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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.