Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Observations after finally watching the Browns continue to plumb the depths of bad football against the Cincinnati Bengals . . .

It looked like a relatively innocuous play at the time, late in the fourth quarter with the Bengals clinging to a 23-16 lead and the Browns, at least on offense, playing competitive football.

The Cleveland defense, which chose a bad week not to show up in the first 35 minutes of the game, had finally stiffened and actually put the club in a position where it had a chance to do something it hadn’t done this season – have a chance to win a game.

The offense, playing arguably its best game of the season behind quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was playing arguably his best game of the season, had scored a touchdown to pull within seven points with seven minutes left in regulation.

The defense, which had allowed the Bengals to score on their first five possessions of the game (two touchdowns and three field goals accounted for the 23 points), had forced consecutive punts and was on its way to a third when the question “how will the Browns screw this one up?” was answered in a volatile and highly controversial way.

What followed merely added to the litany of mistakes this team has committed over the last 19 seasons and falls into the category of “it figures. What else did you expect? After all, these are the Cleveland Browns.”

Jabrill Peppers was just a rookie feeling his way along in the National Football League in a rather unobtrusive manner. And then the Browns’ free safety landed in the national sports spotlight with one thunderous hit, setting the sports talk universe on fire.

As the Bengals were on the verge of another punt and the momentum-gaining Cleveland offense champing at the bit to get back on the field, Peppers’ devastating hit on Cincinnati wide receiver Josh Malone on a third and five at the Cleveland 40 with 3:51 left changed the complexion of the game.

Malone went up for an Andy Dalton pass along the left sideline with Browns cornerback Jamar Taylor in coverage – he should have been flagged for interference, tugging at Malone’s right arm – and managed to get his left arm on the football, juggling it for two steps. His third step never hit the ground.

That’s because Peppers approached from the side and delivered a thunderous blow, literally lifting Malone off his feet and sending him airborne for at least five yards as the football bounced away harmlessly.

Only one problem. Peppers dipped his helmet as he homed in on Malone and struck the rookie wideout in the jaw with the crown, snapping his head violently to the left. The official nearest the play ruled incomplete pass. A trailing official threw a flag. And he should have.

Referee John Hussey announced, “Personal foul, defense, No. 22, contact with a defenseless receiver, 15 yards, automatic first down.”

It gave life to the Bengals’ offense and apparently deflated the Cleveland defense because rookie running back Joe Mixon needed only two carries to go the final 25 yards and seal the 30-16 victory.

I do not quarrel with the flag. It was a flagrant hit with the crown of the helmet – watch it frame by frame and you can see the helmet makes contact with the jaw before the left shoulder follows lower – and was called correctly.

My quarrel is with Hussey’s wording. It should have been called what it was – unnecessary roughness. I have a problem with what constitutes a defenseless receiver. How is a potential tackler supposed to know he is defenseless? It is a call that lacks consistency. It needs to be removed from the rules book.

Up in the CBS television booth, commentator James Lofton, a Hall of Fame receiver, vehemently disagreed with the call. “It was a good, clean, hard, aggressive hit,” he said. I agree with the hard and aggressive part.

Clean? Uh-uh. Although his intentions were good, Peppers’ execution of the tackle was anything but clean. Had he struck Malone in the chest with his shoulder, then yes, that’s a clean hit. Once he dipped the bonnet and struck the jaw, it was anything but clean.

I realize I’m in the vast minority on this one. Immediate polls indicated more than 80% of the Cleveland respondents labeled the hit clean. I understand their anger and probable frustration. Yep, the officials are out to stiff the Browns is the first thought.

I wonder, though, how many of those fans would think differently if the receiver had been, say, Ricardo Louis of the Browns and the safety had been 6-4, 225-pound George Iloka of the Bengals. Think it might have been viewed a little differently had that been the case? Browns fans would have screamed bloody murder.

In the old days, probably until the mid to late 1980s, what Peppers did to Malone would have been regarded as just another great hit. Penalty flags would have remained in officials’ pockets. But that’s not the way football is officiated these days. The rules have decidedly changed.

After the game, coach Hue Jackson complained about the call. Said he wanted to see the tape. The next day, he said he had not changed his mind and again questioned the call.

For what it’s worth, Peppers after the game said that maybe next time, he would lower the target area. Good idea. He should also keep his head up rather than using his helmet as a weapon.
 *       *       *
Corey Coleman is an NFL wide receiver with the Browns who has distinguished himself thus far by not being able to maintain health over a significant span of two seasons and dropping passes.

The former first-round draft choice out of Baylor entered the league not owning a familiarity with the route tree, a staple that is basic with wide receivers throughout the NFL. At Baylor, the rudiments of the offense were a lot simpler for wideouts.

Not so in the NFL and once he ostensibly learned to master that tree, and that is still a broad assumption at this point, everything else theoretically should have fallen into place. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Case in point: First Cleveland possession of the second half, second and 20 at the Cincinnati 29 after offensive tackle Shon Coleman picks up his second holding penalty of the game.

With the Browns trailing, 23-6, Coleman runs a deep in, splits a double team and comes open in the end zone. Kizer’s perfectly thrown pass into a tight window, easily his best throw of the game (maybe the season), falls right into the waiting arms of Coleman. It was like throwing a football into a bucket from 35 yards.

The ball slithered through Coleman’s arms and fell to the ground. Instead of pulling to within 23-13, Zane Gonzalez’s third field goal of the game made it 23-9. Leaving those four points and an earlier Gonzalez miss on a 43-yard field goal on the field would have put the Browns in a much better position to win the game down the stretch.

“Coleman has to catch that ball,” Lofton said, almost rhetorically. What he didn’t say was drops like that are what separate the Corey Colemans of the NFL world from the real good ones who can always be counted on to make a play. What we saw Sunday against the Bengals will happen again.

So is Coleman a draft bust? Not yet. A little too early for that label. But he has done nothing thus far to dispel that notion.
*       *       *
For the umpteenth straight week, only one facet of the team played well. It was the offense against the Bengals, while the defense went AWOL through the first 35 minutes of the game.

The offense isn’t good enough yet to take up the slack and keep the club in the game if the defense fails to show. More often than not this season, though, it’s the offense that lagged behind while the defense put up a stout performance.

How refreshing will it be when the offense and defense click on the same day?  Ya never know. It very well might actually produce a victory.
*       *       *
From the department of what in the world was Hue Jackson thinking comes these two gems:

The Browns put together a well executed drive in the final two minutes of the first half, marching from their 22 deep into Cincy territory, exhausting all their timeouts by the time they reached the Bengals’ 11 with 20 seconds left.

Instead of targeting the end zone, the Browns went conservative, Kizer connecting with Coleman for a eight-yard gain as the clock ticked down. The Browns managed to get to the line of scrimmage in time for Kizer to spike the football with five seconds remaining. Jackson settled for Gonzalez’s second field goal.

So why run only one play from the 11 with 20 seconds remaining? Other teams run multiple plays from that distance with no timeouts without spiking the ball. Why not the Browns?

“We are not equipped that way,” said Jackson unbelievingly. Any wonder the Browns are 0-11 this season and 1-26 under this coach?

Head scratcher No. 2: Third and 1 at the Cincinnati 44, late third quarter after Kizer fails to connect with Coleman on second and 1. Isaiah Crowell, meanwhile, is well on his way to racking up his best game of the season, busting loose for a couple of nice long runs.

So what does Jackson call for on third and 1? Not Crowell, who had ripped off a nine-yard run on the first play of the series. That would be too obvious. Nope. Instead, Jackson dialed up a pass. Kizer was sacked for a nine-yard loss and the drive ended in a Britton Colquitt punt.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Not so sudden thought: Without Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys have become the Cleveland Browns on offense. . . . One of these years, the Browns will learn to cover tight ends better. Cincinnati’s Tyler Kroft scored his third touchdown against Cleveland this season Sunday and he’s not even their best tight end. Tyler Eifert, who has scored five times in his career against the Browns, has missed most of the season with a back injury. . . . Haven’t seen this one before: Cleveland receiver Bryce Treggs was flagged for taunting on an incomplete pass. . . . Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who had three interceptions last season, dropped a couple of sure picks in this one. . . . With the exception of Joe Thomas’ season-ending injury, the rest of the Browns’ offensive line has not missed a snap. Rather surprising considering the injury history of guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter. . . . The Browns have scored nine touchdowns on the ground this season. Kizer has five of them. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Six carries for 35 yards, four receptions for 32 yards; 10 touches, 67 yards. For the season, Johnson has touched the football only 102 times – his 50 receptions lead the club by far – for 721 yards, an average of 7.1 yards a touch. By contrast, Crowell has touched the ball 164 times (145 as a runner) and compiled 731 yards for a 4.46-yard average.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Another Bengals blast?

The Cincinnati Bengals are having a terrible 2017 season, struggling at 4-6. In Cleveland with the Browns, that would be considered progress.

The two AFC North rivals meet up again Sunday down in Cincinnati, where the Browns will attempt to stop a road losing streak that has reached 17 games and a 12-gamer against the division. Based on what happened in Cleveland in week four, that will be a problem.

After losing their first three games, which sort of set the tone for the season, the Bengals came up north and handed the Browns a 31-7 shellacking, which constituted season benchmarks for most points scored and fewest points allowed in a game.

While the Browns have wallowed in the murky winless waters of the National Football League now for 11 straight games, the Bengals have managed to scratch out their four victories without a running game.

But when it comes to playing against the Browns, they become an entirely different team. In their latest six-game winning streak against Cleveland, the Bengals have outscored the Browns, 183-47.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, in particular, loves loves loves playing against them. In those six games, he has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only one interception. He has gone five straight games against Cleveland without a pick.

In the mauling earlier this season, Dalton was 25-of-30, connected on four touchdown passes and strafed the Cleveland secondary for 286 yards.  The only Cleveland score arrived only after coach Hue Jackson mercifully yanked rookie DeShone Kizer for Kevin Hogan midway through the fourth quarter.

The victory spurred a 3-1 run for the Bengals before reality set in with two losses in the next three games. All the while, what ailed the offense continued to make it a one-trick pony.

If it weren’t for Dalton running the show, the Bengals’ offense would mirror the Browns’. Their puny ground attack makes Cleveland’s look good by comparison, which gives you some idea of just how bad it is.

The Browns have rushed for 1,012 yards this season. The Bengals check in with 680 yards in 10 games. It has produced a meager 39 first downs and led to a philosophy that now calls for passes 65% of the time. Clearly an anomaly since they average ball ownership only 27 minutes a game.

I’m going to be out of touch for the next several days to deal with a family matter. That means missing the live telecast of Browns-Bengals game on Sunday. I’m taping the game and will comment on it and other related items after watching it when I return. Thanks for your understanding. Rich

Rookie Joe Mixon was thought in some quarters to be the next great young running back in the NFL. He has rushed for only 370 yards and scored all three of the club’s touchdowns on the ground.

By comparison, Isaiah Crowell of the Browns has rushed for 459 yards and two of the team’s eight touchdowns on the ground as fans correctly believe he’s having an awful season.

That’s why the only way the Browns can avoid another season sweep by the Bengals is by not shutting down the running game. That seems to be shutting itself down, no thanks to an offensive line that has also given up 29 sacks.

It’s all about shutting down Dalton. Get him off the field as early and often as possible. Win first down. Create plenty of second- and third-and-long situations, something the Browns didn’t do in the first game when the Bengals owned the ball for 35 minutes.

If given time to throw, and the Browns sacked him thrice, Dalton has quality receivers in A. J. Green, who has 48 receptions, 743 yards and six touchdowns; Brandon LaFell, who has caught 34 passes for 340 yards and a pair of scores; and tight end Tyler Kroft, who burned the Browns for touchdowns twice in the first game.

How defensive coordinator Gregg Williams schemes this game will be a major key in the outcome. It will be interesting to see what adjustments he has made after the embarrassment earlier this season.

In last week’s loss at home against Jacksonville, Williams played mostly zone in the secondary with the corners playing soft against the wide receivers. But that was against a below average quarterback in Blake Bortles. Dalton is quite different.

If Williams somehow uncovers the secret of knocking off the Bengals, he also must get some help from the other side of the ball. The offense has to cooperate. The way it has performed under Kizer makes that a dicey situation at best, though.

One would think Jackson knows how to throttle Dalton, having been the quarterback’s coordinator for two seasons before heading up to Cleveland. He should know his weaknesses, what makes him uncomfortable. That obviously has not worked the last three games.

The lack of consistency on both sides of the football has been the chief contributor to the constant losing in Cleveland. With few exceptions, the offense has been miserable this season. And in those few times it did step up, the defense, which has been the biggest surprise this season, did not show up.

What shaped the Bengals’ earlier victory besides Dalton was the defense. Kizer had the huddle in 10 of the 11 possessions. Six of those 10 lasted five plays or less, which meant the Cleveland defense had precious little time to rest.

If the Browns do not sustain drives this time, the result will not be much different than in week four. The Bengals, who average just 15 first downs a game, racked up 10 more than the average in the initial meeting because the Cleveland attack was neutered.

If the Browns cannot generate enough of a pass rush to cause Dalton to play contrary to his recent successes against them, it will be yet another long afternoon as the season becomes increasingly more frustrating.

If they cannot generate turnovers against a team that has turned over the football 17 times this season, that long afternoon will get even longer.

And that is when you notice the Browns’ turnover ratio of –17, the worst in the NFL as they battle the Denver Broncos for that honor. That includes a league-leading 28 giveaways, 20 of which were interceptions, another league leader (by far).

And so for those reasons, it is difficult to even think the Browns have a chance in this one. It will take a miracle of biblical proportions to sneak out of Cincinnati with a victory.

The heart says maybe, but it’s a weak maybe. The head says no way and it’s not weak. It again will be every bit as homely as the results of the last six games between these two rivals in an era where the word rivalry has little or no meaning with regard to the Browns. Make it:

Bengals 31, Browns 6

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Hue Jackson, who can talk his way out of just about any situation, is at a loss for words. He is flummoxed.

Asked Monday at his day-after newser about the Browns’ rebuilding plan and where it stands, he demurred. “I really don’t want to get into that,” the second-year coach said. “I think you guys are the best judges of that right now.”

Sounds like a coach searching for the right answers and coming up empty. He is probably so frustrated at this point, he might be inclined to take advice from just about anyone. Anyone, that is, not named Sashi Brown.

All Jackson wants to do is coach his guys and win some games. That seems to be asking too much. This constant losing is new to him and he is having a difficult time understanding it, let alone handling it.

He believes the club’s so-called grand rebuilding plan is not his concern. He can’t be held responsible for the mistakes of others in this dysfunctional organization. He is the head coach. His only job is to coach his coaches and players and hold them together.

The latter aspect of his job is also the most difficult. It’s not easy getting players ready physically and emotionally on a weekly basis when you lose all the time. It’s to his credit the team is not mailing it in at this point.

Even though the Browns are winless, you’d never know it by their effort. That trickles down from Jackson and his coaching staff.

He has unfortunately been saddled with a very young team that has a problem avoiding mistakes. Every now and then, though, the team executes a play or series of plays so well, you wonder why they can’t do it all the time.

The consistency factor is what most coaches preach. Sort of muscle memory on a football field. Jackson said players “ask me about what do we have to do to win? I do everything for those guys.” And it still is not working.

As for the plan, that’s better handled upstairs by the dysfunctional front office (that adjective never grows old with this crew). “I think that group feels better about where they’re headed and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Jackson said.

When it all spills out of the wash, though, the Browns are still 0-10 this season and 1-25 since the Sashi Brown group took over from the previous dysfunctional regime.

The Browns also haven’t won a Sunday game since Dec. 13, 2015 against San Francisco at home That’s an NFL record 27 straight Sundays without a victory and 32 of the last 33 on that day of the week. If there has been any progress this season, it’s barely palpable.

Right now, the immediate future of this franchise lies in the wealthy hands of owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who have invested a billion dollars into this enterprise. So far they appear to be putting a stamp of approval on the current group.

One thought with regard to Brown’s future job status in Cleveland: If he had been screwing up as much working with Haslam’s truck stop business as he has in Berea on a daily basis, do you think he would have lasted this long?

I didn’t think so. The bar on accountability at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea dips to a new low on a daily basis.
*       *       *
Josh Gordon began practicing with the Browns Wednesday for the first time in several years after being freed from his long suspension by National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Word is he is in good shape physically, but most likely needs a couple of weeks to get into football shape. The X factor when he returns to the field for the Dec. 5 game in Los Angeles against the Chargers is whether he can be the same dynamic wide receiver who wowed the pro football world in 2014.

Many fans expect Gordon to come in and immediately be that guy. Light it up as though he had been away for only three months, not three years. That’s not going to happen. Yes, he will automatically be the best receiver on the team, but that will not translate into instant improvement for a number of reasons.

First of all, offense is all about rhythm. Without it, success on that side of the football is nothing more than a goal, a hope, a dream.

Running pass routes demands exquisite timing between the quarterback and receivers. Run the route incorrectly and an incompletion or interception is likely. Run it precisely and a completion has a greater chance of occurring.

Gordon’s success will depend largely on how well he and DeShone Kizer can become compatible from a timing standpoint. Based on what we’ve seen from Kizer thus far, that could be a problem. Timing and accuracy are not the rookie’s strong points.

Unless Kizer somehow miraculously becomes the quarterback the Browns believed they drafted six months ago, it is entirely possible Gordon will be one extremely frustrated wide receiver by the time the season concludes.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Monday leftovers

Hue Jackson made it quite clear Sunday after the latest loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars who will have the Browns’ offensive huddle next week in Cincinnati. And beyond.

It will be DeShone Kizer. Period. Don’t bother asking anymore. Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, barring any unforeseen injury, the rookie from Notre Dame is the man. Get used to it.

“I need to continue to see him,” said Jackson, who sounds like a man very comfortable with his job status despite winning only one game in 26 attempts as the Browns’ head coach. “Let him play . . . this thing out . . . as long as he’s healthy.

“I want to walk away from this season knowing exactly what DeShone Kizer is top to bottom. He deserves that. . . . It’s the consistency he has to keep chasing.”

It’s hard to quarrel with Jackson’s decision at this time regarding the most important player on the side of the football he coordinates. But stop and think. Who else is he going to trot out there?

One look at Jackson’s quarterbacks room and you have your answer. Is he going to bench Kizer for Cody Kessler? Or Kevin Hogan? If the answer is yes, either you haven’t been paying attention or you have a problem.

We’ve seen what Kessler and Hogan can do when given the chance. And it isn’t very pretty. So why not Kizer? There’s no one else. Given the alternative, Jackson really has no choice in the matter. This is what Sashi Brown has given him. He thus has to blow smoke.

Jackson has a tendency to stretch the boundaries of credulity when discussing his quarterback. It’s evidenced by his thinking after Kizer’s rough first quarter against Jacksonville Sunday when he directed a trio of three-and-outs, was picked off once and booked just four total yards,

He rebounded with his only touchdown drive early in the second quarter before slipping back into struggle mode the rest of the way.

“It takes heart to keep coming back in there and throw a huge touchdown to Duke (Johnson Jr.) a drive after that,” the coach said. “That’s what it is. He’ll only get better if he keeps taking that mind-set and playing.”

Really? It takes heart? That’s a bit of a stretch. Check that. It’s massive stretch. Anyone buying this bullroar?

Playing football in the National Football League is what Kizer gets paid to do. It’s his job. And right now, he’s playing at a level higher than either Kessler or Hogan. Relatively speaking, that is.

Jackson speaking out now as Kizer’s advocate removes any doubt whatsoever and in some way sends a message to the rest of the team. He isn’t that na├»ve where he doesn’t think Kizer’s mates on offense don’t see how destructive he can be at times? Words of encouragement help.

This is what the final six games are going to look like whether you like it or not. Enjoy Kizer’s successes, be exasperated with his failures and hope the successes catch up to the exasperation.

The only way Kizer is going to learn, and the only way Jackson can find out about him, is by playing him the rest of the way. Fans will have to live with the negatives that surely pile up all the way to New Year’s Eve day in Pittsburgh.
*       *       *
After watching Jacksonville’s offense struggle most of the afternoon against the Cleveland defense, it's hard to believe this is the same team that put up 97 points against the other three members of the AFC North earlier this season. Not only that, the Jaguars limited those teams to just 23 points.

They walloped Baltimore, 44-7, at home; went into Pittsburgh and slapped the Steelers, 30-9; and took care of visiting Cincinnati, 23-7. The Browns gifted the Jaguars their two touchdowns Sunday on a Kizer pick well into Cleveland territory and a strip sack near the Browns’ end zone.

Otherwise, the Cleveland defense played the Jaguars to a virtual standstill. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette’s 111 rushing yards were hard earned in 28 carries. With the exception of one 29-yard run, he was well contained all afternoon.

What made that remarkable was the defense rarely had a chance to rest, especially in the first half when the Browns’ longest possession lasted just five plays. It’s difficult to play defense when you are back on the field before your body has had a chance to recover.

Losing defensive tackle Jamie Meder and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah didn’t help, forcing backups to play longer and, in some cases, with no rest. The more backups play, the less efficient they are.

Add to that the five Cleveland turnovers, which put the defense on the field for 36 of the 60 minutes and you have a whipped group of football players. And yet, the Jaguars scored only 13 points on offense.

And now that Ogbah is gone for the season with a broken foot, the situation along the defensive line becomes grim. It means Myles Garrett very well could see double and triple teaming from now on and be rendered totally ineffective.

If nothing else, Sunday’s performance by the defense serves as an emotional springboard for next Sunday’s game in Cincinnati. Another game like that against the Bengals, who thrashed the Browns, 31-7, in their first meeting this season the first Sunday in October, and the results this time are different.
*       *       *
Okay, I give up. What’s wrong with Jabrill Peppers? Is that really Peppers back there playing free safety and fielding punts? And why hasn’t he played on offense? Are you sure that No. 22 is Peppers?

The ex-Michigan safety/linebacker/running back/punt returner has been a disappointment, although you won’t hear any coach admit that. He came advertised as a difference maker, whether it was bringing the lumber with his jarring tackles, making big plays on defense, returning punts for big yardage or running the football.

The second of the Browns’ three first-round selections in the last college football draft has not been the game changer most fans expected. He is still looking for his first interception (the Browns have only six picks in 10 games).

As for punt returns, he has returned 23 for only 129 yards, his longest effort 25 yards. He muffed a pair of punts Sunday against the Jaguars, neither doing appreciable damage.

I could have missed it, but I don’t remember Peppers breaking the huddle with the offense. He has been almost exclusively a deep safety for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

What gives?
*       *       *
Lost in the postmortem of the Jaguars loss was the Browns doing something they hadn’t done in 55 years. Almost to the day. For the first time since Nov. 18, 1962 against the St.. Louis Cardinals, a Cleveland pro football team played what was essentially a clean game. No penalties. Not even one that was called but declined.

No false starts, no neutral zone infractions, no pass interference calls, no defensive holding, no offensive holding. Not even the dreaded illegal block in the back penalty on punt coverage. The officials’ yellow laundry was used only against the Jaguars,
*       *       *
There are many and varied reasons the Browns are sill searching for their first victory of the season. Here are two that stick out more than the others. They have scored a league-worst 150 points in 10 games and surrendered 259, an NFL-worst point differential of –109.

Now compare that to the Miami Dolphins, who have scored just seven more points than the Browns and allowed only five fewer (157-254), a point differential of –97. So why are the Dolphins 4-6 and the Browns 0-10?
*       *       *
Finally . . . Jackson welcomed Corey Coleman back from injured reserve by targeting him 11 times against the Jaguars. The second-year wide receiver responded with six receptions for 80 yards. . . . James Burgess Jr., filling in for the injured Jamie Collins at outside linebacker, filled up the stats sheet with 16 tackles, seven solo and three tackles for loss. Fellow outside backer Christian Kirksey checked in with 12 stops, eight solo, while middle backer Joe Schobert had 11 and five. . . . For some reason, Browns cornerbacks played Jacksonville wide receivers soft all afternoon. . . . Isaiah Crowell had his worst running day of the season, gaining only 18 yards in 11 attempts. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. carried the ball only two times. Why, why, why??? In case Jackson hadn’t noticed, he is a running back. So why isn’t he running more? One of these mornings, Jackson is going to wake up and realize Crowell is not his No. 1 back. Incorrectly evaluating and misusing talent has officially reached the coaching staff. . . . Duke touch count: two carries for 10 yards; four pass receptions for 56 yards and the touchdown. Six touches for 66 yards. . . . So why isn't he . . . never mind.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

No-Doz afternoon not kind to Browns

Browns fans were treated to one of the dullest displays of offense in many seasons Sunday by two football teams traveling in opposite directions.

The fact the Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars managed to put 26 points on the scoreboard was a feat in and of itself, considering both offenses played well enough to lose several games.

It was a titanic battle of two exceptional defenses simply overwhelming their counterparts on the other side of the football all afternoon. It was a war of attrition the Jaguars finally won, 19-7, with a lot of help from the Cleveland offense.

Each team had 14 possessions, not counting a one-play knee for each team. Britton Colquitt of the Browns and the Jaguars’ Brad Nortman were busy with 17 punts during the snowy afternoon.

How bad was Hue Jackson’s offense in the first half? It generated 68 total yards, 66 of them on the team’s only touchdown drive in the second quarter. In the other six full possessions, five were three-and-outs and one was aborted by an interception on the first play. That says it all.

DeShone Kizer & Co. turned the football over four times, which the Jags turned into 16 points. On second thought, forget the Company part. It was all Kizer, who was picked off twice and strip-sacked twice.

If it weren’t for the stout Cleveland defense, this one would have been a blowout. The Jags’ defense limited the Browns to just 184 yards, 11 first downs, 55 plays and a meager 23 minutes of ball ownership.

Here’s how sharp the Cleveland defense was. The Jaguars, who improved to 7-3, recovered a Jabrill Peppers’ muffed punt at the Browns’ 31-yard line early in the third quarter. Three plays later, Christian Kirksey strip-sacked Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles and Myles Garrett recovered to blunt the threat.

The Jacksonville offense staggered all afternoon, gaining yardage in nickel-and-dime fashion. The fact the Cleveland defense forced 20 third-down situations illustrates how frustrating the cold Cleveland afternoon was for Bortles.

The Jags’ only offensive touchdown came courtesy of Kizer’s first interception on Cleveland’s second possession of the game. Four plays after the Telvin Smith pick, Bortles found tight end Marcedes Lewis all alone in the end zone after Cleveland safety Derrick Kindred bit on a play fake.

Other than that, Bortles and Kizer played a game called who can play the game of football worse. As it turned out, both quarterbacks won.

Bortles was so overwhelmed by the Cleveland defense, Jags coach Doug Marrone decided in the second half that his defense had a good handle on the game and went into protect mode. That meant a lot of Leonard Fournette.

The rookie running back, who was questionable for the game with ankle miseries, looked amazingly healthy. He carried the ball 18 times in the second half, 10 more than in the first half.  On one third-quarter drive, he ran seven times in eight plays.

Fournette became the first opposing back to run for 100 yards against the Browns since LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills last December. He finished with 111 yards, but it took him 28 cracks to do it.

The Browns actually had two chances to win this one, believe it or not. They had an honest-to-goodness shot at ending their nine-game losing streak this season and 10 straight overall.

The inability of either team to take charge on offense is what strangely gave the Browns the chance to win with 3:31 left in regulation and the Jaguars clinging to a 13-7 lead after Josh Lambo’s second field goal of the day.

All that was needed was a play. By anyone. Kizer preferably. And then, as it has been for this franchise for the last 46 games, it all came apart. In slow, agonizing fashion.

Seven plays into the next possession, Kizer was sacked at the Jaguars’ 45-yard line by Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakouke as the ball escaped his grip on a third-and-10. Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. picked up the loose ball and raced toward the Cleveland goal line.

The play was whistled dead at that point and ruled a sack. It was overturned when replay showed Kizer lost possession the football just before he was tackled. That turned out to be just act one in the latest late-game journey into misery for this woebegone franchise.

Act two of this sad little drama came after the Browns took possession of the ball 20 seconds – and three timeouts – later at their 20. On the first play, Ngakouke beat left tackle Shane Drango off the snap, strip-sacked Kizer and Smith recovered the football after it rolled into the end zone.

It was a fitting conclusion for an afternoon that proved defense is not a lost art in some parts of the National Football League. It was also an afternoon when offense clearly took a back seat.

The loss, which added another sad and disappointing chapter to Kizer’s unfortunate education in the NFL, was a microcosm of what has become a winless season that now totals 10.

Other than enjoying the performance by the Browns’ defense, the only time the fans enjoyed similar enjoyment came during their best drive of the afternoon, a five-play possession culminated by a beautiful Kizer connection with running back Duke Johnson Jr. in stride running a skinny post down the seam from 27 yards.

That’s the Kizer who thrills fans. Poised, self-assured, on target with his throws. And then he slips into his break-your-heart mode shortly thereafter, mostly down the stretch when the Browns actually had a chance to win.

The loss marked the third straight season, and the ninth time in the last 10 seasons, the Browns will finish with double-digit losses. It was also the franchise’s 43rd loss in the last 47 games, an NFL record, establishing a brand new low for a franchise that once was one of the proudest in the league.

The Browns, now 1-25 under Jackson, have also lost 11 straight games in November with next Sunday’s visit to Cincinnati their last chance this season to end it. Their last November victory was three years ago, a 26-24 triumph in Atlanta.

The only drama that remains is how will fans to react when the Browns finally win a game and end this miserable stretch. And they will win. Just not sure when. They came awfully close against one of the best teams in the league Sunday.

But then you look at the Browns’ schedule and notice four of the final six games – yes, the end is mercifully in sight – are on the road, where they have lost 17 in a row.

With this franchise, negativity is unavoidable.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Jaguars show the way

The Jacksonville Jaguars know all too well what the Browns are going through this season. They know what losing on a consistent basis feels like.

A quick look at how the Jaguars have fared over the last six seasons reveals a record of 22-74 entering this season. That includes double-digit losses all six seasons.

So yes, the Jags definitely know the rugged terrain the Browns have been traipsing through for those six seasons. In fact, believe it or not, the Browns are two games better during that stretch at 24-72, due mainly to a 7-9 record in 2014.

But while the Browns continue to flail futilely in the perilous waters of the National Football League schedule for the second straight season under coach Hue Jackson, the Jaguars are in cruise control on top of the AFC South at 6-3.

When the Jaguars invade Cleveland Sunday, they will face a winless Cleveland team on the verge of setting an NFL record for the worst record over a 47-game span.

Ironically, the Browns tied that record with the 38-24 loss in Detroit last Sunday, tying the Lions at 4-42. A loss to the Jaguars eclipses that, but the Lions still hold the record for the worst record after 52 games, 5-47, achieved over a span stretching from 2007 to 2010.

So why do the Browns still struggle to play anything resembling representative football while the Jaguars are challenging the Los Angeles Rams as the surprise team of the NFL this season? The Jags now are whom the Browns would like to be.

It’s all about defense in Jacksonville and a steady, but not necessarily dangerous offense. It’s an offense that features the ground game and makes few mistakes. The defense, meanwhile, sets the tone.

The Jags own one of the league’s most intimidating pass rushes. Led by veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, they have racked up 35 sacks – they had 33 all last season – with seven games left.

Campbell, who signed a free-agent contract after nine productive seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, owns 11 of those sacks in nine games. The 6-8, 280-pounder has 67½ career sacks and has clearly rejuvenated the Jacksonville defense, which has taken on the sobriquet Sacksonville.

Picking up veteran tackle Marcell Dareus from Buffalo earlier this season just adds to the misery of opponents and gives arguably the league’s best defensive line more quality depth, as if they needed it.

But the Jags defense is a lot more than the defensive line, which accounts for 27½ of the sacks. They own arguably the best tandem of cornerbacks in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey and A. J. Bouye, who have picked off five of the club’s 11 interceptions.

And then there are safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, who have swiped four passes. Gipson, the frank ex-Brown who envisions a victory Sunday, is tied with Bouye for the team lead with three.

Add an extremely active set of linebackers in Telvin Smith, Paul Posluszny and Myles Jack and you understand why coordinator Todd Wash’s crew allows only 16 first downs and 286 yards a game (189 through the air), has scored four defensive touchdowns and allowed just 12 touchdowns.

No one in the NFL has allowed fewer points – 134 overall in nine games, 14 of which can be charged to the offense (pick 6) and special teams (kickoff return for a score). It clearly will be a challenge for the Browns to get close enough to the Jacksonville goal line to put points on the board.

Another challenge presents itself in the form of an extremely well balanced Jacksonville attack that runs the football 48% of the time and averages 371 yards a game, including a robust 163 yards on the ground.

The stout Cleveland run defense, which slipped a little in Detroit, might catch a break with news out of Jacksonville that rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who got off to a hot start this season before an ankle injury slowed him down, is listed as questionable, He did not practice Friday.

The Cleveland secondary catches another break with wide receiver Allen Hurns, the club’s second-leading receiver with 36 receptions, 446 yards and a pair of touchdowns, listed as doubtful with ankle miseries.

That’s two valuable pieces missing from quarterback Blake Bortles’ arsenal. The rangy and very inconsistent quarterback, who needs all the help he can get, has thrown just 11 scoring passes and been picked off seven times this season.

Veteran Marquise Lee, who leads the club with 38 catches, 493 yards and a pair of scores, and rookie Keelan Cole figure to Bortles’ primary targets. And then there’s tight end Marcedes Lewis, a prime target in the red zone. Lewis has only 12 receptions this season, but four have been caught in the end zone.

If any one area presents at least a sliver of hope for the Browns to score, it’s definitely when the Jaguars own the football. That’s because the prodigious nature of the Jaguars’ defense is such that DeShone Kizer most likely will be running for his life most of the afternoon.

The rookie Cleveland quarterback does get injury-prone Corey Coleman back from injured reserve. The fragile wide receiver caught six passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in the first two games this season before breaking a bone in the same hand that sidelined him six games last season.

That still does not move the bar very much, considering the former No. 1 draft choice caught only 33 passes for 413 yards last season in 10 games. Not exactly numbers that indicate better days lie directly ahead.

The key to this one is whether the Cleveland offensive line can slow down the Jags’ pass rush. Injuries along that line could be a factor.

Down the peerless Joe Thomas already with center JC Tretter and right tackle Shon Coleman listed as questionable, the upfront plug uglies are severely challenged even when completely healthy for what the Jaguars bring on every play. One can only imagine what it will be like if Tretter and/or Coleman can’t go.

Shane Drango, who replaced Thomas at left offensive tackle a couple of games ago, draws the lucky assignment of trying to stop Campbell, who was blanked for the first time this season last week against the Los Angeles Chargers.

It might take them a little while to adjust to the expected cold weather and possibility of snow, but the Jaguars should have no trouble against a Cleveland offense that has managed to score only 48 points in four games at home (not including the game in London against Minnesota).

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, is coming off consecutive spankings against Minnesota and Detroit that produced 71 points, an indication it is slowly running out of steam because it is on the field too much due to offensive ineptitude.

Factoring all that into the equation, this one is easy. The Jaguars have way too much on both sides of the football.

They intercept Kizer a couple of times, one a pick 6, drop him and whoever replaces him in the second half a half dozen times, while the offense piles up almost 400 yards, mostly on the ground, as they improve their series record against the Browns to 12-5.

The Factory of Sadness weeps for its team for the 10th time this season, 11th time in a row dating back to last season, 25th time in 26 games under Jackson and 43rd time in the last 47 games. It will be over by halftime and the sparse crowd will look like a gathering at the end of the game. Make it:

Jaguars 31, Browns 6

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bottlegate revisited

Every time the Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars meet, it is inevitable the tale of the infamous Bottlegate game of 2001 is resurrected.

So why not again as the two teams meet again Sunday in Cleveland? It lives not only in Browns lore, but National Football League lore as well. And definitely not in a positive way.

It was Butch Davis’ first season as coach of the Browns and he had them at 6-6 with four games to go and an outside shot at qualifying for the postseason entering the Dec. 12 home date with the Jaguars.

The expansion Browns had broken a six-game losing streak against Jacksonville earlier in the season, but the Jags led, 15-10, in this one with 3:02 left in the fourth quarter when the tale began to take shape.

Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch used an aerial onslaught to drive his team downfield, but stalled at the Jacksonville 12 and faced a fourth-and-2 with 1:08 to play. And then it happened.

Couch appeared to complete a three-yard pass to wide receiver Quincy Morgan, who took two steps before being blasted by Jags safety James Boyd. The ball popped loose as he fell, but it was ruled a completed catch.

As the frenzy ramped up in the crowd, Couch immediately spiked the football on first-and-goal at the Jags 9 as referee Terry McAulay ran up waving his arms. The previous play would be reviewed.

Those were the infancy days of video replay as an officiating tool and communication between the replay official and referee was not nearly as smooth as it is now.

The rule back then, as it is now, is that when the next snap is made, what immediately preceded it is moot. And that’s when everything ground to a halt.

As the geeked-up crowd bellowed its displeasure, McAulay called for the replay and after review ruled the previous play an incomplete pass, turning the football over to the Jaguars. And that’s when it got really ugly.

Fans from all over Browns Stadium, unhappy a replay was called for in the first place, rained all manner and variety of debris onto the field, including hundreds, if not thousands, of beer bottles.

After it became untenable to continue, McAulay called the game with 48 seconds left and exited the field. The game ostensibly was over.

Word then came down from the NFL that it must be completed. The two teams returned to the field and the game was completed with the Jags taking two knees.

McAulay, who has subsequently refereed numerous games in Cleveland since then, was fortunate to escape any physical damage as he and his fellow officials, accompanied by the extreme wrath of the fans, left the field.

The embarrassingly ugly scene on the field naturally grabbed the attention of practically the entire scope of the sports world, shining the spotlight brightly on just how badly Cleveland fans behaved that day.

Browns President Carmen Policy sort of minimized the behavior of the fans, almost in a dismissive way. “Those bottles are plastic,” he said. “They don’t pack much of a wallop.”

It was just another dark chapter in the woebegone 19-year history of the new Cleveland Browns, one that very likely will live on for many generations whenever these teams meet.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Been doing some thinking lately about Hue Jackson’s future.

Will it continue in Cleveland after this season? Has he coached well enough to carry on with a fan base ready to string him up and kick him out the door?

When you post only one victory in 25 games, that’s more than a sign that something is wrong. That’s a raging clarion call for change.

A lot depends on what Jimmy Haslam III and his wife, Dee, do at what is hopefully a merciful conclusion to yet another season of football not played the way it’s meant to be played.

Several scenarios popped into mind, not the least of which is Jackson somehow survives this living nightmare and ends up answering next season to a whole new set of bosses who actually know what they are doing.

Call it a reprieve of sorts for Jackson; sort of what Mike Holmgren did back in 2010 when he retained Eric Mangini after taking over as the Browns’ president. He figured Mangini deserved another chance after a 5-11 season. Bad move. Mangini booked another 5-11 season.

That one does not sound too realistic with regard to Jackson. The fan base, which is thinning to begin with, might storm Browns headquarters in Berea if Haslam or whoever winds up on top of the flow chart next season does not add by subtracting.

Jackson’s reputation as an offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer, which has taken several severe hits the last season and a half, is still strong enough to warrant a look elsewhere around the National Football League if he is cashiered by Cleveland.

Teams all over the league are on the lookout for seasoned coordinators during the offseason and Jackson’s name, if he becomes a free agent, is certain to land on many of those lists. He shouldn’t have to worry about his future.

But the thought that intrigued me the most, and the one when you stop and think about it makes the most sense, will see Jackson move back downstate with the Cincinnati Bengals, who have struggled the last two seasons.

Marvin Lewis, one of Jackson’s closest friends in the NFL, is in his 15th season as the Bengals boss. He experienced great success from 2009 to 2105 with a slight 4-12 burp in 2010, winning the AFC North three times and finishing second twice.

Jackson spent four seasons with the Bengals, coordinating the offense in 2014 and 2015, when they were 22-9-1, Since he moved north to lead the Browns, the Bengals are 9-15-1, including a 3-6 mark this season and fading fast with a struggling offense.

At one point during his time in Cincinnati, it was thought by a few observers that Jackson was heir apparent to the Bengals’ top job if and when Lewis decided to retire. That was before he took the Cleveland job. At 52, he is seven years younger than Lewis.

With that in mind, here is what I think will happen at the conclusion of this season.

Both men will be dismissed, or in Lewis’ case kicked upstairs out of loyalty, and Jackson will wind up back down in Cincinnati . . . as the head coach.

His abysmal record with the Browns would not be a factor. Most knowledgeable people around the NFL realize he has been saddled with a talent-starved roster that makes it almost impossible to win games.

Jackson would be a terrific and natural fit down there. He knows owner Mike Brown. He knows many of the players.  He could march right back in down there and be comfortable. It’s not as though he would be a stranger.

Such a move would be a plus for both teams. It would mean a smooth transition of the Marvin Lewis football philosophy for the Bengals and inject new blood for a Cleveland franchise desperately in need of it.

Time will tell how accurate the crystal ball is.
*       *       *
You’ve got to hand it to Tashaun Gipson. There isn’t a disingenuous bone in his body. What you see is what you get from the Jacksonville Jaguars free safety, who began his NFL career with the Browns as a free agent in 2012.

That’s why his anti-Browns remarks on ESPN radio the other day is so refreshing when looking ahead to the Jaguars’ Sunday date with the Browns in Cleveland. He is one of those rare athletes who are remarkably candid about facing former teammates.

Most athletes who face their former team say no, there isn’t a revenge factor in those games. The need to show that team they were wrong to release or trade them is absent. Not with Gipson, There is genuine animus there.

The former Browns free safety, who successfully explored the free-agent market a couple of years ago and signed a five-year, $35 million deal with the Jaguars, is eager to return to Cleveland and show the front office it was wrong to let him go.

He does not mince words about exacting revenge and escaping northeast Ohio. “I truly hope we hang 40 on them,” he told ESPN radio Monday. “Their offense probably shouldn’t score against our defense and I’m excited. That’s the true thing.”

Revenge is not the only factor. “It’s personal,” he admitted, “but yet at the end of the day, you’re still blessed . . . knowing I’m in a situation right now where I don’t look back . . . with any regrets. I’m extremely excited with where I’m at right now, but you know it’s going to be personal, man, for sure.” (The Jags are a surprising 6-3.)

Gipson spent four seasons with the Browns, three of which were very productive. He was second in the NFL with six interceptions in 2014 and was named to the Pro Bowl. He was a core player in the secondary.

However, he stops just short of enjoying the misery his former team is experiencing since he left, winning just once. No schadenfraude there. At least not for the players.

“I feel bad for those guys because . . . it’s nothing they can do,” he said. “They just go out there and play. It’s the guys above them who make these decisions and it’s unfortunate.”

Gipson also cited the Browns passing on quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in the last two college drafts. “It’s things like that you just continue to scratch your head,” he said. “ You’ve just got to look back and say, ‘Man, I’m glad to get up out of there.’ “

Definitely the genuine article. Nothing wrong with that.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Monday leftovers

There is a very good reason DeShone Kizer looked like a National Football League quarterback in the loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday.

It’s called a running game.

The Browns compiled 201 yards on the ground against a very good Detroit run defense, gouging out a significant number of plays more than the normal two or three yards fans have witnessed most of this season.

Isaiah Crowell ran hard for 90 yards on 16 carries in easily his best showing of the season. Kizer, mostly scrambling, added 57 yards in seven attempts.

The success of the Cleveland ground game made it much easier for Kizer to throw the ball. He wasn’t placed in throw mode nearly as often because first down was won much more often than not.

Throw in Hue Jackson’s less predictable playcalling and it all adds up to what is arguably Kizer’s best afternoon as a professional quarterback. And no, let’s not prematurely jump on the Kizer bandwagon just yet.

It was still a loss, although the blame for this one could not be directed at Kizer for a change. He was helped by his coach’s playcalling until the final minutes of the game.

For the first time this season, Jackson kept his pledge for a more balanced offense. He did so until the final Cleveland possession, which featured 13 straight passes since the Browns trailed by 14 points at the time.

Of the 63 plays that preceded that drive, which came to a sudden halt with an end zone interception, Jackson had called 34 pass plays and 29 runs, a 54-46 percentage ratio. He needs to maintain that for the remaining seven games.

This was only one game, of course. It does not mean the struggling offense has been fixed. It in no way portends what lies directly ahead. A pattern is established over the course of many games, not just one.

There is no question Kizer exhibited, with one notable exception, the traits coaches like to see in their young quarterbacks. He was poised, executed plays in a confident manner and seemed to be in complete control of the situation.

On two occasions, plays arrived in his headset very late from Jackson and he had the presence of mind to call timeouts rather than take a delay-of-game penalty. Until he was hammered on a blitz at the end of the third quarter, he was in charge and looked the part.

His only screw-up, a few of his teammates acknowledged after the game, was audibling out of the called play and into a sneak from the Detroit 2 in the final 15 seconds of the first half and no timeouts.

Jackson took the blame for the call. He should have taken blame, however, for not instructing Kizer to run the play that was called. Period. A rookie quarterback should not have the latitude to audible in a situation like that.

But what if Kizer had scored? Would anyone have argued? Moot point. He didn’t score. It was a poor decision.

A stern test as to how much the offense has improved lies directly ahead when the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars bring their dynamic defense to the shores of Lake Erie Sunday.

Corey Coleman returns from injured reserve to bolster the receiving corps, a move that cant help but improve the weakest area of the offense. The former No. 1 draft choice’s goal, besides helping Kizer’s stats, is staying healthy the rest of the season.
*       *       *
The New Orleans Saints are a perfect example of a team benefitting from a strong running game. At 7-2, they have already matched their victory total for each of the last three seasons and stand atop the NFC South. The reason? The ground game.

Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but he has been helped immensely this season by a ground game featuring running backs Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, who have 11 touchdowns between them.

No longer do they have to rely on Brees’ arm to win games. His numbers are way down because the offense has produced 14 touchdowns on the ground in nine games, one more than through the air. He’s on pace to throw just 23. His touchdown total the last three seasons is 103, 34 a season.

The solid New Orleans ground attack, which averages 142 yards a game, enables the offense to sustain drives and, at the same time, keeps the defense well rested on the bench. It has paid off with four defensive touchdowns and a +3 turnover ratio.

It all starts with the ground game. At one time, it was proffered that the run game sets up the passing game. That has changed the last several seasons as the NFL turned into a quarterbacks league. The pass sets up the run now. Not with the Saints, though.

Maybe Jackson should take a cue from the Saints’ success this season and help his rookie quarterback better assimilate to the NFL by stressing the ground game a lot more than he has. It helped Kizer produce this best game of the season in Detroit.
*       *       *
Myles Garrett’s return from concussion protocol was expected to produce a better pass rush against the Lions. And it did with four sacks of Matthew Stafford. But the rookie defensive end’s contribution in 38 snaps amounted to one solo tackle and a quarterback hit.

Garrett was pretty much neutralized by Lions offensive tackles Taylor Decker and Brian Mihalik, but it was his presence that enabled Emmanuel Ogbah on the other side of the defensive line to cash in with three solo tackles (all for a loss), two sacks (doubling his season total) and a pair of quarterback hits in 37 snaps.

That was the Ogbah the Browns thought they drafted last season, when he averaged three tackles a game and led the team with 5½ sacks. Apparently all he needed was for Garrett to return and attract the double teams he occasionally saw when the rookie was sidelined.

Linebackers Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert bagged the other two sacks of Stafford, bringing the season sack total to 20, only six fewer than all last season.
*       *       *
Outside linebacker Jamie Collins’ injury-filled season was cut short Sunday. The outside linebacker suffered a season-ending MCL injury after intercepting Stafford on the seventh play of the game, setting up the Browns’ first touchdown of the game three plays later, a 19-yard pass to Kenny Britt.

Collins, who missed three games earlier this season with concussion issues, returned the theft just a few yards before being tackled by Detroit guard Graham Glasgow, falling awkwardly. He had to be helped off the field.

Filling in is second-year man James Burgess Jr., who is primarily a run stopper and is on the sidelines for a fifth defensive back in passing situations.
*       *       *
Crowell finally emerged from his cocoon against the Lions with his 90 hard-earned yards. It was easily his best day this season, bettering his previous high of 64 yards.

He looked especially quick to the hole on a six-yard touchdown run after right guard Kevin Zeitler delivered a perfect trap block to spring him on the first possession of the second half. Nothing wrong with running more traps and counter plays for him.
*       *       *
This is how frustrated (desperate?) Jackson is with his offense. On the third possession of the game and the Browns with a 10-3 lead, the Browns faced a fourth-and-1 at their 44-yard line. Normally, that calls for a Britton Colquitt punt.

Screw it, Jackson all but declared by going for it. Duke Johnson Jr. made the first down by the nose of the ball. The drive ended in a Colquitt punt, anyway, several plays later when holding penalties on tight end Seth DeValve and Zeitler blew it up.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Maybe it’s me, but Britt look a lot more engaged against the Lions than at any other time this season,. He was targeted just three times by Kizer, but caught two for 38 yards, including the first touchdown. . . . That was Kizer’s first touchdown pass since the Indianapolis loss in game three. . . . Stafford now has thrown for 12 touchdowns in three career games against Cleveland.  He threw for 192 second-half yards after a 57-yard first half. . . . The Cleveland offense clicked for a dozen plays of 15 yards or more. . . . The secondary was burned by pass plays of 22, 29, 40 and 50 yards. . . . Jamal Agnew of the Lions had punt returns of 49 and 29 yards, the first wiped out by a penalty. . . . Rookie tight end David Njoku is having all sorts of problems. He was targeted six times by Kizer and caught only one ball for three yards. . .. The Browns’ 10-0 lead after two possessions in the first quarter was their first double-digit lead of the season. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: 10 carries for 54 yards; six receptions for 34 yards: 16 touches for 88 yards.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A glimmer of hope from another loss

Believe it or not, the Browns showed more than a little promise on offense in their 38-24 loss Sunday to the Lions in Detroit.

Too bad the defense didn’t show up to support it, especially in the fourth quarter when the Lions’ offense woke up after a sleepy start and continued a trio of embarrassing losing streaks for the National Football League‘s stepchild.

It was Cleveland’s ninth straight loss this season, 10th straight overall, 17th consecutive setback on the road and the second straight season the Browns have opened 0-9.

Even so, the team panning for nuggets this season when it owned the football finally unearthed a few against a Detroit defense that might have been taking the heretofore inept Cleveland offense lightly.

It was afternoon when the Cleveland running game hummed as it hasn’t in any game this season; when DeShone Kizer finally displayed some progress in his rough rookie season as an NFL quarterback; and coach Hue Jackson seemed to have another time management brain fart moment at the end of the first half.

Looking at the statistics, one would have thought the Browns had breezed in this one. They ran 77 plays to only 49 for the Lions. They owned the football nine more minutes.

They compiled 413 yards on offense, 201 on the ground against one of the NFL’s stingiest against the run, and racked up a season-high 26 first downs, 14 of them infantry style.

It was also an afternoon when Kizer went down after a vicious hit by Detroit cornerback Quandre Diggs, who came clean on a blitz and almost cut the rookie in half with a blow to the solar plexus with six seconds left in the third quarter.

Kizer, who had piloted impressive touchdown drives of 88 and 80 yards on the first two possessions of the second half to give the Browns a 24-17 lead only for the defense to collapse and allow the Lions to tie, left the game for seven plays and went to the dressing room for X-rays of his ribs that were negative.

By the time he returned to lead the Browns’ final possession of the game, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who seemed baffled by some of the defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ early exotic pass coverages, had dialed in and taken advantage.

He broke the 24-24 tie with third-down touchdown passes in the final 15 minutes to tight end Eric Ebron, who beat safety Derrick Kindred on a stop-and-go move on a 29-yarder, and Golden Tate, who scampered 40 yards on a wide receiver screen pass.

Cody Kessler, who replaced Kizer, ran seven plays in his absence and proved beyond a doubt he is the quintessential NFL backup quarterback. He was as awful as one could imagine.

While Stafford was strafing, Kessler completed one of three passes, scraped himself off the ground after three sacks and 22 yards lost, produced a pair of three-and-outs and had a net gain of minus-13 yards. All that in seven plays.

The offense ran much smoother when Kizer returned with 4:28 left in regulation, but his final effort wound up with a Darius Slay end zone interception on a first-and-goal at the Detroit 5. He converted three fourth downs – the Browns were perfect on all four fourth downs – along the way.

Just about everything was working out of the gate. Ironically, it was the defense that set the tone in the first quarter, giving the offense the ball twice in Detroit territory and it took advantage with a short Zane Gonzalez field goal and Kenny Britt 10-yard touchdown catch for a 10-0 lead..

Outside of Kessler’s dismal performance, the only other player hiccup on offense belonged to tight end Seth DeValve, who was stripped of the ball by cornerback Nevin Lawson after a short pass completion. Lawson returned the fumble 44 yards to give the Lions a 17-10 lead with 3:44 left in the half. 

Another hiccup, this one of the strategic variety, occurred on the sidelines in the waning seconds of the second quarter on the possession following the Lawson score.  It sure looked as though it belonged squarely in the lap of Jackson, who appeared to botch an opportunity to tie the game going into the dressing room.

Kizer, who threw for one score and sneaked for another, marched his men 73 yards down to the Lions 2-yard line, converting a pair of third downs along the way, including an 18-yard scramble on a third-and-6 with 19 seconds left.

Out of timeouts, Jackson called for a fade to rookie tight end David Njoku, who caught the ball, but failed to get both feet in bounds. The play took only four seconds.

So with 15 seconds left and no timeouts on second down at the 2, the only call had to be a pass. If completed, it’s a touchdown. If it’s incomplete, the clock stops and there is still time for at least one more play. If not, then a Gonzalez field goal. A running play, unless it produced a touchdown, would be futile.

For whatever reason, Kizer tried to sneak the ball into the end zone from the 2. From the 2!!

The offensive line, which played well most of the afternoon, was stonewalled by the Detroit front and the 6-4, 235-pound quarterback managed maybe six inches. The offense scrambled furiously to spike the ball to kill the clock, but time ran out.

Jackson angrily slammed his headset to the ground. Running back Duke Johnson Jr. slammed his helmet to the ground in sheer frustration when time had run out and was rewarded with an unsportsmanlike penalty.

After the game, the coach shouldered the blame for the botched call, refusing to blame Kizer for what looked very much like it could have been an audible.

“It’s on me,” he said. “I’m mad at myself. It doesn’t matter (whether or not Kizer changed the call). To go around and around about it, I’m not going to do that. . . . It’s on me. I’m taking the fall for everything.” One doesn’t need to read between the lines to interpret that one.

The faux pas didn’t look that important at the time in the grand scheme of things, especially after the Browns stormed out in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead.

It was just another missed opportunity in a season filled with them. But there are definite signs they are getting closer and closer to that elusive first victory.

The Browns return home next Sunday against Jacksonville feeling pretty good about an offense that has stagnated most of the 2017 season. All they need now is for the defense to rebound from Sunday’s uncommon performance. Then maybe that first victory will eventuate.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Taming Lions not Browns' forte

Whenever the original Browns, not the ones who left Cleveland nearly 20 years ago and now go by the name Baltimore Ravens, played the Detroit Lions, it was usually a big game.

The two teams did not meet often back then when it was a 12-team National Football League. But when they did, it was usually in a championship atmosphere.

Of their first seven meetings between 1952 and 1957, four determined the NFL title with the Lions winning three. The Browns, then known in some quarters as the Greatest Show in Football, always had problems with the Lions.

The only Cleveland victory in those seven games was a 56-10 blowout at home, quarterback Otto Graham throwing for three touchdowns and running for three more in the penultimate season of his Hall of Fame career.

The Lions won eight of the first nine games and 12 of the first 14 in the 23-game series, which Detroit leads, 18-5. The only time in 12 trips to the Motor City the Browns walked away feeling good about themselves was a 31-26 victory in 1983.

That was then. This is now. And the situation hasn’t changed much except these Browns are nowhere as talented as those who preceded them.

The current iteration returns Sunday to Detroit, a city that represents sheer misery to professional football teams from Cleveland since 1950. They haul a nine-game losing streak overall and a 16-game losing streak on the road (17 if you include the latest loss in London, which was technically a Cleveland home game).

These Browns own one victory over the Lions in four tries, a 24-14 victory in 2001, their third season after the resurrection in 1999, with Tim Couch throwing three touchdowns passes.

They have had two weeks to correct the multitude of mistakes committed during the first half of the season. Which means coach Hue Jackson and his staff have probably been putting in long hours in an effort to put together a representative performance.

(In case you’re interested in such statistics, the Browns are 6-10 coming out of bye weeks since 2000. They did not have any schedule breaks in the first two expansion seasons.)

Awaiting the Browns is a Lions team that just broke a three-game losing streak after winning three of their first four games and a quarterback who has thrown for 784 yards in his last two games.

Matthews Stafford loves, love, loves to play the Browns. The 10-year veteran has faced them only twice, but has racked up 690 yards, nine touchdowns, just two interceptions and 69 points in a couple of victories. And he has been sacked only once.

The Browns had nice leads in both games, 17-7 at the half of one game and a 24-3 lead 17 minutes into the game of another, and collapsed defensively before Stafford’s onslaught. In the latter game, the Browns led, 37-31, in the final seconds before falling.

In some ways, these teams are mirror images of each other statistically except, of course, in the won-lost column.

For example, each team has 16 sacks; the Browns have allowed 23 sacks, the Lions 26; the Browns allow opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 69% of their passes, the Lions check in at 64%; the Lions give up 252 yards a game through the air, the Browns 229; both teams throw the ball roughly 65% of the time.

Balancing those negative stats for the Lions is their +6 turnover ratio, tied for fourth in that category (the Browns are tied with Denver for last with –12). They have picked off 10 passes, including a pair of pick 6s, and recovered six opposition fumbles.

Neither team has a running game about which to brag. But both brag about their ability to stop the run, the Lions limiting opponents to 90 yards a game and the Browns, fourth best in the NFL, that much better at 84 a game. This one will not be decided on the ground.

The Lions obviously have the decided edge at quarterback with Browns rookie DeShone Kizer struggling with the learning curve in the NFL. Saddled with an awful corps of wide receivers doesn’t make it any easier.

Stafford, meanwhile, will throw against a Cleveland secondary that has surrendered 16 touchdown passes this season. He loves to spread the wealth among wideouts Golden Tate, halfway to a 100-catch season, and Marvin Jones, five touchdowns; and tight ends Eric Ebron and Darren Fells, who have combined for 30 receptions and four scores.

Help for the Browns’ defensive backfield will arrive Sunday with the expected return of cornerback Jason McCourty and free safety Jabrill Peppers, who have missed the last two games with injuries.

Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett, out the last two games with a concussion, is also expected back to fortify a pass rush that has been anemic in his absence. It’s amazing how much of a difference one man can make in this critical aspect of the game.

The Browns’ punt team will have to wary of Lions defensive back Jamal Agnew, who has 291 return yards and has scored twice to lead the NFL in both categories.  He averages nearly 20 yards a return.

The only way the Browns can hang with the Lions and their penchant for turning Stafford loose is to make him throw the ball before he wants to which means a strong pass rush.

Having a healthy Garrett back is a step in the right direction. It is possible he will have to face offensive tackle Taylor Decker, the Lions’ top pick in last year’s college draft who has missed the first half of this season with a shoulder injury.

If the former Buckeye is not activated for the game, Garrett will take on another Ohioan, Avon Lake’s Brian Mihalik, who played his college football at Boston College and is also a second-year pro.

This one will be close for maybe a series of two before Stafford finds his rhythm and strafes the Cleveland secondary. The Browns will stop the weak Detroit run game, but that will be nullified by the Lions, who will counter by forcing Kizer to throw and we all know what that will lead to.

Stafford runs his touchdown total against the Browns to 13 in three games, the opportunistic Detroit defense pads its turnover ratio by three with a pick 6 and two fumble recoveries as the Browns enter the red zone, Agnew chalks up another punt return for a score and Jackson yanks an inconsistent and inaccurate Kizer again midway through the second half. Make it:

Lions 32, Browns 10