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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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