Review: Game 1 (at Pittsburgh)

Opening statement: It’s been a long time since a loss– especially on a field goal on the very last play– felt uplifting. The feeling could be caused by one of three things:

  1. Relief that the season hasn’t (at least for the moment) gone completely down the toilet, as it appeared when the first half ended.
  2. A mistaken belief (which fans and writers make) that everything that happens in a game is solely the result of their team’s effort. It might be (as Pittsburgh fans think) a second-half fold by the Steelers.
  3. An accurate belief that the 2014 Browns have untapped possibilities.

It’s impossible to answer many of those questions now. Mike Pettine called the defense “a comedy of errors” in his postgame. His statement implies the errors shouldn’t have happened– and won’t recur.

That might be true… but these are, almost to a man, the same players who nearly blew a lead against the Vikings in 2013– and did blow leads against Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, and New England and Chicago. That defense had a habit of playing “good enough to lose.” It was looked strongest when it was behind.

We’ll find out if the Pittsburgh game was a one-time defensive breakdown on Sunday. The New Orleans Saints just scored 34 points against Atlanta, accumulating 139 yards and 3 TDs rushing, and 333 yards passing and a TD.

Last year the Browns allowed 25.4 points a game (23rd in the NFL); Atlanta allowed 27.7 (27th). If the Browns really are a good team that just had a bad week 1, the Saints won’t do as well as they did in week 1. If the 2014 Browns are the same team they were a year ago, New Orleans should have another great game.

We’ll get an early clue about Pittsburgh Thursday, when Markus Wheaton (6 catches on 7 targets for 97 yards) and LeVeon Bell (6-7 for 88 yards) go up against Baltimore. If both players have big games, we can feel better about Justin Gilbert’s wretched play.

On Sunday, the Saints let Atlanta rush for 123 yards (4.9 a carry). The only reason Rob Ryan’s defense didn’t allow more is that it was also allowing 443 passing yards on 43 attempts. If Terrance West (16-100) and Isaiah Crowell (6.4 yards a carry and 2 TDs) gut the Saints as effortlessly as Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers did, we can get excited about them. If not, we shouldn’t.

My take on the game?

  • The Steelers came out with fire in their eyes, while the Browns came out flat. As a result, the Steelers built up a huge lead.
  • In the second half, exactly the opposite happened. The Browns made the third quarter a character test, while the Steelers put their feet up on the dashboard.
  • When the game was on the line, the Browns ran out of adrenaline, while the Steelers managed to return to form.

I might be wrong– and I’d be delighted to be proven wrong. I’ve gotta say it was the gamest performance since the Butch Davis era. Cleveland drew a line in the sand and backed it up. That was something they never could do last year. On offense, they tried something new and made it work.

But after four exhibition games of industrial waste– and the first half– it’s going to take more than a single half to sell me. Are there questions?

Shouldn’t the Browns have kicked the field goal?

Of course not. Billy Cundiff did make a 56-yarder in 2005, but he’s 7-27 lifetime on field goals of 50 yards or more. As Pettine pointed out:

  • If you miss the kick, they have the ball on their own 42 with 4:26 left.
  • If you make the kick, they have the ball at their 20 with 4:26 left.

Your best option is to try to pin them inside the 5 and assume the defense, which has held them to 54 yards in 4 drives– can get you the ball back.

A point about Pettine to keep in mind. He was a head coach for seven years. In his first two years with the Ravens, he was assigned to their kicking teams. The odds that he’s going to miscalculate a simple decision like this are pretty low.

How much did losing Ben Tate and Jordan Cameron hurt the team?

Just my guess, but I’ll go with “A lot less than people think.” They both disappeared before the first half ended. But, according to the first-half stats, Tate (6-41) got the ball on 6 of the 11 runs; Cameron (2-5 for 47 yards) was the target on 5 of the 11 passes. Not a lot of creativity on display.

That seemed to be playing into Pittsburgh’s hands. Both guys made one big play– Tate ran for 25 yards; Cameron caught a 47-yard pass–  but, by and large, Pittsburgh was concentrating on keeping them contained, and pretty much succeeding.

When the Browns came out in the third quarter, the Steelers expected them to do what every team down 27-3 does– give up on the run and throw long. The guy they seemed most worried about– not too surprisingly, he did go to two Pro Bowls– was Miles Austin.

When the Browns passed to Andrew Hawkins, Pittsburgh seemed to say “Ohright– he’s a veteran, we forgot you might throw to him.” But when they went no-huddle and ran the ball twice with West– and got 24 yards– the Steelers looked stunned.

After two runs, Cleveland ran a play-action– the Steelers, because the Browns had been running,  took the fake– and Hoyer hit Austin for 17. At that point, Pittsburgh seemed shell-shocked. Hoyer threw to Taylor Gabriel– and then Isaiah Crowell blasted through for a score.

We’ll never know, obviously, but if the Browns had still had their two threats, the might not have tried a no-huddle. And, even if they had, they probably would have used the two guys Pittsburgh was all geared up to stop.

Were you surprised by the hurry-up?

I shouldn’t have been,  On Monday, both Pittsburgh papers ran exasperated “Can’t you idiots stop the no-huddle” stories. This was more hostile, but this wasn’t bad. It turned out that Pittsburgh played Philadelphia in game 3 of the exhibition season and looked hideous. Clearly the Browns scouted that game.

I was stunned by the execution. The typical no-huddle offense is stripped down, so you can call plays quickly. But Mike Shanahan’s offense is based on Tom Landry;s multiple front, multiple formation system (Dan Reeves was Landry’s offensive coordinator), with some West Coast Offense (he worked for the 49ers) grafted on, Everything is variable; the quarterback has to spell out the formation, shift,s motion, play number, and snap count. It’s very verbose.

Plus, with Tate out. there wasn’t a single player in the huddle– at any point– who had run it. And, both ballcarriers, one of the wide receivers (Taylor Gabriel; 2-6 fpr 13 yards) and one of the linemen (Joel Bitonio) are rookies.

And they did it without a sack, turnover or a penalty– unless Hoyer’s stuffed run on third down at the end of the third quarter was a busted play. I’ve been fragging Kyle Shanahan pretty heavily, since he’s got a reputation as a jerk and has never had total responsibility for the offense. Dad– or one of his buddies who ran the offense– has always been around to help.

But If he can duplicate the performance a few times, I’ll owe him an apology.

You don’t think you own him one now?

No for two reasons. First, he didn’t come up with the no-huddle idea, clearly. Second, it was a tiny slice of the game. Cleveland had 12 possessions and ran 64 offensive plays.They gained 389 yards and 23 first downs.

  • On 4 drives, they scored 24 points, gained 245 yards and got 17 first downs.
  • On the other 8, they scored 3 points, gained 144 and got 6 first downs.

And 2 of those 8 drives where they stunk came after the big comeback– when they needed to score to win. Not to take away from the achievement, but once Cleveland the offense got back in the game, the Steelers shut it down again.

We have plenty of time to build a statue if he can do this again when people are expecting it.

Wasn’t there anything you were impressed by?

There were lots of things I was impressed by– I’m just not convinced they’re going to happen every week. Andrew Hawkins (8-10 for 87 yards) and Travis Benjamin ( 2-3 for 20; 1 TD) are both 5’8″… let’s see what happens when opponents try to beat them up coming off the line.

The one thing I am pretty excited about– because I do think it will happen– is how well the zone blocking scheme worked on some plays. This scheme was designed to open holes without requiring a large investment in offensive linemen. On Denver’s 1998 Championship team, the blockers were:

  • LT: Former Brown Tony Jones (6’5″ and 290), undrafted free agent.
  • LG: Mark Schlereth (6’3″ and 282), 10th-round pick.
  • C: Mark Nalen (6’3″ and 286), 7th round.
  • RG: Dan Neil (6’2″ and 285), 3rd round.
  • RT Harry Swayne, (6’5″ and 290), 7th round.

Jones, Schlereth and Swayne were 32 or older. Nalen is the only one that you’d consider great (Hall of Fanmer Gary Zimmerman was on the 1997 team).

Don’t quote me until I think about this, but the Browns are possibly the most talented group of linemen ever to run this system. They’re all huge and they all can run. LT Joe Thomas is going to the Hall of Fame; C Alex Mack already has as many Pro Bowl selections (2) as Schlereth; RT Mitchell Schwartz and Bitonio are both second-rounders who are very young. Schwartz probably won’t get to Hawaii, but Bitonio probably will. Even RG John Greco is 6’5″ and 290 and a former third-round pick.

If West and Crowell take to the system, the ground game could get scary.

What about Tate?

He’s always had “nagging injuries”. Missed games in all three years. I assumed many of his problems staying in the timeup have been due to the presence of Arian Foster– when you have a guy who’s that good, if Tate is even at 95%, the temptation to keep him sitting is high.

But a friend from Texas called him “Our Montario Hardesty” (Tate was taken one slot before the Browns traded up to get Hardesty). When teh Browns signed him, Bill guaranteed me that Tate would get “a debilitating hangnail or high-ankle dandruff” before game 4.

When someone calls his shot, it leads you to respect the insight. .

No kind words for Hoyer?

He did a nice job in the second half, but he threw three passes that could have been picked off. If Ike Taylor hadn’t dropped the one thrown his way, he could have prevented the tying TD to Benjamin.

One thing that really helped Hoyer was having an offense– for the first time since 2007– that wasn’t obvious.As Dan Fouts explained after one of his big passes: “When you run the ball successfully, the defense has to respect the play action.” When the offense doesn’t line up WIllis McGahee or Trent Richardson– a back the defense doesn’t have to worry about at all– it helps.

Richardson, by the way, went 6-20 running; 3 catches on 4 targets for 31 yards in game 1. Ibn mid-season form already.

Also, not to minimize Cameron’s value, but the nice thing about Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge is that they both block. and you can’t presume that one– or either– will definitely be the receiver.  Ray Agnew hammered a couple of people too.

By the way, none of this matters unless the team plays much better defense.

Do you think Pettine can eliminate the missed tackles?

No– because I don’t consider what happened Sunday to be “missed tackles.” The term implies that the defense did everything right, but made the occasional goof on the “bringing the ballcarrier down” part,

I saw the same basic errors this defense has made for years. The Cleveland defense bites on fakes and runs itself out of plays. Players don’t do their jobs– the guys assigned to make sure the ballcarrier doesn’t cut back often forget to do it,. They chase the ball, and the guy runs through the hole they leave open.

If at least part of the defender isn’t in front of the defender, it’s very difficult to make a tackle before the offense gains a ton of yardage.

It’s the first game in a new scheme, Geoff.

There isn’t much difference between the scheme Pettine uses and the one Ray Horton used a year ago. The original defense was drawn up by Dick LeBeau, while he was in Cincinnati. When he was hired by the Steelers in 1992, he brought the scheme with him/ There were four defensive coaches:

  • Dom Capers as the coordinator
  • Steve Furness as line coach
  • Marvin Lewis as linebackers coach
  • LeBeau as defensive backs coach.

Lewis took the scheme to Baltimore in 1996 when he was hired as coordinator. Rex Ryan learned it when he was hired by the Ravens in 1999; Pettine learned it when he began working for Baltimore in 2002.

It’s not identical to the scheme Horton (who worked for LeBeau when the Bengals made him their head coach and then worked for LeBeau in Pittsburgh) ran. Ryan blended in some of the 46 stuff he learned from his dad. But they’re both branches of the same tree. It’s not like the gap between Air Coryell and Mike Shanahan’s offense– where there is no connection.

Plus, the depth chart shows this isn’t a young defense. Gilbert and Chris Kirksey are rookies. Barkevious Mingo and Armonty Bryant are second-year players, Tashaun Gipson, Billy Winn and  John Hughes are third-year players. everyone else is fourth-year or older.

I expect them to get better over time– the rush packages Pettine uses are all different. But it’s not going to be orders of magnitude. And the majority of the problems were simply coverage issues, where Haden and Gilbert got barbecued.

What’s going on with Gilbert?

The real concern should be Haden. He looked bad in the exhibition games, and people said it would change when the season started. It hasn’t. His reactions are slow and it looks like he’s lost a step.To be fair, Antonio Brown has always given him fits. But he hasn’t looked like a guy who’s worth a bajillion dollars.

Gilbert looks like the player about whom Frank Cooney’s service said:

“Gilbert can get himself in trouble when biting on fakes and pumps as he’s highly aggressive. He has a bit of a cover-corner mentality when it comes to run support. He flashes the competitive drive to fight through blocks and make the play but is often willing to allow teammates to make the play if they nearby. Gilbert will also lower his shoulder and lunge occasionally, missing tackles he shouldn’t.”

They had many positive things to say about him, and this could be growing pains,. But if he’s on the field now, you have to assume he’ll be the guy the quarterbacks go after. That’s where Roethlisberger looked first.

Should they bench him until he improves?

If he needs experience, benching him is the worst thing they can do. He shouldn’t be the starter, but if he doesn’t play, how can he improve? The goal should be to put him in the nickel or the slot, assuming Buster Skrine can hold up, so he can cover second-tier receivers and learn..

If he isn’t any good, it’s better to know early, so you can move on. It wouldn’t have helped to keep Leon McFadden around as a kicking teams player for years, hoping he’d turn into a player.

What’d you think of the pass rush?

It looked unstoppable at points, but the Steelers have had so many problems protecting the passer that I’d be careful about assuming the outcome was 100% Browns. It looked like half Brownie goodness and half Steeler ineptitude.

We’ll know more after we see how Pittsburgh handles Baltimore and Cleveland handles New Orleans. The Saints have Pro Bowl players at both guard spots.

I’ll assume it will improve. Pettine seems to be using Paul Kruger more effectively, and at some point he’ll realize Jabaal Sheard is better than Mingo

The two big free agents– LB Karlos Dansby and SS Donte Whitner— both seemed to know what to do, but both looked like they’ve lost a step. But they’re still Pro Bowl players, so they can lose a little and still excel.

Any concerns or awards?

The kicking teams were terrible:

  • Had Antonio Brown not decided to do “Kung-Fu Fighting”, he could have run his punt back all the way.
  • They didn’t return a single punt.
  • On kickoffs, Travis Benjamin ran two balls out of the end zone when he should have let them be touchbacks.

And the Steelers aren’t good on kicking teams, so when you look bad against them it means you’d look awful against good opponents.

And the overriding concern is that this if you take away the third quarter, this game is a rout. It’s nice to see the team fight back– way better than curling up and dying.

But the team that beat them wasn’t a good team– if the Steelers play like that all year’s they’ll be between 6-10 and 8-8  (They can obviously get better, since many of their players are young.)

And if they play a good team at the level they played at Sunday, they’re going to get slaughtered.

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