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.”
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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.