Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Tardy Monday leftovers

 If the Browns want to keep Baker Mayfield vertical and reasonably healthy for the rest of this season, they had better do something with the offensive line.

If they don’t, those in charge in Berea should be held personally responsible for damaging the one key asset this franchise has on that side of the football, the one player they are counting on to lead them toward a bright future.

Mayfield has been getting beaten to a pulp since taking over for Tyrod Taylor midway through game three of the season. If he is not being sacked (20 times in 5½ games), he is being knocked down (way too many times), hurried (ditto) and generally harassed.

At the rate he is being hammered thus far in his budding National Football League career, there is a good chance he might not make it to the end of this season in one piece. That’s not the way to protect that future. That’s the way to make sure that future will not end well.

Mayfield must be protected at all costs. He is the one player General Manager John Dorsey and whoever the next head coach is rely on to bring at least a modicum of success to a franchise that screams for it after the misery of the last two decades.

It does no good to turn the fresh-faced rookie into a young veteran before he books his first season. And right now, Mayfield is absorbing a battering that very well could have lingering effects as he advances his career.

During the first half of the Pittsburgh loss a few days ago, he was seen limping off the field. And he kept returning in spite of a Pittsburgh pass rush that was relentless all afternoon. That’s not what anyone, least of all the fans, want to see in someone so young, so promising and so talented this early in his career.

In the wake of some of his recent beatings, the kid at one time or another had to have had the following unpleasant thought: “So this is what it’s like being quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.”

The 29 starting quarterbacks who preceded him since 1999 came to that reality along the way and now Mayfield, primarily because he has a terrible offensive line supposedly protecting him, is on his way to joining them.

This should not be happening and it is incumbent on the front office to do something about it before it gets worse. The lack of prescience is the main reason Mayfield’s pro football future is in jeopardy.

The brass most likely never figured he would see the field this season, relying instead on the veteran leadership of Taylor to carry them through the 16-game jungle that is the NFL schedule.

They probably figured Taylor could better handle working behind a questionable offensive line than the prized No. 1 overall draft pick. They figured incorrectly, probably giving little or no thought to the notion that the line was this bad.

The retirement of offensive tackle Joe Thomas signaled a dramatic change for that unit. Unfortunately, Thomas will not – and should not – undo that farewell as he marches back to health after 11 seasons and on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His absence has lowered the quality of the line dramatically. Right now, the best one can say about it is that it has remained healthy as a unit and played virtually every down this season.

On the minus side, it is on pace to at least equal, if not shatter, the team record for most sacks (66) in a season. When it comes to pass protection, their troubles begin at the snap and then get worse.

Unless new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens comes up with schemes that enable Mayfield to unload the football quickly, fans better get used to seeing him under duress constantly because this unit doesn’t handle quarterback pressure well.

It is uncomfortably weak on the edges, where rookie Desmond Harrison and Chris Hubbard purportedly patrol.

Harrison is a turnstile when it comes to pass pro. He has problems with bull rushers (not strong enough) and speed rushers (not quick enough). Other than that, he falls into the category of marginal at best.

The Browns gushed about Harrison’s athleticism in training camp and then surprisingly named him the starter. But when you play the second most important position on offense (protecting the quarterback’s blind side), you better be more than athletic. A lot more.

Harrison has no business playing left tackle on a regular basis. He is not ready. Some day he might be. This is not that day or time. He should be in the bench watching someone else, picking up pointers along the way.

I’m not blaming him, however. That would be unfair. I’m blaming those on the coaching staff who believed athleticism would overcome the fact Harrison is not yet a good football player and Mayfield is paying a stiff price.

Hubbard at right tackle has been a bigger disappointment after playing well in Pittsburgh last season when injuries hit the Steelers’ offensive line. Difficult to say exactly what the problem is. It certainly can’t be the scheme because it’s the same one utilized by now-departed offensive coordinator Todd Haley last season in Pittsburgh.

The only possible solution requires Kitchens to resurrect the exhibition game experiment of moving Joel Bitonio to left tackle and bringing rookie Austin Corbett off the bench, sticking him next to Bitonio at left guard.

What harm can that do? Certainly no more harm than what fans have witnessed in the last five games, or since Mayfield bounced off the bench into the waiting arms of quarterback abuse by opposing defenses.
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Sometimes you never fully appreciate the value of a player until he goes down. Such is the case with middle linebacker Joe Schobert, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. It has become quite clear the defense misses Schobert, who suffered the injury in the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in week six.

Christian Kirksey has replaced him in the middle with a modicum of success, while Jamie Collins and rookie Genard Avery man the outside, the latter on the weak side of the formation.  

Collins and Kirksey, who played all 71 snaps, turned in strong games in the Pittsburgh loss, but Avery seemed to struggle with just one solo tackle in his first extended action this season.

Schobert, who calls defensive signals and makes certain everyone is situated correctly before the snap, led the club in tackles before yanking his hamstring. Such injuries have been known to linger for several weeks. It looks as though his absence will continue for at least another week.
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One of those statistical sports oddities showed up when the Browns fired coach Hue Jackson Monday. He became the sixth straight Cleveland head coach to be fired after a loss to the Steelers.

Jackson joins a list that includes Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine. But his dismissal is the only one executed before the season was over. The other five were cashiered at the end of seasons when the Steelers were game No. 16.
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Nuggets from Monday’s news conference announcing the firings of Jackson and Haley:
Dorsey, asked if the Browns' record would have been different with better coaching: “You are your record.” Then added, “But we still have a lot of football left here.”

Owner Jimmy Haslam III, asked whether the new coach will still report directly to him rather than Dorsey: ‘We’ll evaluate things at the end of the year.” That’s a dodge, but at least he did not rule it out completely.

Dorsey on Mayfield: “We all know that all of a sudden you’re a rookie quarterback and you’re thrust (into games) five games early in the season as a starter and he’s going to see very complex defenses and it’s not going to happen overnight, He’s going to have his ups and downs, but he’s going to learn along the way and I expect to see even more development from Baker moving forward.”

Haslam, on whether the internal discord that led to the twin firings was present for a while and had reached a breaking point: “I don’t know that it does a lot of good to go back and look at the past. I think the actions, the decisions we made today speak for themselves.”
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Finally . . . Here’s a question we’ll never get the answer to: Why was tight end David Njoku shut out in the Steelers loss? His name did not show up on the score sheet. He was targeted once on the second possession of the second half on a third-and-4 at the Pittsburgh 6, but was interfered with by Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds in the end zone, thus no play. It set up what eventually became a 1-yard touchdown pass to to Antonio Callaway. . . . Steelers running back James Conner probably wishes he could play more than two games against the Browns each season. The second-year back totaled 404 yards from scrimmage (281 on the ground) and scored four touchdowns. . . . Conner and wide receiver Antonio Brown accounted for all seven of the Steelers’ touchdowns in the season series. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Two carries, zero yards; two receptions, 16 yards. Four touches, 16 yards. Season total: 42 touches, 310 yards. Season average: 7.38 yards a touch. Maybe Kitchens will discover Johnson. Haley sure didn’t.

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