First Impressions: Game 14 (Cincinnati)

Program note: This was posted on Sunday and then edited and expanded on Monday. I blast these things out fast, often misstating or overlooking stuff, or not explaining a reference. Since these “quick takes” often contain research that I do want to send people back to, I’m going to start cleaning these things up.

I won;t change or take back anything I say, but I don’t need t leave so many typoes and sentence fragments and cryptic references.

1. In Case You Hadn’t Noticed…

Another comment from the fever swamp “How could the Browns let the Bengals play like this?” Typical homer– everything that happens in a game (except for the weather and the officiating) is 100% the result of your favorite team.

The Cincinnati Bengals were 8-4-1 coming into the game. They were leading the AFC North. In 2013, they went 11-5 and won the AFC North– the only AFC North team to make the playoffs.

In 2012, they went 10-6 and made the playoffs. In 2011, they went 9-7 and made the playoffs.

That’s four consecutive winning seasons, three trips to the playoffs– and the Bengals can make it four straight trips if they simply win out.

Not impossible, since since they play Denver next week and the Broncos (currently the #2 seed) have already lost to the #1 seed (New England) and beaten the #3 seed (Indianapolis). The final game is is with Pittsburgh.

It is common for the Plain Dealer and the local talk shows to dismiss the Bengals as some sort of fluke team, whose accomplishments are typographical errors or something… while believing that the Browns are some kind of juggernaut.

But that. ladies and gentlemen, is a good team. Not a great team– probably not a team that will win its first playoff game under Marvin Lewis this year.

But Cincinnati is certainly capable of wiping the floor with a team that has gone 13-35 over the past three seasons– and, in this one, was only 7-6 going into the game, even though it has faced six teams with losing records– four with 2-11 records.

2. Explanations and Excuses…

“How could the Browns have blown this team off the field a month ago, and been destroyed by them today?”

That’s intended to be a rhetorical question, but let’s answer it.

A. The output from the quarterback position. Let’s start with the obvious issue: Cleveland benched the quarterback who had beaten Cincinnati twice, replacing him with a guy who had never started an NFL game. Say what you will about Brian Hoyer, but he knew how to handle Marvin Lewis:

  • In the 17-6 win a year ago, he went 25-38 for 269 yards, throwing 2 TDs and no interceptions. That was a 103.9 rating.
  • In the 24-3 win in November, he let the backs do the scoring, but went 15-23 for 198 yards and no turnovers. That earned a 92.3 rating.

You replace a player who can do that with a guy who completes 10 passes in 18 attempts (55.6%), for 80 yards (4.5 per attempt), with no TDs and 2 interceptions (a 27.3 rating)?  That’s gonna put a cramp in your production.

You can argue that Hoyer hasn’t been the same player, he was last month and I’d cheerfully agree. If you say the Browns needed to find out what Johnny Football could do, I wouldn’t argue.

But neither point changes the substance. Last month they had a quarterback who probably got game balls for his work. This month they had an enormous liability.

I’m guessing, by the way, that we’ll learn, a week or so after final game, that Hoyer has been playing on a sprained knee, a dislocated elbow, a strained tendon in his shoulder, pruritus anisomething really painful that he hasn’t been telling anyone about.

A lot of Hoyer’s recent struggles are because teams have simply caught onto his tricks. But at least some of it is that he doesn’t look like the same player. The ball hasn’t been moving with the same snap or accuracy. That usually means an injury he isn’t talking about.

There was a difference on the opposite side as well. November’s game took place in prime time– when QB Andy Dalton is always horrific.

A lot of people were watching this game, so he still stunk (14-24 for 117 yards– 4.9 per pass– and an interception). But a rating of 53.6, bad as that is, is still better than the rating of 2.0 (10-33 for 86 yards– 2.6 per pass– and 3 INTs) he had last time. He produced nearly twice as many yards per pass, turned the ball over less

B. The running game. Last month Cincinnati gained 86 yards on 22 carries– a 3.9 yard average. This month they gained 244 yards on 45 carries (5.4 yards).

What happened has less to do with Karlos Dansby and more to do with some changes the Bengals made. Let’s look at a side-by-side graph of the starting offensive lineups:

different lineupsAs you can see by the positions hiighlighted in yellow, Cincinnati made changes at four spots. Let’s go over them.

1. Right Tackle:  In the first game, the Browns slaughtered Marshall Newhouse. He’s a journeyman who got thrown into the lineup when their starter (former #1 pick Andre Smith) went on injured reserve. DE Desmond Bryant and LBs Paul Kruger and Chris Kirksey blew by him.

Cincinnati fixed the problem by moving their second-best available lineman, LG Clint Bolling to fill the gap. Bolling is a good player– he started at left guard in every game of 2012 the 12 games he was active in 2013. He’s fixed the problem.

2. Left Guard: Bolling’s place was filled by Mike Pollak, a utility player for both Indianapolis (4 years, 37 starts) and the Bengals (2 years, 10 starts). Not a great player, but he give you a productive day’s work when he doesn’t have a defensive tackle playing directly over him… and since nobody in the AFC North plays a 4-3, you can get by with him.

3. Tight End: Here’s where we get to the clever stuff. When Jermaine Gresham went down in November, that was a huge loss. He’s a former #1 pick, a two-time Pro Bowled, and maybe the Bengals second-best receiver.

Normally the Bengals would have replaced him with Tyler Eifert, their #1 pick in 2013. But because he’s on injured reserve, they improvised.

The replacement they chose, Kevin Brock is an undrafted free agent from Rutgers who has drifted from Oakland to Buffalo to Kansas City to Cincinnati. Brock, a converted offensive lineman, is to receiving what I am to modeling Speedos. In four years at Rutgers, he had 49 catches.

But he’s 6’5″ and 315 pounds… and guess what he can do– really well, in fact.

4. Wide Receiver: One of the problems this year has been Mohamed Sanu. He’s been dealing with injuries all year, and hasn’t made as much progress as the Bengals had hoped. They decided to replace him with a second tight end— and they put  Newhouse- the guy they had been using at right tackle– in his spot.

Do the math. Cincinnati has five offensive linemen, two tight ends– both of whom used to play tackle– and an H-Back (a guy who can line up at either fullback or tight end) available to block. That’s eight guys.

The ninth, WR A.J. Green, is 6’4″ and 205 — and one of the rare receivers who willingly blocks and does it well. RB Jeremy Hill is 6’1″ and 233 pounds.

You understand how Cincinnati was able to outmuscle the Browns now?

They didn’t use that alignment all game, but they used it enough to knock the Browns around. The Bengals had 2-3 players pulling on most plays.

Also, there were four other things:

  • Last year’s starting RB, Giovanni Bernard (695 yards, 4.1 a carry, 5 TDs in 2013), missed the first game, but was active this week. Bernard is only 5’9″, but he can fly. Last year he gained 82 yards in 20 carries. He was 15-79 in this game
  • Rather than try to split carries between Hill and Bernard, the Bengals decided to make Hill the starter and let Bernard play on third downs, passing situations and as a change-of-pace back.
  • The last time the Browns and Bengals played, Hill carried the ball loosely– and had it knocked away. Cincinnati benched him for the rest of the half and both HC Marvin Lewis and OC Hue Jackson read him the riot act in public. He hasn’t lost a fumble since.
  • Both Hill and C Russell Bodine are rookies (that’s why I highlighted them in red). Rookies get better as they play more.

Couple all of that– the personnel changes, the bulked-up lineup, one back returning from injury, another maturing… and remember that the Browns allow 4.4 a rush (24th in the NFL). Terry Pluto’s comment wasn’t inaccurate, but it was unfair:

The defense acted as if it had no intention of even attempting to stop Cincinnati’s running game. The Bengals took the opening kickoff, chewed up seven minutes and scored a touchdown.

I’m not even going to dig into the rest of the details … but the defense should not be allowed to escape blame for this fiasco simply because all the focus was on Manziel. The defense was steamrolled for 244 yards rushing!

Might help if you did, Terry. They did try– they just couldn’t beat that amount of beef.

Plus, every team that has been willing to stick with the run has been able to beat up the Browns. In 14 games,

  • Cincinnati and Houston have over 200 yards.
  • Jacksonville, New Orleans and Baltimore have between 150 and 199 yards (actually the lowest total was Baltimore’s 160).
  • Tennessee, Pitssburgh (twice), Tampa and Buffalo all broke 100 yards.

Of the four teams below 100 yards, Indianapolis (20-93) averaged 4.6 yards a carry. Cincinnati (22-86; 3.9 per carry), Oakland (21-76; 3.6) and Atlanta (23-63; 2.7) are the only teams you could say they contained. (And Cincinnati’s problems were due to personnel.)

That’s why the Browns need a run-stuffer– end or tackle– in the 2015 draft. Phil Taylor is a free agent, he will (assuming he misses the next two games) have started only 42 of the 64 games. And I haven’t noticed the Browns stuffing the run when he does play.

Now that the Browns have mastered the concept that drafting offensive linemen high is beneficial, maybe we could move on to lesson #2: drafting defensive lineman is nice too.

In 15 years, the Browns have drafted exactly three defensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft. Other than Taylor, it’s Courtney Brown (#1, 2000) was a great player who simply couldn’t stay healthy. Gerard Warren (#1, 2001) was a lazy slob who was taken because Butch Davis ignored his scouts (who wanted RIchard Seymour).

The Browns have drafted three project players who were supposed to be DE-LB types, all of whom have been marginal: Kamerion Wimbley (#1, 2006), Jabaal Sheard (#2, 2011) and Meowkevious Mingo (#1, 2013).

To be fair to Sheard, he was supposed to be a 4-3 end who played against right tackles– he’s miscast as a 3-4 linebacker– but he isn’t a world-beater.

Also, the Bengals are a little healthier than they were:

  • Pro Bowl LB Vontaze Burfict isn’t back, but LB Rey Maualauga (who missed the first game) is.
  • Last time, starting corner Leon Hall was out; this time he’s back (though the other starter, Terence Newman, missed the game).
  • Green (who’s missed three games with foot issues and is playing hurt) was marginally healthier this time (5-11 for 49 yards) than last (3-10 for 23 yards).

There is a difference between an excuse (meaning “It isn’t my fault”) and an explanation (“This is what happened and why.”). The Bengals also had to replace both their offensive and defensive coordinators (who were hired by Washington and Minnesota as head coaches), who have been enduring a learning curve.

Injuries are a fact of life, but the Bengals have had a lot of them. Dalton and LT Andrew Whitworth are the only offensive starters to play all 14 games. The missing pieces are the main reason why the Bengals (who scored 26.9 points, 6th in the NFL last year) have fallen to 21.6 points (17th).

The defense hasn’t been hit as hard, but a good offense controls the ball, which keeps the defense off the field and makes it look stronger. Last year the Bengals controlled the ball for 52.9% of the game, fifth in the NFL The defense allowed 19.1 points a game last year– also fifth.

The exact ranking is a coincidence, but the relationship is not.  This year, the offensive time of possession is down to 48.0%, which is 26th.  Unsurprisingly, points allowed has risen to 22.9 (17th).

An example of an excuse is something like “We lost Alex Mack so we can’t run the ball.”

The reality, if you look at the players in the two games, is that there are multiple reasons the running game is defective:

  • Wide Receiver: The receivers in game 9 were Taylor Gabriel (a surprisingly good blocker, given his size) and Miles Austin (a good blocker, no qualifiers).

    The receivers in this game were Andrew Hawkins (who shouldn’t be blocking; he’s too small) and Puff Gordon, who thinks blocking is beneath him.

  • Tight End: The tight end in game 9 was Jim Dray— not the world’s greatest receiver, but a willing, pretty capable blocker. Gary “Clank” Barnidge is a very good blocker.

    This time, the starter was Jordan “Poke” Cameron, who feels that if he puts his hands on the opponent’s uniform, he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty,

  • Running Back: The position is slightly more settled, in that Ben Tate is gone, but we still don’t know how often or in what situations Terrance West (5-23) or Isaiah Crowell (7-17) will play.

    Also FB Ray Agnew has been about as close to a wasted roster spot as you can get. This week he made a measurable contribution– he got whistled for offensive pass interference. Usually he is invisible… literally (he rarely plays).

    I can”t tell whether he is misreading the plays or if his running backs are, but often he blocks in one direction and they go in another. You’d be better off with a lineman playing fullback

Or, to put it another way, if Mack is as good a player as the people lamenting the running game think, why haven’t the Browns been able to run the ball in the past? The answer, of course, is that it takes:

  1. Talent on the line, so it can block
  2. Talent in the backfield, so it can run.
  3. A passing attack good enough to force the defense to at least try to stop it.

The Browns have not had all three components in this century. It is nice to have a good line (they miss Mack, but they can still block), but it would be nice if the team had runners who had… well, how about running backs who played in Division 1?

And it wouldn’t hurt to have receivers who can both stretch the defense and catch. One of the problems is that the two returnees have provided very little– the Browns were getting more from Barnidge and Austin.

3. The Elements of Motivation

Here’s another reason the Bengals played harder than they seemed to be playing last time.

  • The Bengals had lost two of their last three games against the Browns– the most recent being a 24-3 shellacking on national TV.
  • Last week, they were leading Pittsburgh 21-17 when the fourth quarter began… but Pittsburgh scored 25 unanswered points and won 42-21. That cost the Bengals a chance to open a lead on the Steelers.

I’m just guessing, mind you, but the possibility that Cincinnati (who is also a better team) were volcanically pissed off by recent events and determined to send a message to everyone, might be a factor.

Plus, last time, the Browns weren’t starting Johnny Football.

4. Consider Yourself Refudiated

If you railed at the Browns veterans for supporting Brian Hoyer a week ago– or convinced yourself that Cleveland would have stomped Indianapolis with Johnny Football in the lineup– you can consider yourself officially (in the immortal words of Sarah Palin), refudiated.

If you said the words “There is no way Johnny Football can do worse than Brian Hoyer!”, you were proven wrong. Last week, Hoyer was wretched: 13-30 (43.3% completions) for 136 yards (4.53 per pass no TDs and 2 INTs)  posted a miserable 29.0 QB rating.

In today’s game Johnny Football completed 10 passes in 18 attempts (55.6%), for 80 yards (4.5 per attempt), with no TDs and 2 interceptions. His game rating was 27.3– a full 1.7 points lower.

So he not only could be worse than Hoyer, he was. (2 picks in 18 passes is worse than 2 picks in 30). His rating could have been even lower, had a third interception not been called back because a Bengal lined up in the neutral zone.

The rating isn’t everything… it doesn’t measure sacks or running. It values a touchdown pass at 20% less than an interception. It does not include fumbles. It does not measure fumbles or interceptions returned for a touchdown. It is possible for those things to affect 20-30 points of the rating.

There are other issues with it– doesn’t factor in drops, no differentiation between a “Hail Mary” interception with seven seconds and a pick in the red zone early in the game– but they mean that you can’t calculate the rating without watching film. And that’s a the point of a statistic– it is supposed to reduce or eliminate the need to watch every single minute of every game.

But the rating does indicate a base value, and Johnny Football was worse than Hoyer.

5. The Value of Veteran Savvy

Last week, I ran through the possible reasons that Browns’ veterans might have wanted Hoyer to play– other than the reasons advanced by the fans and media, which were:

  • Friendship with Hoyer
  • Stupidity
  • Refusal to change
  • Hatred or envy of the rookie whose talents put them all to shame.

In a departure for Those Of Us Who Crunch Stats, I suggested that maybe the players knew something about Johnny Football that the powerful intellects in the fanbase and the media weren’t aware of.

This game might suggest they were right. Watching the offensive performance of today, I wondered why:

  • The team’s orange game shoes were not replaced by bright yellow or fire engine red shoes, all in sizes 20-35.
  • The offense didn’t enter and exit the field in a Fiat two-seater.

Given what happened, is it easier to understand why Hall of Fame LT Joe Thomas felt that starting Johnny Football might send a message to the players that the team was giving up on the year?

One of the other things– a genuinely disturbing thing– is how much the Bengals loathed Johnny Football. Marvin Lewis will never be confused with Buddy or Rex Ryan, Jerry Glanville or Sam Wyche… I’m pretty sure he reads The Wit and Wisdom of Leeman Bennett. But he belittled Johnny Football in a media interview and walked it back only half-heartedly.

The Bengals came after Johnny Football with a vengeance– the goal seemingly being to hit him on every play.

Which was a wonderful game plan. Crashing the line on every play worked against an offense that had only five linemen blocking (one of them a rookie in his second game). It also got the defense to the running backs before they could cut, and disrupted the rookie QB.

A veteran QB might have been able to beat the rush with a series of throws to hot reads– but Johnny Football was so rattled he couldn’t even remember to throw off his front foot.

The big gain was that the game plan incentivized the Bengals defenders to do what they wanted to do anyway– get up in his smug little face and kill him.

Almost everyone who did hit Johnny Football (there were three sacks and six hits) made his cute little gesture. Nobody offered to help him up. And while the game tape didn’t focus entirely on him, I didn’t see teammates sitting by him or talking to him (Hoyer came over late). Nobody seemed to approach him after the game.

Usually a rookie can slide by to a degree. They’re trying to beat him– and because he’s a rookie, they try to make life rough on him. But they don’t detest him as much as the Bengals seemed to.

And the fans were booing surprisingly loudly for a first start

The Caroline Panthers have an extremely gifted and physical line… and the Ravens and Browns already have issues. The next two weeks will not be fun.

6. What’s Next?

Obviously the Browns can’t go back to Hoyer. Not only are they about to lose him in free agency, it would be a gynormous vote of “No Confidence” in a player they gave up a #1 and #3 pick to draft.

Nor should they.

You obviously can’t make a judgement about a player based on one game. If that were true (as The Wall Street Journal noted), Tim Tebow and Jamarcus Russell would be in the Hall of Fame and Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning would have busted out.

Also– as everyone noted– all of these mistakes were really stupid ones that a quarterback who knew how to manage a game could avoid. Don’t throw across your body, don’t throw off your back foot, don’t throw across the field, don’t throw late, don’t hang the ball high.

As color commentator John Lynch sneered, “This isn’t College Station, Texas anymore.”

If Johnny Football comes out next week and cleans up all those errors– which he can; all of those errors are things that coaches scream at players in Pop Warner ball for making– the negatives in his performance would be greatly reduced.

That is what a smart player– one destined for greatness– would do.

If the next game features some of those mistakes but not all— and only certain ones, or in certain spots, or to a lesser degree, it would suggest that he was learning, and experimenting. One could say “OK, he’s trying to figure out exactly what he can and can’t do.” This would qualify as progress.

It’s fine if Johnny Football needs to lose the last two games trying to determine the parameters of life in the NFL. I’m not desperate to reach .500 this year. I wouldn’t tank the games for a better draft pick, but players need to play in order to develop. If Johnny Football can figure out what Jean Renoir called La Règle du jeu, the rump end of the season is the right place to do it.

During the game #4 pick Pierre Desir played for the first time in regular season; #1 pick Justin Gilbert got time on the field. If they need to give up touchdowns in order to learn, best they do it now.

But…

If the next two games feature the same sort of stuff, and the press conferences feature him saying stuff like “Dude, this is how I roll– haters gonna hate; they better deal with it! Money times with Johnny Football to come!! {GESTURE}” then the Browns have a big problem.

That’s the sort of stuff Brandon Weeden used to say– “I’ve got to play my game and not worry about the people second guessing me.”

In his postgame whipping, Mr. Football said almost exactly the right things. In the next game, we’ll see if he means them.

There might or might not be a longer review. Depends on if I can find anything else useful to say.

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