Game 9 Review: @ Cincinnati

Opening Statement: OK, I’ve run the game tape five more times, pored over the stats, read half a hundred stories and posts… and

I still don’t see the dominating team that everyone in the area does. The piece that made the most sense is this one. Cincinnati’s Paul Dehner points out that top 11 teams in the AFC have all been blasted at least once…

Although he’s wrong about Denver. A 43-21 loss to New England isn’t shameful; they’re the #2 team in the conference. And losing to the Super Bowls champs in overtime is hardly a beatdown.

2014 might be another weak year– the second in three (2012 was pretty appalling; Dehner’s chart about Super Bowl teams who got blown out confirms it). The NFL might have gone overboard with this parity stuff, and the Browns might be as good as almost anyone.

I once spoke to a coach/manager who had suggested that his team which went onto win a championship) wasn’t as good as its record at mid-season break:

“I didn’t feel we had the talent needed to win a championship. The record shows I wasn’t mistaken (they fell apart next year), but everyone we played that season couldn’t beat us.”

IN an effort to sort of the game, I spoke to three people with connections to an NFL team. The guy who lives in Cincinnati made two points:

  • Andy Dalton has played 11 games in prime time and he’s 2-9.
  • The defense is more depleted by injuries that Marvin Lewis is letting on.

“You beat us, he said, And you deserve credit for that. But this was more about us than you.”

I called an employee of a team in the NFC. “It’s an easy question to answer,” he said. Could you have beaten the Bengals that badly last year?”

Ummm, yeah. The Browns won 17-6 in Cleveland last year, and they jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the road game before imploding and losing 41-20.

“Oh,” he said. “Who was the quarterback in the win?” Told that it was Hoyer, he said “But this time you won without Gordon and Cameron.” Yeah, but in that game, Willis McGahee was the running back.This time they had players.

“You won on the road. You won by more than you did last year. You know you’re better than you were last year.” They went 4-12 last year; they’ve already won 6 games– I figured that much out.

Called a guy on the east coast whose team has played Cincinnati a lot. “Why does Cleveland always get the team who falls all over themselves?,” he demanded. “We never see that team.”

His bottom line: “I don’t see a playoff team there. It’s a Carolina team– they don’t win many games, but they never interfere with an opponent who’s determined to beat themselves. But it’s better than what you had. And you could end up in the playoffs if everyone else plays worse.”

And that’s where I am. It’s a better team than last year; it’s the sort of team I expected. I don’t think they’re as good as the record suggests– but if everyone who plays the Browns keeps losing, then obviously I’m wrong.

Why don’t you believe in this team?

Because respect is something that you earn over time, and the Browns haven’t shown the kind of pattern I look for:

  • The running game is 28th in rushing average, with 3.5 a carry. It has five games with 122 yards or more, and four with 85 or less.
  • The passing game has only 10 passing touchdowns– 29th in the NFL

There are some offsetting plusses, but they make things confusing.

  • Cleveland is tied for third in rushing TDs (12). If they’re electing to run when they get down close, that certainly explains why Brian Hoyer isn’t throwing for many.
  • Cleveland is 6th in Yards Per Pass (8.0) and first in yards per catch (13.7). The NFL average per reception is 11.5 yards; they have three players averaging more than 17 yards a catch.

Why does that confuse you?

Two of the three running backs are having bad years. Ben Tate has been a huge disappointment– missed two games, averaging 3.3 yards a carry, caught only 9 passes.He was handed the job and he’s on the verge of losing it.

Terrance West is playing badly for a #3 pick: 3.7 yards a carry, only 10 plays that have gone longer than 10 yards— and six of the ten came in the first two games.

Isaiah Crowell is leading the team in rushing average (4.6) and rushing touchdowns (5), but he has 2 fumbles and he’s been inconsistent.

The heroes of the passing game are:

  • Andrew Hawkins:  On pace for 69 catches for 896 yards– both far and away career highs.
  • Taylor Gabriel: He’s so small and light that he wasn’t even drafted, yet he’s averaging 18.1 yards a catch and is on pace for 43 catches for 778 yards.
  • “Poke” Cameron: Averaging 19.2 yards per reception; he’s averaged 11.3 and 11.5 in the two previous years.
  • Travis Benjamin: Averaging 17.6 yards a catch and 3 of the 10 TDs.

None of these guys have done anything close to this before– or even looked capable of it. Miles Austin (31 catches, 387 yards 2 TDs– projecting to 55-689-4) is the only guy who doesn’t appear to be playing way over his head..

And the guy throwing to them… despite his career TD-INT ratio going into the season (7 good; 6 bad), I have always been willing to believe that Hoyer was the sort of player who would take care of the ball. hence the 10-4 ration doesn’t shock me.

But 8 yards a pass? Tied with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers? Behind only Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo and Peyton Manning? That’s arguably the most important stat for a QB. Except for 2010 (when he had only 15 attempts), Hoyer has never been higher than 6.4 (we’re not counting 2011, where he threw one pass for 22 yards).

When you see a group of players doing things they have never done before, that’s the sign of a fluke. Crowell and Gabriel (both rookies) are the only players where you could say “OK, maybe they are this good.” But both guys were undrafted and neither played for a program (Alabama State; Abilene Christian) that sends good players to the pros. Those schools are so small that College Football Reference doesn’t even list them.

Isn’t that proof that Ray Farmer knows talent?

That’s one interpretation. The only hitch is that five of his six draft picks are busts to some degree. LG Joel Bitonio will make all the rookie all-star teams. West is the next-best player, and he isn’t playing as well as Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon or Baltimor’s Lorenzo Taliaferro, both of whom were drafted lower.

CB K’Waun Williams— also undrafted– is outplaying both #1 pick Justin Gilbert and #4 pick Pierre Desir. And, while it isn’t entirely fair to say this, QB Derek Carr looks like a better pick than #1 pick Johnny Backup.

Right now it looks like a triumph for the guy who scouted the free agents, and the guy who did the drafting should be pitched. And that’s another indication that this probably won;t continue.

So what’s the gripe about the defense?

The same basic story– a lot of results that don’t add up:

  • The Browns are 30th in rushing average allowed (4.7) and 28th in yards per game (134.2).
  • The defense is 20th in sacks and 21st in sack percentage, yet it has allowed the lowest completion percentage (56.9%) and QB rating (72.2) in the league, is tried for second (13) in interceptions and is fourth in yards per pass (6.4).

Yet, despite those facts, only 10 teams have been thrown against more than the Browns.

Why is the pass defense surprising?

It’s not the pass defense– it’s that people are throwing against it. If the defense is allowing 4.7 yards a rush, and 6.4 yards per pass, why would you pass?

If you’re behind and have to catch up–

Nice theory, but the Browns have played only two games where the opponent was in a “jettison the game plan and throw” situation:

  • 5 of the 9 games have been decided by 7 points or less.
  • 1 game was decided by 8-14 points.
  • 3 games have been decided by 15 or more points.

And the Browns have led, on the average, only 8 more minutes a game than they have trailed. Here are the results by game:

Game Margin Leading Tied Behind
1: Pittsburgh -3 0:00 21:06 38:54
2: New Orleans +2 32:27 9::11 18:22
3: Baltimore -2 31:01 5:49 23:10
4: Tennessee +1 1:09 10:14 48:37
5: Pittsburgh +21 41:45 9:51 8:24
6: Jacksonville -18 21:03 8:30 30:27
7: Oakland +10 54:54 5:06 0:00
8: Tampa Bay +5 27:35 9:01 23:24
9: Cincinnati +21 55:40 4:20 0:00
Total +37 4:25:34 1:23:08 3:11:18

And the Oakland game is misleading, because the Browns didn’t lead by more than 10 points until there was 14:17 left in the game. A sane team doesn’t toss out the game plan because the opponent goes up 9-0 with 5:46 left in the second quarter.

Also, there have been only four games against a team where a sane head coach would want his QB to throw– Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Drew Brees and Joe Flacco. Look at the game ratings, sorted high to low:

  • Jake Locker / Charlie Whitehurst, Tennessee (Game 4): 123.6
  • Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh (Game 1): 100.7
  • Drew Brees, New Orleans (Game 2): 89.3
  • Joe Flacco, Baltimore (Game 3), 79.6
  • Derek Carr / Darren McFadden / Matt Schaub, Oakland (Game 7): 75.6
  • Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay (Game 8): 72.8
  • Roethlisberger (Game 5): 64.4
  • Blake Bortles, Jacksonville (Game 6): 40.3
  • Andy Dalton / Jason Campbell, Cincinnati (Game 9): 10.3

Andy Dalton can be a good player sometimes.

Yeah, but not at night or in the playoffs. And when he goes 2-9 for 11 yards and an INT in the first quarter, you know it’s going to be “Garbage Time.”

Should that be his nickname? Deion Sanders was “Primt Time”, Reggie Jackson was “Mr. October”… does “Garbage Time” work for Dalton?

But, after RB Jeremy Hill fumbled at 12L57 in the second quarter, Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson pulled Hill for the rest of the half.

On the first possession of the third quarter, with the Bengals down 17-3, he got two carries (9 yards). In the fourth quarter, he got one carry (11 yards) on the first possession And Dalton tried to throw to him once. That was it.

Well what else could they have done?

What the Browns have done when they get behind– not throw the game plan out the window.

Look– you;re going to get about 12 possessions in a game. If you’re behind 17-3 at the half, that means you’ll have six chances to score. If you hold the opponent scoreless and get touchdowns, you’re tied.

Now if you can’t stop the opponent, you;re going to lose anyway. And if you can’t score with your gameplan, you’re going to lose.

But tossing the gameplan out the window and throwing a lot? Unless the opponent can’t stop the pass, that isn’t going to work.

And if throwing on every play will work, then why wasn’t that the game plan to begin with?

You don’t want to give the offense credit for anything.

They did a decent job. They got three TDs and should have had two field goals. The first touchdown and the missed field goal, the had ‘drives’ of 18 and 17 yards.

The other three scores came on:

  • An 8-play, 59-yard drive (making it 14-3)
  • A 14-play, 63-yard drive (17-3)
  • A 10-play 62-yard drive (24-3)

It’s just tempered by the number of players out or hurt on the defense.

And you can’t praise the defense because?

You have to ask that question? Seriously?

Think about all the genuinely wretched games you have seen Cleveland quarterbacks play:

  • Brandon Weeden’s first NFL start, where he went 12-35 for 118 yards, 4 INTs and a rating of 5.1
  • Colt McCoy’s 15-29 for 135 yards and 3 INTs (27.0 rating), the day after Christmas in 2010.
  • Jake Delhomme’s 13-23 for 97 yards and 2 INTs (30.5 rating) on October 10, 2010.
  • Derek Anderson’s epic 2009 games:
    • 2-17 for 23 yards and a pick (15.1 rating) in that 6-3 win on October 11.
    • 6-17 for 76 yards and 2 INTs (10.5 rating) on November 1.
  • Brady Quinn’s 8-18 for 94 yards and 2 picks (21.3 rating) on November 23, 2008.

Did you think, after any of those game, “Boy, the opposing defense played well?” Except for maybe Anderson’s Buffalo game (where the weather made it pretty much impossible to pass), did you think there were any extenuating circumstances?

No– you just thought “Damn, did that guy suck!” Same point here. Buster Skrine and Craig Robertson did what they were supposed to do. And on two of those plays, the Bengal made it possible (Robertson’s pick, the tight end didn’t run the right route; on one of Skrine’s, the receiver let himself get outmuscled). I went into this in the quick takes.

yes, it’s good that the defense did what it was supposed to do. When the opponent plays a bad game, you’re supposed to force them into errors and capitalize. I’m not saying they played bad.

It;s just that I don’t want to get too worked up over the opponent’s self-destruction. Not unless I see a few other teams seemingly fold against the Browns, too.

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