Game 7 Review: Oakland

Opening Statement: There are seven words that put Sunday’s game into proper perspective:

“You beat a winless team– so what?”

After the Browns’ victory, the Raiders had lost their first seven games. Looking at the results, the Browns’ game isn’t remarkable in any respect:

  • Oakland has averaged 15.0 points per game; it scored 13 against the Browns.
  • Oakland has allowed 25.9 points per game; it allowed 23 against Cleveland.
  • Oakland’s average margin of defeat has been 11 points. The Browns won by 10.

The people suggesting that it was a great defensive performance aren’t looking at the facts, In six of the seven weeks, Oakland has scored between 9 points and 14.

The people who point out that 7 of the 13 points came on a meaningless last-second touchdown obviously haven’t looked at the Raiders games closely, or they’d know Oakland often does this:

  • In the 19-14 loss to the Jets in week #1, the Raiders scored a touchdown with 1:27 left.
  • In the 30-14 loss to Houston in week #2, Oakland scored a touchdown with 17 seconds left
  • In the 38-14 loss to Miami in week #4, Oakland scored a touchdown with 8:40 left– not in the last few minutes, but with the game out of reach.

The Browns stuffed the run (22 rushes for 71 yards; 3.2 per carry)– but everyone has. The 71 yards was the third-best performance– both in total yards and rushign average– this season:

  • 114 yards on 20 carries (5.7 per rush) in the 31-28 loss to San Diego.
  • 101 yards on 17 carries (5.9 per rush) against Houston.
  • 67 yards on 22 carries (3.0 per rush) in the 16-9 loss to New England.
  • 56 yards on 19 carries (2.9 per rush) in the 24-13 loss to Arizona.
  • 53 yards on 18 carries (2.9 per rush, again) against Miami.
  • 25 yards in 15 carries (1.7 per rush) against New York;

The Browns forced three turnovers– more than four teams, but less than Miami and Houston. The one thing it did better than any other team was rush the quarterback. Oakland has surrendered only 8 sacks– 3 came in this game.

On offense, the Browns gained 306 yards– less than any team but New England (297). Their 267 net yards passing (meaning, less the sacks) was third (behind San Diego and Miami) but their 39 yards rushing (on 25 carries; a 1.6 yard average) was worse than any other team. The next-lowest, the Patriots, had 76 yards on 32 yards (2.4 per carry).

There are reasons to be pleased:

  • The Browns played hard, even if it wasn’t well, for 60 minutes. When a break went against the Raiders late in the third quarter,  Oakland collapsed, and the Browns took command.

There have been many teams where that would not have happened– where the Browns would have folded before Darren McFadden had the chance to fumble into Joe Haden’s waiting arms.

  • The Browns have shown a knack for turnovers
    • They’ve forced a turnover in six out of seven games (Tennessee the exception)
    • In three games (New Orleans, Jacksonville and Oakland), they forced two or more.
    • In 3 games, they have returned a turnover for more than 20 yards:
      • Tashaun Gipson‘s 62-yard pick-six against New Orleans
      • Gipson’s 31-yard interception return against Jacksonville.
      • Gipson’s 35-yard interception return and Joe Haden‘s 34-yard fumble return against Oakland

In one of the bigger surprises of the season– not entirely a pleasant one– Gipson has been close to the defensive MVP. Partly this is due to erratic play from Haden, Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, but partly it has been good play.

If you grade on quality of performance, the game was very bad.  The Raiders got the worst play of the season (yes, the Jacksonville game was a higher level of play). If you grade on quality of effort (meaning “mental toughness, determination, etc… “) it might have been the second-best game (the second Pittsburgh game).

Hopefully they will play with as much determination– and greater skill– next week. Questions?

What’s happened to the running game?

Four things– two that everyone has been talking about and two they haven’t.

1. Losing Alex Mack. Mack isn’t the best center in the league, but the combo of John Greco at center and Paul McQuistan at guard might be the worst. With those guys playing next to each other, the Browns couldn’t run:

  • Between the center and either guard (that’s two holes)
  • Between the right guard and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

Greco’s replacement at center, Nick McDonald, looked every bit as polished as a guy who hadn’t played in a game since December 23, 2012. He also wasn’t 100% physically (I sincerely hope).

You’d like to think those two things will improve over time.

2. The change in defensive game plans. Teams have always been able to ignore the possibility that the Browns might hurt them by running the ball. It took them five games to realize that they couldn’t do it any longer.

3. The non-line blocking. The Browns cut FB Ray Agnew the day after the Jacksonville game, and it wasn’t hard to guess why. Over the last four games, I’d noticed a dozen plays where Agnew went one way and the ballcarrier went another.

Someone wasn’t on the same page– and apparently it was Agnew. Also, he had only 2 yards on 2 carries– and only 2 catches on 6 targets,  Last week Kiero Small (nice name; he’s 5’8″) looked a little better

Next, to restart my broken record, “Poke” Cameron won’t block. He wouldn’t do it last year– and now that he’s (a) made the Pro Bowl, (b) is in his option year and needs to put up big numbers if he wants to get paid and (c) has an injured shoulder, he’s gotten worse. I really should downgrade his nickname to “Tap.”

This offense relies on blocks coming from unexpected directions, executed by different players. The tight ends need to block, the fullback needs t– and the receivers do too. An additional problem is that Andrew Hawkins (5’7″, 175), Taylor Gabriel (5’8″, 165) and Travis Benjamin (5’9″, 170) can’t help, no matter how hard they try.

4. The Trickle-Down Rotation. On several occasions, Kyle Shanahan has said he wishes one of the backs would separate from the others. That’s next to impossible, given that he is giving the majority of carries to Tate:

  • In this game, Ben Tate had 15 carries, Terrance West 7 and Isaiah Crowell 1.
  • Against Jacksonville, Tate had 16 carries, Crowell 7 and West 5.
  • Against Pittsburgh, Tate had 25 carries and Crowell 11 (Tate was benched for disciplinary reasons).
  • Against Tennessee, Tate had 22 carries, West 7 and Crowell 6.

As long as Tate gets 50-67% of the carries, the other backs have very little chance to step forward   So if he has a bad game, then the team will have a bad game… unless West or Crowell breaks their first carry.

Do you want to bench Tate?

That isn’t the only option. Baseball uses both platoon players and what they call “matchup players”– a guy who, for some reason, will hit .420 with power against one pitcher. Basketball has player rotations, where the guy who plays the most minutes in a game will depend on who is hot or what the opponent can do.

I’d like to see something like that tried. Spend the first quarter using all three and see who has the most success and proceed according.

They do that.

No they don’t. Here’s the breakdown of the Raider game by quarters:

Tate West Crowell
First 5-5 1-7
Second 2-11 4-4
Third 1-0 1-(-1) 1-1
Fourth 7-20 1-1

The other games are similar in pattern, though sometimes it’s been Crowell over West.

I don’t like quarterback controversies– and it isn’t any better to have a running back controversy. Tate is a the most proven… but the other guys are rookies; this is the first chance to prove themselves. I’d like to see them get more of a chance than they have been getting.

Speaking of controversies…

When could you have played Johnny Football? The first four games were all decided by three points or less.The last game was close until the score that made it 23-6… and that happened with 3:13 left.

Cleveland could– and I would argue, should— have used Johnny Football in the 31-10 win over Pittsburgh and the 24-6 loss to the Jaguars. The correct time to try a rookie QB is when the game is out of reach.

But if Johnny Football had thrown a pick-six to the Steelers, and they’d recovered onside kick– people would have freaked. And had Pettine yanked Brian Hoyer— the guy who led the huge comebacks– people might have accused him of tanking the game.

Impressively enough, Johnny Football seems to be the most clear-eyed on this. The team is winning, Hoyer has a really high QB rating– anything he can say will make him look bad. So shut up.

So you don’t think Hoyer–

He’s not as good as he’s looked, no. He’s 18th in QB rating out of 33 players, and between 12 and 21 in any split. A lot of the reactions people are having to him are based on the mere fact that he doesn’t suck.

It has been decades since the Browns had a quarterback who, year in and year out, didn’t throw the ball off his back foot into double-coverage. Hoyer doesn’t consistently overthrow or underthrow receivers– or throw wildly. He reads defenses and throws before the pass rush gets to him.

In other cities, these would be commonplace virtues. Here, they represent an improvement by an order of magnitude

And that’s the best you can say for him?

He’s doing what a quarterback is supposed to do– keep you in the game and make plays when the defense allows you to.

No kind words for the defense’s gritty performance?

This is another sign of how broken this franchise is, in terms of expectations. We’re so used to seeing defenses play pretty well for 2-3 quarters and then wear down or punk out that we associate four quarters of sustained effort as an achievement– rather that an example of players doing their job.

We’re not used to seeing a defense force turnovers, return then and score– or pressure the passer and sack them. The Browns are on pace for 50 sacks– something that 3-4 teams do every year, But they haven’t had more than 40 in years– and they’ve often had 30 or less.

Only eight players in team history have 10 sacks or more. The record is held by Reggie Camp with 14– a total that three players surpassed in 2013. Jamir Miller (13 in 2001) and Kamerion Wimbley (11 in 2006) are the only players in this century to have double-digit sacks, so Paul Kruger (on course for 11) seems like a revelation.

for the first time since Hanford Dixon, Frank Minnifield and Felix Wright roamed the secondary, the Browns have 2-3 defensive backs who can perform the tasks we normally associate with pass coverage. They don’t have a Sheldon Brown at the end of his career, or a Daven Holly or Mike Adams trying to overcome his physical limitations or an Eric Wright or Leigh Bodden, who tried to use ability to compensate for lapses is technique,  The safeties try to break up the passes– not blast the receiver after he catches it.

I’m impressed by the progress, but much of what we are seeing is what teams that play .500 ball are expected to do.

Getting excited about beating a winless team at home is a sign that your perspective is seriously out of whack.

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