First Impressions: Exhibition Game #3

1. Department of Disaster Mitigation. Lazy writers often use the term “untimigated disaster”, begging the question “What would a mitigated disaster be?”  

Now we know. The following things can be said:

  • Kick returns have been impressive. When the Browns finally give of on Travis Benjamin (who gets dinged up too easily), either Taylor Gabriel or Marlon Moore look like they can do the job. Also, remember, that dime back Justin Gilbert was a kick returner
  • Nobody of importance got seriously hurt during the game.
  • The pass defense isn’t as bad as it looked. Starting corners.Buster Skrine, and Joe Haden  didn’t play. Neither did Isaiah Trufant (who looks like the nickel back) or Pierre Desir. You lose your top three corners in the dress rehearsal and things get dreary. 
  • Other players who didn’t play include retired veterans Puff Gordon and Nate Burleson and starting quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Connor Shaw..

2. Backing into a starting job. NFL teams often ‘back into” the playoffs, by losing games– but having the only teams who could displace them lose their. I’ve never seen a player “back into” a starting job until Saturday.

I’ve always felt Brian Hoyer was a journeyman– a guy in a class with Ryan Fitzpatrick,or Matt Cassel or (on the low end) Chad Henne or Jason Cabot-Campbell. They have some talent, can look good in spots and maybe even take you into the playoffs if the other components are good enough. Hoyer has played like a man on a mission to that perception known. 

Hoyer was 5-10 for 55 yards, 0 TDs and an interception (a 25.0 rating) when the Rams had the big boys in. Running a two-minute drive with the rest of the first string against the scrubs, he went 5-6 tof 29 yards and a score (147.2).

Given the starting job, Hoyer demonstrated that he can also turn the ball over as well as Rex Grossman in his prime, throwing a pick and fumbling the ball at his own 19.

Given the ball on the Rams 14 after a fumble Johnny Flipbird ran a 7-play, 14-yard drive where the team produced:

  • 9 yards passing
  • 2 yards rushing (and one of the two first downs) 
  • 3 yards (and one first down) on penalties 

The game was 23-7 and in garbage time. He celebrated, of course.

Right now, Connor Shaw (a free agent from South Carolina) is the only quarterback who has looked competent at any point in any game. Even the grotesque, monkeylike exhibitions put forth by Rex Grossman over the last decade might be an improvement.

3.Like Mad Dogs in a Meat Market. I was very impressed– in a negative way– by the defense. Like the Mike Junkin prototype, it ran around a lot, barking furiously, wasting energy and licking itself. They embarrassed themselves against all three quarterbacks.

  • Sam Bradford was leading the team to a TD (second and 7 on the Cleveland 12) when his knee gave out
  • Shauin Hill, a 32-year-old journeyman on his fourth team, led the Rams to another field goal on his one drive. A penalty blew up the drive, but he had the Rams at the Cleveland 7.
  • Austin Davis, in a battle for the #3 job, made Nick Foles look like Brandon Weeden had a rating of 104 with 2 TDs and only one INT on a good play.

Total damage 21-39 for 343 yards; rating over 90. The Rams ran 34 times for 142 carries (4.2 yards) and a TD.

I don’t give a rat’s butt about third-down conversions, because a team can stomp on an opponent on first and second downs and win without getting to a third. (First and second-down conversions are more helpful, actually.) But if the offense finds itself on third down 19 times, it damned sure shouldn’t convert 12 times.

There is no excuse for this There are two things you need to know about “Mike Pettine’s defense”:

  • It isn’t all that different from the defense Rob Ryan ran when Eric Mangini was here. Pettine learned it from Rex Ryan– both sons learned the ideas from their dad.
  • It’s a very close relative of Ray Horton’s defense. Both are based on Dick LeBeau’s fire zone (which the Ravens adopted when Marvin Lewis joined the team as coordinator).

This isn’t some abstract concept that’s hard to learn– it’s You guys cover the receiver 1-on-1, you guys chase the quarterback and the rest of you stay in your lanes and catch the guys the rushers chase to you.”

I know it’s exciting to see players running like mad all over the place. But it’s undisciplined, and it makes things very easy for the offense. Most “missed tackles” occur when the defender is out of position — behind the player or to the side– and has to grab at him. Most players can break those.

If you’re in front of the player, you should be able to wrap him up. Unless, of course, you’re Justin Gilbert. 

4. Tom Heckert’s Revenge. The knock on Gilbert coming out of college– the reason many draft guys liked other prospects– was “He won’t tackle.” Gilbert is a converted QB who would try to knock a player out of bounds– or wait for reinforcements– before he’d close.

In his first game in the spotlight, Gilbert did absolutely nothing to disprove that statement.

It’s not a question of not knowing the scheme– or having a nagging injury. This is something you can spot about a player in a Pop Warner league– does he like to hit? Based on what we saw last night, Gilbert doesn’t.

 And that’s the #1 pick– a guy you traded a draft pick to be sure you got?  Skrine probably can’t come back quickly or well from thumb surgery; the other corner who can cover (Trufant) is 5’8″. Cleveland doesn’t have any options– Gilbert has to play and play well. And right now, he looks awful. 

The other #1 pick– who also cost additional choices– finds it an onerous task to (a) learn the playbook and (b) call the plays before the clock expires. And that lack of interest in doing anything but schoolyard ball– was also known.

The #2 pick (LG Joel Bitonio) has had a pretty good pre-season. But in the dress rehearsal, he got flagged twice for holding.

The first #3 pick (LB Chris Kirksey) did make seven tackles and that was a pretty neat INT– tip the ball and then catch it,. But his 7 tackles were on plays that gained 35 yards– an average of 5.0 a play.

Sometimes that stat is misleading because a guy will get a tackle on a long gainer– a play where someone else blew the play and he caught the ballcarrier after a long run. Often it isn’t.

The other #3– also a player the Browns traded multiple draft picks for– was RB Terrance West.  Another dismal performance– 7 carries for 17 yards (2.4 average) and no catch on the one pass thrown to hi.

Like Gilbert, the #4 pick (CB Pierre Desir) also had the “better athlete than player” and  “won’t tackle” tags hung on him. And in the one game he played, he showed signs those were accurate.

That’s your entire draft class– the one the Browns and their groupies were hooting about. Right now it looks like they have one player (Bitonio) worth the choices he costs. 

And of Mike Lombardi’s two brainstorms- LB Meowkevious Mingo and CB Leon McFadden— MIngo played 29 snaps and did nothing (no sacks, tackles or nice plays) was by far the better player. McFadden gave up close to 100 yards in coverage– 25 of them on a play where he was flagged for illegal contact.

Ponder that for a moment. The Browns #3 pick committed a penalty– hit a receiver in violation of the rules, to get an unfair advantage on the play. And the receiver still beat him like a drum.

It’s still early, but there is a possibility that Bitonio will be the only player the Browns get out of the last two drafts. 

5. Stopping the runaway train. The Browns are in danger of having the season go out of control before it even begins. The three games before the break (at Pittsburgh, at home against New Orleans and Baltimore) all are clearly in the loss column at this point.

IN fact, the only games that appear winnable– even on paper– are:

  • Game 6 (in Jacksonville)
  • Game 7 (Oakland)
  • Game 8 (Tampa) 
  • Game 10 (Houston)
  • Game 11 (in Altanta)
  • Game 12 (in Buffalo)

I’m sure the Browns aren’t as bad as they look. The players I’ve beat up could improve rapidly as they gain experience; other teams I have in the win column (Baltimore, Pittsburgh) could slip.

But all six of those teams could get better, too. Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles doesn’t seem overwhelmed; Matt Schuab or Derek Carr might to wonders for Oakland (Greg Little, by the way, has 3 catches for 55 yards on 10 targets). 

Right now it looks like Kyle Shnahan’s offense– and Pettine’s “Yee-haw!” defense– are both busts. And Pettine– who handled the QB situation badly and is talking about rotating QBs already— looks like a gaffe machine.

The team can’t afford to treat Thursday’s game against Chicago as a “OK, you all take the week off” exercise. They need to show they can function– to do that, they need to play starters.. The Browns keep holding people out, saying they don’t want to risk injury– but every time they play a guy they’re holding out, the man looks green.

No more of this “Let’s not risk Miles Austin or Nate Burleson in games that mean nothing” stuff. There is a good possibility that neither guy will be any good– and if so, better to find that out now.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’d feel much better if Grossman played in game 4, He’s a terrible quarterback, but he does at least know the offense. I know what his major malfunctions are, and I’ll be able to tell who is to blame if something goes badly.

The Steelers in Pittsburgh when games count is not the where you want to do your shakedown cruise and find out how badly the boat leaks.


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