Monday, November 26, 2018

Monday leftovers

 It’s the guys who make the plays who get all the publicity, all the glory on offense; the so-called skill players.

But without the guys up front, the plug uglies as I like to call them, doing their jobs well, there is no publicity, no glory. Only misery and finger pointing.

That said, the recent surge by the Browns’ offense can be directly attributed to the offensive line, which has made the skill players look extremely good to the point where they have become dangerous.

Baker Mayfield was joking (or was he?) when he said after the upset of the Atlanta Falcons a couple of weeks ago that he felt “really dangerous” when he awoke on game day.

The uglies have quietly and without fanfare led the way the last three games, during which Mayfield has completed 74% of his passes, thrown for 771 yards, nine touchdown passes and just one interception.

And here is the best part. Mayfield has not been sacked in his last 109 dropbacks, or ever since the latter stages of the Kansas City loss three games ago. Can’t remember the last time the Browns have allowed zero sacks in consecutive games.

The Cincinnati Bengals almost got one in the Browns’ 35-20 thrashing Sunday, but a holding penalty on linebacker Vontaze Burfict wiped out a Carlos Dunlap sack.

The ground game has also benefited since General Manager John Dorsey moved Carlos Hyde to Jacksonville and forced the coaching staff to elevate Nick Chubb from almost-forgotten status.

The rookie running back has responded beautifully, with considerable help from the uglies, who have provided him with enough space to be dangerous enough to take some of the pressure off Mayfield and the passing game.

The offense has averaged 386 yards a game the last three games, 132 of them on the ground, and scored at a 28-points-a-game clip with 69 first downs. It’s an offense the likes of which Browns fans have starved for the last two decades.

Granted, the impressive numbers have been gained against three bad defenses (Kansas City, Atlanta and Cincinnati), but Browns teams of the past would have struggled against them.

The Atlanta and Cincinnati victories were gained with impressive and arguably dominating performances by the offense.

It sure doesn’t look like a coincidence that positive things are happening when the Browns own the football since Freddie Kitchens became offensive coordinator following the firing of Todd Haley.

It seemed as though Haley ran plays designed more for the talents of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, whom he coached in Pittsburgh, not Mayfield, Chubb and a lot of young receivers.

Kitchens has virtually eliminated the seven-step dropbacks and redesigned plays that enable Mayfield to get rid of the football quicker and more decisively. He also has the rookie quarterback rolling out more often by design where he becomes even more dangerous.

He also showed supreme confidence in the uglies right out of the chute in the Cincinnati game, calling a screen pass to Chubb that gained 23 yards and sent a message that this game will be different from an offensive standpoint.

It isn’t often you see a screen called on the very first play of a game. The offensive line pulled it off perfectly, as perfectly as the offense hummed the entire first half when it scored on the first four possessions. Key blocks from Greg Robinson and Joel Bitonio paved the way.

Free safety Damarious Randall sounded a warning after the game. “This locker room is very, very talented,” he said. “This team is very scary right now.”
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Chubb seems to have added a new skill to his repertoire, one that was not expected, at least as a rookie: Catching the football.

He was rarely used in the passing game at Georgia, catching only 31 passes in four years, 18 of them as a freshman. So no one really knew whether he could make a successful transition to the National Football League with regard to the aerial game.

He has been targeted only 13 times this season with nine receptions for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The last two games, he is perfect on six targets for 77 yards and the two scores. The young man can catch the football and figures to be even more involved in Kitchens’ offense.

His touchdown reception in the second quarter from 14 yards out was a thing of beauty and proved he can be clutch in the passing game, too. Mayfield lofted the ball toward Chubb, who grabbed it, pinned it with both hands against the back of cornerback Brandon Wilson’s helmet, lifted it and secured it as he was falling in the end zone.  

As for the ground game, Chubb checks in with 663 yards and six scores and averages 5.4 yards a carry. He needs 337 more yards (or 67.4 yards a game) to make the 1,000-yard club, which seems like more of a probability than possibility.

Kitchens called on Chubb 31 times against the Bengals, 28 as a runner, and he did not look tired at the end, although most of his yards on the ground were gained the hard way, between the tackles. He totaled 128 yards with his 31 touches.

His indefatigable performances have reduced the number of touches Duke Johnson Jr. gets in a game. It seems Kitchens is having as much trouble as Haley fitting the more versatile Johnson into the offense scheme.
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All head coaches preach ball security. The quickest way to lose momentum is to cough up the football, especially on the ground. Interceptions will happen occasionally because the quarterback throws the football so often.

Putting it on the ground is an entirely different matter. The Browns have excelled at ball security this season, especially in the last six games, during which the offense has not lost a fumble. The only lost fumble in that span was on special teams. (More on them later.)

Not since Mayfield lost a pair of fumbles in his first NFL start in the Oakland overtime loss in week four has an opponent had a chance to capitalize on a Cleveland fumble.  Not much is more dispiriting to an offense than turning over the football in careless fashion.

Cleveland runners have fumbled the football only three times all season, while the receivers have also fumbled three times. All six were recovered by teammates.
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Myles Garrett blocked a field goal attempt by Randy Bullock on the Bengals’ first possession of the game. That, not surprisingly, is the only special teams positive that came out of the game. From then on, it was a typical special teams disaster.

The Bengals’ Alex Erickson returned three punts for 57 yards, the longest a 33-yarder, all due to poor tackling. Erickson also tacked on 49 more yards on two kickoff returns, again due to poor tackling.

And what is a Sunday Browns game without a penalty on one of their punt returns. Yep, you can add that one to the list. Another holding call.

The only good that will come out of this is knowing special teams coordinator Amos Jones will not be gainfully employed by the Browns next season. Only five more games left. Let the countdown begin.
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Finally . . . The gadget play Kitchens called at the end of the third quarter, a jet sweep by Breshad Perriman that lost 12 yards, should be ripped out of the playbook and permanently destroyed. It had no business being called with a 35-14 lead. . . . Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton entered the game with 15 touchdown passes and no picks in the last six games against Cleveland. Randall ended that in a hurry midway through the second quarter..  . . . Tight end David Njoku has caught nine of 10 passes thrown his way in the last three games after coming up empty in the Pittsburgh loss. . . . A. J. Green not dressing because of a toe injury certainly made it easier on the Cleveland secondary. The big Bengals wide receiver has hurt the Browns plenty in the past. . . . Mayfield threw five interceptions in his first two games and just two in the next five.. . . . The Bengals registered only one quarterback hit against the Cleveland offensive line. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Two carries, 16 yards; one reception, 23 yards. Total: Three touches, 39 yards. Season totals: 28 carries, 146 yards; 34 receptions, 335 yards. Total:  62 touches, 481 yards, 7.76 yards a touch.

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