Friday, September 29, 2017

One less winless team

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then rest assured Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton misses Hue Jackson in a far out way.

Dalton, who will lead his Bengals into Cleveland Sunday, hasn’t been nearly the same solid quarterback since Jackson left as his coordinator to take the head-coaching job with the Browns early last year.

He led the Bengals to a 41-19 record when Jackson was on Cincinnati’s offensive coaching staff, the first two seasons as running backs coach and then two more as offensive coordinator.

Dalton thrived and clearly responded well to Jackson’s coaching. He threw for 14,610 yards and 104 touchdowns in that span. So it was interesting to see how Jackson’s departure would affect his performance. 

The jury is in. After 19 games, it hasn’t been pretty. In fact, it has been downright disappointing. The Bengals missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010 and are winless in three games this season.

In 19 games since Jackson left, Dalton has thrown for 4,812 yards and only 20 touchdowns. The Bengals are 6-12-1 and heading in a direction that conceivably could see the end of coach Marvin Lewis’ 15-year reign in Cincinnati.

Coincidence? Maybe. But the Bengals bring one of the most anemic attacks in the National Football League to Cleveland.

How anemic? Try 33 points, 12 by placekicker Randy Bullock, who accounted for all of the Bengals points (nine) in the first two games. Dalton & Co. have accounted for just two touchdowns, both in last Sunday’s loss in Green Bay.

How about a meager 47 first downs? Or a ground game that averages just 90 yards a game. It became so frustrating early on, Lewis fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese because of what was reported as a “near mutiny” by players on that side of the ball after game two and turned the playcalling duties over to Bill Lazor.

Sunday’s meeting will feature teams clearly frustrated by their start out of the 2017 gate. Both have problems protecting their quarterback, running the football, catching the football (except for the peerless A. J. Green of the Bengals) with defenses that have problems stopping the forward pass.

The Browns wish they had someone like Green to haul in some of DeShone Kizer’s passes. The veteran wide receiver, who has had some classic battles with Joe Haden in the past, caught 10 passes last Sunday for 111 yards and a score, upping his 2017 total to 20 receptions for 252 yards.

He is basically the focal point of the Bengals’ aerial game. It’s him and then everyone else. Other Bengals receivers have combined for 37 catches and 354 yards

Count on Dalton targeting Green at least a dozen times Sunday, if not more, against a Cleveland secondary that has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete an astonishing 70.2% of their passes. The Bengals’ secondary checks in with a 62% rate.

The only way that percentage improves against the Bengals depends on how effective the inconsistent Cleveland pass rush is against a bad Cincinnati offensive line, which has permitted 11 sacks. Defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib have been awful at best.

As a result, don’t be surprised to see a lot of cover two from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with unexpected and exotic blitzes arriving from different parts of the field. Jabrill Peppers also needs to play a lot closer to the line of scrimmage, maybe even as an occasional box safety.

Key to this one is how well the running games of these teams perform. Both are struggling, making it difficult for their quarterbacks to be effective. Neither team relies heavily on the run game to set up the pass game.

Bengals rookie Joe Mixon has been a disappointment with only 107 yards in three games as the feature back. Jeremy Hill, who has had three (and nearly a fourth) 100-yard games against Cleveland in six games, has been relegated to spot duty for the most part.

It would appear the Bengals mistakenly allowed offensive left tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, their two best linemen, to escape via free agency. Whitworth is now with the Los Angeles Rams and Zeitler is in Cleveland.

The Browns can’t get the ground game in first gear, either, and show no signs of busting out unless Jackson decides to feature Duke Johnson Jr. as his main back behind DeShone Kizer and an offensive line that has disappointed thus far.

The Bengals showed signs last Sunday that they were starting to emerge from their offensive funk. They were a lot closer to winning their first game of the season than the Browns.

They shot out to a surprising 21-7 halftime lead over the Packers in Green Bay before falling in overtime after the Packers rallied to tie the game in the last 20 seconds of regulation.

The Cincinnati defense will be buoyed by the return of veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The volatile and highly combustible Burfict missed the first three games while serving a suspension for an illegal hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman during the exhibition season.

The Browns catch a break, though, with the news Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who has scored five touchdowns in five games against them and is a Dalton favorite, is out indefinitely with back problems.

Cleveland, which has lost the last five games in this series and six of the last seven, has not come close to winning in the first three games this season. (And no, last Sunday's three-point loss in Indianapolis was not that close.) The Browns are still looking put a complete game together where all three elements played well.

In what is being widely considered the softest part of the schedule (winless Indianapolis, winless Cincinnati and one-victory New York Jets in a row), they show few but fleeting signs of taking advantage.

If they don’t take advantage now, it probably will be too late later on when the schedule becomes considerably tougher. No telling where that might lead with regard to the final record.

It seems everything the Browns now is in the back-to-the-drawing-board stage, which is not what fans want to see three games into the season. Correcting mistakes of a major nature should not require continuous correcting by now. The fact this is a very young and inexperienced team mitigates against success on a consistent basis.

This might the first time these two teams have met this far into the season with nary a victory between them. The big difference is the Bengals, based solely on their last game, is a team on the rise. The Browns, on the other hand, are scuffling just to be competitive.

In a game that most likely will be dominated by the passing game, the edge goes to the Bengals. Why? Better offense. Dalton vs. Kizer: No-brainer. Green is far and away better than any of the Browns’ receivers. The defensive edge also goes to the Bengals. Why? Burfict’s return. Make it:

Bengals 27, Browns 14

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Hue Jackson’s day-after-another-loss news conference earlier this week produced a surprising comment from the Browns’ head coach.

Asked bluntly whether this team can win with the current roster, the head coach replied with his usual candor with a nugget thrown in.

“I think this team can (win),” he said. “I think we’ve got to do some things better and work a little bit harder in making sure we do some of the detailed things right.”

Then came the head turner.

“That question you just asked,” he said. “That is something you’ve got to talk to Sashi (Brown) about and the executive team.”

The roster.

Hmmmm. Might there be a rift brewing between the two most important branches of the family tree?

“My job is to coach the guys who are here with our football staff and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Jackson. “I’m sure our executive team is scouring everywhere, looking at who could potentially help our team.”

Was this a thinly veiled swipe at Brown, the man with the final say of what the roster looks like? Placing someone as inexperienced as Brown in charge of such an important role is gambling at best.

The Browns need a veteran football man at the helm.. Someone who knows how to put together a competitive roster, a talented roster, a roster with the kind of talent that begets winning. There are a few of them out there on the NFL landscape with the kind of résumé this club needs.

The current regime came in and blew up the team in 2015 and began reconstructing it in its own image the last two seasons with even more reconstruction based on yet another bountiful draft class next spring.

The Browns have made 24 selections in the lottery the last two seasons with 12 more scheduled for next spring. That’s 36 possible new faces – not to mention free-agent signings – on this roster in a three-year period.

There were those among the hierarchy who obviously believed this team had reached rock bottom in 2015 and a roster purge was in order. That was to be the initial phase of a recovery. I’m fairly certain the front office knew 2016 would be difficult, but I’m sure it did not envision winning only one game

After the 10-man class this year, those in the Ivory Tower believed there was enough talent on a roster that was the youngest and least experienced in the National Football League that improvement was certain to follow.

Maybe it was blind optimism based on the notion it couldn’t be any worse this season than last season’s 1-15 disaster. But three games into the 2017 season, seeds of doubt are beginning to sprout following a trio of losses.

Expectations are not being met and it would appear fingers of guilt, a few more overt than others, are being pointed. Read into it what you want, but it sure seems as though Jackson is saying, “Hey, this isn’t my doing, not my fault. Look what I’ve been given to work with.”

Jackson at the same time is trying to hold his head above the fray and convey to his team he has not given up on them, nor should they give up on him. Forget what the record says. Focus on the next game.

“None of us likes losing,” he told the Cleveland media. “There is a human element we all deal with. Let’s be honest, that’s there. But this team is very resilient and I think they will keep working. I know they will. “

Of course they will. It’s their job. That’s what they get paid to do.

“At the end of the day,” Jackson said, “these guys are trying the best they can. What we have to do is continue to put them in situations so they can have success and get better.”

Somewhere up in the Ivory Palace, Jimmy Haslam III and his wife, Dee, are watching all this unfold. It will be interesting to see what develops from what seems to be a disagreement between those on the field and those in the front office.

Could a power play be shaping up? Maybe so. Then again, it is entirely possible this is being blown way out of proportion.

However this shakes out, one thing is certain: The drama never ends at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Monday leftovers

Give him credit, although he probably would much rather win a football game than utter the words after yet another frustrating loss Sunday in Indianapolis.

Browns coach Hue Jackson is trying to keep things positive in the world of the Cleveland Browns. That’s hard to do when he has coached this team in 19 games and had reason to smile after only one.

Losing as often as the Browns do makes it that much more difficult to keep spirits up in the locker room even though the National Football League season is only three weeks old. Losing constantly grows wearisome. It takes a toll.

Jackson kept it positive, though, following the 31-28 loss to the Colts. “I’m not discouraged,” he told the assembled media. “I’m not disappointed . . . I see signs, but it’s just not happening fast enough.”

He appeared to be talking about his rookie quarterback, who on several occasions against the Colts was anywhere from a beat to a beat-and-a-half late with many of  his passes.

As has been mentioned here and elsewhere, offense is all about rhythm. It does not take much to throw off that rhythm. It does not take much to turn a potentially good play into one that mystifies an old hand like Jackson.

DeShone Kizer possesses all of the physical attributes to make a successful transition from college to the NFL. He has a terrific arm, is very athletic, takes the game seriously and approaches his job from a studious standpoint.

It’s all about applying those wonderful attributes on the field. It’s one thing to watch and study film and see where the mistakes fall. It’s quite another to actually be on the field and attempt to correct those mistakes.

Right now, the game seems to be too fast, too quick for Kizer, notwithstanding his boast during the exhibition season that it was slowing down for him. By now, he no doubt has discovered the speed and quickness of the game in exhibitions are quite different than when the money games begin.

Kizer is processing at a speed nowhere near concurrent with what is actually happening. Solid evidence is his annoying habits of either holding on to the ball too long to waiting too long for his receivers to come open. He threw behind targets at least six times against the Colts. Rhythm.

He needs to be quicker with his decisions. On passing plays, the football needs to be out of his hands in three seconds or less. And it remains obvious the Cleveland ground game is awful at best.

The Browns have run only 67 plays infantry style from scrimmage and accumulated a measly 261 yards, 111 of them against the Colts. That’s only 3.9 yards a pop. That’s only part of the story.

The three running backs – Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr. and Matthew Dayes – account for just 165 of those yards on 48 carries. Let that sink in. Only 48 attempts in three games. That’s 3.5 yards a carry. Crowell, the alpha male in the room, has 39 of them and gained just 114 yards (38 a game).

“Nothing magical is going to happen,” Jackson said. “We have to get better. . .. We’re doing everything we can to win. . . It’s just not happening as good as it needs to . . . It’s just where we are right now.”

“Nobody’s down, nobody’s throwing in the towel. If anything, I’m pissed off. . . We have to make plays . . . That’s what pro teams do and we have to get better at it.” That might what pro teams do. Not this one.

And what about the eight dropped passes on the afternoon? “I wish I could explain the drops,” the coach said. “I can’t.” I can. Sloppy football. Total lack of concentration.

Kenny Britt, who scored a touchdown but also dropped a couple of those passes, is wildly optimistic about what the future holds for the young wide receivers corps. “We can be elite,” he said with a straight face. “I don’t believe any defense in the NFL can stop us. These young wide receivers are going to get better and better.”

If that was designed to win points with the coach, rack him up.
*       *       *
Normally, the Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch arrives much later in these leftover notes. Not today. The watch moves up. Here is why. Jackson is playing the wrong man as his No. 1 back.

After three games, Crowell has touched the ball 43 times, 39 as a runner, and accumulated 157 yards. That’s 3.65 yards a touch, hardly the kind of figures you expect from your top running back.

Now let’s look at Johnson’s numbers. He has touched the football only 17 times in those three games, 11 as a receiver either out of the backfield or lined up in the slot, and totaled 204 yards. That’s 12 yards a touch.

Why in the world isn’t Johnson more involved – no, make that much more involved – in the offense? He is clearly the better producer and isn’t producing what this game is all about?

Is Jackson wearing blinders? What more does Johnson have to do to warrant more playing time? He is a playmaker on a team starving for playmakers, especially on the offensive side of the football.

Jackson has given the two men just about equal time to produce. Crowell, who has yet to score, has played 135 of the 214 offensive snaps this season. Johnson, who has one touchdown, checks in with 129 snaps.

They are entirely different runners. Johnson is quick, has good vision and can change directions fluidly. He is more of a slasher looking for cutback lanes and is difficult to bring down.

Crowell is more of a mauler, a pounder who seems to have trouble recognizing holes quickly. If the hole is not there, he does not seem to have the vision to quickly look elsewhere. His longest runs last season came when he bounced busted plays outside and found room. That’s not happening this season.

The only reason I can think of Jackson’s reluctance to use his best back is the possibility of wearing him down. That didn’t seem to bother the 5-9, 205 pounder at Miami, when he ran the football 242 times in his final season for 1,652 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 38 passes for another 421 yards and three more scores.

That kind of production is probably what caught the Browns’ eye when they selected him in the third round of the 2015 college draft. At the risk of sounding repetitious, Johnson’s best position is “get him the football.” He’ll do the rest.

He needs to be the starting running back for this team. His head coach is wasting his versatility and talent.
*       *       *
In was back in June when Jackson declared the pass/run ratio (64-36 last season) would change this season. “I’m a coach who likes to run the ball,” he declared back then after discovering the Browns called the fewest running plays (350) in the NFL last season.

He all but declared this season would be different. More running and less passing. Much more balance. Let’s take a look at where that commitment stands after three games.

The Browns have run 196 plays from scrimmage this season. Only 55 were called runs for Crowell (39), Johnson (6), Dayes (3), Kizer (5), Kevin Hogan (1) and Rashard Higgins (1). The other 141 plays were designed as pass plays for either Kizer or Hogan.

That is 28.1% run, 71.9% pass. Nearly three-quarters of the plays Jackson calls are passes. If you are the opposing defensive coordinator looking for tendencies, guess what the Browns would be doing a vast majority of the time?

So much for the commitment.

Kizer’s run total is somewhat misleading. He is listed as the club’s second-leading ground gainer with 87 yards on 17 carries. The yardage he gained on his 12 scrambles attempting to pass show up as rushing yards. The overall non-quarterback rushing attempts then fall to 55.

“We want to run the ball,” said left guard Joel Bitonio. “That’s part of our IQ. We have some big guys up front.” Tell that to your coach.
*       *       *
The happiest guy on the field Sunday in Indianapolis had to be Rob Chudzinski, the Colts’ offensive coordinator. The former Browns head coach guided the club to a 4-12 record in 2013 and was rewarded with a one-way ticket out of town.

His offense started slowly against the Browns, but heated up quickly and often, scoring four straight touchdowns, led by a quarterback who joined the team just a few weeks ago.

It took less than 11 minutes off the clock for Chud’s offense to school Gregg Williams’ defense in embarrassing fashion in the first half. One can only imagine what a really good offense – the Colts had totaled only 22 points in their first two games – will do against the young Cleveland defense.

That defense made Jacoby Brissett, who arrived in Indy as part of a trade with the New England Patriots, look like a seasoned veteran instead of a second-year pro trying to hold things together until Andrew Lucks returns.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Looking for a positive note? Here’s one for the defense. It has held the opposition to an average of just 88 yards a game on the ground. That’s nearly 45 yards a game better than the last few seasons. . . . Defensive tackle Danny Shelton appears to be just about fully recovered from his knee injury. He was in on seven tackles against the Colts, three solo. . . . Another positive: Kizer, looking a little wiser in the pocket than in his first two games, was sacked only once. A huge improvement. . . . If wide receiver Jordan Leslie does not get more looks, he was targeted only once in 21 snaps, something is terribly wrong with the game planning. The exhibition sensation made a terrific 26-yard catch between two defenders that set up the second Browns touchdown late in the second quarter.  He then was ignored. That’s got to change. . . . Is it time yet to bring free safety Jabrill Peppers closer to the line of scrimmage and be more involved in plays after whiffing on T. Y. Hilton’s 61-yard touchdown catch and run? . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: See above.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

So close and yet . . . 

The Browns could have – and some would argue should have – knocked off the Indianapolis Colts Sunday. Instead, they suffered their 15th straight loss on the road.

In a game jam packed with ifs, the Browns pushed Hue Jackson’s coaching record in Cleveland to 1-18 with a 31-28 loss to the Colts with both sides of the football failing their coach at critical times.

Time to play the game of ifs.

If Browns receivers hadn’t dropped eight catchable passes, DeShone Kizer might have quarterbacked his first National football League victory.

If Kizer hadn’t thrown a half dozen passes behind his intended receivers, he might have done considerably better than 22-of-47 for 242 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

If Kizer had not thrown a couple of bad interceptions at critical junctures, the outcome might have been a whole lot different.

If Browns receivers had not committed four pass interference penalties (one shove and three pick plays), which lost 42 yards for tight end Seth DeValve, Kizer’s stats would have been much better.

If the defense hadn’t allowed the anemic (until this game) Indianapolis offense to score touchdowns on four straight possessions to take a 28-7 lead with 2:41 left in the first half, this one might have turned out differently. They required only 24 plays, consumed 287 yards and took just 10:52 off the clock.

(Kind of makes one wonder whether Gregg Williams’ wonderful defense voted to take the afternoon off. Ya think it’s safe to say it will not be a pleasant or quiet week in the defense meeting room this week as they prepare for Cincinnati next Sunday?)

If free safety Jabrill Peppers had not taken a bad angle on one long touchdown pass and arrived late on another, drawing pass interference against the same receiver which later led to another score, who knows how this one would have turned out.

If Zane Gonzalez was only half successful with his two onside kicks down the stretch, the Browns had an excellent shot of at least tying the game. So . . .

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. In the game of woulda, coulda and shoulda, the Browns didn’t and thus lost for the 21st time in the last 22 games and 28th time in the last 30 dating back to Oct, 15, 2015.

In the event you missed it, those victories, both at home, were against San Francisco, 24-10, on Dec. 3, 2015, and against San Diego, 20-17, last Dec. 24, Jackson’s lone Cleveland victory.

The Browns haven’t won a game in September since knocking off the Tennessee Titans 28-14 (again at home), on Sept. 20, 2015. Makes some – if not most – fans wonder just when the madness will stop.

Jacoby Brissett, who had not thrown a touchdown pass in the NFL in three starts, piloted the Colts victory, which sort of proves (arguably, of course) just about any quarterback can be successful against Cleveland.

With injured quarterback Andrew Luck on the sideline in civvies, Brissett ran for the Colts’ first two touchdowns in that four-touchdown explosion and connected with wide receiver T. Y. Hilton, who turned a simple square out into a 61-yard scoring romp, on which Peppers arrived late on the scene and took a bad tackling angle.

Frank Gore completed the four-touchdown run with 2:41 left in the first half after Peppers tardily picked up Hilton streaking down the middle and shoved him to the ground at the Cleveland 11, drawing yellow laundry.

The Browns earlier had pulled even at 7-7 after the first Indy score when Kizer led a five-play, 75yard drive that ended with a 19-yard touchdown run by Duke Johnson Jr. It was highlighted by Kenny Britt’s 38-yard reception (that is not a typo).

It was another classic case of what the Browns so often have done since 1999 and what fans often times get desperately frustrated about: Play just well enough to lose.

They tried. They really did. They played hard. They really did. Can’t fault them for that. But it’s not even close to being good enough. The final in this one in no way indicates the Browns are getting closer and closer to figuring it out.

Unfortunately, style points do no count in football. Whatever their effort, it was just not good enough. They did not make plays on either side of the ball when they needed to.

Kizer, for example, threw an interception inside the Indy 10-yard line on the first series of the second half and down by just two touchdowns, blunting the opportunity to crawl to within 21-14. The pass was behind an open Kasen Williams inside the Colts 5 and picked off by cornerback Rashaan Melvin.

On the previous play, Kizer lasered an 11-yard bullet through a tight window to tight end David Njoku, who had scored the first Cleveland touchdown. All of which supports the notion that Kizer is the kind of quarterback who will thrill you one minute and break your heart the next.

His second pick two possessions later after Christian Kirksey recovered a Jack Doyle fumble at the Indy 44, was delivered slightly behind Britt, The veteran receiver managed to get his hands on the ball, but deflected it to Melvin, who ran it back into Cleveland territory, setting up an Adam Vinatieri field goal.

On defense, the Browns had numerous opportunities to disrupt that four-touchdown first-half onslaught and failed. Five times during that stretch, the Browns put the Indianapolis offense in third-down situations. The Colts converted every one. Three of them unbelievably wound up in the Cleveland end zone.

The defense settled down in the second half, limiting the Colts to just the Vinatieri field goal. But the damage had been done. The Colts were merely hanging on down the stretch, hoping to avoid a second straight game at home where they blew a game after taking the lead.

Hilton, who burned Cleveland corner Jamal Taylor several times en route to a five-catch, 145-yard first half, was limited to just two receptions for only eight yards in the second half. Too late. 

All a pair of fourth-quarter scores by the Browns – an 11-yard scoring strike to Britt (also not a typo) and one-yard sneak by Kizer – did was make the final score seem a lot closer than it really was.  All it did was give Browns fans hope. False hope as it turned out.

It died when Gonzalez’ weak second onside attempt with 2:04 left in regulation – he failed initially after the Browns made it 31-21 with 6:56 left – dribbled harmlessly into the waiting hands of Matthias Farley.

And the losing beat goes on and on and on . . .

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A winnable game

It’s refreshing every once in a while to look back at what the Browns did in the exhibition season. To remember what it was like to actually win a football game. 

Then the regular season commenced following an unbeaten exhibition season and remembrances of those four fake game victories have all but disappeared in the wake of yet another miserable start.

The 2017 National Football League season is barely a couple of weeks old and the Browns find themselves languishing in the same position with regard to winning football games.

Pairing the words “winning” with “Cleveland Browns” in the same sentence is oxymoronic at best. Winning football games on a fairly regular basis during the regular season has been stupefyingly near impossible for this franchise.

And now, just two weeks into the brand new season, the Browns again find themselves in a familiar – and still uncomfortable – position, looking up at the rest of the AFC North.

Yes, I know Cincinnati is down there, too, but the Bengals are more talented. We’ll find out soon enough who wins the race for the bottom of the division next week. But first, a Sunday date with the Indianapolis Colts is next on the docket.

An interesting team, these winless Colts, trying to slog through the early part of the campaign without their best player, quarterback Andrew Luck. The Browns catch a break with Luck off again for the third week in a row, recovering extremely slowly from off-season shoulder surgery.

The Colts’ offense sans Luck means the Browns actually have a chance to win and snap the 14-game road losing streak they drag into the game. This just might be their best chance to win away from home this season.

After facing quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco in the first two games, this week they get Jacoby Brissett, who is just as big physically as the aforementioned, but far less experienced and, thus, far less talented.

Brissett, who replaced the awful Scott Tolzien in the season opener, is not a neophyte to the NFL wars. When Jimmy Garoppolo was injured while filling in for the suspended Tom Brady at the beginning of last season in New England, Brissett took over and was 1-1 in two games.

Tolzien flamed out in the season-opening drubbing by the Los Angeles Rams – he threw a pair of pick sixes in the 46-9 rout – and has firmly entrenched himself as the backup to Brissett until Luck returns.

The Colts also catch a break with news Browns rookie defensive end Myles Garrett is not ready to return from a high ankle sprain and veteran outside linebacker Jamie Collins is out with a concussion.

The teams are in some respects mirror images of each other. Neither team has an offense that will scare you, especially with Luck idled. And their defenses give them the best chance to win games.

If there is an edge on offense, it belongs to the Colts, who boast of wide receivers T. Y. Hilton, Kamar Aiken and Donte Moncrief and tight end Jack Doyle. The Browns counter with Kenny Britt, Rashard Higgins and . . . and . . .

There are those who believe Jordan Leslie, who flashed during the exhibition season, was cut, brought back and placed on the practice squad, then activated off the squad Friday, will be this week’s Higgins, the surprise no one saw coming. It will be interesting to see much coach Hue Jackson involves Leslie in the game plan.

The Colts rely heavily on running back Frank Gore to set the tone for the offense. Gore might be 34 years old – that’s ancient for a running back in the NFL – and not nearly as quick and fast as he used to be after 13 seasons, but he is still a threat.

The Colts, who pushed the Arizona Cardinals to overtime last week before falling, 16-13, in overtime, are starving for any kind of awakening on offense. They have registered only 28 first downs, 491 total yards and just two touchdowns, both on the ground. 

Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – hmmmm, that name rings a bell – has yet to unlock the mystery of how to effectively run an offense with one of the best quarterbacks in the league in civvies on the sideline.

In theory, the Cleveland defense should not have much of a problem slowing down the Indy offense. Conversely, the Browns do not pose any great threats against a Colts defense that is better than the stats show.

Last week against the Cardinals, the pass rush dropped Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer four times and held the offense in check until the fourth quarter before the Cardinals rallied to win.

The Cardinals’ offensive line is average at best, which just might be the best description of the Browns’ offensive line. And even that might be a little too charitable.

After embarrassingly leading the NFL last season in giving up sacks with a club-record 66, the guys up front this season for Cleveland are off to a roaring start with 10 surrendered, several of those because DeShone Kizer held the football way too long. And the running game has yet to get untracked.

This one shapes up as a low-scoring affair that very well might be determined by whoever wins the special teams, time of possession and field position battles. In other words, have the No-Doz ready just in case.

Get ready for some dull, unimaginative football for the most part as two young, hard-throwing quarterbacks try to figure it all out with the defenses dominating. The critical edge that separates the teams belongs to the Colts – the wide receivers.

It won’t be pretty and will look downright ugly at times. In a game many consider winnable for the Browns, their road losing woes continue. Make it:

Colts 16, Browns 7

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Time to address one of the Browns’ biggest problems on offense. . . . third down. They have faced 24 of them in the first two games and converted a measly five. That’s barely 21%, second worst in the National Football League

A key contributor to the lifeblood of any offense is the ability to convert third downs, which not only prolongs drives, it improves time of possession and, most important, keeps the defense rested on the bench.

The average distance to go in those 24 instances is a little more than 10 yards, which basically shouts to opposing defenses that a pass is coming up. On only six occasions has the distance to go been less than seven yards. In other words, the offense has struggled to get close to the so-called makeable third-and-short.

It all begins with succeeding on first down and staying away from second-and-long situations. Winning first down seems like such a simple approach to playing at least competitive football

Only one problem there. This offense has failed abysmally at winning arguably the most important down in the game. They have managed 10 or more yards on first downs only 11 times in 44 opportunities covering 23 possessions. That increases the pressure to succeed on ensuing downs.

If that doesn’t change, if that doesn’t improve, if the importance of winning that down does not penetrate the minds of those in charge of the Cleveland offense, get used to the same results on a weekly basis. 
*       *       *
The next three games on the schedule for the Browns are against Indianapolis, Cincinnati and the New York Jets, teams with a combined victory total of zero after two weeks.

So if they emerge from the Jets game still looking for their first victory of the season, batten down the hatches. Last season’s 1-15 record might look like a walk in the park by comparison.

They catch a break heading into Sunday’s game in Indianapolis with news that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck still isn’t ready to make his 2017 debut because of shoulder issues related to off-season surgery,.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have not scored a touchdown. And the Jets’ front office conducted an off-season roster purge that all but guaranteed nailing one of the top two picks in next year’s college draft.

That is what the Browns, starving for a victory any way they can get one, face as they attempt to blunt talk of repeating last season’s monstrosity of a season.

Get ready for some bad football for the next three weekends. The bar is so low, fans wont be able to really get a good feel as to whether the Browns, depending on how well they play, are improving or just playing down to the level of the opposition.
*       *       *
Danny Shelton played 35 of the defense’s 68 snaps against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday. I know he played. His No. 55 shone brightly on the television screen. So why was a the team’s top draft pick a couple of years ago a no-show on the final stats sheet?

The big defensive tackle appears to have recovered from a knee injury early in the exhibition season. Maybe. The explosion that was there in his first two seasons, when he played nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, is not there anymore.

Could it be the new 4-3 look of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is not suitable for his talents? Instead of playing nose up on the center, he is responsible now for only one gap.

So why nothing on the stats sheet against the Ravens? At least an assist or two on a tackle. He had one solo tackle in the season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, so there’s something there. It has to be a great mystery to the coaching staff.
*       *       *
Another defensive lineman, Emmanuel Ogbah, is also underperforming. The defensive end made the Ravens game stats sheet only because of one pass defensed. Otherwise, zeroes across the board on 54 snaps. He had one solo tackle and a pass defensed on 42 snaps in the Pittsburgh game.

That’s the total contribution the club’s second-round draft selection a year ago has delivered. What was expected of Ogbah this season was a strong pass rush based on 5½ sacks in his rookie season, but even that aspect of his game seems to be missing.

Right now, the Browns do not have what even charitably could be called a decent pass rush. Unless, of course, you consider getting close to the opposing quarterback sufficient. In that case, never mind.

What this pass rush needs is Myles Garrett, who has missed the first two games with a high ankle sprain that could sideline him for as long as half the season depending on the severity. A healthy Garrett would add a much-needed spark.
*       *       *
Whatever happened to the defensive plans to rely heavily on a 4-2-5 look on a majority of the snaps this season? With the NFL becoming a pass-heavy league, it made sense to play a lot of nickel.

So why then has Joe Schobert played every one of Cleveland’s defensive 128 snaps this season? The middle linebacker was thought to be the one who would leave for the nickelback.

Schobert has been a wonderful surprise at his new position in the middle with 14 tackles (seven solo) and does not come out in obvious passing situations, a nod from the coaching staff with regard to his ability to defend against the pass.

Unless Williams changes his mind, which is entirely possible for the mercurial coordinator, the 4-3 look appears to be a staple now for at least for the first couple of downs on each series.
*       *       *
Why does it seem as though Browns quarterbacks line up in shotgun formation a whole lot more than they do in a pro set? It’s because they do and in large numbers.

In the first two games, the Browns have run 128 plays on offense. Of those 128, only 22 (17%) were executed with either DeShone Kizer or Kevin Hogan under center. Everything else was out of the shotgun.

Maybe those numbers are skewed in favor of the shotgun because Kizer played nothing but shotgun throughout his entire high school and college career and is more comfortable lined anywhere from five to seven yards behind center JC Tretter.

Quarterbacking in the pro set requires a totally different kind of rhythm, a rhythm that apparently Kizer has yet to master. After 15 snaps under center in the Pittsburgh game, coach Hue Jackson reduced the number to just seven in the Baltimore loss. Hogan ran four of them.

When Kizer returned to play most of the second half after his migraine subsided, the Browns ran 27 plays. All were from the shotgun. Jackson apparently considers him a work in progress. Barring a sudden epiphany for the pro set, Kizer’s problem could linger the entire season.
*       *       *
And finally . . . Fullback Danny Vitale was on the field for only six of Cleveland’s 66 plays on offense against the Ravens. Let’s try this one more time: Why is he on the roster? . . . Pre-snap penalties continue to hurt the Browns’ offense. They are tied with three other teams for the league lead with eight in two games. Inexcusable. . . . Overall, they have been flagged 15 times for 126 yards. The Steelers are the runaway leaders with 216 yards. . . . Is it time yet to label wide receiver Corey Coleman as injury prone? The club’s top draft choice last season will miss two months to mend a broken right hand, the same injury that caused him to miss six games in his rookie season. . . . How long will it be before the Browns promote wideout Jordan Leslie from the practice squad to the varsity? He led all the wide receivers in the exhibition season with nine catches and two touchdowns. He certainly can’t be any worse than what they are trotting out there now (with the exception of Rashard Higgins).

Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday leftovers 

When the Browns selected wide receiver Rashard Higgins with the third of their four fifth-round picks in the 2016 National Football League college draft, I believed it was a solid choice.

I thought he would be drafted higher and was happy to see he was there for the Browns. Of the four receivers they selected in that draft, I thought he had the best chance of doing well in an offense that badly needed quality wideouts.

One draft guru labeled the 6-1, 200-pounder “one of the most pro-ready” wide receivers in the lottery because he had grown up in a pro-style offense at Colorado State.

He established numerous receiving records for the Rams, catching 239 passes for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns. In 2014, he was named an All-America after leading the nation with 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.

So it was puzzling when the CSU standout caught only six passes for 77 yards for the Browns last season and was targeted just a dozen times all season. He became an afterthought when game-planning.

Had Browns scouts simply made a mistake in evaluating him? It was apparent the coaching staff didn’t think much of him.

Drafting in the NFL is somewhat of a guessing game to begin with. In selecting four wide receivers, perhaps they figured the odds of uncovering a standout were in their favor. None really panned out.

When 2017 training camp convened in August, Higgins seemingly continued to be an afterthought. He caught only three passes – he was targeted six times – for 26 yards and a couple of first downs in two exhibition games.

He made the final cut, was waived a week before the season opener against Pittsburgh in order to pick up other roster cuts off waivers. He then was signed to the practice squad, where he languished until several days ago, when he was promoted to the varsity.

It raised more than a few eyebrows. What in the world had Higgins done to warrant the promotion? The Browns – and the Baltimore Ravens’ defense – found out Sunday in the 24-10 loss.

The fact he can be effective when playing slot receiver enabled coach Hue Jackson to incorporate him into the offensive game plan and he responded with seven catches for 95 yards, one more grab and 17 more yards than he compiled all of last season.

He displayed a soft pair of hands, the ability to get open, the willingness to go over the middle and a knack for making plays. He just might be the best receiver on a team desperate for receivers who can make plays.

The Browns certainly are not getting production from any of the other wideouts, most notably Kenny Britt, who is doing a pretty good imitation of Dwayne Bowe circa 2015.

With Corey Coleman, the top pick of that 2016 draft class, out now with a broken hand, Higgins just like that moves up as the Browns’ No. 1 receiver. He caught three of his passes and 79 of his yards with DeShone Kizer in charge of the huddle. His diving catch of a 35-yarder late in the opening quarter was a thing of beauty.

His motivation? “I don’t want to be cut no more,” he said following the game.

If Jackson is looking for a hot hand, it appears as though he unknowingly has unearthed one in Higgins. From practice squad to No. 1 receiver. Not a bad jump.
*       *       *
Jackson remains solidly in Kizer’s corner despite the rookie’s uneven performance against the Ravens. He labeled the quarterback’s four-turnover afternoon “unfortunate.”

 “There were some unfortunate things that happened and those were unfortunate things he will grow from,” he said in a pep-talk sort of way. “He’s not going to get rattled by this. He’s going to go back to work with more resolve . . . He’ll grow from this. No question about it.”

What was so surprising Sunday was the revelation Kizer has a history of migraine headaches. When he left the game after four series, speculation arose that maybe he had suffered a concussion. An hour or so of quiet in the dressing room appeared to have alleviated the migraine.

It is unknown whether the Browns had knowledge of his migraine history prior to drafting him. I’m not a doctor and could be arrested for practicing medicine online without a license, but this could be a problem given the unpredictable nature of migraines.

There might be others, but the last known NFL players with a history of migraines are wide receiver Percy Harvin, who played for eight NFL seasons with four different teams, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, who played seven seasons in Denver.
*       *        *
Is it me or is the Cleveland offense stodgy with regard to the running game. There is no imagination or creativity to what Jackson, who has all but pledged to run more this season, is trying to accomplish when his quarterback hands the ball off to a running back.

In two games thus far, the Cleveland running game has compiled 150 yards, a deceiving figure when you notice running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr. and Matthew Dayes have only 98 of those yards. Doesn’t take a math major to figure out that’s 49 yards a game.

It seems everything is up the middle or off tackle. Where are the quick- toss plays, the misdirection plays, the counter traps? If they are in the playbook, it sure would be nice to see them hauled out on game day. If they aren’t, why aren’t they?

As for the passing game, where are the designed rollouts? When was the last time fans saw the very mobile and very athletic Kizer either roll out with a moving pocket or roll out one way as the flow heads in the opposite direction? That’s one way to fool opposing defensive linemen.

Based on the first two games, the playbook looks more than a bit old-fashioned. Pre-snap shifting of skilled personnel, especially on run plays, means absolutely nothing if the end result is another Crowell run up the middle for two yards.

Is it because the offensive line is better and more comfortable at pass protection? Is it because they aren’t quick enough or athletic enough up front to, for example, pull and lead a quick-toss sweep? How unique would that be? The quick opener, it seems, has lost its quick.

And what ever happened to the screen pass? That and the draw play were innovations the late Paul Brown introduced to the NFL. Perhaps a running back running a wheel route out of the backfield.

Anything to get away from the dull and boring exercise of watching Crowell, Johnson and Dayes up the middle or off tackle for a couple of yards on first down. Try winning first down with something innovative and creative for a change.
*       *       *
Riddle me this: Why does free safety Jabrill Peppers play anywhere from 20 to 25 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap? Is it defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ way of keeping everything in front of the rookie?

When he was drafted, it was thought the versatile Peppers would be all over the field, sometimes showing up as a box safety. Sort of make opposing quarterbacks account for his whereabouts.

Peppers quite often is so far back, he is out of television camera range even on wide shots. There appears to be a canyon between him and everyone else near the line of scrimmage. Is it any wonder tight ends take advantage of that space?

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco targeted tight ends Benjamin Watson, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle 13 times Sunday and completed every one for 121 of his 201 passing yards. On way too many of those passes, they were wide open and not because of a busted coverage. It was because they roamed the canyon freely.
*       *       *
The Ravens won in true formula style Sunday. The defense caused five turnovers for the second straight week, the running game churned out 135 yards and Flacco kept mistakes to a minimum. He doesn’t overwhelm you with his statistics. He just beats you.

Yes he had one interception, but that was more like a long punt, heaving the ball about 60 yards to the Cleveland 9, where Jason McCourty picked it off early in the second quarter. Five plays later, Britton Colquitt was punting.

It’s not necessarily how many interceptions you throw. It’s where you throw them. All of Kizer’s interceptions were in Baltimore territory, including one in the end zone.
*       *       *
The Browns had hoped to improve the pass rush numbers on both sides of the ball this season. Last season, they were far and away the worst in the NFL at protecting their quarterbacks, allowing 66 sacks. Defensively, they recorded only 26, one more than the worst team in the league. 

It’s worse in one category this season and barely better in the second after two games. The offensive line has allowed 10 sacks (only six last season) and recorded three (two last season).
*       *       *
Finally . . . Jackson made it quite clear, and rightly so, there will be no quarterback controversy. Kevin Hogan did a nice job filling in for Kizer Sunday, but he is the backup quarterback and will remain there pending Kizer’s health status. . . . Why does it seem Peppers is so timid on kickoffs? He returned only one of five kickoffs for just 18 yards Sunday. On two others, he caught the football one yard and three yards inside the end zone and chose to take a knee. . . . The Browns this season have run 46 plays on the ground, representing 36.2% of the offense. Breaking that down even further, the three non-quarterbacks account for 34 of those plays, or 29.7%. So much for Jackson’s goal of an improved run/pass ratio. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 21 yards; three receptions, 59 yards. Seven touches, 80 yards. Oh and one costly pass deflection.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Haven’t we seen this before?

So when did it all go wrong for the Browns Sunday in their first road game of the 2017 season?

Cynics would say when they decided to fulfill their schedule obligations and actually show up and try to play a solid game of football with the Baltimore Ravens.

Others, the more practical, objective and realistic ones, would say same old, same old. Different names, different approaches, just about different everything except for one thing.

The losing continues in spite of all the differences. It is the only constant.

The Browns hauled in a 12-game losing streak against the AFC North Division and 13-game losing skid on the road into the game. They left with both streaks intact following a 24-10 loss that looked strikingly similar to the outrageous number of losses since 1999.

Since that eventful season, the Browns have played 289 games and won 88, a winning percentage of .304. Sunday’s setback against the Ravens looked almost eerily like a replay of what has transpired with this franchise for the last 18-plus seasons.

The 2017 version of the Browns Sunday followed a pattern that led to a vast majority of those 201 losses. You name it, they did it in maddeningly benevolent fashion.

Turnovers? You bet. How about five of them? Four interceptions and a fumble recovery, the result of a strip sack the Ravens turned into their initial touchdown 11 minutes into the game.

Bad tackling? Yep. Throw that one in, too. And don’t forget about the dropped passes. They also count.

The Browns on both sides of the football depressed the self-destruct button repeatedly and paid the price just about every time.

The defense, easily the hallmark of this team thus far this season, played up to its capabilities only on occasion, but did not come even close to displaying with the consistency it showed in the loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener.

Last Sunday, the Browns ran into a good defense. This time, they ran into a very good defense that should serve as an object lesson and continuing education for rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who saws things he didn’t see against the Steelers.

The young and inexperienced Cleveland offense was hit-and-miss all afternoon. The only time it showed any consistency was when Kevin Hogan entered the game in the second quarter after Kizer was felled by a migraine.

Hogan was in for four series and did a nice job, compiling 148 yards of offense and accounting for all of Cleveland’s points with a 23-yard scoring strike to rookie tight end David Njoku that halved the score at 14-7 in the second quarter and a 38-yard field goal by Zane Gonzalez on the first possession of the third quarter.

A Terrance West four-yard run in the first quarter and a Joe Flacco-Buck Allen connection on a nine-yard pass in the second quarter accounted for the Ravens’ early scoring until a key series of events unfolded with time running out in the first half.

What turned the game around was a sequence of possessions with less than a minute left in the half that only the Browns could screw up. Both sides of the ball contributed to what can only be called typical Cleveland Browns ill fortune, a.k.a. Murphy’s Law. You remember that one: If something can go wrong, it will.

After Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was wide right – he had the distance – on a 58-yard field goal attempt with 57 seconds left, Browns coach Hue Jackson decided to gamble in effort to narrow the margin. 

Not second-guessing here. When the team starts a drive at its 48 with almost a minute left to halftime, you have to go for it. A couple of completions to Rashard Higgins, who stunned just about everyone with a seven-catch. 95-yard afternoon, picked up a dozen yards.

So far, so good.

After a false start on right tackle Shon Coleman, Hogan tried to force a pass into the middle – and double coverage – with Higgins as its target and was picked off by rookie linebacker Tyus Bowser, who returned it 27 yards to the Cleveland 40.

Only 30 seconds remained in the half. How much damage can be done from 40 yards with only one timeout left? Keep thinking Murphy’s Law.

With 15 seconds left and the ball at the 39, Allen took a Flacco handoff and slashed over left guard, then cut back against the flow and found himself open. Briean Boddy-Calhoun’s tackle at the 2 saved the touchdown with just five seconds remaining.

Only temporarily.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh figured why not go for it. These are the Cleveland Browns. Harbaugh is 16-2 against them. Flacco is 15-2. What did he have to lose?

Murphy’s Law.

Boddy-Calhoun had Jeremy Maclin in the slot, but allowed him to get position on an inside move and could only watch as the veteran wide receiver cradled the 2-yard scoring pass to make it 21-7. It was at least a 10-point swing that all but sealed the Browns’ fate with 30 minutes left.

Little things like that can mean the difference between winning and losing. Teams that make plays in crucial situations usually win. And this was a classic example on both sides of the football.

Kizer’s migraine apparently calmed down early in the third quarter and he finished the game, running his turnover total to four with two more picks, no doubt giving his coach a different kind of headache. He futilely piloted eight possessions overall, generating 219 yards.

The Browns failed all day to make crucial plays on offense and defense. And it was a defensive lapse that enabled the opportunistic Ravens to take the 21-7 lead into the dressing room.

The offense under Kizer and Hogan teased at times, completing six passes of 20-plus yards, then imploded as they threw the quartet of interceptions at the most inappropriate times.

Two of Kizer’s three picks were the result of not delivering the ball on time, giving defenders a chance to recover. The first interception skipped off the usually reliable hands of running back Duke Johnson Jr. in the opening quarter, a microcosm of how the afternoon went.

All in all, it was just another day of abject futility at the office for the Browns.

What else is new?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Back-to-back blankings?

Coming off a better-than-it-looked-on-the-scoreboard loss last Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns travel to Baltimore for a Sunday showdown with the Ravens in hopes of evening their record in the AFC North.

They haul a 12-game losing streak in the division into Baltimore, where they won their last division game, a 33-30 overtime victory on Oct. 11, 2015. They take on a team trying to find its personality on one side of the football and playing boastfully outstanding football on the other side.

Don’t be fooled by the Ravens’ impressive 20-0 victory against the Bengals last Sunday in Cincinnati. When you remove the blinders, blemishes exist.

Not on the defensive side of the ball, of course. It’s quite an accomplishment when you pitch a shutout in the National Football League. The Ravens have hurled 10 since 2000, tying Seattle for the league lead in that department. The Browns, on the other hand, have been blanked 12 times in that span, by far the most in the NFL.

But when you take a close look at the current Ravens offense, that’s where you discover the blemishes. It starts with Joe Flacco, the large man under enter who has tormented the Browns over the last nine seasons. Not Ben Roethlisberger torment, but awfully close.

Since entering the league in 2008, Flacco is 15-2 against the Browns with losses of six and three points spoiling an otherwise perfect performance against them. He has thrown for 3,835 yards and 24 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions.

Not exactly overwhelming quarterback figures, but Flacco was the beneficiary of a solid defense and strong running game in many of those victories. He basically did not make enough mistakes to alter the outcome of games.

He was bothered by back problems enough this year to miss all of training camp and the entire exhibition season. The rust showed in the Bengals victory. He completed only nine of 17 passes for 121 yards, all in the first half.

With a cushy 17-0 lead at the half and the defense playing lights out, the coaching staff buttoned down the attack in the second half, relying almost exclusively on the run. Flacco attempted five passes in the half and completed none. Two of his four incompletions were nullified by defensive penalties and one pass was picked off.

The defense, meanwhile, made life miserable for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton with four interceptions and the recovery of a Dalton fumble. The Bengals’ offense threatened only once. How bad was it? Six first-half possessions resulted in three punts and three picks.

Now factor in that the Cleveland offense is worse than Cincinnati’s – although fans can reasonably argue that is not the case given the Bengals have yet to score a touchdown in two games – and you get some idea of what awaits the Browns as they help the Ravens open their home season.

The Steelers pointed the way on how to control the Cleveland running game in the season opener. The Ravens are every bit as stingy against the run, featuring a pair of 340-pound defensive tackles in Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, who take up a lot of space and are hard to move.

Also factor in Terrell Suggs, playing what the Ravens term their rush linebacker. Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas calls Suggs, who seems to have been around forever, one of the best pass rushers he has ever faced. The 15-year veteran recorded two of the Ravens’ five sacks against the Bengals.

The ultra aggressive Suggs has 17 sacks in 25 games against the Browns. As much as anything, that’s a testament to the greatness of Thomas, who usually draws Suggs as his assignment.

The Cleveland offensive line, which struggled against Pittsburgh last Sunday, might be challenged even more by the Ravens. Winner of that battle most likely will be the determining factor as to the outcome.

The Browns’ defense, which starred in the season opener, is much like Baltimore’s defense in that it gives its team the best chance to win. The new aggressive approach on that side of the football is extremely popular with the fans and should have been made long ago.

Flacco has four new receivers this season in wideouts Michael Campanaro, Chris Matthews and Jeremy Maclin and a new starting tight end in Nick Boyle, who moved up when veteran Dennis Pitta was released.

Maclin, signed as a free agent, teams with Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman to give the Ravens outstanding speed on the outside, an attribute that could be problematic for the young Cleveland secondary. 

Former Brown Terrance West and Buck Allen, who combined to compile 151 of the Ravens’ 155 yards on the ground against the Bengals, handle the running game behind a good offensive line.

Look for more of the same kind of offense from the Ravens in this one with an emphasis on the ground game, pounding the ball until the Browns prove they can stop it and force Flacco to throw. That undoubtedly will be the major goal of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ front seven.

A couple of statistical facts with regard to Ravens coach John Harbaugh. He is 16-2 against Cleveland and 6-0 against rookie quarterbacks at home (allowing only two touchdowns and picking off eight passes). Browns quarterback Cody Kessler was the latest victim last season. Now it’s DeShone Kizer’s turn.

That opening-game shutout over the Bengals was the Ravens’ first since blanking (you guessed it) the Browns midway through the 2009 season.

The last time the Browns failed to score a point in a game was a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati at home back in 2014.  And the last shutout they recorded was an 8-0 triumph over the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard at the Cleveland lakefront in December of 2007.

Shutting out a team in the NFL is difficult of course. Doing it two games in a row is as rare as an eclipse. The St. Louis Rams last accomplished the feat in 2014, knocking off Oakland and Washington back-to-back.

The Ravens now have a chance to duplicate that rarity. Posting back-to-back shutouts is nothing new for them. The 2000 team recorded four shutouts, including back-to-back blankings of the Bengals and (you guessed it again) Browns in weeks four and five.

First the Bengals last Sunday and now the Browns on deck this Sunday. Will history repeat itself? No, although the Browns like last week will make it close for a half. Make it:

Ravens 20, Browns 9

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Meandering through the notebook while the Browns practice for their first trip of the season to Baltimore . . .

Much has been discussed about the performance of the offensive line in the season-opening loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday. More than a few fans were disappointed with what transpired.

The good news? The five plug uglies along the line played every snap. No disabling injuries. That’s really good news.

The bad news? They watched as quarterback DeShone Kizer was sacked seven times and running backs Isaiah Crowell and Matthew Dayes had to scrounge for 57 hard-earned yards. That’s really bad news.

One of the reasons for the high sack total was a quarterback playing in his first National Football League game. Either throwing the ball away or more effective scrambling or better pocket awareness could have reduced it. Kizer is smart enough to eventually correct that problem.

The ground game is an entirely different animal. Based solely on this one game, this line is neither physical enough nor athletic enough to produce a high-octane infantry attack.

As strange as this might sound, the unit is better, but not by much, at pass protection. And even then, Kizer could be provided with even better protection by keeping either a tight end or fullback in to block.

The line opened up several holes against the Steelers, but they disappeared quickly while Kizer was handing off to either Crowell or Dayes out of the shogun. The timing was way off from that formation.

Kizer rarely worked from a pro set under center against the Steelers. Fullback Danny Vitale was absent except when the Browns tickled the Pittsburgh goal line in the final minute of the first quarter.

When Kizer sneaked in from the 1 behind blocks from Joel Bitonio and Joe Thomas, it was Vitale who trailed the quarterback and literally shoved him into the end zone from behind.

Coach Hue Jackson throughout training camp told the media he would place a greater emphasis on the ground game. Ostensibly, that meant more reps for Vitale in power run formations.

So why then was Vitale in for only four offensive snaps the entire game? If he is going to be used sparingly, why in the world is he on the roster? He can’t block from the bench.

If you are going to commit to the run game, at least give those who operate it a chance to succeed. Continuously running from the shotgun, at least with this personnel, appears to be futile.

Two more thoughts about the OL: Right tackle Shon Coleman is a decent pass protector. He is not quick enough or athletic enough to be anything more than adequate, at best, in the run game. And center JC Tretter is not strong enough in pass protection. The Steelers several times pushed the pivot right back practically into Kizer’s lap.
*       *       *
Now on the other side of the ball, it is a totally different story.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ aggressive stance when it comes to the game is such that opposing teams will have problems advancing the ball that way this season. That, of course, is based on just one game.

Shutting down Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers was a significant accomplishment and forced Ben Roethlisberger to turn to the weakest area on the Cleveland defense. The secondary.

The line did its job well. Playing a very good Pittsburgh offensive line to a virtual standoff is quite a feat. And since consistency is the hallmark of any good defense, the next litmus test lies dead ahead Sunday in Baltimore.

What made the performance against the Steelers revealing was the absence of rookie Myles Garrett, who was expected to figure prominently in Williams’ confusing schemes. As a result, the defensive boss rushed only three men more than he usually would. Even then, the Pittsburgh run game was stopped cold.

That’s one reason Roethlisberger was sacked just once and sported a relatively clean uniform at the end of the game. Another was the quick-developing plays in the Pittsburgh game plan with regard to the forward pass. 

In order to keep everyone as fresh as possible, Williams rotated starters Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Trevon Coley with Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi, Nate Orchard and Tyrone Holmes and, to a much lesser extent, Jamie Meder, who was in on only 10 snaps.

With Garrett out for at least the next month, those eight can expect a lot of playing time against the next drive or six rivals.

By causing enough havoc up front, this group kept Steelers offensive linemen from getting to the second level and taking out linebackers. It enabled linebackers Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey, who run-blitzed a lot, to be in position to make plays at and sometimes behind the line of scrimmage.

Games, as has been mentioned here many times, are generally won and lost in the trenches. Right now, the Browns’ offensive trench is in need of repair. The trench on defense is hurting somewhat physically (i.e. Garrett), but in much better shape than the offense.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Monday leftovers

The most remarkable part of Sunday’s 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh was rookie DeShone Kizer’s ability to remain upright and exchange pleasantries with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after the game.

The severe beating the Cleveland quarterback absorbed, most of which was attributable to inexperience in his National Football League debut, should be filed and used as an object lesson.

All he has to do is look at the tape of the game and watch how quickly Roethlisberger got the football out of his hands. Numerous quick-developing pass plays negated whatever pass rush the Browns mustered.

By the time they arrived at Big Ben, the ball was gone. Conversely, by the time the Steelers’ pass rush arrived, Kizer was either still looking to throw or tardily scrambling, most of the time unsuccessfully. His pocket awareness deserted him.

Much of the blame was unfairly put on the offensive line, which offered decent protection had the ball been delivered on time. They can hold the pass rush for just so long.

Count to four from the snap on passing plays. If the quarterback still has the ball at four, odds are a negative play will follow. Ball gone inside four and the odds on a positive play rise significantly.

On many of those sacks, the Cleveland line held long enough where Kizer had the opportunity to make a play and failed. He apparently has been coached that scrambling is to be utilized only as a last resort.

Actually, most of the blame for Kizer’s problems lies with the receiving corps, who failed to help their quarterback by getting open. That’s the reason the rookie holds on to the ball as long as he does. It’s not that he can’t find them. It’s that he can’t find them open.

As has been mentioned here many times, offense is all about rhythm. Mess with that rhythm, which the Pittsburgh defense did with regularity, and chances of executing successfully diminish. Disrupt and destroy.

By watching how Roethlisberger operates, Kizer will see how the veteran moves around in the pocket to buy himself time. He did that a few times Sunday with wide receiver Antonio Brown, who broke open late after the initial rhythm of the play had been destroyed.

It is obvious Kizer has the physical tools. Learning the nuances of playing the position is the next step in the development process.

He kept making the same mistake Sunday when dropping back to throw. He decided too late the best course of action and by then, he sometimes ducked right into a sack.

So let’s place this blame where it really belongs in an effort to resolve the problem. It’s the coaching staff’s job to put players in a position to succeed. Based on Sunday’s performance, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is succeeding a lot more than coach Hue Jackson, who controls the offense.

Jackson’s task is much more challenging because the talent level with which he works, especially at wide receiver and quarterback, is young and inexperienced. Once he fixes that, assuming he can fix it, the rhythm of the offense should return.
*       *       *
There is no question Joe Haden’s best days as a professional football cornerback are behind him. And when the Browns released him for monetary reasons just before the start of the regular season, he was still the best corner on the roster.

That was more than proven with Brown’s 11-catch, 182-yard afternoon against a Cleveland secondary that had no clue as to how to stop him. Roethlisberger targeted the peerless wideout 12 times. The only incompletion was negated by a 41-yard pass interference penalty on Jamar Taylor.

I can guarantee you if Haden had not been cashiered by the Browns and had played opposite Brown Sunday, there is no way Steelers wide receiver would have put up gaudy numbers like that. That was undoubtedly one of the reasons Brown lobbied hard for the Steelers to pick him up.

The two faced each other eight times in the past in this rivalry. Haden missed three games with injuries. In the eight games they clashed, Brown caught 33 passes for 717 yards and four touchdowns. In the three Haden missed, Brown had 31 catches for 413 yards and three touchdowns.

Watching Brown work from the sideline had to make Haden feel some empathy for his former secondary mates in Cleveland. Now they knew what he had gone through all those years. Brown’s three best days against Cleveland were with Haden injured and unable to play.

Nothing Williams tried against Brown Sunday worked. If the football is anywhere near Brown’s hands, he will catch it, He proved that with a 50-yard reception late in the second quarter after linebacker Joe Schobert deflected the ball in flight. It led to a Steelers touchdown.

And in the fourth quarter, when the Browns were desperate for a stop after climbing to within three points late in the quarter, Brown outfought Cleveland defenders Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Derrick Kindred and Schobert for the ball for a 38-yard gain that nailed down the victory.
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Schobert had an interesting afternoon in his debut as the Browns’ middle linebacker. He racked up nine tackles (four solo) and spent a lot of time covering Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James, who caught six passes for just 41 yards.

Two throws, a four-yarder and two-yarder, wound up in the end zone with Schobert in coverage on each. He was duped on the shorter one. James lined up in the slot on the left side and blocked Schobert toward the outside at the snap. He then quickly released, cut right, popped open and Roethlisberger hit him on a short slant.

It is unusual for the middle linebacker to be tasked with covering the tight end, a job usually handled by either the strong safety or one of the outside linebackers.  Perhaps responsibilities change when the opposition is in close proximity of the goal line.
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Kenny Britt is in his ninth season as a professional wide receiver. The first seven of those seasons were spent in mediocrity, failing spectacularly to live up to his first-round selection by the Tennessee Titans back in 2009.

Britt, who turns 29 a week from Wednesday, has nice size at 6-3 and 215 pounds. But that’s all. Unfortunately, the rest of that package is lacking all the ingredients to be a positive force with the Browns.

No need to go over his below-average numbers. We’ve done that here before. You are witnessing in the exhibitions and now the first game of the regular season why the St. Louis Rams allowed him to part. Clutch and Kenny Britt is an oxymoron.

All you need to know is it appears as though the Browns have made the same mistake by signing him as a free agent as they did a couple of years ago when they signed Dwayne Bowe in similar fashion.

The perfect pass he dropped near midfield against the Steelers Sunday is unforgivable. He is supposed to be the leader in the wide receivers room. He is anything but.
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What helped the Cleveland offense as much as anything Sunday was the undisciplined way the Steelers played defense. They compiled 13 penalties for 144 yards, often sustaining Browns drives that otherwise were breaking down. The Browns achieved five of their 20 first downs by penalty.

Multiple personal fouls at inappropriate times kept the Pittsburgh offense tethered to the bench. The Steelers basically hurt themselves as much as, if not more than, they hurt the Browns, who were flagged just four times for 61 yards, 41 of which were marched off for the aforementioned pass interference penalty.
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If the opener is any indication, the Browns’ problems with stopping the run are over. The Steelers ran the ball 17 times and picked up just 35 yards. Running back Le’Veon Bell, looking as though he had missed all training camp in a salary dispute and signed a contract mere days before the game, ran for 32 of those yards.

Isaiah Crowell of the Browns experienced similar problems with only 33 of the Browns’ 57 yards on the ground on 17 carries. He had trouble identifying holes and by the time he did, they closed quickly. It’s all about the rhythm.
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Defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who was expected to miss at least the first two or three games of the season with a knee injury, entered the game in the latter stages in a goal-line situation and was in on two tackles.
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Finally . . . The Cleveland defense limited the Steelers to only 18 plays and 42 total yards on their first four possessions, forcing four punts and taking only 6:59 off the clock. . . . With the victory, Roethlisberger became the winningest quarterback to play in Cleveland, not for Cleveland since 1999. Big Ben has 11 victories, one more than Derek Anderson. . . . Best player on the field for the Steelers was rookie outside linebacker T. J. Watt, who sacked Kizer twice, intercepted one of his passes and had a pair of quarterback hits and two tackles for loss among his seven tackles. . . . Duke Johnson Jr touch watch: On 50 snaps, he had only two touches, both pass receptions, for 20 yards. (sarcasm alert) Jackson must be saving him for the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday (end sarcasm alert).