Game 15 Review: @ Carolina

Opening Statement: There’s not much to say about a very depressing game,

1. When a team loses by four points– it should have been seven, since Carolina missed a 49-yard field goal on its first possession– it’s fair to say that they could have won the game. Especially since the final score came with 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Browns had two possession afterward.

I expected Carolina to put forth a much better effort than they did. But, for a number of reasons– Cam Newton’s substandard performance being the leading one– it became clear that Carolina wasn’t going to pull away. The Panthers never led by more than a touchdown, but the Browns couldn’t make any plays other than three:

  • A defensive breakdown by Carolina led to them leaving flanker Jordan “Poke” Cameron undefended. QB Brian Hoyer managed not to over or under-throw the pass and Cameron strolled into the end zone for an 81-yard score.The play made Hoyer’s dismal performance (he went 6-12 for 53 yards and an interception; game rating of 27.4) look adequate (final rating 83.5).
  • QB Johnny Jamboogie threw up a prayer that TE Andrew Hawkins caught for 28-yards, setting up a field goal. Unless you count the TD in garbarge time against Buffalo, it was the high point of his year.Jamboogie, as I noted in the quick takes,went 3-8 for 32 yards. The game rating of 50.0 was good only in comparison to last week’s 27.3 rating.
  • As a demonstration that even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then, third-string back Isaiah Crowell noticed a hole and sprinted through it 26 yards.The undrafted free agent will provide excellent depth next year, because there is no way in hell that he should start. He had 15 other carries and gained 29 yards.

The defense did give up the winning points– and 209 rushing yards– but you don’t blame a unit that gives up 17 points (in great weather for December) for a loss.

2. The Cleveland offense lived up to its name– it was offensive. The Browns are not even below average– or simply bad– at this point.

The league average for points scored per game is 22.7. Except for the Atlanta game (and the Indianapolis game, where the defense scored 14 of the 24 points), the Browns haven’t exceeded that mark in the last six games.

The league average for rushing this year is 4.2 yards a carry. For the tenth time in the last 11 games (Atlanta being the exception), Cleveland averaged 3.8 yards or less per rush.– 10% below average.

The league average for passing in 2014 is 7.2 yards per play. For the fourth consecutive, it averaged 6.0 yards or less per pass– 20% below average..

There’s no way a team can win when it can’t expect to score 21-24 points a game, or to run or pass at even a below-average level.

The defense hasn’t been amazing (this is the first time since the 24-3 win over Cincinnati game that it has held the opponent to less than the NFL average), but it isn’t getting any help from the offense and kicking teams..

3. If Kicking teams coach Chris Tabor isn’t fired shortly after the season ends, I’ll conclude Head Coach Mike Pettine has last him mind.

Part of the whole “Win with defense and running the ball” approach presumes that you will also have an edge every time the ball is kicked– that, on every change of possession, the ball will move closer to the opposing goal line.

in a game where your offense is struggling, kicking teams can sometimes provide a lift. But in this game, Carolina got 82 yards of returns, and the Browns had only 65. And the Browns reached that level only because RB Shaun Draughn returned a kickoff 39 yards– setting a season high– in his first game playing.

P Spencer Lanning, as often happens, got outkicked by his opponent, Brad Nortman. Nortman beat him on:

  • Gross punting (49.8 to 46.5 yards)
  • Net punting (which factors in touchbacks and returns), 43.8 to 37.0.
  • Touchbacks.  Nortman put none of his 4 punts into the end zone; Lanning failed on 2 on 6 punts.

The Browns started from inside their 20 twice; Carolina only once (on the 19).

And this isn’t “a bad game”– it’s been the norm for the entire season:

  • The Browns are 29th in punt returns. Their longest punt return is 37 yards (none for a score); 17 teams have returned a kick for longer.
  • They’re 27th in kick returns.Their longest return (39 yards) ranks 30th. Obviously that wasn’t for a score.
  • They’ve blocked one punt and no kicks. Opponents are 27-32 on field goals (the 13th-highest percentage) only because they missed three field goals of more than 50 yards

They are 10th in both coverage for both punts and kick returns. but Lanning helped by putting the ball shorter than 2/3 of the teams. His 44.3-payrd punting average is 23rd; he’d tied for the league lead in touchbacks win 9.

The late, unlamented, Billy Cundiff often put kickoffs into the end zone– but he often gave the other team the ball in excellent field position by missing kicks. The Browns are 29th in field goal percentage and missed three field goals (tops in the NFL) between 30 and 39 yards.

Coverage forced three fumbles on kicks (Jordan Poyer, Eric Martin, Marlon Moore), recovering two (Martin & Moore). I’d have to count how many times they muffed punts or committed penalties.

It’s as close to zero help as you can get.

Kicking teams are the one thing any team can be good at; it doesn’t require superstar talent. Tabor has had one good year and a series of bad ones. It’s time to find someone who can actually coach.

4. It’s depressing to think that we’d be looking forward to seeing Connor Shaw play, but it’s the correct decision.

Shaw played a whopping total of 16 snaps in one exhibition game (against Washington) and went 8-9 for 123 yards and a score (with two runs for nine yards). There is a 95% chance he’ll get stomped by the Raven defense… but he’s been on s practice squad all year, and trying out a young player in the last game is the correct approach.

Hoyer shouldn’t be retained; Jamboogie can try to redeem himself in pre-season. Playing Tyler Thigpen or Rex Grossman would be a complete waste of a start.

Are there questions about the game?

What do the Browns do in the draft?

I’m not having that conversation now. The short answer is that:

  • You take the best players available with the 14th and 19th picks.
  • You lock owner Jimmy Haslam out of the draft room.
  • Depending on what happened last April, you maybe don’t let Ray Farmer in the room.

But if Marcus Mariota–

Seven words:

  • Sam Bradford
  • Robert Griffin III
  • Johnny Jamboogie

Do not broach this topic again until you can explain why you want to look for a Superman, despite the career of those three players.

What do they do at quarterback?

Stop worrying about the quarterback. In case you weren’t paying attention, the winning quarterback in the game had a rating of 74.8:

  • Cam Newton was barely over 50% in passing (18-31).
  • He gained only 201 yards passing– 91 of which came on four passes.
  • He fumbled once (his teammates recovered it) and threw a a pick-six (even if idiot referee Ed Hoccccchhhhh-PTUI! didn’t notice it).

The reason he won is that the running game got 45 carries for 209 yards.

And he got 63 of them.

And you attribute that to Cam Newton? Quick question– Why are opposing QBs rushing for 5.4 yards against the Browns this year?

The data below is from Pro Football Reference‘s Game Play Finder. It’s a little erratic (it doesn’t always separate kneel-downs; it sometimes thinks a sack is a failed run), but this is substantially correct. It isn’t merely Newton who has been able to take off and run when he sees a hole:

Att Yds Y/A TD
Cam Newton 10 65 6.5 1
Blake Bortles 4 38 9.5 0
Andrew Luck 4 37 9.25 1
Jake Locker 4 34 8.5 1
Mike Glennon 3 17 5.67 0
Ben Roethlisberger 4 15 3.75 0
Andy Dalton 4 7 1.75 0
Joe Flacco 3 7 2.33 0
Matt Ryan 2 6 3 0
Drew Brees 1 3 3 0
Ryan Mallett 2 2 1 0
Derek Carr 1 2 2 0
Charlie Whitehurst 1 0 0 0
Totals 43 233 5.4  3

I won’t blame the defense for this loss, but the what happened here is the same thing that has happened repeatedly: The guy with the ball has been able to see gaps in the defense and take off for big yardage.

The defense doesn’t stop the run because it doesn’t control the gaps and stay in its lanes. They get out of position and give up big plays.

Why can’t these guys stop the run?
They have so much talent.

That’s why people are having trouble perceiving the problem. They judge based on looks.

You can’t judge defense– either in baseball or football– by watching how impressive the defender looks. You have to ask “Where was he supposed to be?” and then “Where was he?”

Good defense– except for pass rushing– is boring. The running back takes the ball, there is no space to run, he can’t go anywhere and he gets tackled.

But the Browns have such an active defense–

When defenders are running all over the field, it’s a sign that something is wrong.

Let me give you a test. Pro Football Focus gives players what it imagines are objective grades on their pay against (a) run defense, (b) pass coverage and (c) pass rush.

I don’t buy into those grades, for myriad reasons, But a lot of writers quote them, so let’s imagine that they mean something. The Browns have 29 defensive players who have ratings:

  • 7 have ratings of +1.0 or better, which it considers good.
  • 12 have ratings between 0.9 and -0.9, which it considers neutral.
  • 10 have ratings of -1.0 or lower, which it considers bad.

Name the seven Browns who have positive ratings on run defense.

Karlos Dansby, of course and Donte Whitner.

Right. Whitner is third on the team with a +5.7 rating. Dansby is 4th, with +3.1 whatever-it-is-they-think-they’re-measurings.

Why is Dansby so low?
Is it because he missed so much time?

Two of the three guys rated in front of him played fewer snaps, so that isn’t it. (And, again, don’t assume these ratings are that valuable.)

Let me help: Two of the seven guys have barely played. LB Scott Solomon, whom I singled out in the quick takes, played his first game against Carolina. In 26 snaps, he got +1.8. The other is DT John Hughes, who’s such a great defender that he’s been inactive (the NFL equivalent of DNP-CD) more than once. He has a +1.9.

That leaves you three guys.

Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey, of course.

Couldn’t be more mistaken. They’re both well into the minus column– 2.9 for Robertson and -3.1 for Kirksey.

Those grades can’t be right.

I’m not arguing that– PFFFT!!! doesn’t know how to grade. But both guys are below-average run defenders. The inside linebackers in a 3-4 are supposed to make the majority of the tackles,The other nine guys are supposed to funnel the ballcarriers to them.

Both guys run around a lot, but they aren’t in position.

Let me give you a hint: Arte there any players you haven;t seen recently?

Oh, right– Tashaun Gipson and Phil Taylor.

50% correct. Gipson (+2.7) has had a very good year. He probably would have made the Pro Bowl had he stayed healthy [LATE UPDATE: they picked him anyway– good for him] and been able to make a few more picks or big tackles. He got hurt right at the moment the national media we beginning to notice him.

Despite missing the last four games, he’s still second in interceptions, first in runback yards and is tied for seventh, with a pick-six.

Taylor has been a disaster. In about the same number of snaps as Hughes, he graded –3.6.

Joe Haden?

Corners rarely grade well on run defense– especially guys under 6’0″. He’s one of the 12 guys– six of them defensive backs– in the neutral region.

Here’s a hint– the two guys you’re both missing are in the front seven.

Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant?

“No” and “Not on your life!”, respectively. Kruger has a good overall grade (+8.8), but  that’s due to his pass rushing. He’s slightly below average (-0.2) on run defense.

Bryant has one of the lowest run defense grades on the team (7.1) on run defense. He gets blown off the ball consistently and takes himself out of the play.

The names you are looking for are the two converted 4-3 ends: Jabaal Sheard (+8.5) and Meowkevious Mingo (+6.3).

That can’t be right– I never see them make plays.

Good run defense isn’t about everyone making plays. It’s about nine guys doing their jobs and cutting off the running room for the ballcarrier, which lets one or two guys make all the plays.

Because both Sheard and Mingo were linemen– because they were taught to play gaps and cut off space– they actually pay attention to that task.

I’m not suggesting that these ratings are highly accurate– I can write a whole article on how little they make sense.

But my point here is that perception has nothing to do with results.

That is also, I think, the reason people are having such trouble figuring out what the issues with the offense are.

That’s easy– they lost Alex Mack.

{ROLLS EYES} No, it isn’t. I like Mack, I wanted him re-signed… even though he could (I think) opt out of his deal and walk, But Alex Mack has been with the team since 2009. In that time:

  • 2009: The Browns were 15th in rushing average, with 4.2 yards a carry.
  • 2010: Cleveland was 21st, with 4.1 yards a carry.
  • 2011: The Browns were 31st in average, with 3.7 a carry.
  • 2012: Cleveland was 21st, with 4.0 per rush.
  • 2013: The Browns were 23rd, with 4.0 yards a carry

So this year, the Browns are 28th, averaging 3.7 a carry– and suddenly it’s all because Alex Mack got hurt?

Now I’m not blaming those five terrible years (OK, four terrible and one average) entirely on Alex Mack. But, for God’s sake, if the guy were really as all-world as everyone thought, wouldn’t there be some evidence of his ability at some point during the past?

So what do you blame it on?

I don’t blame it on any single factor. Like Tom Reed, I assume it’s a team game, with multiple factors.

One thing Reed’s article gets wrong: the Browns were 12th in rushing average after the Pittsburgh game, where Mack got hurt halfway through. They weren’t leading the league in any rushing-related category– in fact,  there were:

  • Four teams averaging at least half a yard more
  • Nine other teams clustered between 4.2 and 4.6 yards.

After 5 games, there’s limited data. Had one or two opponents missed a tackle, the Browns could have been as high as fifth. Had they not missed tackles, the Browns might have been 17th.

But they were doing two things no Cleveland team had in years. First, they were trying to run the ball– as opposed to ignoring it and asking their scrub quarterback to lead the league in pass attempts, as Norv Turner (in 2013) and Pat Shurmur (in 2011-12) had done. And they weren’t sucking at it.

The following game, they played Jacksonville– the first team to say “Let’s put everyone on the line, stop the run and see if Brian Hoyer can complete a pass that isn’t a play-action.”

Not having Mack made the results worse– the Browns gained 69 yards against Jacksonville, only 39 against Oakland and only 56 against Tampa Bay, as they struggled to put their line back together.

But it was also the first time any team had done that. There were two other issues as well.

  • Ben Tate, who was supposed to the mainstay of the ground game, busted out. He got hurt and missed three games, and was cut for bad after 11 games for pouting. He averaged 3.1 yards with Cleveland, and is averaging 2.9 in Minnesota.
  • Terrance West, based on what we’ve seen, has been a bust. He’s averaging 3.8 a carry, his longest run of the year is 29 yards and he’s been held out of two games for loafing in practice.
  • Isaiah Crowell has been erratic at best. 67 of his 144 attempts have been bad plays– runs for 3 yards or less (37 were 0 yards or less). Even the best backs do most of their damage on a few plays, but 50% suckage and 25% were you go backwards is very high.

Hoyer, who needed to make plays, failed… and then SE Miles Austin and TE Gary Barnidge— both of whom would block– were hurt, and the Browns got Puff and Poke back. Neither guy wants to put his body on defenders.

You’re blaming the Browns best offensive players
for problems with the running game?

Did I say I was blaming LT Joe Thomas and either Mack or LG Joel Bitonio for the problems with the running game? And they are the Browns’ two best offensive players.

A drug-addled wide receiver who has done everything but tell Mary Kay Cabot that he wants to be traded– and an injury prone tight end who won’t block– aren’t your best offensive player.

Puff had one good game in a dome (8-16 for 120 yards) and then decided to take the rest of the year off. He had an OK game against Buffalo (7-13 for 75 yards) and has gone 9-18 for 108 yards in the last three.

Poke has gone 8-12 for 133 yards and a score in the three games he’s played. It isn’t bad, but it’s not good enough to outweigh the loss of a blocker. Poke doesn’t block on runs and he is so bad as pass-blocking that he rarely gets asked to do it.

Part of the reason the Browns lost the game is that Puff was targeted on 7 of the 21 pass attempts and Poke was the intended receiver 5 times. They caught 7 passes for 131 yards and a score– but, again most of that was the one pass where Carolina blew the coverage.

How do you know Carolina blew the coverage?

Because I’m pretty sure teams don’t design defenses to leave a player wide open in the middle of the field.

We’re starting to get into season-ending stuff– I keep citing work I had done for the end of the year– so I’ll tie it off here. This is one of the games– Indianapolis and Buffalo the others– where the Browns will regret most, The difference between 7-9 and 8-8 isn’t meaningful… but it looks nice and makes people feel good, It’s easier to attract free agents to an 8-8 team that doubled its win total.

It’s not like the Browns didn’t get a few gifts– Atlanta and Tennessee were due primarily to defective coaching moves late in the fourth quarter. But these are good guys and it would be nice to see the season heading towards a happier end.


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