Saturday, November 10, 2018

No break for the defense

 There is an old expression in football, generally overused by coaches whose teams are in the midst of a forgettable season, that applies to those poor souls just looking for any kind of sanity and/or stability.

It’s a trite fallback line that goes something like this: “We just play the games that are on the schedule. All we can do is play them one at a time.” And, of course, not worry about anything else.

With that in mind, the guys (or computers) who put the 2018 National Football League schedule together are either masochists or harbored a deep dislike for the Browns.

It’s bad enough the schedule called for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons to be placed somewhere on their schedule. But back-to-back? Really? Sure, both games are at home, but c’mon, two of the best offenses in the league in consecutive weeks?

That is what Gregg Williams faces in his first two games as the Browns’ interim head coach. It was bad enough the Chiefs came to town and rode roughshod last Sunday, a 37-21 slap around that wasn’t as close as the final indicates.

The Chiefs rank second in the NFL in total offense and proved it big time behind the quarterback wizardry of Patrick Mahomes II. Now along comes the Falcons, ranked fifth in total offense.

Trying to stop that offense will be the 30th-ranked team in overall defense, which sounds very much like the outcome won’t be that much different than the brutal Kansas City verdict.

Injuries are beginning to take a toll on the Browns, especially in the secondary where a few new strangers, picked up off waivers, will make their team debut Sunday against the Falcons.

Cornerback Denzel Ward, (hip), free safety Damarious Randall (groin) and middle linebacker Joe Schobert (hamstring) are expected back which should help. But how much action they’ll see is unknown.

It will be interesting to see whether Williams, in his role as defensive coordinator, backs off his usual aggressive self and plays more conservatively against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his terrific corps of receivers.

Ryan, headed for the first 5,000-yard season of his 11-year career, spreads the ball around to the likes of Julio Jones, rookie Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, tight end Austin Cooper and running back Tevin Coleman.

The peerless Jones has booked a 60-catch, 933-yard season thus far, but with only one touchdown, that last Sunday as the 4-4 Falcons won their third game in a row against the Washington Redskins.

Seven of Ryan’s 19 scoring passes – he has thrown only three interceptions – have gone to Ridley, three to Sanu (who has been known to throw a pass or two) and four to Coleman, who has also scored a pair on the ground. And when Coleman needs a breather, rookie Ito Smith has picked up the slack with four rushing touchdowns

It’s an offense that might not be as good as the one the Browns faced last week, but it’s damn close and seems to have found itself, averaging 32 points during its winning streak, recovering nicely after beginning the season 1-4.

Williams’ biggest problem, if he chooses to maintain his aggressive stance, is determining whom Ward, his best press corner, covers, leaving him vulnerable elsewhere in the secondary with the other talented receivers.

Few teams this season have stopped the Atlanta passing attack, ranked second in the NFL. About the only way to neutralize Ryan, who completes 71% of his passes, is with a strong pass rush. He has been sacked 22 times.

That aspect of the Cleveland defense has become troublesome lately. It seems as though only Myles Garrett is making life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. The second-year man owns nine of the team’s 22 sacks. That’s not going to cut it against an improving Falcons offensive line, anchored by ex-Brown Alex Mack.

Where the Browns have a chance, much as they did last week against the Chiefs, at least on paper, is against a Falcons defense that surrenders 28 points a game and hemorrhages 413 yards on the average.

But that would mean the Browns’ offense, which showed signs of coming out of its funk against KC, would have to match the Falcons point for point, an exercise that worked only once this seasons against Oakland and that was in a losing cause.

It didn’t work against the Chiefs, whose defense is just as porous as Atlanta’s, because it is not an offense equipped to handle such a task.

The 30th-ranked Cleveland defense, meanwhile, has taken a sharp turn for the worse in the last four games, yielding 33½ points a game. It has plummeted to 29th in the NFL against the rush (142 yards a game), 27th against the pass and allowed seven of nine opponents this season to run up more than 400 yards of total offense.

The 23 takeaways sure look nice on the stats sheet, but are meaningless because of an offense incapable of taking advantage of them.

The Browns right now are in a severe nosedive that has landed them in a familiar spot in the AFC North. If you need further explanation, you haven’t been paying attention.

The road ahead is just as unpleasant looking as the last four weeks with three more AFC North games – two against Cincinnati – after the bye next Sunday. Of those six remaining games, only two are against teams with losing records, both on the road.

It is entirely possible, barring a where-did-that-come-from victory or two, the vastly improved Browns that began the season could wind up with just the two early-season victories, a gigantic letdown for the loyalists who honestly believed the turnaround was under way this season.

And because the Falcons began the season so poorly, do not expect a letdown Sunday against a lesser team. They can’t afford one. A few might consider it a trap game, but there is no way the Cleveland offense stays with Ryan & Co. Make it:

Falcons 35, Browns 13