Review: Game 3 (Baltimore)

Opening Remarks: There are times when I simply don’t understand the people who follow Cleveland sports; the reaction to the loss against Baltimore has been one of those times. I know that decades of losing, broken only by clubs that tease the city into thinking things will be different– and then failing– leaves scars.

I realize people have been desperate to believe that good things were about to happen– to the point where they’ve made ridiculous assumptions about thoroughly mediocre teams. I understand that continually being disappointed– often in the most brutal ways– leads people to shift to the opposite extreme– to assume only bad things will happen, and to be unable to see anything but bad news.

But all that notwithstanding, I don’t know how anyone in his right mind could be angry about what’s happened so far this year…

My assessment of the season, on a game by game basis:

  1. In the first half, Pittsburgh (which had gone 8-8 the year before) stomped all over the Browns. By halftime, it looked like the team had gone backwards— that the 4-12 team might go 3-13 or worse.After halftime, the Browns came out with fire in their eyes and scored 24 unanswered points to tie the game. Both units stumbled in the last 11:15, but the Browns ended up losing by a file goal as time expired.
  2. The following week, Cleveland played a fundamentally sound game for two quarters and part of a third. Facing a team that went 11-5 in 2013, the Browns made their share of offensive and defensive mistakes, but forced the opponent into more and won in the last minute.
  3. The Browns were 1-1, and had played two close games, meaning that no opponent in its right mind would underestimate them. And Baltimore, despite going 8-8 last year, were a good team. The Ravens had made the playoffs for five consecutive years and won the championship in 2012.Nevertheless, Baltimore found themselves down 7-3 at the end of the first quarter and down 21-17 at the end of the third. They won– but in the last seconds (again) and by only two points (in a game where Cleveland missed two makeable field goals).

My question: How could you look at those three games as a unit and not interpret what you see on the field as an enormous amount of progress?

Are the 2014 Browns a good team? Of course not– they’ve made an enormous number of unforced errors in all three games. It is entirely reasonable to say they let both losses slip through their fingers. You can and should be disappointed in those results. Especially if you’re a coach or a member of the front office.

But if you can’t see the progress– and aren”t at least a little heartened by that– if you aeren’t wondering if they’re going to keep moving forward?  There is something seriously wrong with your judgment. As I said in last week’s preview:

It’s extremely difficult to project a growth rate. Some teams get better every week– some go forward and then take a step back. If the Browns can build on the New Orleans win– if they make as much progress from week 2 to 3 as they did from weeks 1 to 2– they win. If not, it’s a struggle.

If the Browns… [do improve, it will be on] run defense. The Browns keep talking about how mush talent they have in the front 7, but they don’t execute. It’s always the same story– they get out of position, leave gaps open and ballcarriers blast through the hols.

If that changes, the Ravens won’t get many yards on the ground, and they’ll need to pass. At which point the Browns can send all sorts of rushes at what is only an adequate line.

The Browns have no turnovers (they’ve forced three) and they’ve committed only 12 penalties for 85 yards. If they keep that up against Baltimore (2 turnovers, 120 yards in penalties), they’ll win.

That didn’t happen. The run defense was terrible again (33-160-1 and 4.8 per carry). Cleveland committed 12 penalties for 94 yards, fumbled (Travis Benjamin’s muffed punt, although he recovered) and had a field goal blocked.

But does this mean they can’t get better– or they won’t? I don’t think so. At this point, it seems like a matter of time. Questions?

Who, in your opinion lost the game?

Everyone. To quote Marty Schottenheimer again, if you lose by seven points, the game literally turned on one play. Every player can find one play where they helped either:

  • The offense kill a drive,
  • The defense keep the opponents on the field
  • The kicking teams to give away points or yards.

I’m of the school that says errors by the kicking teams are the most disruptive, because a talented, well-coached unit should be able to play perfectly. Cleveland should have scored 27 points, but they missed not one, but two two field goals in the fourth quarter. In addition, they

  • Muffed a punt.
  • Had 0 yards in punt returns.
  • Punted into the end zone from the 45 yard-line–a 25-yard return.
  • Let Baltimore get a 58-yard punt with 2:35 left, pinning the Browns at their 7.

Secondary goats would be the defense, which:

  • Let the Ravens more 71 yards on 9 plays– in only 2:42– in the fourth quarter, with the team leading 21-17.
  • After Baltimore kicked a field goal– telling the world “We figure we can stop you and then go right down the field and score again”— let them do exactly that. The Ravens moved 37 yards in 1:14– so much time left that the offense actually burned 40 seconds off in two plays.

Chuck Noll’s comment was “If you can’t hold a lead in the fourth quarter, you aren’t a great defense.” In both losses, the defense let the opponent march down the field to win the game in the final seconds.

The Ravens were so cocksure about their ability to move the ball that they punted with 2:35 left figuring that they could stop the offense and still get the winnign score.

You’re nuts– Brian Hoyer was the goat. 

Oh really? 19-25 for 290 yards. For the third consecutive game, 1 TD passing no interceptions. No fumbles; only one sack. One ill-timed penalty. That’s your choice for the goat?

Statistics are for losers. Hoyer blew the game.

Statistics are the tool that intelligent people use to assess a player’s total contribution, so they don’t go spastic over one or two plays late in the game.

Hoyer’s fourth quarter isn’t a thing of beauty. He went 2-6 for 76 yards (with 70 yards coming on one play). He took the sack and committed the penalty on consecutive plays.

Which cost the Browns a touchdown.

Which cost the Browns four points. They had the ball on Baltimore’s 18 and Billy Cundiff could have kicked a field goal that put them up 24-17.

Then he choked on the next two drives.

Both drives were 3-and-outs. They gained a total of 0 yards on three passes and 6 yards on three runs. Seems like everyone failed– including offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who called three passes when the team was trying to kill the clock and ended up running only 1:01 off.

The first of those drives was disastrous. By calling two pass plays, (which both ended up as incompletes), Cleveland stopped the clock twice, so Baltimore didn’t have to use a time out.

He choked. How can you defend Hoyer?

Because he put the team in a position to win with his performance in the first three quarters. Your position seems to be So he went 17-19 for 220 yards and a score– so what? Anyone could do that,”

In the game, Cleveland had 29 rushes for 91 yards– 3.1 a carry. The backs were stuffed six times for 24 yards. And 48 of the 91 yards came on three carries.

And you’re OK with him giving games away in the fourth quarter? 

He’s not giving games away, He hasn’t committed a single turnover. The Browns have been outscored 16-10 in the fourth quarter. Being outscored by six points in three games is hardly epic failure.

The Inability to score more in the fourth quarter is problematic. Even if you give the offense credit for both field goals, 16 points in three games isn’t very impressive.

But the real problem is the second quarter, where they’ve scored only 6 points:

  • First quarter: Cleveland, 20-13
  • Second quarter: Outscored 34-6
  • Third quarter:  Cleveland 35-14
  • Fourth quarter: Outscored 16-10

The Browns are being outscored 47-26 in the first half and outscoring opponents 45-30 in the second half. Please explain, in writing, and with color slides, how thuis classifies as “choking.”

Because he had a chance to win and he didn’t. He’s playing just well enough to lose.

Well, he did win in game two, and that was a come-from behind victory. In both the New Orleans game and the Baltimore game, the Browns rallied twice to take the lead in the second half.

By the way, what would you call what the defense is doing?

  • In the Pittsburgh game, after the offense tied the game at 27-27 in the fourth quarter, the defense gave up the winning points.
  • In the New Orleans game, the defense gave up the lead twice in the second half
  • Against Baltimore, .it surrendered two leads in the second half.

Not to mention that the Browns chose defenders in rounds 1 in both the 2013 and 2014 draft (OLB Meowkevious Mingo; CB Justin Gilbert) and in round three in the last three drafts (DT John Hughes, CB Leon McFadden, LB Chris Kirksey).

And that the majority of free agents signed have been defenders.

And that, unlike the offense, it is playing largely the same scheme it did a year ago.

What’s going on?

Problem #1 is that the best player in the defensive backfield– by far– has been either CB Buster Skrine or FS Tashaun Gipson. Skrine has covered like a blanketl; Gipson is making plays.

And Donte Whitner is stinking out the joint?

No, but the majority of his team-leading 26 tackles have come on gainers where someone else blew the play and Whitner made the tackle long after the horse left the barn. He doesn’t have either a sack or a stuff. He has no fumbles (forced or recovered) or interceptions. He hasn’t batted down a pass.

I don’t want to give him too much grief, because Jimmy Graham is a load to cover, but the improvement over T.J. Ward so far is minimal. The big thing you can say is that Whitner isn’t making things worse, and he is cracking the whip on his teammates.

The problem is that the guys who were supposed to be the starters at corner– Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert— have played like subs in Arenaball. Gilbert, at least, hes the excuse of being a rookie. Haden looks like he isn’t the same player

Same player in what way?

His reflexes are slower and his break off the ball is worse. He’s getting beat off the ball and has been penalized three times as a result.  He’s biting on fakes– or isn’t reacting quickly enough to moves.

I mentioned this in the pre-season, and hoped it might go away when the games counted. It hasn’t. He looks like he spent the off-season admiring himself in the mirror.

Gilbert looks like he’d never covered a receiver. He’s giving way too much cushion, he’s slow to recognize patterns and has been biting on fakes.

Of the four other corners taken in round Chicago’s Kyle Fuller and San Diego’s Jason Verrett have been playing better– and neither Cincinnati’s Darqueze Dennard and  Denver’s Bradley Roby have looked as bad.

You obviously didn’t see the Green Bay-Chicago game.

Fuller played 54 snaps against a lights-out offense; Gilbert played 14. If Gilbert had played four times as many snaps, the Ravens might have scored 40 points.

Also, DE Jared Allen (the big free agent signing, who’s led the NFL twice in sacks) missed the game.

Desmond Bryant hasn’t been–

Any kind of an an impact player– certainly not a guy you hold up as a reason you’re 31st in rushing average allowed (5.2 yards) or allowing opposing quarterbacks a 91.1 rating.

The problem on defense is that only three players on the front 7 are playing well.  LBs Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard are getting decent pressure against passers. They have 4 sacks and maybe two dozen plays where they’ve come close. Karlos Dansby is having a pretty good year (not all-world, like 2013).

But there isn’t a single linemen getting pass pressure or holding the point of attack. And the best of the coverage linebackers has been Crag Robertson, who is merely mediocre– and plays terrible run defense.

Can you give me any reason why they want Mingo to cover?

I could, but ESPN’s Pat McManamon already has. They have three outside linebackers. Sheard and Kruger can defend the run and rush the passer– Mingo isn’t a run defender and he still has only one pass rush move. Which one would you pick?

The disturbing thing is that nobody on the line looks even marginal. The coaches are trying to figure out something that works… but their best option, unless someone really makes a major step forward, might be playing more 4-3 with Kirksey as the coverage linebacker.

But even then, they’d have to execute their assignments. If you don’t stay in your lane, people run through you.

I’m out of things to say. Any other questions?

Why do they keep getting flagged for 12 men? 

Because everyone up front is playing so badly that they don’t know which defense to call. They’re trying to figure out whether to use extra linemen or DBs, and it’s taking too long.

If they had an alignment that was working, they’d stay in it and avoid the mistakes. But they’re trying shuffling too many players in and out– when you do that, mistakes happen.

Would you stay with Christian Yount at long snapper?

Oh, dear lord…

Look, I wouldn’t have any objection if they wanted to bring in Zonko Zonkowski to snap. But that isn’t the problem.– the problem is the guy on his tenth NFL team

You were wrong about Cundiff.

I admire what Mike Pettine has been doing very much. Nowhere has his experience as a head coach shown up more strongly than in the press conferences. Unlike last year’s crew– who tossed players under the bus to cover their own shortcomings– these guys have kept discussion of the problems within the family.

The only exception has been Pettine challenging Haden to play better– which is acceptable, given that (a) Haden has played badly, (b) it’s been so obvious that Haden has admitted it and (c) he’s a veteran, not a rookie, and is mentally tough enough to get through this.

It would do Pettine no good to point out that his field goal kicker– whom he needs– is doing a bad job. Asking Billy Cundiff to step up and fight through adversity would be like asking Mingo to play nose tackle.

Yount’s made some low snaps and Billy Winn blew a block.

And you imagine that nobody ever made a low snap in the Phil Dawson era– or that nobody blew a block? I’m not going to belabor this, but:

  • After three years, Dallas cut Cundiff in training camp in 2005. When Shaun Suisham‘s kickoffs were short, they re-signed Cundiff. They cut him again after he missed three kicks between 30-39 yards. Two came in game 15, which the Cowboys won 24-20 (because Carolina ran into Cundiff after the second miss).
  • Tampa signed in in 2006 and cut him to go with Matt Bryant
  • Green Bay signed him after Tampa cut him, but he lost a battle with Dave Rayner.
  • Later in 2006, New Orleans signed him to do kickoffs, because John Carney was 42 and they wanted to save him leg for field goals.
  • Atlanta signed him in 2007, but he couldn’t beat out Matt Prater.
  • Kansas City signed him in 2008; he lost the battle to Nick Novack.
  • In 2009. Phil Dawson got hurt and Matt Stover turned them down, Cleveland signed Cundiff. They cut him as soon as Dawson was healthy.

Cundiff’s next stop was Baltimore, where he did a good job for three years– even made a Pro Bowl. But he blew a 32-yard game-tying field goal in the AFC Championship with time running out., and New England won 23-20.

In 2012, he was signed by Washington, but cut after he missed three of his four field goals (41, 57 and 31) . Later in the year, when David Akers was struggling. San Francisco brought him in for a tryout– but decided to keep Akers.

Are you trying to make a point with all this?

Yes– this history of failure is the reason Cundiff was available to be signed when the Browns decided– midway through the 2013 exhibition season– that Shayne Graham’s field goal range left something to be desired and his kicks were every worse. The Browns decided Cundiff would definitely be better on kickoffs and probably wouldn’t be much worse on field goals.

And because they went 4-12 and played only six games decided by 7 points or less, Cundiff’s failures at crunch time went unnoticed:

  • He missed at 37 and 49-yard field goal in the first Bengals game… but the Browns won 17-6, so no one cared.
  • he missed a 53-yarder against Jacksonviile, but it was a long kick and the miss proved unimportant, since the game was a 32-28 loss, on a defensive breakdown (plus, Brandon Weeden was flagged for a safety).
  • His 58-yard attempt against New England was a longshot, and that 32-28 loss was also decided on defensive breakdowns.

But if the Browns are going to play a lot of close games, Cundiff will kill them. They can replace Yount and point the finger at Winn, but at some point, they’ll decide what everyone else has: “We can do better than this.”

I still say it’s on Hoyer.

And that’s a freedom guaranteed by our system of government… as Devo put it “Dare to be Stupid!”

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