Review: Game 2 (New Orleans)

Opening Remarks: When I wrote the First Impressions, I thought I was simply presenting some basic thoughts– that the Browns did a good job of game planning and management, while New Orleans handled those tasks abysmally.

As it turns out, I was laying the groundwork for a “get a grip” piece directed at everyone in the region.

I believe the ability to analyze a game and draw the right conclusions hinges on the ability to remember that two teams are playing– and both are responsible, to some degree, for the outcome. An interception, for example, can be caused by any or all of the following things:

  1. A quarterback who makes a stupid decision or a terrible throw,
  2. A receiver who muffs a catch or lets the defender get position on him,
  3. A pass rush that blasts the quarterback as he throws, or bats the ball,
  4. A defensive back who makes a great diagnosis and catch play, or
  5. Luck– the quarterback slips on a wet field, a receiver pulls a hamstring, etc…

If you always assume that every key play is 100% the result of the local team’s skill or effort (or lack of it)– that the opponent played no part in the outcome– you’re almost certainly (unless it was a game like the Falcons’ 56-14 beating of the Bucs) going to draw the wrong conclusion.

This was a good win for the team. In game 1, the Browns had a terrible first half, then vowed they were going to come back. They made it a test of character, played a good half and succeeded in tying the game.

In game 2, they played well for almost all game and ended up winning. That’s what coaches call “building on last week’s effort.”  That’s what you want to see– and if Cleveland can build upon that in game 3, life will soon be very sweet.

But let’s face facts. The Saints didn’t take Cleveland seriously. They didn’t play well. They weren’t coached well. A lot of the things that happened against Cleveland also happened in week one against the Falcons.

A year ago, everyone in town also assumed that the Browns had arrived. They had a close loss to the Chiefs and beat Baltimore by less than a TD and almost everyone in the city said things that looked very embarrassing a few weeks later.

Brian Hoyer is a great story, but he isn’t materially better QB than Jason Cambell-Cabot. Let’s not call him an elite quarterback– and the team  a playoff contender– until we see a few more good games Questions?

Do you think Tashaun Gipson’s pick-six was a fluke?

 Yes and no. The Cleveland papers, naturally, gave the Browns 100% of the credit, for pressuring Brees. The New Orleans papers put 100% of the the blame on Drew Brees. Their argument is fairly strong: (a) he’s had 20 interceptions returned for touchdowns in his career (which is a lot) and (b) most of the INTs were thrown to journeymen.

They included a list– games, players, game situation– of the 17 he’s thrown as a Saint. The best player on it was either Ahmad Brooks or  Donter Whitner. Also, 12 of the 17 picks were made by teams who ran 3-4 defenses using at least some of Dick LeBeau’s Zone Blitz ideas– and two were made by David Bowens in Cleveland’s 2010 upset.

It’s absolutely impossible to say “That was 100% Cleveland– Drew Brees doesn’t normally make plays like that.” Brees has had a fine career, but he did lead the league in interceptions in 2012, and his lifetime TD-INT ratio (366-179) is barely above the 2-1 ratio that is the mark of a good QB.

On the other hand, Tashaun Gipson has done this before too. He’s started 20 games– a season and a quarter– and he has seven interceptions, two of which he ran back all the way. he was in the top 10 in interceptions and return yards last year– he’s there again.

I’d say the credit was about 60-40 Cleveland. They did get a pass rush on him (40%), Brees did make a mistake he has made many times before (40%)– but the Browns had a safety who has shown that he can make a big play (20%).

And you aren’t giving any credit to Hoyer.
He has an 87.1 rating right now.

He’s ranked 18th in passer rating now– behind such luminaries as Ryan Fitzpatrick of Houston Derek Anderson of Carolina, Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel and Austin Davis of the Rams.

It’s easy to throw passes in September, when the weather is still fairly warm. Let’s see what happens when defenses begin to put pressure on him. Not to be rude, but the Saints made two different screwups on his big throw, and the Steelers fouled up at least one and maybe three interceptions .

Hoyer is averaging 6.1 yards per pass- nearly a yard below the average. He’s dinking and dunking. At some point, defenses will take away those short routes, daring him to beat them deep. Let’s see what happens when that occurs.

No problem, since he’ll have Ben Tate,
Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon soon.

OK< so you’re assuming that Puff will avoid another alcohol or drug incident before he’s eligible to play again– and that he’ll be in shape when he is. It might happen.

Cameron’s injury is a negative in that it takes a weapon away from Hoyer. It is a positive because (a) opponents aren’t sure where Hoyer will throw and (b) the two players playing now block better than he does.

When Cameron comes back after the bye week, he’ll have a sore shoulder and 13 games left before his contract expires. His priority will be staying healthy and catching long passes, not doing mundane chores that might get him hurt. I think the benefits will be less than people imagine.

Finally, part of the reason Tate is in Cleveland is that he gets dinged a lot. He might or might not be back, and how long he will remain healthy when he returns is debatable.

Also, it’s possible he won’t have a job, if his replacements continue to play well.

You must be pleased by the running game.

 Yes. It’s been a bgi plus. I’d be more pleased if the Steelers (5.7 yards per attempt) weren’t 27th in run defense and New Orleans (4.5) weren’t 20th, but you play the opponents you have. The Ravens are 12th, and  if the Browns tear them up, it will be a clear sign of how good they are.

Not to be mean, but the Browns are 29th in rushing defense, by the way.

The Browns obviously have something to do with the poor performance of the Saints and Steelers. Terrance West (19-68-1 Sunday) is fourth in rushing yards (166), and 19th in rushing average (4.8 yards). Isaiah Crowell (11-54) is 33rd in total yards but 12th in rushing average.

In his ranking of rookies (behind the ESPN paywall), Mel Kiper has West and Crowell rankied 11th. He also has Joel Bitonio seventh.

Wasn’t this a great draft? 

It’s a little early to judge, but no. Another way to perceive Kiper’s rankings are:

  • WR Sammy Watkins, one of the two players the Browns passed on when they traded down, was ranked #1 by Kiper.
  • LB Khalil Mack, the other guy the Browns passed on, is ranked 9th.
  • CB Jasopn Verrett— one of the three corners the Browns passed on when they took Justin Gilbert— is ranked second
  • CB Kyle Fuller— another CB they decided not to pick– ranked 8th

The Browns had two #1 picks– whom they gave up picks in round 3 (Johnny Football) and 5 (Gilbert)– and neither player is on the list. That’s happening because neither is playing well.

Are you really ragging on Johnny Manziel?

I’m just pointing out something that seems obvious to me– it can’t be a good draft if your top two picks aren’t contributing and your #4 oick (CB Pierre Desir) can’t even get on the field.

It’s not a knock on either player. 200 of the 220+ players taken in any given draft won”t be getting meaningful playing time two games into their pro career. At the moment, Derek Carr (80.6 QB Rating) is the only QB on Kiper’s ranking, because Oakland was the only team who didn’t have a veteran they liked.

Presumably Teddy Bridgewater (currently behind Matt Cassel, whose 65.6 rating is 34th of 35) and Blake Bortles– now watching Chad Henne (25th, 81.8)– will win the job. Two games is way too early to be concerned.

Gilbert and Manziel could come on in the next 14 games 

By the same token West, Crowell and Bitonio could fall back.

So you have nothing positive to say about a big win.

Actually, I do. But because I write slowly, everyone has said all the things I might have said– and then has gone way beyond it.

On offense, the Browns clearly have one hell of a line. The players are still trying to figure out Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, but they’re doing a good enough job to be eighth in yardage and fourth in both rushing average and scores. They have there backs who look like they can blow through a hole and run a long way.

The running game is also improved because TEs Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray both block and FB Ray Agnew knocks people flat. That’s also helping on the passing game., because opponents can’t just blow right through untouched.

At quarterback, Hoyer has managed two games effectively. He’s been sacked only four times, because he doesn’t hold the ball for eons, trying in vain to read the defense.  He hasn’t thrown an interception; he hasn’t fumbled.

A year ago, the Browns gave up a sack on 6.7% of their pass attempts— 17th in the league (it’s the Sk % columns) . This year, even though they don’t have Puff Gordon– and only had Poke Cameron for less than one half– the percentage of sacks is down to 5.3%, which is 12th.

As coordinator, Shanahan has looked surprisingly good. He’s the first coach since the Bill Belichick era who hasn’t promised to run the ball– and then gotten away from it as soon as they fell behind by 10 points.

In 2011, with Pat Shurmur calling plays, the Browns were 12th in attempts, with 570. In 2012, with Brad Childress, they were 14th , with 566. Last year with Norv Turner, they were first, with 681.

At the moment, they are 18th. They have 71 pass attempts and 61 rushing attempts– as close to balance as the 21st-century NFL gets.

I really do not want to mention this, because (a) this statistic is very misleading, due to the number of games played and (b) scoring always goes down as the weather gets worse. But the team record for points scored in a season is 423, by the 1946 club.

After two games, they’ve scored 53 points– which, if projected to a full 16 games, is 424.

They could be the best Browns offense ever? 

No. Hell no. No $%^$%#% way. The 1946 team played 14 games– it would project to 483 in a 16-game season. The 1947, 1964 and 1966 teams would also have scored more over 16 games,

The teams in the 1950’s were playing 12 games– the 349 points they scored in 1955 would be 465 points over 16 games. And that doesn’t even factor in the rules changes– which let defensive backs mug the receivers and linemen slug opponents.

Also, 424 points is good, but not “Oh My God!!!!” good. It would have earned eighth place last year.

And, again, the offense will slow down as conditions get worse. Right now they’re averaging 26.5 points a game. The 2007 team (which holds the record for points in a 16-game season, with 402):

  • Scored 58 points in the first two games (29 a game)
  • Had 82 (27.3) through 3 games
  • Was up to 167 (27.8 points) at the bye week (after game 6)

In the last six games, they scored 114 (19 a game)– thanks to an 8-0 win (31 degrees, 19 MPH wind) against Buffalo and the 19-14 loss (45 degrees, but 20-MPH wind) in Cincinnati.

Plus, again, neither of the first two opponents thought they needed to prepare for the Browns,. Also Miles Austin gets hurt a lot, and Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel are all small.

But if it scored, say 325– just over 20 a game– that would be the third highest total of the post-expansion era (402 in 2007, 344 in 2002 and then 308 under Chud). That’s the point where 7-9 or 8-8 is a reasonable expectation, if your defense is decent.

And this defense has a chance to– 

Stop. Do not say stupid things. The 2012 defense allowed 368 points (19th in the league). The 2013 team allowed 406 (23rd). Take it from someone who has forgotten more about defensive statistics than Ray Horton will ever know– the Browns didn’t have a good defense last year.

This year it is has allowed 54 points– 26th in the league and on course for 432 points (which would have been 25th last year).

Geoff they shut down New Orleans. 

No they didn’t. They allowed 24 points– a little over the league average (22.2). New Orleans gained 397 yards– 5.8 per play.

The offense staked the defense to a 16-3 lead with 3:35 left in the first half. The defense let New Orleans score two TDs to take the lead:

  • The TD that cut the gap to 16-10 happened on the Saints’ last possession of the first half. New Orleans got the ball on their own 15 with 3:25 left and moved 85 yards in 3:22
  • The TD that put the Saints ahead 17-16 took place on New Orleans’s first possession of the third quarter. They got the ball at the 43 and went 57 yards on 8 plays, to take a 17-16 lead.

Normally that would have been it– but this offense came right back and scored. They took the ball on the 20, burned 14 plays and 6:13 on the clock and took the lead back, 23-17.

Whereupon the defense gave the lead back on the very next possession. New Orleans traveled 80 yards on 13 plays, taking 6:07 to do it. When they left, the score was 24-23.

The defense stopped them when it had to. 

No it didn’t. It let the Saints run 11 plays, gaining 52 yards and running the clock down from 8:59 to 2:46.

New Orleans had the ball on the Cleveland 31, 3rd-and 5. That’s a 48-yard field goal– many teams would have just run the ball to set up the kick. Because the Saints have Shayne Graham– whose leg is so weak that teams don’t ask him to try kicks over 45 yards if they’re playing outside– they tried to throw.

The Saints screwed up a blocking assignment, let Karlos Dansby blow by for a sack. and lost 7 yards.

Since they were leasing anyway, the Saints decided to punt, and dropped the ball at the Cleveland 4 with 2:46 left.

That should be a winning performance. According to the Win Probability data at Pro Football Reference, the probability of New Orleans winning was 89.87%.

The defense blew the lead and the Saints never got the ball again.

To put it another way, look at the drive information– original line of scrimmage, plays, yards, time and result. The first four drives are very impressive, then PFFFFTTTTT!

  1. (NO 20)   3-1   1:25  Punt            TIE  0-0
  2. (NO 8)    3(-2) 1:51  Punt            TIE  0-0
  3. (NO 12)   6-15  3:31  Punt            CLE  7-0
  4. (NO 20)   5-24  2:49  Punt            CLE 10-0
  5. (NO 18)   7-68  3:28  Field Goal      CLE 10-3
  6. (NO 32)   2-12  0:47  Interception    CLE 16-3
  7. (NO 15)  12-90  3:22  Touchdown       CLE 16-10
  8. (NO 43)   8-57  3:17  Touchdown       NO  17-16
  9. (NO 20)  13-80  6:07  Touchdown       NO  24-23
  10. (NO 10)  11-52  6:13  Punt            NO  24-23

Other than Gipson’s pick-six– and the sack by Dansby on a blown assignment–  there’s nothing impressive. It looks like the Saints (who see a lot of 4-3 in the NFC South) had trouble adapting to the AFC North 3-4. Then, with except for two mistakes, New Orleans had things going their way.

Oh, and here’s another thing that has come to light. In the first half, RB Mark Ingram had 3 carries for 44 yards (14.7 yards per carry and went 2-2 on catches. In the second half, he had 8 carries for 39 yards and went 1-2 on catches. I fragged the Saints hard for not running more… but it turns out that Ingram broke his hand in the first half.

Oh… OK, then.

Why can’t you ever give the Browns credit? . 

Because when I look at the tape– when I replay it over and over– I see stuff like the plays this guy saw. Yes, he is the New Orleans version of Dennis Manoloff, but that account of what happened is exactly what I saw, and what color analyst Daryl Johnston commented on.

Obviously some of the outcome occurred because Dansby is a veteran, who has played the Saints. But some of it is that the Saints blew the protection. They had to call a time out on the previous play because the coaches weren’t sure if they had the protection right– and then they blew it.

You can go on about what a gritty veteran Brian Hoyer is– and it is true that he is a big improvement over Weeden et al (Tom Reed points out that Weeden blew a throw to Chris Ogbonnaya in the same basic situation last year). But he wouldn’t have had the men open if the Saints hadn’t blown the coverage.

One of the Saints’ DBs had a terrible day:

  • Flagged for pass interference on thrid down on a drive that resulted in a TD.
  • Neutral zone infraction on the missed field goal– which gave the Browns another shot, which they made
  • Blown coverage and then a holding call (which Cleveland declined) on the Hawkins pass that set up the game-winner.

That’s a major share of blame for 13 points. It’s foolish to give the Browns credit for what the other team does wrong.

What’s wrong with getting excited? 

Because it leads to the massive stupidity that we saw for two weeks in 2013– when everyone was sure the Browns would win the AFC North until they collapsed.

Obviously its a good thing when the Browns don’t make stupid mistakes. It’s even better when they perform well enough to capitalize on the opponents errors. I can name half a dozen seasons where the teams wouldn’t have been able to win that game.

If the Browns can keep playing games like they have, they can win at least six games. If they continue to make the sort of progress they have– if they play the Baltimore game better than they did the New Orleans game, they have a good chance to win that one.

If they keep getting better, they can be playing at the level a team that might go 8-8 or 9-7 by the end of the year.

You think they can win 8-9 games?

No– I said they can play at that level. In game 1, they played like a 5-11 or 6-10 team. That is, you’d expect a team that played that well to:

  • Beat a 4-12 or 3-13 team,
  • Win about 50% of the time against a team that ended up with 5-7 wins
  • Maybe surprise an 8-8 team but lose to any team that ended up 9-7 or better.

If they play all their games as well as they did game 2, they could pretty much beat any team that goes 5-11 or worse. They’d hang in there against teams who ended up winning between 6-8 games, and get their heads handed to them by anyone good enough to win 9 or more.

To play at an 8-9 win level would mean:

  • They’d beat an opponent with a losing record
  • They’d hang in against any team that finished around .500
  • The only teams they couldn’t compete against would be the ones who made the playoffs– and didn’t back in.

Probably they wouldn’t win 8-9 games– they’d win 6-7 games. But by the end of the season, Peter Queen and the Mean Girls would be saying “The Browns are a lot better than their record” by December

To do that they need to get better on defense– and the offense has to show that the last there halves weren’t a fluke.

How fast do you think they can get there?

Ask me after the Baltimore game.

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