Game 6 Review: @ Jacksonville

Opening Statement: There’s literally no good reason to go into detail about this game. There are only three possibilities:

  1. It was an isolated event. Maybe it happened because the Browns didn’t take the 0-6 Jaguars seriously. Maybe the team had a game where everything went wrong. Maybe Jacksonville (which beat them last year) matches up unusually well with Cleveland.But, for whatever reason, last week was one of those “On any given Sunday” games (to use the NFL’s old marketing slogan) where the better team didn’t win
  2. It was our first look at the team’s fatal flaws. The Browns aren’t nearly as good a team as they’ve looked– any team who does the things the Jaguars did can beat Cleveland  The roster doesn’t have the players who can prevent it.The only reason it took until game 6 was that Jacksonville was the first team to figure it out– the same way the Eagles were the first team (in pre-season) to show how easy it is to beat the Steelers by using the no-huddle. Now that the league has seen the blueprint, the Browns can expect to go 4-12 or 5-11 for the seventh year in a row, and 10th out of 12 seasons.
  3. Jacksonville exploited flaws that Cleveland can fix. The Jaguars found chinks in the Browns’ armor; if Cleveland keeps doing the same things, they’ll keep losing.But if the Browns look at the film and address the issues, they can stop the bleeding, It won;t be permanent– they’ll have to rob Peter to pay Paul, which will leave them vulnerable in other ways. An opponent will eventually spot those flaws, beat them and they’ll need to adapt again. But this isn’t the start of a long losing streak, unless the Browns don’t adapt.

We can watch the tape repeatedly looking for clues. We can spin out theories ad nauseum and argue them. Should we agree that all three factors were involved, we can argue over the balance between them.

Or we can watch and see what happens in this week’s game– against another winless team. That seems like the most economical approach.  Questions?

If you don’t know what happened,
why are you blogging?

I didn’t say I didn’t know what went wrong– I said I didn’t know if it would continue. What happened was pretty simple.

1. The initial assumption teams made was wrong. About two or three times a year, Terry Pluto uses his Chris Palmer story about how, when Palmer looks at a team, he says “Who are the guys I need to worry about? Who keeps me up at night?” (Terry uses it to explain what’s wrong with the offense, usually.)

When the 2014 season started, the Steelers decided the guy(s) Palmer would worry about were:

The Steelers didn’t see Brian Hoyer, who’s drifted from team to team, as a guy who could beat them. They weren’t too concerned about Ben Tate, who couldn’t win a starting job– and they certainly didn’t see the two rookie backs as a threat.

And understandably– it hasn’t been any good in years– they didn’t take the offensive line seriously.

What the Steelers (and the three other teams) figured they needed to do to win was:

  • Drop guys into coverage to make sure the three receivers weren’t open
  • Rush 3-4 guys– which has usually been more enough to get through the Browns’ porous line.
  • Not worry about the run hurting them.
  • Assume the stiff behind center would hand them the game eventually.

That’s been a very effective game plan for years. Even when the Browns had Trent Richardson, his inability to get even five years a crack let opponents write off the possibility of long runs.

2. The Browns went wild. Those assumptions proved to be fatally flawed. The line turned out to be good at both pass and run-blocking, All three backs ran effectively. That set up the play-action pass.

Given time to throw, Hoyer turned out to be very good at finding open receives– and players like Travis Benjamin (averaging 16.4 yards a catch) and Taylor Gabriel (18.0) turned out to be better than they seemed.

3. Jacksonville’s brainstorm. The Jaguars’ game plan was to assume that “the guy” was (a) whichever running back was in the game, and (b) the quarterback.  They put a lot of guys on the line and tried to break through– to get whichever guy had the ball.

They left the defensive backs in man coverage, hoping that it wouldn’t hurt them if they could put enough pressure on the quarterback.

4. Bad news and worse news. A number of other factors combined to make this approach even more effective than it would normally have been:

  • The Jaguars’ head coach is the former defensive coordinator of the Seahawks– a team that always plays this style. So the opponent knew how to play the style– and, in fact, has been designed to play this style.
  • This was the first full game the Browns had to play without Pro Bowl center Alex Mack.
  • Since the backup center, Nick McDonald, was injured, the Browns had to play right guard John Greco out of position at center.
  • The backup at right guard, Paul McQuistan, was every bit as bad as my friends from Seattle have been telling me he was.

Hence the Jaguars got 3 sacks– and 7 quarterback hits– and 7 run stuffs.

Coupled with poor games from everyone at the skill positions– running backs who tried to jump and dance too much, a quarterback having a bad game, receivers who apparently made the wrong reads and definitely dropped passes– and you have a recipe for six points.

But what happened on defense?

Whaddya mean “what happened?” Jacksonville scored 24 points. Seven came on a 3-play, 76-yard touchdown drive where where (a) the defense didn’t cover so well and (b) Blake Bortles threw three nice passes. The other 17 came on:

  • A field goal where the Jaguars got the ball (thanks to a Hoyer fumble) on the Cleveland 25
  • An 8-yard run after another kicking teams screwup gave Jacksonville the ball on the Cleveland 8.
  • A 2-play, 7-yard ‘drive’ after a Hoyer interception and return to the 7.

You can carp about how the defense didn’t offer much resistance on the last two scores (on the field goal, the defense held them to 13 yards on seven plays). But when the opponent gets the ball inside the 10, you should expect them to score three points unless the opponent screws up.

Had the defense stiffened, Jacksonvillw would have won 16-6. Had it not allowed Bortles that one drive, Jacksonville still would have won 9-6

The defense let Jacksonville run over them.

I know– and 35 rushes for 183 yards is 5.3 a carry. Denard Robinson had:

  • 28 rushes for 94 yards (3.4 yards a carry) going into the game
  • 22 rushes for 127 yarns (5.8) in the game.

It wasn’t even a case of most of the yardage coming on one play– he had rushes of 20, 14, 13 and 11. Jacksonville had 10 first downs rushing; he got 6.

Look, we need to face facts here. This front seven, to use a technical terms, blows big baby chunks. We’re six games in and it is getting gashed every week. The notion, after 6 games, 196 carries, 933 yards (5.0 a carry) and 7 TDs– that injuries or learning the new defense or a mistake here and there are the root cause is worn-out.

Ahtyba Rubin (Phil Savage) Phil Taylor & John Hughes (Tom Heckert), Desmond Bryant (Joe Banner)– their names will never be mentioned alongside the Purple People Eaters or the Fearsome Foursome.  Not one of them was obtained by the current management team.

Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and Meowkevious Mingo were not obtained because they could play in this defense. The closest to a fit is Kruger, who was a sub for Baltimore– which ran a scheme that Pettine and his former boss (Rex Ryan) used to coach in.

That’s your solution? Dump them all?
You don’t think they can do any better?

And this was the point of my opening statement. We can argue about how good they could be for months. It’s simpler to state the fact– they’re not doing the jjob– and then see what happens. At some point, the Bill Parcells line about how you are your record takes over.

Similarly, there isn’t much you can say about Hoyer that isn’t driven by your existing opinion about him:

A. If you think Johnny Football should have been starting since game one, you probably see this as proof that the veteran stiff can’t play. Since he completed 76% of his passes in the Baltimore game, his completions have fallen every week— to 56.8, then 47.1 and 39.0. They’ve caught onto him and it’s time to get him out and let the quarterback who can make things happen do his thing.

B. If you see Hoyer as Brian Sipe, it was just one bad game with lots of extenuating circumstances. You’ll look at the dropped passes and the wretched line play. You’ll point to the decision not to use FB Ray Agnew much (18 out of 75 snaps), or the 20 total snaps that TEs Gary ‘Clank” Barnidge and Jim Dray got.

I nicknamed Jordan Cameron “Poke”, because that’s how he blocks. He doesn’t engage with the defender and knock him over– he jabs at him with his hands. It might work against a player like Mingo, but it doesn’t slow a decent NFL defender much.

You can point to the fact that the receivers– Hawkins, Gabriel, Benmjamin– are small, and it’s easy to knock them off the play.

C. I’m in the group that feels this is an example of the sort of game you’ll get about 25% of the time if you play Hoyer 16 games. In his 10 career starts:

  • He’s completed less than 60% of his passes 6 times.
  • He’s thrown for less than 7.0 yards per attempt 5 times.
  • He’s thrown for less than 225 yards 5 times in 9 games (not counting the one he left with an injury)
  • He’s thrown for 1 TD or less 7 times.

In my book, he’ll have games like that against good defenses, which is why you’ll make the playoffs with a guy like him, but it’ll have to be on the strength of the running game and defense.

But if you don’t already believe that, you won’t buy that line until it happens some more. So we might as well just wait and see what he does against Oakland.

Is there anything you’re sure about?

Two things:

1. They can’t play another game with McQuistan. I’ve been arguing with my friends in Seattle for months. They all hate him– the use the sort of language you or I would use about Oneil Cousins or John St. Clair.

I’ve been saying “Look, the guy started 40 out of 48 games for you. Pete Carroll isn’t a complete doofus, and the front office certainly could have found someone better in that time, if he was really that bad.” 

But he was really awful, He isn’t strong, he isn’t fast, he isn’t quick to react, he doesn’t have good technique, He’s stiff (not fluid). A strongman can shove him, a quick guy can go by him. He’s a lot like Tony Pashos– about all you can say is that he wants to play well and he tries hard.

Greco also made it pretty clear that he isn’t a center. His job was to help whichever guard needed assistance, and he had a lot of trouble getting to the right place in time.

What can they do?

Get a center and put Greco back at guard. I don’t know if Nick McDonald is healthy, but if he can play, it would be hard for him to be worse than McQuistan. But if he isn’t healthy, you don’t want him playing.

The other thing is

2. They need to fire Chris Tabor. There are too many mistakes on kicking teams, Every week something goes wrong. The punt return team is averaging 2.6 yards a return— and that’s when they catch the punt at all. It’s not just the muffs– it’s the letting punts roll for an extra 10 yards at midfield.

How could they replace him?

First of all, he has an assistant. Second, kicking teams is the entry-level position for coaching. Every single one of the coaching assistants should be able to handle that task. It’s not a job that requires an enormous amount of technical knowledge– you look for people who like to hit, and who can follow instructions.

There are people in the area who have man-crushes on the guy, so I guess he must come off great in person. But watching the way his units perform. I’m not impressed. And every time Steve Tasker is assigned to the game, he criticizes the unit.

When the team relies on field position, you have to have kicking teams who help give it to you. These guys don’t.

Any other comments?

The running game would improve if one of two things happened:

  1. The coaches got better at rotating them.
  2. One of the players stepped forward.

Right now they’re using the players interchangeably. Tate gets first crack at running plays; if he doesn’t have it, they try either Isaiah Crowell or Terrance West. If one of those doesn’t have it, they try the other. When Tate doesn’t have it, it takes them a long time to find the guy who does. Last week, nobody had it.

It might be better if the team tried to define roles– you run up the middle, you do sweeps, you go out for passes– and let hen perform that role. It would make things more predictable, but it also might let each guy build up some competence.

The other thing that would really help would be if someone shows he can catch. The trio, plus Agnew, are a combined 11-18 for 46 yards (2.6 yards), with no scores.

Couldn’t that be Hoyer?

Could be– since three guys are rookies it’s had to say. Plus, Tate averaged 4.8 yards a catch (which is hideous) in 40 games in Houston. Hoyer doesn’t seem to look for them, but ti could be a comment on the talent.

What can they do?

Best thing to do is just see what happens against Oakland.

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