Monday, August 28, 2017

Browns-Bucs notebook

The fact the Browns are unbeaten in three exhibition starts this season is amazing in and of itself. Borders on shocking, some would say.

But they are fake games, others would say. They don’t mean a thing. They are as meaningful as pet rocks.

And yet, here the Browns are at 3-0 with the Chicago Bears exhibition dead ahead in the Windy City Thursday night. Browns fans, even those who dismiss such winning largesse, cannot dispute the record.

So what does that have to do with anything? Well, check out the following interesting exhibition statistics this franchise has carved out since 1950 with the exception, of course, of those three still-trying-hard-to-forget years when the National Football League turned its back on Cleveland.

The current club, one of four unbeaten teams in exhibition play this season in the NFL (Baltimore, Denver and Seattle are the others), has an opportunity to join the 1950, 1962, 1982 and 1986 Browns as the only teams that went through the exhibition season undefeated. In 64 seasons, that’s it.

The 1950 team (5-0 in exhibitions) went on to win the championship in its inaugural NFL season. The 1962 team, Paul Brown’s last before being fired, was also 5-0 in exhibitions, but 7-6-1 in games that counted.

The 1982 team was 4-0, 4-5 in a strike-shortened regular season, losing in the first round of the playoffs. The 1986 team was 4-0 and 12-4 in the regular season, losing to the Denver Broncos in the infamous game that featured “The Drive.”

The last time the Browns won the first three exhibition games was 1994, Bill Belichick’s (and the Browns’) penultimate season in Cleveland before the franchise was uprooted and replanted in Baltimore.

They knocked off the New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons that year before dropping the final game to Tampa Bay. That club finished 11-5 in the regular season and lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

So how does this all impact on the final exhibition Thursday night in Chicago? If the Browns somehow beat the Bears and wind up unbeaten in exhibition play, how far fetched is it to at least try and connect similar past success with the future?

Is it possible the long-awaited Browns turnaround thus far could be a harbinger of things to come in the regular season? Possible? Yes. Anything is possible. Probable? C’mon.

But considering this franchise played four exhibitions and 16 regular-season games last season and emerged victorious just once, a 20-17 squeaker over the San Diego Chargers in game 15, what has transpired thus far this season has been very uplifting in Berea.

And that, at least from a morale standpoint, is a step in the right direction. This is a young team with many new faces, many of whom for nearly a generation have no idea how hard it has been to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

Of course this all means nothing on Sept. 10 and beyond, but fans of this team right now have to be enjoying the success.
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Watching the Browns play defense this season is going to be fun for the fans. Coordinator Gregg Williams’ anything-goes attack has produced impressive results in the three exhibitions. And yes, they will mean nothing come Sept. 10.

Nevertheless, the following stats prove that fun-to-watch defense has finally returned to the lakefront, playing the game on that side of the ball the way it was meant to be played.

The impressive Cleveland defense has allowed only 49 first downs, stifled opposing offenses on 31 of 40 third-down opportunities, recorded 12 sacks (two others were wiped out by penalties), surrendered just 274 yards a game (75 on the ground), recovered four fumbles, boasts a plus-3 turnover ratio and has allowed just one touchdown (a two-yard scoring pass at the beginning of the fourth quarter in the 20-14 victory over New Orleans.).

Heading into the Bears game, the Browns have not allowed a touchdown in the last 134 minutes and 57 seconds. That stretch includes 25 possessions by the opposition that produced five field goals, two interceptions, four fumble recoveries, two drives that ended on downs and end of a half and 12 punts.

Now don’t expect the club to produce stats like that in the regular season. But it has become apparent that the manner in which the Browns have taken to Williams’ style of coaching has taken root to the extent that his men will not be pushed around this season.

The Browns will win more games because of this defense than they will through the efforts of the offense, which has played hit-and-miss football so far. If the offense can show some of the consistency displayed by the defense, certain goals are attainable. If not, the 2017 season will be a grind for that side of the ball.
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What a revelation Joe Schobert has been. A pass rusher in college and an outside linebacker who seemed to underachieve in his rookie season with the Browns last season, Williams somehow spotted something in him in converting him to middle linebacker.

Now he hasn’t turned into the next Dick Butkus, Sam Huff or Jack Lambert, but Schobert sure has been the most pleasant surprise in training camp. His nose-for-the-football talent had paid off handsomely even after he won the starting job by default when Tank Carder went down for the season.

Schobert, who leads the team with 14 tackles (11 solo), was going to win the competition with his surprisingly good instincts and sure tackling. He recorded four solo tackles and an assist on the Buccaneers’ opening 11-play drive that ended with a Jabrill Peppers interception.

He has added playcalling duties to his areas of responsibility, making certain everyone is positioned correctly before the snap, and been what seems to be a perfect fit between Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins.
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The offense, meanwhile, has not shown the consistency coach Hue Jackson expects. It produced just three points with the ones in the first half against Tampa Bay, mainly because it shot itself in the foot twice.

A dropped pass by Kenny Britt that would have placed the ball around the Bucs’ 5-yard line on the first possession of the game wound up as a 38-yard Cody Parkey field goal instead. And Duke Johnson Jr.’s fumble at the Bucs’ 10-yard line midway through the second quarter blunted another scoring opportunity.

This offense is not good enough yet and must take advantage of the limited opportunities it receives. Small mistakes are magnified as a result. When you have the kind of defense the Browns have, maximizing opportunities on offense is paramount.
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Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor had to be satisfied with his punt coverage and return teams after the first two exhibitions. Then came the Bucs game with three penalties on seven punt-return opportunities. That’s the quickest way to short-circuit a drive.

Not certain whether those who play on the punt return unit have the latitude to try and get away with an illegal block or hold and hope an official misses it. If they don’t, Tabor needs to find players who avoid the yellow laundry.
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Speaking of penalties, the Browns committed 14 more against Tampa Bay for 91 yards, bringing the exhibition total to 35 penalties for 233 yards. And that does not take into account penalties that are declined.

Many of them are of the stupid variety. Pre-snap penalties, along with the aforementioned punt return and the occasional kickoff return flags, are the most maddening. That needs to stop pronto. It shows a serious lack of discipline.
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Kevin Hogan probably won’t make the final 53, but the young quarterback sure made a case for himself by guiding the offense twice in the final quarter to 10 points and the come-from-behind victory.

Using his feet as well as his arm, he managed to overcome a driving rain with a performance that could give Jackson and his coaching staff pause when it comes to selecting the final roster. Is it possible Hogan, who matched DeShone Kizer’s exhibition season total of one touchdown pass, has passed Cody Kessler on the depth chart? Stay tuned.
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Finally . . . Defensive ends Carl Nassib and Tyrone Holmes are making strong cases to make the final 53-man roster. Considering the club’s hyper aggressive approach to the passing game, they would provide solid depth in that area. . . . Corey Coleman looked like a No. 1 draft choice with a four-catch, 66-yard evening, two of which were of the spectacular variety. . . . It appears as though Jackson is bringing rookie tight end David Njoku along slowly, favoring Randall Telfer, a much better blocker, in the run game. Telfer delivered the key block on Johnson’s 37-yard burst midway through the second quarter. . . . All but five of the Browns’’ 40 pass attempts were directed at a receiver or tight end. . . . Four of Kizer’s six completions against the Bucs produced third-down conversions. . . . Can’t figure out why the Bucs’ challenge on what sure looked like a Donteea Dye touchdown catch early in the third quarter, which was ruled an incompletion, was not overruled. Sure looked like one. The Bucs kicked a field goal after the ruling. . . . Six starters for the Tampa Bay defense were given the night off.

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