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?