Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pound the ball; stop the run

What to watch for when the Browns welcome the New York Giants and a national television audience for exhibition game No. 2 Monday night:

On the offensive side of the football, look for coach Hue Jackson to try and improve the ground game, something he failed to do in the exhibition opening victory over New Orleans.

If you say you are going to do something – and Jackson made it clear in the run-up to training camp and in camp itself that the run game would be emphasized – then do it. Either Jackson isn’t listening to himself or he has a short memory.

Considering offensive tackle Joe Thomas (rest) and left guard Joel Bitonio (knee problems) will not suit up against the Giants, it will be interesting to see how the head coach/offensive coordinator calls the game with regard to the infantry aspect of the offense.

Chances are pretty good with a weaker left side of the line and second-year man Shon Coleman at right tackle, it is possible working on the ground game very well might have to wait until game three down in Tampa against the Buccaneers.

That ostensibly means the first two games of the exhibition season will virtually ignore a vital part of the offense with only the so-called dress rehearsal game left in Florida.

That means quarterbacks Brock Osweiler, DeShone Kizer and Cody Kessler had better practice long and hard on their dropbacks because that’s what they’ll be doing on a majority of plays against the Giants because the ground game isn’t nearly ready to do damage to opposing defenses.

Jackson called a pass on 42 of the club’s 64 plays against the Saints, which is not even close to the pass/run ratio he seeks this season. It’s unclear what that ratio is. Last season’s was nearly 65% pass to 35% run.

That, of course, must change this season. And Jackson has only one more game (not including the Giants game) to get the running game untracked because the regular season’s first two games are against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, teams with notable strong defenses against the run.

From the looks of the situation right now, the likelihood of that eventuating is not encouraging.

If the ground game disappears, sustained drives also disappear. Losing the time of possession game means one thing: The defense will see more playing time than coordinator Gregg Williams wants.

Last season, the defense was on the field for nearly 33 minutes a game for the same reason that stat might be repeated this season. The pass-happy – and more often than not pass-failure – game shortened drives and repeatedly brought the defense back on the field and wore it down as the game progressed.

It also means punter Britton Colquitt more than likely will earn his salary again this season. The punter might have been the most effective player on the team last season, dropping 22 of his 83 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with only two touchbacks and no blocks.

Now if Williams’ bellicose defense is stout and opportunistic and becomes a unit that repeatedly gets the ball back for the offense and shortens the field, that’s an entirely different story.

The Browns finished 29th in the National Football League in turnover ratio at minus-12 last season because the defense had only 13 takeaways in poor support of a bumbling offense. Of the 13, only three were fumble recoveries.

Williams coached the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams defense the last three seasons, recording 25 takeaways (13 interception) in 2014, 26 takeaways (half of them interceptions) in 2015 and 18 takeaways last season (10 picks).

His refreshing new approach to defense in Cleveland produced five sacks last week against the Saints with pressure arriving from just about everywhere. And this is with a mostly vanilla approach. The sophisticated stuff arrives beginning with the Steelers game.

The run defense, which has plagued this franchise since 1999, limited the Saints to just 82 yards on the ground. That, in and of itself, is a story even though it was a meaningless game. A Cleveland defense holding any team to less than 100 yards is a feat.

In the still-trying-very-hard-to-forget 1-15 record the Browns posted last season, the defense held the opposition under 100 yards only four times and under 80 yards just twice.

Williams’ defense with the Rams the last three seasons produced 22 games holding the opposing team under 100 yards on the ground, including 10 last season with a 4-12 team. The Cleveland defense over the last three seasons has held the opposition under 100 running yards a paltry 12 times, just twice under 50 yards.

Based strictly on what fans saw against the Saints and Williams’ out-there bravado and swagger with regard to his side of the football, look for a swarming-to-the-ball party on just about every play against the Giants.

Members of this very young defense have bought into his infectious style. Unlike last season’s defense, this one plays to the whistle. That might sound unfair until you realize the 2016 Cleveland defense surrendered 28 points a game.

The only weakness in the defense this season is the secondary, but a stronger pass rush should help alleviate many of the problems that hampered the defensive backfield last season. Arriving at the quarterback quicker and with more attitude should provide members of the secondary with many more opportunities for interceptions.

With the first-team defense scheduled to play well into the second quarter, keep an eye on how often Williams brings pressure from a variety of areas on the field. At first blush, he appears to be a master at disguising blitzes.

Also keep an eye on the defensive line, which will be without tackle Danny Shelton (out with a knee) for the first time since he arrived a couple of years ago. Fans will get an idea of just how deep that unit is –or isn’t – in his absence.

The litmus test against the Giants will be provided by 36-year-old quarterback Eli Manning, 33-year-old wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham Jr., arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.

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