story of just how pitifully and pathetically the very offensive Cleveland defense has performed in the first half of the season.

In the most important category, points allowed, their best effort was 25 points against the Baltimore Ravens in the second game. Yes, their best effort. And that was after the Cleveland offense scored the first 20 points of the game, which as it turned out was its only points of the game.

This ragged defense has allowed 30 or more points in five of the other seven games. The other two saw yields of 28 and 29 points. No matter the opponent, the Cleveland goal line has been assaulted with disturbing regularity.

The averages: 22.5 first downs, 61% of those achieved through the air; 421.5 yards overall, including 289 yards in the aerial game (on 63% pass completions); 144 yards on the ground (4.8 yards a rush); 47% success rate for the opposition on third downs; and 66 plays a game.

A couple of more telling stats for this miserable defense: 29 touchdowns, including a staggering 19 through the air; and a withering 32 minutes and 19 seconds on the field. When the opposition converts third downs at a 47% clip, you’re not getting the ball to your offense enough.

So where is the problem? Everywhere, it seems. From a poor pass rush to the inability to stop the run to a secondary that has all kinds of problems in coverage. No matter what Horton does, it doesn’t work. He has been given mostly young talent and mistakes are being made on a weekly basis.

He needs some older, wiser heads in the game. When you start a game with three and sometimes four rookies and a couple of second-year men in the lineup, you’re asking for trouble.

Maybe that’s why the club traded a future third-round compensatory draft pick to New England Monday for outside linebacker Jamie Collins, a move that provides immediate improvement at that position.

Rookie Emmanuel Ogbah has shown marginal improvement on a weekly basis after getting off to a slow start, but fellow rookie Joe Schobert has been a major disappointment, contributing very little. So have newcomers Cam Johnson and Corey Lemonier. 

Collins is a much better edge rusher and most likely will move in immediately on the strong side opposite Ogbah. His stay in Cleveland, though, might be brief. The four-year veteran, who led the Patriots in tackles last season and was voted to the Pro Bowl, is in the last year of his contract and seeking big money.

Going from a Super Bowl contender to the only winless team in the National Football League has got to be jolt for the 6-3, 250-pounder. It will be interesting to see just how far the Browns will go to keep him once he enters the free-agent market in the offseason.

New England coach/emperor Bill Belichick reportedly became fed up with Collins because (a) he free-lanced way too much in the disciplined New England defense and (b) wasn’t worth the money he sought. Belichick has made similar moves in the past with disgruntled veterans.

Fitting right in should not be a problem for Collins. Scheming for a newcomer on defense is much easier than one on offense, where rhythm and timing is much more important. Defense requires aggression, of which Collins has plenty.
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What in the world is wrong with Gary Barnidge? The tight end, who put up career-year numbers year last season and went to the Pro Bowl, has been exceedingly quiet thus far this season.

Last season, Barnidge caught 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. Along the way, he made enough circus catches to become a weekly regular on ESPN’s Top 10 plays of the day. This season, he has 33 grabs for 403 yards and no visits to the end zone.

So what’s the difference? Factor in he has been targeted by five different quarterbacks (six if you include Terrelle Pryor) this season and doesn’t know from game to game who will be on the throwing end.

Last season, Barnidge caught passes from only two quarterbacks, Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel. That makes a huge difference if you have some consistency with the guy responsible for making you look good. He has not had that opportunity this season.

That could change with the return of McCown last Sunday and the expected return of Robert Griffin III within the next month. Barnidge won’t achieve those Pro Bowl numbers, of course, but his second-half performance should make what he did in the first eight games look like an aberration.
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Perusing some more scoring stats gives one a better insight as to why the Browns are threatening a team record for futility Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at home. They are clearly a better first-half team.

They have compiled a respectable 109 total points in that time thus far and allowed 117 and taken three leads and a tie into the dressing room in eight games. It’s the second halves that have destroyed them. They have been outscored, 115-51, in the final 30 minutes.

For whatever reason, the team that emerges from that dressing room in the second half in no way resembles the one that entered that room after the first 30 minutes. Maybe it’s making the wrong adjustments. Maybe it’s not making adjustments at all. The third quarter is the worst with five shutouts in eight games

The defense has shut out the opposing team in just three quarters this season. Three quarters out of 33 (one overtime game). The offense has been shut out in 14 quarters, eight in the second half of games.

Their best quarter offensively is the second with 66 points. Their worst? Not even close. The third quarter with only 13 points, indicating they are not nearly ready to play a game of football. Blame for that falls squarely on the head coach and his coaching staff.
*       *       *
Maybe Jackson and Horton should take one whole day a week as they prepare for the next opponent to teach the defense how to tackle. You now, like bringing down whoever is carrying the ball before he does more damage.

That display of tackling in the New York Jets loss Sunday should never be shown to anyone who wants to learn how to play fundamental football. That should be a primer for how not to tackle.  Football is not a contact sport. Dancing is contact sport. Football is a collision sport. It’s about time the Browns practiced it.
*       *       *
Considering how deferential the Browns were to the Jets’ strong run defense last Sunday (they called only 18 runs), we can look forward to much the same this Sunday against the Cowboys, who surrender only 93 yards a game on the ground.

And the porous Cleveland run defense, which gives up 145 yards a game, can look forward to a Dallas offense that averages 165 yards on the ground behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL.
*       *       *
And finally . . . In the last four games, Browns running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. have carried the ball 59 times and gained 175 yards. Enough said. . . . Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who played mostly outside last season, has adapted nicely to his new position. He is the runaway leader in tackles with 72 and solo tackles with 48 and seems to arrive at the point of attack with an attitude. . . . Pryor, who schooled Darrelle Revis with six catches for 108 yards in the first half of the Jets loss, was schooled by the veteran cornerback in the final 30 minutes with no catches and only three targets. . . . The Browns owned the ball for 17:31 in the first half and just 8:48 in the second half, half of which was used on the final drive. . . . The Browns are just 1-18 in their last 19 games and 3-26 in their last 29 with victories over Tennessee, Baltimore and San Francisco. The last victory was against the 49ers last Dec. 13. . . . McCown threw to 10 different receivers in the Jets loss. . . . Rookie defensive end Carl Nassib played sparingly, but recorded three knockdowns of Ryan Fitzpatrick passes. . . . Only seven penalties were stepped off Sunday, two against the (sarcasm alert) highly disciplined (end sarcasm alert) Browns. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: Four carries for 29 yards, six receptions for 87 yards. Ten touches, 116 yards.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Two games, one more loss

To paraphrase the great Charles Dickens (and with a deep apology): It was the best of (first) halves, it was the worst of (second) halves. Sunday’s Browns’ loss to the New York Jets was, indeed, a Tale of Two Games.

The 31-28 loss will go down in the record books as yet another Cleveland loss to begin the 2016 season. If you’re keeping count—and that likelihood probably disappeared long ago – the losing streak now stands at eight this season, 11 overall.

After watching how much the Browns dominated the first half, taking a 20-7 lead into the dressing room, hopes the losing streak would finally end crested. The offense hadn’t looked that good since dropping 20 points on the Baltimore Ravens on their first three possessions in the second game of the season. Lost that one, too

The offense, with Josh McCown back at quarterback, racked up 274 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes. He hooked up with Andrew Hawkins for a five-yard score on the first possession of the game and watched Isaiah Crowell ram the final yard to cap a nine-play, 70-yard drive late in the second quarter.

And when the offense bogged down, Cody Parkey was there to bang home field goals of 41 and 26 yards. Everything, it seemed, worked. Terrelle Pryor schooled Darrelle Revis for six catches and 101 yards. McCown, showing no effects from his broken collarbone, threw for 226 yards.

Everything worked, that is, except the run game, which coach Hue Jackson conceded to the tough Jets defense, which shut down all running lanes the entire afternoon. It was McCown or bust as the coach dialed up pass plays three out of every four snaps.

Then an entirely different team emerged from the same Cleveland dressing room, looking suspiciously like a team that should have a long losing streak, and those hopes of taking a one-game winning streak into next Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys cratered, then vanished.

The Cleveland defense that limited the Jets to 106 first-half yards yielded 287 more in the second half as the visitors scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. It took them 33 plays on scoring drives of 78, 84 and 81 yards that consumed 17 minutes and 30 seconds to grab a 28-20 lead with 9:38 left in regulation.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, failed to pick up the defense, owning the ball for just four minutes and 50 seconds on their first three second-half possessions, which ended in a pair of Britton Colquitt punts and the first of McCown’s two interceptions.

No sooner had the defense hit the bench, then it was right back out on the field playing sloppy, almost embarrassing football. The tackling was atrocious in the final 20 minutes. I lost count of the missed tackles..

A perfect example was Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa’s 24-yard touchdown run that narrowed the Cleveland lead to 20-14. The big wide receiver caught Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass at the Cleveland 12 and shook off tackle attempts by Ibraheim Campbell, Derrick Kindred and Tramon Williams en route to the end zone.

The Jets’ defense atoned for its poor first half performance with a lot of help from Jackson’s play calling, relying almost exclusively on McCown to dig the offense out of a hole. The veteran quarterback put the ball up 11 times out of 15 plays that gained only 51 yards in the first four possessions of the second half.

Two passes wound up in the hands of Jets safety Marcus Gilchrist and linebacker Lorenzo Maudlin. The latter, set up by a Calvin Pryor deflection with 5:13 left, resulted in a Nick Folk field goal that made it a two-score game at 31-20.

The Browns, at least theoretically, still had a chance to tie the game with 4:04 left with some up-tempo football. No huddle, get the play in quickly, everyone hustle type football. What followed was a microcosm of why this team isn’t anywhere close to being even competitive.

They went no huddle, but there seemed to be no sense of urgency. They had only one timeout left and the two-minute warning and failed to take advantage. McCown was slow in getting the play either called or executed.

It took the offense 14 plays (one fewer than the total for the previous four possessions) and 3:52 to negotiate 84 yards against a prevent defense. It should have not taken that long. Jackson’s clock management was terrible.

With a minute remaining, McCown and Crowell hooked up on a 16-yard pass that took the ball to the New York 2, resulting in a first and goal. Twenty-nine seconds remained when the next snap was made. That’s way too much time between snaps. McCown could have spiked the ball to stop the clock. Someone wasn’t thinking.

What made it even more maddening was Jackson calling a Crowell run on the next play. The running game hadn’t worked all day. What made the coach think it would work this time? It gained only a yard and forced him to take his final timeout with 19 seconds left.

Why run the ball? Why burn 10 seconds and the last timeout? Critical thinking seems to be AWOL on the Cleveland sideline.

Hawkins’ second touchdown catch of the game with 12 seconds was rendered moot, as was Terrelle Pryor’s catch for the two-point conversion. It was his only reception of the half. All it did was make the score seem more respectable.

It didn’t do anything to soothe the anger, embarrassment and perhaps resentment that have been built up in Browns Nation. The losing continues to fester. Coming close in no way makes it any easier to take.

Next up, the Cowboys with rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott invading the former Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Cowboys have played three games on the road this season . . . and won them all.

One more loss and these Browns tie the record of the 1975 team that lost its first nine games. Losing the last 11 in a row, including the final three last season, ties the club mark for overall futility with Sunday’s setback.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A chance to finally win

If there is one game the Browns can win this season – you have no idea how strange it is to type that – it is Sunday’s matchup against the invading New York Jets.

The Jets are 2-5 and represent the softest remaining spot on the Cleveland schedule, relatively speaking, since all the remaining teams on that schedule have won at least three games.

The travel-weary Browns – five of the first seven games were on the road – play five of the next six in front of the home folks. Despite that, they will be underdogs in every one. Not exactly a badge of honor..

It’s also the kind of respect this moribund team can expect the rest of the season. They have proven beyond any doubt whatsoever in the first seven games that they deserve to be winless.

In a season when the next victory probably would be considered a step in the right direction (at least by the coaching staff and front office) and mockingly celebrated, the schedule from here on out does them no favor.

They still have to play division rivals Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (on the road) and Cincinnati (at home), Buffalo (on the road), San Diego (at home) and home dates with two more teams from the NFC East (Dallas and the New York Giants).

Maybe the Browns have a shot at winning the Chargers game on Christmas Eve day. You know the thing about having an advantage of playing a team from southern California in Cleveland in late December. (Falls under the category of wishful thinking.)

Back to reality. The Jets come in on a roll, if you can call snapping a four-game losing streak last Sunday by knocking off Baltimore at home a roll. That’s a feeling the Browns hope to have sometime before winding up the season in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day.

These teams have met only 23 times since 1970, the Browns holding a 13-10 edge after winning the first six. The Jets have won the last three in a row, including a 31-10 pounding last season in New Jersey.

Their first meeting on Sept. 21, 1970 was historic in nature. It was the very first Monday Night Football game on ABC with Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith in the booth. (Frank Gifford replaced Jackson the following year.) It was a television experiment that caught on immediately and became a viewing staple.

The two teams put on quite a show for the national audience, the Jets on offense and the Browns on defense. Jets quarterback Joe Namath led a New York attack that totaled 473 gross yards, including a running game that produced 168 yards.

However, the Jets turned the ball over four times, three on Namath interceptions, the last of which by linebacker Billy Andrews resulted in a pick-6 after the Jets had crept to within 24-21.

The Browns, who never trailed in the 31-21 victory despite producing only 221 yards of offense, shot out to a 21-7 lead after Homer Jones returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.

Cleveland quarterback Bill Nelsen was a pedestrian 12-of-27 for only 145 yards, but connected with Gary Collins for an eight-yard score in the opening quarter. Running back Bo Scott ran for only 12 yards, but his two-yard plunge gave the Browns a 14-0 lead after one.

It was clearly a chippy game with the two teams racking up 21 penalties (13 by the Browns) for 262 yards (161 by the Browns). It was also the final season for coach Blanton Collier, who led the Browns to their last National Football League championship in 1964.

Those were the days, of course, when Browns fans were treated to consistently good football. It was the kind of football that made fans think Sundays from September to December couldn’t arrive quickly enough.

It’s nice for those old enough to remember what it was like back then, back when winning football was the norm. Back when the team that wore the Seal Brown and Orange actually made one feel proud to be a fan of the team. That’s a feeling those who run the front office of the current team hope some day to give fans.

Back to the present.

The Browns enter Sunday’s game as three-point underdogs. That’s the kind of disrespect this team has engendered. The home team, which automatically gets three points for just being the home team, is a three-point dog to a 2-5 team.

Well, the Jets are not your ordinary 2-5 team. They clearly have more talent on their roster than the young Browns and knocked off the Buffalo and Baltimore, two pretty good teams, for their only victories.

The Jets’ problem lies more on offense than defense. More specifically, it lies with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose contractual dispute with the front office before training camp was unsettling.

He was coming off a 3,900-yard, 31-toucbdown season and wanted to be paid commensurately. The two sides settled on a one-year, $12 million deal, but he has done nothing to justify that kind of money. And that is the root of the Jets’ problems.

The 33-year-old veteran from Harvard was so bad in the first six games, coach Todd Bowles benched him in favor of Geno Smith, who promptly tore his ACL in the second quarter of last Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. Fitzpatrick’s 11 interceptions are the big reason the Jets’ are minus-10 in turnover ratio.

You would think the Browns’ pass defense, as bad as it is, would be able to cash in on such generosity. But until it musters any semblance of a pass rush to give the secondary a chance to make plays, that’s not going to happen.

The Browns do get a break, however, with the news Jets wide receiver Eric Decker, a Fitzpatrick favorite target, has been placed on inured reserve with a torn rotator cuff. He still has wideouts Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa and Matt Forte, one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL.

It’s on defense where the Jets’ strength lies, especially in the front seven. Trying to run against them is futile. Just ask the Ravens, who punched out only 11 total yards infantry style last Sunday. The Jets yield just 75 yards a game on the ground.

Running the ball effectively is essential for the Browns now that Josh McCown has returned at quarterback. If they have any chance of slamming the breaks on their 10-game losing streak, keeping McCown vertical should be priority one.

Whoever owns the line of scrimmage when the Browns have the ball most likely wins this game. The Jets have only 14 sacks this season, but six belong to second-year defensive end Leonard Williams, who will line up against Austin Pasztor of the Browns.

Holes must be created for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. by an offensive line that seems to be getting worse by the game. If the openings are not there, McCown will be forced to do something that puts him in danger of reinjuring his collarbone: throw the ball.

Right now, the only reliable member of that line is left tackle Joe Thomas. Everyone else is either playing out of position or relatively inexperienced. It presents a major challenge for coach Hue Jackson to come up with an effective game plan.

Look for Williams to add at least one sack to his total, defensive tackles Muhammad Wilkerson and Steve McLendon to overwhelm the middle of the Cleveland line and a New York secondary, which has only four interceptions, to add to that total.

Perennial All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis most likely will shadow Browns wideout Terrelle Pryor, forcing McCown to rely on tight end Gary Barnidge, his favorite target last season, and rookie wideouts Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton.

The Cleveland offense never gets fully untracked against an aggressive Jets defense, but with help from its defense, manages to hold on and make it a game entering the fourth quarter.

That defense shuts down the New York offense in the first three quarters, limiting it to a pair of Nick Folk field goals, sacking Fitzpatrick thrice and adding two more interceptions to his total before crumbling in the final quarter.

Crowell’s fifth touchdown of the season, culminating the Browns’ only sustained drive of the afternoon, gives the Browns a narrow halftime lead. It stretches into the early minutes of the fourth quarter when disaster arrives suddenly.

Williams strip sacks McCown deep in Cleveland territory four minutes into the quarter, setting up a Forte touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, George Atkinson III fumbles, the Jets recover and turn the gift into another Forte touchdown 45 seconds later.

And just like that, in a matter of moments, the game is turned upside down for the Browns, whose losing streak this season reaches eight at the halfway mark in a season that can’t end soon enough. Make it:

Jets 20, Browns 13

Monday, October 24, 2016

Monday leftovers

The Browns’ home date with the New York Jets Sunday marks the halfway point of the 2016 season.

Hard to believe the season has flown by so rapidly when the record indicates it should be slogging by. One loss after another after another makes it feel to fans of the team as though the season is dragging.

The season can’t end soon enough for those fans, some of whom are already looking forward to the next college football draft, while the others have basically decided to merely hang on in hopes this young team – 18 rookies on the 53-man roster – eventually improves.

With that in mind, some mid-season observations are in order.

That the Browns are winless in their first seven games is surprising to some – you figure they would accidentally stumble to a victory by now – and extremely disappointing to others. It is a true reflection, though, of where they should be.

Glimpses of good football have flashed at times thus far.  A couple of games could have gone either way. But they were wiped away by long periods of what can be best described as something less than mediocre football. Optimists would call them growing pains.

Let’s break down the three main areas. First, the offense.

Trying to piece together a consistent offense has been hampered greatly by the team’s inability to keep its quarterbacks healthy. Here we are at game eight and five different quarterbacks have commanded the huddle at one time or another.

That right there is a built-in excuse for Hue Jackson. What do you expect the man to do when he has to scheme games sometimes on the fly because he doesn’t know who his quarterback will be?

But the coach, to his credit, doesn’t lean on that defense. Nor the excuse he is working with a young, relatively inexperienced receivers corps or that his offensive line as currently constituted is arguably one of the worst in the entire National Football League.

It is extremely difficult to win football games with talent like that. Jackson might be known as a quarterback whisperer, but he cannot weave miracles out of material that suggests the record is an accurate reflection of the talent on board.

He essentially has been handed a team that figuratively ties one coaching arm behind his back. He faces an unfair fight on a weekly basis. Makes no difference who the opposition is. Oddsmakers make the Browns weekly underdogs, often times by the largest point margin.

The new front office that hired Jackson hamstrung him from the beginning by allowing five significant veteran contributors from last season’s team to leave in the offseason via free agency. We’re seeing the result of their absences on a weekly basis.

As bad as the offense has been, the defense is much, much, much worse and shows few signs of getting better. Fingers of guilt can and have been pointed at coordinator Ray Horton, but there’s only so much he can do with his young group.

The tackling is substandard, the pass rush comes and goes, stopping the run seems to be a foreign event to the front seven and the secondary has been torched and plundered almost unmercilessly.

There is no one area on that side of the ball that Horton, or Jackson for that matter, can point to and say the future is bright. Unless one believes it can’t get any worse and getting better is the only direction it can go, that speaks volumes on just how bad it is now. The consistency just isn’t there.

As for the special teams, just how special have they been? One of the key elements there is establishing advantageous field position on both sides of the ball. To do that for the offense, the Browns need return specialists who can provide short fields with strong returns. They have none. They had one last season.

The lone positive contributors have been punter Britton Colquitt, who has averaged 46.7 yards a punt, and placekicker Cody Parkey, who has been solid after a rough start. His booming kickoffs have consistently pinned the opposition to the 25-yard line at the start of drives.

That’s it. An offense that has been much more offensive than productive, a defense that has been maddeningly inconsistent all season and the non-special special teams. It is a formula that adds up to seven consecutive losses.

So what is there to look forward to? Nine more games where the Browns are underdogs and end up only the second team in NFL history – the 2008 Detroit Lions were the first – to lose every game? No. Look for improvement in every phase of the game on a game-by-game basis.

Compare the team after the season finale in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day to the one that is currently stumbling through the season. If there is no noticeable difference, then the problems are far greater than initially believed.

Another surprising aspect of the season is the silence of owner Jimmy Haslam III, a man who rarely shies away from sharing his opinions. He’s got to be fuming and embarrassed by his team’s performance. He suffers in silence . . . at least publicly.

Previous Haslam knee-jerk decisions about his front office and head coaches have drawn criticism. It will be very interesting to see how much longer he remains muted this season and how much restraint he exercises with designs on next season.
*       *       *
Even though he might not play against the Jets Sunday, Kevin Hogan sure made a strong impression to Browns fans in the loss to Cincinnati Sunday. He flummoxed the Bengals defense with some strong running on mostly designed plays.

He was Jackson’s answer to who would inherit the role Terrelle Pryor played when he lined up in the wildcat formation. With Pryor slowed by a hamstring injury, the coach turned to Hogan, a strong runner when guiding the offense at Stanford.

No one expected him to gain 104 yards in seven carries, mostly on freeze-option runs, after replacing Cody Kessler midway through the second quarter. It included a dazzling, weaving 28-yard touchdown run after finding no one to throw to. In doing so, he became the club’s third best rusher.

“Running is something I’ve always felt confident in, that I could get a first down or a big gain,” he said following the game Sunday.

The 6-3, 220-pounder most likely will get his first professional start against the Jets unless Josh McCown is ready to go after sitting out six weeks with a broken collarbone and if Kessler is still in concussion protocol.
*       *       *
Another bright spot from Sunday’s loss, other than Hogan not embarrassing himself in his NFL debut, was the strong performance of Emmanuel Ogbah. The 6-4, 275-pound rookie outside linebacker, who has been getting closer and closer to opposing quarterbacks, finally cashed in against the Bengals.

The former college defensive end, a much better edge rusher than he is allowed to be, dropped Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton twice to take the team lead in sacks with three and came close on a few other occasions. Why Horton, a 3-4 scheme advocate, doesn’t utilize Ogbah more in a 4-3 set is puzzling.

There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of someone’s natural talents and Ogbah, when unleashed, has shown some nice moves to go along with his natural strength. He was the only member of the defense to consistently put pressure on Dalton, winding up with six tackles (five solo), two sacks and several hurries.
*       *       *
The Bengals have owned the Browns the last four times these two rivals have squared off. In fact, it hasn’t been even close, the Bengals scoring at least 30 points in those games. They have outscored the Browns, 129-30, with Dalton and wide receiver A. J. toying with the Cleveland secondary

Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who played against Green in college and usually shadows him now, hasn’t played in three of those games due to injuries, which most likely accounts for the tall wideout’s production.
*       *       *
Referee Ed Hochuli played give and take with the Browns on the same series late in the third quarter Sunday. The Browns were flagged for delay of game on a third-and-6 at their 31-yard line when it was clear Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, trying to time the snap, jumped offsides before the play clock ran out. The replay showed it. Jackson, who had lost an earlier challenge, decided not to challenge.

An incomplete Hogan pass later, Colquitt lined up to punt at his 11. He got off the punt, but Cincinnati safety Derron Smith, attempting to block the boot, brushed against his plant leg and nudged it. Hochuli tossed his flag and announced roughing the kicker because Smith touched the plant leg. Looked like a makeup call.
*       *       *

And finally . . . The Bengals’ pass rush dropped Hogan twice, hit him and Kessler 11 times and hurried them on several other occasions. Leader of the pack was defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had one sack, deflected a pass that was intercepted by Vincent Rey on the Browns’ last drive, collected three quarterback hits and delivered the hit that knocked Kessler out of the game. . . . Hogan’s other pick was an overthrow that was returned by Shawn Williams, who immediately fumbled it back when stripped by Ricardo Louis and recovered by Austin Pasztor at the exact point where the play originated. . . . Ex-Browns inside linebacker Karlos Dansby led the Bengals in tackles with 11 tackles, nine solo. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: 10 touches, 33 yards. . . . The Browns take a three-game losing streak against the Jets into Sunday’s game, including last season’s 31-10 loss.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Losing trench warfare in a big way

What do a house of cards and the Cleveland Browns’ defense have in common? Does the word collapse enter your mind at all?

Now remember that word and take into consideration the Browns’ offensive line, which has proven almost on a weekly basis that it cannot protect its quarterbacks from harm this season. Does it resonate there, too?

That line welcomed its fifth quarterback of the season Sunday when rookie Kevin Hogan took over for concussed fellow rookie Cody Kessler midway through the second quarter of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 31-17 victory.

But it was the defense that suffered a major breakdown against the Bengals. It traveled all the way down to the southern part of Ohio and showed Cincinnati fans how not to play the game of football when the other team owns it. 

The Bengals piled up yardage in serious bunches, thoroughly controlling the trenches with an offensive line that absolutely dominated, no make that manhandled, the Cleveland defense all afternoon.

They recorded an amazing 16 plays – they ran 61 overall – that gained at least 10 yards, seven that gained at least 20 yards, five that gained more than 30, four more that gained at least 40 and one that moved the ball more than 50 yards. It was a stunning big-play display for an offense that has had trouble scoring this season.

Running back Jeremy Hill and wide receiver A. J Green were the main antagonists, Hill with nine carries for 168 yards and a touchdown and Green with eight receptions for 169 yards and a score.

That’s 337 of the Bengals’ 559 total yards on just 17 touches, both men demoralizing the Cleveland defense with spectacular plays that, with a modicum of sound play, could have been prevented.

The Bengals had regained the lead at 14-10 when Andy Dalton connected with Brandon LaFell on a 44-yard touchdown strike five plays after the Browns had taken a 10-7 lead on an Isaiah Crowell touchdown. The big dagger soon followed.

Cleveland went into a prevent defense with 1:03 left in the first half and the Bengals starting a drive at their 15-yard line. They reached the Browns’ 48 despite the first of two Emmanuel Ogbah sacks and faced a third and long with mere seconds left.

Dalton dropped back and heaved a Hail Mary pass that descended in end zone. Now a vast majority of the time, such a pass winds up either falling harmlessly to the ground or in the hands of the defense. Or knocked down.

There is a phrase defensive coaches pound constantly to defensive backs in such a situation. “Knock the damn ball down,” is the mantra. Apparently, three Browns defenders did not get the message.

Green outleaped all three, tipped the ball with his left hand, juggled it a couple of times and fell to the ground, cradling it in his chest with no time left. So instead of trailing by just four points at the half, the Browns were down by 11.

Then there’s Hill, who quickly countered Hogan’s spectacular 28-yard touchdown scramble that opened the third quarter scoring. Two plays after Hogan’s jaunt, the big Cincinnati running back took a handoff on a second-down play from Cincy 26 on a counter-trey run that opened up a hole on the left side of the Cleveland defense.

Had Browns strong safety Ibraheim Campbell taken the proper angle, however, he could have at least a good shot at Hill at the 35. He was also late in recognizing the play and Hill took full advantage, racing untouched for the 74-yard scoring romp.

Coaches often lament that inches often determine the difference between a routine play and a big play. That certainly is the case here. Twice.

If Green does not make that catch in the end zone, if Campbell makes that play and prevents a long touchdown run, the Browns are definitely in this game. But as former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano once said, “If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”

Now on the other side of the ball, Hogan made his National Football League debut in rather stunning fashion, ripping off several long runs on planned plays, finishing with 104 yards on seven carries to lead the club in rushing.

Whether he becomes the club’s 27th – or is it 28th, I lost count – different starting quarterback since 1999 is not known. It largely depends on whether Kessler is cleared from concussion protocol to play next week against the New York Jets or Josh McCown, out since game two with a broken collarbone, is sufficiently healed to start.

It seems a quarterback injury is an every-Sunday thing with the Browns this season. First it was Robert Griffin III, followed by McCown, Kessler and Charlie Whitehurst in the first five games. Whitehurst lasted one game before getting cut. That’s when Hogan entered the picture.

Kessler was the only available quarterback left standing after six games, so Hogan was elevated from the practice squad as insurance against a serious injury to his fellow rookie. It didn’t take long for him to get his NFL baptism.

Kessler, who was sacked six times in last Sunday’s loss to Tennessee but avoided major injury, lasted until halfway through the second quarter. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap drilled him just after he completed a shovel pass while in distress to tight end Gary Barnidge en route to a 10-play, 70-yard scoring drive that gave the Browns a 10-7 lead.

Hogan, who had entered the game surprisingly earlier on that drive and ripped off a couple of 15-yard gains on perfectly executed freeze-option plays, took over full-time and handed off twice to Isaiah Crowell for the final five yards with Kessler’s status still unknown at the time.

He threw 24 passes, mainly short to intermediate routes, and completed 12 for 100 yards. He was intercepted twice and it appeared as though coach Hue Jackson put the running clamps on him once Kessler was definitely ruled out of the game.

No sense is placing him in harm’s way running the ball. Hogan’s only replacement should he go down was wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who was playing with a tender hamstring and was limited to only two catches for 18 yards.

Hogan was also playing with a patchwork line in front of him. At one point, that line included rookies Spencer Drango and Shon Coleman, underperforming Alvin Bailey and John Greco at center replacing the injured Cameron Erving.

This one, however, was clearly lost in the trenches. The line of scrimmage was owned by the Bengals, still smarting from their 2-4 start and needing a game like this.

The Cleveland losing streaks thus reach seven this season, 10 straight over the last two seasons and 17 of the last 18. The Browns remain the NFL’s only winless team and are two games from tying the club record of nine straight losses to open a season.

Who said it couldn’t get any worse?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Cincinnati misery?

There are few National Football League teams more dangerous than one playing well below its standards coming back home following an embarrassing loss.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Browns’ next opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, as in the 2-4 Cincinnati Bengals. The New England Patriots last Sunday drilled the we-are-no-longer-the-Bungles, 35-17.

The Bengals, highly favored by many at the beginning of the 2016 to repeat as champions of the AFC North, trail Pittsburgh and Baltimore after six games, but there is no way they sink to the division’s basement.

No, that residence is held securely more and more by the game by the Browns, who haul a nine-game losing streak, including the first six this season, into Sunday’s get together.

What seems to be the Bengals’ problem? Well, they have trouble scoring (the Browns have scored four more points) and allow more than 24 points a game. Only two AFC teams have a worse point differential (-36) than Cincinnati. One is the New York Jets at -69. You know the other.

Last season, the Bengals won the division comfortably with a 12-4 record, sporting the AFC’s third-highest scoring offense with 419 points – they are on pace for just 291 this season – and the stingiest scoring defense in the conference. Their +140 point differential was second to New England.

It has been a frustrating 2016 for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who confessed earlier this week that he misses Hue Jackson, his offensive coordinator the last two seasons and a member of his staff for the last four. “I miss the hell out of him,” he told the local media.

Why the sudden dropoff with the offense? Could it be Jackson’s absence has made that much of a difference since bolting north to head the Browns? Not really.

Losing wide receivers Mohamed Sanu (to Atlanta, where he has 21 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns) and Marvin Jones (to Detroit, where he has caught 29 passes for 529 yards and four    
(Correction: In Monday’s Monday leftovers, I stated losing the first seven games of the season would tie the team mark set by the expansion 1999 team. The 1975 Browns lost the first nine games of the season under first-year coach Forrest Gregg before winning three of the next five to finish 3-11. The current Browns need three more losses to tie that futility mark and four to establish a dubious record.)
scores) in free agency didn’t help quarterback Andy Dalton. And then there’s the lingering back and ankle injuries that have  sidelined tight end Tyler Eifert.

Dalton still has Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green, who checks in with 42 grabs for 606 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but not much else Not unless you consider Brandon LaFell’s three scoring receptions, which represent half of Dalton’s touchdown total.

He also isn’t helped by a running game that has gained just 446 yards (not including the 93 he has picked up scrambling) in six games under new coordinator Ken Zampese, who definitely favors the forward pass.

Of their 125 first downs, only 31 belong to the running game with 81 gained through the air (opposition penalties added 13 more). An amazing 80% of the Bengals’ 2,189 total offensive yards have been produced by Dalton’s aerial circus.

Their biggest problem is getting into the end zone. They have done so only 10 times in the first six games and cashed in only 42% of the time they enter the red zone. Last season, they checked in at 65% in the red zone with Jackson calling the shots.

After squeaking past the New York Jets in the season opener, the Bengals have dropped four of the last five games. One of the reasons very well could be the Cincinnati offensive line, which has allowed 19 sacks and forced Dalton to run on 25 other occasions.

The remedy to the losing woes? A quick look at the schedule at this juncture of the season, especially after the first six games, and seeing the Browns in week seven ostensibly provides much-needed relief from the rigors of the schedule.

The Bengals have easily handled the Browns the last three meetings, outscoring them, 98-13. But since the Browns returned to the National Football League in 1999, they have knocked off the Bengals 12 times in 34 games, including a 5-12 record in Cincy.

Now that doesn’t seem like much, but it oddly is by far the Browns’ hest record against an AFC North team since reentering the league as an expansion team in 1999.

They are 9-26 against the Baltimore Ravens (4-12 in Baltimore) since then and a miserable 6-29 against Pittsburgh with only two victories in 18 visits to the Steel City. Those are not typos.

So it appears, relatively speaking, the Browns are not nearly as intimidated by the Bengals on the road as they are by the Steelers and Ravens. And there are two more of those visits coming up later in the season.

The big question for the Browns this week is who will manage the offensive huddle. Josh McCown is limited in practice about a month removed from suffering a broken collarbone in the game two loss to Baltimore and likely to remain idle for at least one more week.

That means Cody Kessler most likely draws his faith straight starting assignment. Considering this was supposed to be a learning season for the rookie, he has acquitted himself well despite the club’s winless start. He has completed 80 of his 122 passes for 865 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception.

He came out of Southern Cal noted mostly for his accuracy – he completes 65.6% of his throws – and the ability to diagnose defenses. But his average throwing arm allows opposing defenses to squeeze the field, commit to stopping the run and dare him to stretch it.

Throwing to a corps of receivers dominated mostly by youth doesn’t help. And this Sunday, he might have to work without Terrelle Pryor, the club’s most productive wideout who yanked a hamstring in last week’s loss in Tennessee.

It’s possible the Browns’ starting lineup will include rookie wide receivers Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis with Jordan Payton, another first-year man, seeing significant action for the first time this season. The Bengals’ secondary surrenders nearly 260 yards a game and has picked off just four throws.

But the Cincinnati defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times – Carlos Dunlap and Will Clarke have seven of them – and Kessler is coming off a six-sack beating last Sunday against the Titans.

The Browns’ offensive line is not any better this week than it was last week, so expect Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to dial up a variety of blitzes and make Kessler uncomfortable.

If the Bengals lose this one, odds of making the postseason dwindle dramatically. And running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are too good to be held down all season. Look for big games from both.

Also look for the Browns’ infantry problems to continue. After leading the NFL in rushing after week four, the running game has ground out just 67 yards in the last two losses, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. have combined for 57 of those yards in 30 carries.

Jackson clearly has major work to do in fixing that aspect of the offense. If the misery continues one more week, Kessler is going to have plenty of company in the backfield.

And let’s not forget the situation in the secondary, where Joe Haden is questionable at best to cover Green, and free safety Jordan Poyer is done for the season after that crunching hit on a punt against the Titans.

Dalton tortures the secondary all afternoon, mainly because the Cincinnati offensive line handles the Cleveland defensive front, allowing the quarterback all the time he needs to shred the defense.

Green scores a pair of touchdowns, Hill runs for 103 yards and scores once, Bernard hauls in a short pass for a score, Dalton throws for 333 yards and enjoys watching his defense shut down Kessler and his crew, sacking him four more times. Cody Parkey’s two field goals account for all the Browns’ points. Make it:

Bengals 31, Browns 6

Monday, October 17, 2016

Monday leftovers

Here we are the day after yet another Browns loss and Browns Nation, hungering for any type of victory, is somewhat befuddled by an argument-producing decision made by coach Hue Jackson Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.

Jackson, somewhat surprisingly, elected to attempt a two-point conversion after the Browns rallied to pull within 28-19 of the Titans late in the fourth quarter.

“I went for two early because I knew at some point I was going to need to go for it,” Jackson said after the game. “I’d rather go for it now than have to come back and do it again.”


It made more sense to insure the opportunity to go for the tie later by allowing Cody Parkey to attempt a placement for the one point and make it a one-possession deficit. It made more statistical sense that way.

The way Jackson played it, he robbed his team of any opportunity to have a chance at ending this season’s five-game losing streak. By attempting to do so after pulling within 28-19 of the Titans, he gambled and lost, keeping it a two-possession game.

There are those who would argue that even if Jackson had chosen to go for the PAT initially that the subsequent two-point try after the next touchdown might have failed.

Maybe so, but we’ll never know because the coach made what turned out to be the wrong decision, especially after the Browns recovered the ensuing onsides kick. Recovering and subsequently scoring again with 27 seconds left only fueled the argument.

Jackson said he used a chart to come to his conclusion and would not second-guess himself. “I am making these decisions with good information from people I trust,” he told reporters, “That is what we decided to do.

“It’s on me regardless of who I’m getting the information from. I made a decision and I take responsibility for it. I don’t run from that.” A rather defensive stance taken by Jackson.

No one is accusing him of running from anything. He has proven to be a standup guy. No argument there. Some, me included, do not question his stance in matters such as this. They question his wisdom.

There is nothing wrong with using a common sense approach to the thought process. Don’t be a slave to what the charts say. Think for yourself. It’s easier to blame yourself that way if something, like what happened Sunday, goes wrong. You get more respect for admitting a mistake.

Coaches like to say the goal in coaching is to put players in a position to succeed and ultimately win. The same should be applied to the coaches themselves. In this case, it clearly wasn’t.
*       *       *
It was just one play in a game that featured more than 100. But if it had turned out differently, there’s no telling how the Titans game would have turned out.

Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota started the game by skirting left end on a designed play and raced – he showed the kind of speed you rarely see from a quarterback – 41 yards down the sideline to ignite what became a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive.

But the second play of that opening possession might have foretold what the Browns had to contend with the rest of the afternoon. And it could have made a big difference in the outcome.

Mariota dropped back to pass on that play from the Cleveland 34-yard line and tried to hook up with wide receiver Andre Johnson in the right flat. But rookie outside linebacker Joe Schobert sniffed out the play and got his hands on the ball with nothing but green in front of him.

And he dropped it. Bad hands no doubt. Maybe that’s why he’s a linebacker and not, say, a tight end. He catches it and runs it back for a pick 6, the Browns jump in front just two plays into the game.

Momentum is a funny thing in football. It often can dictate how a game unfolds. Some teams jump all over it when it arrives and never let it go. That’s what coulda happened in the Titans game if Schobert hangs on. But you know what they say about coulda. Woulda, coulda, didn’t.

And that’s what eventuated in this case. So close and yet so very far. We’ll never know, of course, what would have occurred had Schobert hung on for one good reason The Browns aren’t one of those teams that takes advantage of momentum. The Titans took advantage of their good fortune and never lost the early lead.
*       *       *
More and more, Danny Shelton is playing like the nose tackle the Browns thought they drafted out of college. He has become a barrier in the middle of the defensive line, making it difficult for opponents to run up the middle.

DeMarco Murray, one of the best running backs in the NFL, was held to a meager 24 yards in the first half, forcing Mariota to put the ball up more often than the coaching staff wanted. Murray wound up with just 65 yards and a touchdown, but they didn’t come easily.

Shelton often draws double teams, which affords inside linebackers Demario Davis and Christian Kirksey the luxury of filling the gaps and making plays before they explode. The burly nose tackle, who recorded his first sack of the season against the Titans on a bull rush, is the main reason Davis’ and Kirksey’s tackle totals are high.

And now that Shelton is settling in, it behooves defensive coordinator Ray Horton to surround him with the kind of talent that causes opposing teams to back off on double teaming him.

Perhaps when rookie defensive end Carl Nassib recovers sufficiently from his broken hand, is able to go full time and becomes the pass rusher the club expected whey they drafted him, that situation will improve.
*       *       *
Even though he had his moments, there is no doubt rookie quarterback Cody Kessler is growing up in a hurry. He was playing with tender ribs and behind an offensive line that sprung leaks most of the afternoon and yet was able to guide two late scoring drives that made the 28-26 final somewhat more palatable.

He was sacked six times, hit 11 more times and hurried on numerous other occasions on his 43 dropbacks. The fact he completed 26 passes for 336 yards and a pair of touchdowns with no interceptions is a testament to his toughness.

Josh McCown is expected back this Sunday against Cincinnati, but Kessler did not embarrass himself in his NFL baptism. If nothing else, he proved he can hang with the big boys.
*       *       *
One of the reasons the Browns have had trouble offensively is positive starting positive field position.

Of their 12 possessions against Tennessee, four started out at the 25-yard line, where drives begin when kickoffs are not returned; one began at the Cleveland 40 following a Tramon Williams pick (great effort); one started at the 38 following a successful onsides kick; and the remaining ones began at the 11, 22, 19, 8, 6 and 6.

That doesn’t make the offense’s job any easier. The Browns need someone like Travis Benjamin, who shortened fields the last few seasons (when he wasn’t injured) with strong returns on punts and kickoffs. Too bad he plays in San Diego now.
*       *       *
And finally . . . It’s about time Jackson and his coaches clean up the rash of dumb penalties. There is nothing more aggravating than pre-snap penalties, especially the false starts, illegal formations and delays of game on offense. Not to mention the holding and block-in-the-back penalties by special teams that abort good returns. No excuse for them. There is nothing wrong with penalties for aggression. It’s those others that frustrate and show lack of discipline. . . . If the Browns don’t beat the Bengals Sunday, they will join the expansion 1999 Browns as the only teams to open the season with seven losses. . . . Until Corey Coleman returns, it looks as though Jackson likes Ricardo Louis better than Rashard Higgins at wide receiver. . . . Look for wideout Terrelle Pryor and tight end Gary Barnidge to get plenty of looks from McCown upon his return. . . . The 137 yards the Browns surrendered to the Tennessee running game is deceiving because 41 of those yards (Mariota’s run) came on the game’s first play. . . . Center Cameron Erving returned from his bruised lung and did not improve the quality of play at the position. He was beaten badly by Titans defensive tackle Karl Klug on a third-and-1 at the Tennessee 13 on the Browns’ second possession of the game. It caused a six-yard loss for Isaiah Crowell, who was hit a fraction of a second after taking the handoff. Instead of a first down, the Browns had to settle for the second of Parkey’s two field goals. . . . Punter Britton has punted 13 times in the last two games. Sunday, he booted seven times for an average of nearly 51 yards. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: four carries for 18 yards, four receptions for 56 yards and two punt returns for six yards. More touches please.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's all about the math

There are two very different ways to look at the Browns’ 28-26 loss Sunday to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.

The closeness of the score would indicate to someone who judges a game strictly by the final outcome that this was a very close game. It wasn’t. At least not until the waning moments.

The Browns parlayed a sputtering offense, rather interesting – no, make that head-scratching – decision making by their head coach at a crucial juncture of the game and a defense that wasn’t very defensive when it needed to be into the exciting finish.

Coach Hue Jackson, who might be quick with a quip but apparently lacks the ability to think some things through on the fly, made a strange decision that cost his team the chance to end an eight game-losing streak that began last season.

When he made the conscious decision to go for two points instead of a one-point placement after Terrelle Pryor’s second touchdown of the game pulled the Browns to within nine points at 28-19 with 2:07 left in regulation, the game was irretrievably lost. For lack of a better term, let’s call it a mathematics cramp.

Logical thinking dictates going for the sure one point at that point and keeping it a one-score game at 28-20 with a chance to at least tie the game. Failing the two-point attempt, as they did, made it a two-score game with no opportunity to win.

Not even the club’s first successful onsides kick exactly five years ago Sunday in Oakland can act as a salve for the emotional wounds that must have been felt after the game. Duke Johnson’s Jr. one-yard scoring plunge with 27 seconds left was merely an addition to the stats sheet.

The odds of successfully recovering consecutive onsides kicks must be astronomical. So when veteran Tennessee wide receiver Andre Johnson cradled Cody Parkey’s second attempt with 27 seconds left, all that catch-up work was rendered moot.

So close and yet so far. Thanks, coach.

The Browns actually did not deserve to be close enough to cause cardiac concern to some in the Titans’ home crowd, which had witnessed just one home victory in the last 15 games prior to this one.

The Browns’ offense had six possessions in each half and rang up seven three-and-outs, a momentum killer they have avoided most of this season despite being winless in six games.

They had three in a row in the first half totaling zero net yards after putting up a pair of Parkey fields on the first two possessions. They netted 90 yards on those possessions before Cody Kessler directed a nine-play, 94-yard drive culminated by the first of Terrelle Pryor’s two touchdown catches.

Fits and starts. You just never knew when the Cleveland offense would show up.

The three-and-out scourge returned early in the second half with four straight netting 15 total yards, while the Titans improved their lead to 28-13 on drives of 70 and 80 yards.

DeMarco Murray, who found the yards tough against a grudging Cleveland run defense, scored on a short run and quarterback Marcus Mariota, who had collaborated with wide receivers Rishard Matthews and Kendall Wright on scoring passes in the first half, hooked up with tight end Anthony Fasano for a third score.

The Cleveland offense mustered an embarrassing three net yards in that quartet of three-and-outs before awakening in the final quarter. The third one was a nightmare worthy of a bad college game.

Taking over on their 6-yard line after Johnson committed an unforgivable error by fair catching a punt at that point (optimists would say at least he didn’t fumble it), the play-by-play read this way:

(Isaiah) Crowell, up the middle, no gain; Pryor, 4-yard pass from (Cody) Kessler; false start, (Andrew) Hawkins; delay of game; Johnson, up the middle, six yards; Britton Colquitt punt. Not noted: one shake of the head by Jackson on the sideline – probably from embarrassment – following the consecutive dumb penalties.

It appeared after Fasano’s touchdown catch that the Browns were cooked. It sure looked that way. The defense couldn’t stop the Tennessee offense, the offense was flat and no one showed signs of stepping up and making plays.

And then just like that, the offense decided to do something about the situation. Kessler, who at times alternated looking like a seasoned pro and then a raw rookie, engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:36 off the clock – that’s way too much time that late in the game – finding Pryor in the end zone for the second time.

Along the way, he converted two fourth downs and a third down as the Browns went into desperation mode. He backed that up with a nine-play 62-yarder following the onsides recovery, Johnson covering the final yard.

The Jekyll-Hyde Cleveland offense produced 341 yards, but just 40 yards on the ground. In last week’s blowout loss to New England, the Browns ran for 27 yards, but it took them 22 carries to accomplish it. Some might call their ground output Sunday an improvement.

All of a sudden, the vaunted Cleveland running game has disappeared, perhaps because the revamped offensive line isn’t very good. (Trying to be nice here.)

Kessler was 26-of-41 for 336 yards and the two scores. But he was sacked six times, sometimes because he often had trouble locating open receivers and displayed a slow release at other times. 

The secondary, which missed cornerback Joe Haden with a groin injury, lost starting free safety Jordan Poyer midway through the second quarter when he was blindsided on a Colquitt punt. There’s no question Mariota and his receivers took full advantage.

In the end, it’s just another loss for the Browns, quickly becoming the National Football League’s stepchild, if they aren’t there already. They remain the NFL’s lone winless team.

If you’re keeping count, that’s six losses in a row this season, nine straight including the end of last season and 16 of the last 17. On the road, the losing streak now stands at nine and 14 of the last 15.

Can things get any worse? Yep.

Up next, the Cincinnati Bengals on the road and they figure to be in a nasty mood when the Browns arrive. The pre-season favorites to win the AFC North Division are 2-4 and coming off a 35-17 shellacking in New England.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Easy pickins this week in Music City?

The last two times the Browns met the Tennessee Titans, they did something extremely rare. So rare, in fact, they have done so little of it for the last 17-plus seasons, it probably startled their fans at the time.

They won both games.

Heaping somewhat on that, the Browns have won five of the last seven meetings between the clubs, including a three-game stretch in the early 2000s. That’s relative nirvana territory for them.

There is a very good reason the Browns take that two-game win streak against Tennessee into this one. The Titans were a combined 5-27 the last two seasons. Which means even though the Browns were bad, the Titans were worse.

The Browns trailed, 28-13, entering the fourth quarter in the 2014 game before coming back to nail a 29-28 victory, Brian Hoyer and Travis Benjamin hooking up twice for touchdowns the last seven minutes of the game in Nashville.

Benjamin bettered that performance last season at home as the Browns jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead. He was on the scoring end of two touchdown passes from Johnny Manziel and added a 78-yard punt return for a score in the 28-14 victory, the first of only three satisfying results in 2015.

So what can we expect when the teams hook up again Sunday down in Nashville? The Browns bring an eight-game losing streak to Music City, including the first five this season. The Titans check in at 2-3, losing both of their home games.

We know Marcus Mariota, the much-heralded quarterback from Oregon the Titans drafted last year after Tampa Bay selected Jameis Winston, will manage the huddle for the Titans, operating an offense some might consider old-fashioned and boringly simple.

The Titans like to run the football. A lot. In this day and age when passing the ball has become the norm, they firmly believe in the adage that the running game sets up the passing game. It’s a bit of a throwback, but when you have a lead running back like DeMarco Murray, you run him. A lot.

Murray arrived in Tennessee by way of Philadelphia after compiling more than 4,500 yards in four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. That included seasons of 1,121 and 1,845 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground.

He signed with the Eagles as a free agent when coach Chip Kelly traded LeSean McCoy to Buffalo. He didn’t fit into Kelly’s scheme, producing just 702 rushing yards and six touchdowns. After the Eagles fired Kelly, Murray was dealt in the offseason to Tennessee, where he has flashed his Dallas form, scoring five touchdowns.

The Titans have rushed the ball 127 times from scrimmage, not counting quarterback scrambles. Murray has 93 of them, or 73% of the carries. He has gained 461 of Tennessee’s 743 yards, or 62%. That total also includes Mariota’s scramble figures.

The pro sophomore, who completes 60% of his passes, is a dangerous runner when flushed out of the pocket. He is the club’s third-leading ground gainer with 132 yards, only 19 fewer than rookie running back Derrick Henry.

So when the Titans line up, the odds are just about even the call will be a run, which, at least theoretically, gives opposing coordinators a slight edge in calling defenses.
Whereas most teams in the pass-happy league put the ball up at least 60% of the time, the Titans are much closer to 50%.

But when Mariota does throw, Murray is his top target with 24 receptions. He also likes to throw to wideouts Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews, Andre Johnson and tight end Delanie Walker.

In last Sunday’s victory in Miami, the pro sophomore became only the second quarterback in NFL history to record four four-touchdown games (three scoring passes and a short run) in his first 17 games. The first was Charlie Conerly of the New York Giants back in 1948-49.

We also know the Tennessee defense is pretty good against the run, surrendering just 98 yards a game. And the Browns are coming off a loss to New England last week in which they ran for just 27 yards on 22 carries.

That paltry total dropped them from the top of the National Football League in that category all the way down to fifth. Moving up to second this week? Yep, the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans’ defense does a decent job of getting after the quarterback, dropping opposing passers a dozen times in five games. Veteran outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who usually lines up on the weak side, owns half of those sacks. Joe Thomas is Cleveland’s offensive tackle on that side of the ball.

What we don’t know for certain who will be Cleveland’s starting quarterback. We know it won’t be Charlie Whitehurst, whose stay with the Browns during their quarterback crisis was brief and extremely painful. The Browns said sayonara earlier in the week to the veteran quarterback, who was injured in the Patriots loss last Sunday.

It looks as though rookies Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, who was elevated from the practice squad when Whitehurst was cashiered, will handle the quarterbacking against the Titans. Kessler, was also banged up in the New England loss, is listed as the starter with Hogan, who has never appeared in an NFL game, as insurance.

Josh McCown, who suffered a broken collarbone injury in the second game of the season against Baltimore, was ruled out Friday by coach Hue Jackson, who said his veteran quarterback is a week away from returning.

Oddsmakers like the Titans by seven points to keep the Browns winless in this one. The odds of losing their third straight at home this season are quite low against the banged-up Browns.

Word came down Friday that left guard Joel Bitonio, arguably the Browns’ best offensive lineman, was placed on injured reserve with what is being called a mid-foot sprain. He becomes the 11th player and sixth starter to be placed on IR.

The good (maybe) news is Cameron Erving returns from his bruised lung to take over again at center. John Greco moves back to right guard and Alvin Bailey likely will replace Bitonio, who also missed six games last season with an ankle injury.

The Titans will take advantage of the revamped and less talented Cleveland offensive line and drop Kessler three times, pick him off twice and prompt Jackson to give Hogan his NFL baptism in the fourth quarter.

The Tennessee offense will maintain its mastery on the ground with Murray rushing for 120 yards, catching five passes and scoring twice. Because the Titans are good at controlling the clock and moving the chains, Mariota attempts only 22 passes, completing 12, including touchdown strikes to Walker and Sharpe.

The Browns will pick off Mariota in the second quarter, Briean Boddy-Calhoun making the theft and turning it into a pick-6. It will turn out to be the only Cleveland touchdown for the afternoon. Cody Parkey’s three long field goals make the final look respectable. Make it:

Titans 31, Browns 16

Monday, October 10, 2016

Monday leftovers

Last week in a moment of weakness, I heaped praise on the Browns’ offensive line following the loss to the Washington Redskins. I spoke way too soon.

That wonderful offensive line, restructured somewhat due to the season-ending injury to center Austin Reiter, making his Cleveland debut, fell apart in the latest loss – No. 5 in a row this season if you’re keeping count – to the New England Patriots Sunday.

The insertion of Reiter against the Redskins kicked John Greco back to his normal right guard spot and the big guys up front acquitted themselves well even though the team lost.

But Reiter’s loss kicked Greco back to center against the Patriots with Alvin Bailey moving back in at right guard after missing a game due to an off-the-field incident that upset coach Hue Jackson.

Greco had all sorts of problems with his game in the pivot. Whether it was holding one of the Patriots’ beefy defensive tackles and drawing yellow laundry, running downfield to block before the pass was thrown or committing a false start, it was not a good game, although not once did he misfire on a snap.

This is not to say what happened Sunday was all Greco’s fault. Oh no. He had plenty of help. You win as a team and l . . . well you catch my drift.

What the New England defensive line did against the Cleveland offensive line was definitely a group effort. The Pats’ front seven basically threw up an iron wall at the line of scrimmage and Cleveland running backs kept running into it.

The Pats knew entering the game that the Browns owned the best ground game, at least statistically, in the National Football League. They also knew their ability to stop running games ranked highly.

It is said that a good defense almost always stops a good offense. And that is exactly what the Patriots did with coordinator Matt Patricia making the correct call, with few exceptions, along the way.

It certainly wasn’t as though the Browns didn’t try. Jackson called for all sorts of runs. Up the middle, off tackle, around the flanks. You name it, nothing worked for one important reason. The Pats outexecuted them.

The longest Cleveland run from scrimmage was a six-yard romp by Isaiah Crowell on the last play of the third quarter with the Browns trailing, 30-7. It was part of a seven-play, 80-yard drive that wound up as the second and final visit to the end zone on the afternoon.

Jackson pretty much was forced to abandon the infantry approach when the Pats grabbed a 30-7 lead after driving 75 yards and scoring to open the second half. Whatever game plan he had was flushed by a whole different set of circumstances.

Making matters worse for the Cleveland coach was losing his rookie quarterback late in the first quarter and having to work with a quarterback who had been in camp for less than two weeks and had scant knowledge of Jackson’s system.

The Patriots took full advantage by sending five and sometimes six men with intent to inflict as much damage on Charlie Whitehurst as possible. And it worked when the veteran quarterback limped off the field late in the fourth quarter with a knee injury.

Jackson discovered early that his offensive line was no match for the Pats’ defense, gaining only 12 yards in the first half on 15 carries. Oddly, the Browns rushed for more yards in the second half, gaining 15 yards in seven attempts.

Putting the Cleveland offense’s contributions into perspective, it generated 262 yards against the Patriots. New England quarterback Tom Brady threw for 271 yards . . . in the first half. Enough said? Rhetorical question.
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To be certain, the offense had plenty of company in the blame department in the latest loss. The defense was every bit as culpable with the special teams lagging distantly.

It was almost as though the guys playing opposite the other team’s offense weren’t really there as New England moved the ball almost effortlessly in the first three possessions

The first three Patriots’ drives were almost too easy. No. Make that too easy. No matter what the Browns did to stop them, it failed. Sort of like how the offense failed to solve the New England defense.

It is, indeed, all about execution. And to be trite, it’s all about wanting to more than the other guy. It looked as though the Browns were just happy to be on the same field as Brady and his men. The Patriots’ approach was much more businesslike. The Browns hoped for an upset. The Pats knew that wasn’t going to happen.

In taking notes as the game unfolded, I wrote the following after New England’s early domination: “When did this game fall apart? When the Patriots elected to get off the buses when they arrived at the ballpark.”

Any arguments?
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This might sound like a niggle, but what in the world was Jackson thinking when he went for a two-point conversion following the second Cleveland touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter?

The touchdown narrowed the New England lead to 17 points, which meant a Cody Parkey conversion would have made the deficit 16 points, making it still a two-score game. Successfully converting the two-point effort, which they didn’t, would have still made it a two-score game.

By failing to convert, it became a three-score game, making the offense’s task that much more difficult. It appears as though Jackson was either misinformed by whoever is in charge of that strategy or he needs a refresher course in mathematics.
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Usually in any loss, there are glimmers of hope. None could be found on either side of the ball or on special teams, where the Browns still have problems setting up the offense with decent kickoff returns.

A perusal of the game statistics shows Cleveland inside linebackers Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis with a combined 26 total tackles (17 solo collectively). Now either the official scorer was being overly generous or he was watching a different game.

Neither man stood out that much. Both had problems covering New England tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, who combined for 11 catches, 176 yards and three Bennett touchdowns. On Bennett’s first score, Brady found him all alone in the right flat. He was so wide open, he actually loped into the end zone.

The strong safety usually has coverage on the tight end on most calls. But when a team lines up with two tights, as the Patriots did quite often Sunday, someone else has to take the other tight end. That responsibility often times lies with the inside backers.

On at least one occasion, Davis was seen trying to keep up with Bennett on one of his touchdowns catches and Kirksey was flagged at least once for holding and/or interference.
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And finally . . .  You can usually judge a quarterback’s performance by his yards-per-pass average. Brady’s YPP against the Browns was a terrific 9.6. Not bad for someone making his season debut after missing the first month of the season. . . . The usually cool Brady momentarily gave way to his more demonstrative self late in the third quarter after successfully converting a third and five with a five-yard scramble. After being shoved out of bounds by Emmanuel Ogbah of the Browns, Brady quickly jumped to his feet and imitated sprinter Usain Bolt’s famous “To Di World” or “Bolting” victory gesture in front of the Cleveland bench. . . . In the never-ending search for a kick returner who can give the offense decent field position, the Browns tried cornerback Tracy Howard Sunday. He returned four kickoffs a measly 63 yards. Who’s next to try? . . . When Browns defensive end Jamie Meder sacked Brady midway through the third quarter, one would have thought he made the sack of his career the way he celebrated. The Patriots led, 30-7, at the time. It was the only time he was sacked. . . . On the plus side, the Cleveland defense allowed just 98 yards rushing on 35 attempts. . . . Of the Browns’ 17 first downs, only two were achieved on the ground. . . . The Patriots’ four long scoring drives – each lasted eight plays – took 14 minutes and two seconds off the clock. . . .  Duke Johnson Jr. watch: Four carries, one yard; two catches, 21 yards; one dropped pass that was intercepted by Patrick Chung. Seven touches, 22 yards and a drop.