I hate writing “meta” posts– where you analyze someone else’s coverage of a topic, instead of writing what you think. But the most critical component of Sunday’s win seems to be the reaction.
My take, boiled down to a few bullets:
- The Browns didn’t play especially well– with the sole exception of Travis Benjamin
- Had the football gods not smiled on them, they could very easily have lost
- I don’t see the season as being “back on track”
- The game might create more problems than it solved
Let’s begin with a point I think obvious: Tennessee was more responsible for the outcome than Cleveland.
To this end, I submit the following 12-snap sequence– the first 11 plays (one is called back)– for consideration. Look at what happened through the eyes of someone who has followed the Browns for years and tell me which assessment seems most accurate:
- The Browns are playing almost a perfect game, overwhelming the Titans’ best efforts.
- Cleveland and Tennessee are jointly responsible for the outcome– the Browns playing well, the Titans not.
- Tennessee is imploding (due to both bad luck and bad play), while the Browns are largely benefiting from their opponents’ mistakes.
- The starting lineup does not include TE Delanie Walker, their offensive MVP from 2014 (63 catches, 890 yards, 4 TDs). Due to a wrist injury, he doesn’t play.
- On the first play the referees call a penalty (as opposed to the Titans commit one; see below), making it first and 20.
- On the second play, WR Kendall Wright, the runner-up offensive MVP in 2014 (57-716-6) limps off. He plays the rest of the game, but can’t seem to get open (in the 2014 meeting, he had 6 catches and 2 TDs).
- The third play is an incompletion where quarterback Marcus Mariota throws an erratic pass.
- Play #4 is a Shurmurball call– it’s 3rd-&-20, but the route can’t possibly get the necessary yardage unless several Browns blow a tackle. Not only is the play short, but it’s wiped out by another “illegal use of hands” penalty.
The Tennessee punter comes out and does not kick a high punt that hangs in the air, gets caught in the wind and lets the coverage team race down and surround punt returner Travis Benjamin. Instead, he hits a line drive that reaches Benjamin faster than his coverage team can arrive. Benjamin gets a 14-yard return.
The Tennessee defense takes over. After proper run play on first down, it bites on a not-all-that-deceptive play-action fake and give up a 60-yard touchdown. Because the safety bit on the fake, there’s no deep help.
As a result, Benjamin is so wide open that the pass from QB Johnny Manziel–even though it is underthrown a bit– still can’t be broken up. Benjamin simply slows down, reaches behind him and plucks the ball.
It’s 7-0 with 12:51 left in the first quarter.
The Titan offense gets the ball back, runs four plays where nothing especially bad happens (Mariota misses another pass to make him 1-3, but getting 21 yards in 4 plays is certainly acceptable). Then Terrance West (who had trouble holding onto the ball in Cleveland in 2014– and fumbled in game one of 2015) fumbles it away, handing their opponents the ball at midfield.
Well stop there… but had I decided to show the first 20 plays, you’d see Tennessee’s defense letting Cleveland stomp down the field on 8 plays– overcoming a phantom clipping call.
Let me stop for a moment to explain why I think Terry McAulay is arguably the NFL’s worst referee (Ed Hochuli and Jeff Triplette give him a run for his money). From the NFL rules digest (emphasis mine):
Clipping: Throwing the body across the back of an opponent’s leg or hitting him from the back below the waist while moving up from behind unless the opponent is a runner or the action is in close line play.
Bitonio comes from behind, but throws himself in front of the defenders legs. This isn’t a judgment call– if you make contact from the front, it simply isn’t a clip. It can be a chop block if the officials feels the blocker went at the knees and the defender was helpless to avoid it (didn’t see him coming or tied up with another player). But it can’t be a clip.
As often happens when McAulay’s crew is working a game, someone got an incomplete look at a play that looked like a penalty, so they called it.
And since the crew has already called two “hands to the face”, let’s review the precise text of Rule 12, Section 1, Article 4(a) (it’s a PDF, so don’t do this on your phone):
An offensive blocker cannot thrust his hands forward above the frame of an opponent to contact him on the neck, face, or head (Note: Contact in close-line play that is not prolonged and sustained is not a foul unless the opponent’s head is pinned back by direct and forcible contact)
As is true with a facemask, the correct call depends on the judgment of whether it is “prolonged and sustained.” You can call it or choose not to. McAulay’s crew always calls it if the player moves his head.
No one who has watched the Cleveland Browns play since 1999– who has seen this type of self-destructive sequence in 6-10 games every year– should have any doubt about primary responsibility for the results. The Titans are imploding– to the point where the level of play from the Browns is almost irrelevant. Cleveland seems to be playing average-to-good football, but so many things are going wrong for Tennessee that it’s difficult to tell.
Yes, Benjamin (who just became the single most coveted player in fantasy league football) blew by the defender and streaked down the field. Manziel delivered a good (not great pass). But the defensive failings on the touchdown are so obvious– there’s no pressure on the quarterback and no coverage on the receiver– that they almost overwhelm it.
The Cleveland defense pressures aggressively and possibly forces Tennessee into errors. And certainly LB Karlos Dansby and CB Joe Haden deserve credit for a professional play on the turnover. But, having seen West give up the ball repeatedly– often on hits that weren’t especially savage or well-placed– any Cleveland fan should balk at giving the defense too much credit.
There might be only one person on earth who doesn’t know West has trouble hanging onto the ball– the schlemiel who traded up to draft him a year ago.
After the score, Tennessee’s drive is sunk by two “unnecessary roughness” calls. They punt the ball to Benjamin– again outkicking the coverage– and he runs it back 25 yards (luckily for Tennessee, it gets called back for holding).
The Browns go three-and-out.
Tennessee gets the ball. On the first play, RB Dexter McCluster blasts down the sideline for 44 yards. Since (a) McCluster has rushed for less than 900 career yards in 5+ years, (b) that’s a career high for him, (c) Tennessee was 19th in rushing average a year ago and (d) this sort of thing happens to the Browns a lot, logic would suggest this play was probably not the result of Tennessee ‘s great talent and brilliant execution.
Tennessee gets 7 more yards on two runs. On third and three, Mariota is sacked, his knee hits the ground and the ball comes loose.
Here we see two more of McAulay’s many flaws. First is their inability to spot details that clearly show up on replay. A few plays from now, nobody will notice that the play clock has expired and the back judge is blowing his whistle and throwing a flag.
It is essential to stop the play on a pre-snap penalty, to make sure a player isn’t hurt for no reason. But they don’t.
But here is the worst flaw they have: refusal to overrule the original call, almost regardless of the evidence. Some refs simply won’t do it– they think it diminishes their authority and encourages players to complain more.
The last time I checked the review data, only two crews had overturned calls less often than McAulay’s. A coach who challenges is basically wasting a time out.
Anyway, Cleveland gets the ball back again, doesn’t do much with it and Tennessee comes out to punt with 1:12 left in the half.
What ensues is an astonishing failure on all counts.
- Tennessee decides to punt to a player who already has a 60-yard TD, a 14-yard punt return and a 25-yarder called back (it was the correct call).
- Benjamin also isn’t some unknown quantity– he ran back a punt for a touchdown in each of his first two seasons. In pre-season, he had another touchdown runback wiped out by a penalty.
- For the third time, punter Brett Kern doesn’t squib his punt (so it hits and rolls) or boom it (so it hangs high) or kick it away from Benjamin, so he has to run sideways to get it). Instead Kerns blasts it at him– outkicking his coverage again
- Not that Kern’s decision matters, since it isn’t in proper position anyway. The error is so blatant that commentator Adam Archuleta– who, like most recently-retired players, is bending over backwards not to criticize anyone– mentions it.
Benjamin has a huge hole to run through– it takes only one block to spring him and make it 21-0.
There was one difference between this game and the many where the Browns have played like this. Tennessee came back.
The crucial decision was a halftime adjustment. The Titans ran the ball 14 times and passed 16 times in the first half. The Browns were coming after Mariota on almost every play– especially after RG Chance Warmack strained a knee with 11:56 left in the half. Mariota was under so much pressure that he had to check down on every play (if he could get the ball off at all; he was sacked 3 times and hurried 6).
Apparently Ken Whisenhunt doesn’t own a copy of Sam Rutigliano’s Losing Football Strategies (revised and updated by Pat Shurmur). Page 151 (Game Mismanagement) says
“If yez get behind by two touchdowns, ya gotta pitch the game plan. Ya defense won’t getcha back in the game by stopping the opponent, and turnovers are like lottery tickets. Ya hope ya gonna get somethin’ but ya can’t count on it.
“It means you gotta do all the scoring, so air it out on every play. If the opponent gets half a dozen sacks– or a buncha interceptions– blame it all on gettin’ behind.”
In the second half, even though they were behind 21-0 at the half, Tennessee ran 16 times and threw only 21. They didn’t go to a hurry-up and they didn’t try to get big chunks. They just tried to get positive plays and get the Browns out of “Crush! Kill! Destroy!” mode.
Because the Titans don’t have a world-class offense, there was only 6:42 left in the game when they scored to make it 21-14. But they had come almost all the way back– and it was time for Ray Horton’s defense to show the Browns what they were made of.
Which it did. Needing to get a three-&-out, they gave up two first downs and then a 50-yard TD strike from Manziel to Benjamin.
The Browns did a number of things well. The best was clearly using every defense in the book– never giving the same look on consecutive plays. Mariota looked confused– and he got up limping after one of the hits, which took his read-option runs off the table.
And, wow, is he poised. He didn’t look beaten. Or confused. Or frustrated. He occasionally seemed annoyed at himself– a few times he had an expression that said “Wow, that was a good play. I didn’t think these guys could do that…“
But you didn’t see him hanging his head or panicking in full Weeden mode. He’ll be a great player if the Titans don’t get him killed.
Another great thing the Browns did: changing the offense to ensure adequate protection. The Browns had 49 offensive plays yesterday. They had a tight end in the lineup on 75 plays:
- Jim Dray on 34 plays
- Gary ‘Clank’ Barnidge on 32
- Rob Housler on 6
- Cameron Erving on 3
Since I need to do a comparison, I will point out that it works out to 1.53 tight ends per play. In last week’s Jets game, they ran 71 plays and had a tight end in for 97 (1.37).
If you’re wondering why the Browns had fewer tight ends against a team with a better pass rush, join the crowd.
Also, Cleveland used a back on every play (no “empty backfield”, which tells the defense to come a-runnin’). They had FB Malcolm Johnson in on 17 plays (35% of the total, which I think is the highest percentage of snaps a fullback has had in three years). They even threw to Johnson once.
They had Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson line up in the same backfield– meaning the defense couldn’t be sure who might get the ball. It happened only once, but it happened.
I cannot believe I feel compelled to make this next point– but it is something that has rarely happened over the years. Knowing that Manziel’s best skill is his ability to throw deep balls to speedy receivers on the run, they called plays and used packages that gave him a chance to do it.
Last week, Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline both appeared on 50 of the 71 plays (70%), with Benjamin on 46 plays (65%) and Taylor Gabriel on 34%.
This week, Hawkins was on for 78% of the plays, but Hartline’s on-field time dropped by nearly half, to 41%.
But other than Benjamin and Manziel, there wasn’t a lot of good going on. Had Tennessee come out more strongly, the Browns could have lost.
I do not believe in dwelling on injuries– every team has them; it’s the reason there are 53 players plus a practice squad. But they’re not always equally distributed– and they weren’t in this game:
- Wright was Mariota’s favorite target in game one (4-4 for 101 yards and a score), but he got only 2 catches for 17 yards, because he had trouble running.
- Walker, Mariota’s #2 receiver in week one (3-3 for 43 yards and a TD) didn’t play at all. Since the tight ends who did play went 10-14 for 139 yards and a score, presumably Walker could have done even better.
- Warmack went down with an injury when someone fell on him.
- Mariota wasn’t at 100% after a hit.
Other than Mariota (who was injured as a direct result of the pass rush), none of those events were caused by great defense.
The Browns also, arguably, benefited from the injury to Josh McCown. Whatever you think his skills might be, his career has shown that he almost certainly wouldn’t have thrown either of those two scores. Of his 62 career TD passes, only 7 were for more than 40 yards, and 4 were short passes where the receiver got loose.
The Browns won the game fair and square and they can take credit. But I really wouldn’t get too excited about this game, much less get worked up about what it means.
The Browns can beat Oakland next week– I thought that when the schedule was announced and still do.
Based on the results of games to date, a number of teams look more beatable than they did a few weeks back. Baltimore (which is 0-2 and now without Terrell Suggs) especially, but San Francisco, St. Louis, Kansas City, San Diego and maybe (if things snowball) Seattle could be taken by a good game if they aren’t ready.
Also, losing to the 2015 Jets looks like it might be a badge of honor. They just crushed the Colts 20-7 on the road, on a Monday night. That feat is so difficult to accomplish– regardless of the opponent– that it pretty much tells you New York is a good team.
But if you’re thinking “Look how great the Browns are– and if Johnny Football keeps getting better, who knows how far we could go!!!” you need to dial your expectations waaaayyyyy back. Questions?
Why is it when the Browns lose you blame them–
but when they win, you blame the opponent?
Because that usually is the correct explanation for the result. In the last five years (well, 4 and 2/16 years), they’re 21-45. That breaks down as 4-23 against winning teams (counting the Jets as a winning team) and 17-22 against teams that went 8-8 or worse (putting the Titans here):
- Last year, they went 2-5 against teams with winning records– they won against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and lost all the others
- In 2013, they went 1-4 against winning teams (beating Cincinnati) and also beat an 8-8 team (Baltimore).
- In 2012, they went 1-8 against winning team (take a wild guess which team they beat) and also beat an 8-8 club (Pittsburgh).
- In 2011, they went 0-10 against teams with a winning record.
So, yes, when they do win, I behave as if the opponent sucks… because the opponent almost always does. You have to go all the way back to 2010 (when they went 2-7 against winning teams, but beat New Orleans and New England) to find a win against a non-divisional opponent.
When 100% of your wins come against divisional opponents. it’s not a good thing. For one thing, you see them twice a year, so you get to know them pretty well. For another, after they’ve beaten you half a dozen times, they begin to take you for granted and assume they can beat you with one hand tied behind them.
And when 75% of your victories against winning teams come against Marvin Lewis, it’s pretty damning evidence against Lewis.
Tennessee was 2-14 a year ago. It was 19th in rushing offense in 2014. They subtracted RB Shonn Greene, who has been a good player (even if he isn’t one now) and added West (never was, never will be). They did sign a lineman and draft one, but I presume the Titans haven’t become the 1960’s Packers just yet.
So, when the Titans gain 166 yards on 30 carries (5.5 yards per play) against the Browns, I assume the majority of the responsibility is the fault of the Browns.
But other than that one big run–
Even if you give Cleveland a mulligan and subtract McCluster’s 44-yard gallop, they gained 122 yards on 29 carries– a 4.2 average. McCluster still had 54 yards on 9 carries (6.0 per rush) and Mariota 19 yards on 3 rushes (6.3).
The same applies to the Browns’ running game. The Titans were 31st in rushing defense a year ago, which means Cleveland’s output (116 yards on 30 carries; 3.9 yards) isn’t cause for celebration. Crowell had a pretty good day (15 carries for 72 yards and a score), but Johnson (12-43), for the second straight week, did not.
Maybe this improvement in running the ball happened because Cleveland had more people blocking. We’ll have to see. Right now, I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions.
Mariota had an extremely hard time finding time to throw. He fumbled three times and lost two; an interception in the end zone was wiped out on a penalty. He also cost his team 7 downs and 38 yards by being sacked.
But when he got the ball away, the pass defense struggled to shut Mariota down. He had bit trouble against the defensive backs– he went only 8-17 for 82 yards (61.4 rating) against the corners and free safeties. But he went 13-20 for 155 yards and 2 TDs (121.9) on short and medium routes. Dansby, Donte Whitner, Chris Kirksey and Paul Kruger all got burned in coverage.
Had he been able to do more of that– or begun doing it earlier in the game– he might have had more success.
As for the pressure… Hey, I know what good line play looks like. I’m not impressed when a team beats up on a weak unit. It’s good that the Browns were able to exploit Tennessee’s weaknesses– I’ve seen Browns teams that couldn’t have done that against that Titans team. But it simply wasn’t that impressive.
What about Manziel and Benjamin?
There’s nothing bad you can say about Benjamin. They threw to him 4 times, he caught 3, and 2 catches went all the way. Add that to the punt returns and I’d assume that’s your NFL player of the week.
But the downside of this game is that everyone will be gunning for Benjamin. He’ll be chucked– hard– as soon as the ball is snapped. He’s 5’10” and 172 pounds; the odds that he’ll hold up under that pounding are very low.
The knock on Benjamin when he was drafted wasn’t his ability— it was his durability. Most people thought he wouldn’t be able to perform in a base offense (except for a few plays a game) and that he might not last as a return man. He’s shown his ability– the question is what happens when defenses respond.
The rest of Benjamin’s 2015 is likely to be a replay of Taylor Gabriel’s rookie 2014 season
When Gabriel came out on the field for the first 10 games, people assumed he was just some stiff free agent that the nimrods running the Browns thought could play. They worried about Hawkins, Miles Austin and Poke Cameron and pretty much left him alone
After 10 games he had 544 yards– and an average of 17.0 per catch. He’d had four games where he gained 80+ yards. In games 8-10, he had 13 catches for 210 yards and a TD.
But that was the point where he stopped being able to fly under the radar. In the last 6 games, teams made more effort to defend him and he had only 17 targets, 7 catches and 94 yards.
I think Benjamin can do better. I think he and Manziel
have a chemistry teams can’t defend.
Keep hope alive, man. He certainly can he a Pro Bowl return man, but I doubt he’ll get more than three TDs by over the next 13 games. And the chance of him getting hurt is very high.
What about Manziel ?
As I said in my quick notes– which I am now posting on my Facebook page rather than here — the game can support whatever pet theory about Manziel you already espouse:
- He’s a playmaker. Look at that final TD. Look how he made three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo miss him. You simply can’t defend players with his instincts and ability to make the big play.
- He’s a joke. The guy went 8-15 for 172 yards– 110 of which came on two plays against a bad secondary. A good defense won’t let you get away with that stuff. The Bengals and Panthers shut him down easily last year and that wasn’t entirely because he was too drunk to remember the playbook
- He can carry a team. The Browns have a bad offense, but he got them a lead with a bomb to a kick returner. When the Titans turned the ball over on the 50, he got 35 yards on throws to Hawkins and Barnidge. When Tennessee got close, he locked up the game with another bomb. Imagine what he could do if the Browns had a running game or someone who could really catch.
- He can’t hang onto the ball. Johnson and RT Mitchell Schwartz saved that game. Manziel was sacked only twice– both times in the third quarter. Both times he fumbled, but his teammate fell on the ball. Last week he was sacked three times and fumbled twice. You can’t have a quarterback who gives the ball up every time he gets hit.
You can present the game as proof positive that he needs to start game #3, so the Browns can let him develop. You can say it proves they need to get him back on the bench and let Josh McCown start.
I don’t envy Mike Pettine.
What would you do?
Pretty much what Pettine did, it sounds like.
I explained why it was best for the team to let McCown play himself out of the starting job last week. Almost all of that still applies. Manziel made things a bit more complicated by having a pretty decent game– making the “The Browns should see what he can do” line more sensible.
Not that I value the analysis of Merrill Hoge, but when you impress your biggest detractor enough to get him to say “He should start the next game”, it lessens the amount of blowback you’d get if you did it.
But let’s be clear about something. The Browns had 11 possessions Sunday. 3 were long drives (well, in terms of yardage, they were; they went 50+ yards) where they scored.
A fourth traveled 51 yards and ended in the red zone, after a bizarre decision to call a quarterback sneak on Fourth-&-1. That’s a success. A fifth was the final possession at the end of the game, where they ran out the clock.
In the other 6, they traveled a combined total of 12 yards. 5 of them were “three-and-out”s. The only one that was even partially successful was the first drive after halftime, where they ran 6 plays and gained 27 yards (giving 10 back on a real penalty).
I don’t know if Oakland is a lot better than Tennessee (they have played Baltimore and Cincinnati, so it’s hard to know), but if the Raiders can simply prevent the 50-yard strikes, Johnny Manziel would look very mortal unless he can do something other than play catch with Benjamin.
Normally you talk about statistics all the time.
How come you’re not talking about his 133.9 rating?
Because it was produced by only 15 passes; less than half of the league average (34.9 in 2014). The sample size– the number of attempts– is so small that those two long passes skew it. Remove those two plays and he’s 6-13 for 62 yards… a less-than-impressive 60.2 rating. Each bomb adds about 38 points to the rating.
Now if he had thrown a normal amount of passes, one or two fluke plays doesn’t mean that much. If you double his totals for the day– and then remove 2 touchdown passes for 110 yards– you still have a pretty good game (14-30 for 234 yards and 2 TDs). Not as many completions as you want, but clearly he took chances and some paid off.
Having a game that produces 11.5 yards per attempt is so far above the normal range that there’s no way to put it into perspective. It’s like a baseball player going 2-5 with 2 homers and 3 strikeouts. You know he won’t hit 300 homers or strike out 450 times. But God only know what a normal day will look like.
I’d start him to see what we have
I might too. But if you start Johnny Manziel, then you can’t go back to McCown unless Manziel gets hurt. Once Manziel flames out, you have to go to Austin Davis. If Manziel plays 3-4 games like he did a year ago, then you’re stuck.
If Pettine is OK doing that, fine. But if he imagines he can make a non-injury related change to McCown, he’s nuts. He’d lose the team.
You got anything else?
You’re not going to praise the pass rush at all?
Why do I need to say anything when everyone else is falling all over themselves? It’s difficult to read Terry Pluto’s exultations without snickering:
“Armonty Bryant delivered 2.5 sacks, John Hughes had 1.5. Six players had a hand in sacks. Then there was Desmond Bryant, who was credited with three QB knockdowns. This was a defense that had zero sacks and only one quarterback hit last week. It couldn’t deliver the big play, too often physically over-matched. But not on this Sunday.”
It’s nothing short of amazing that Terry admits the Jets had absolutely no trouble blocking the Browns’ out– giving Ryan Fitzpatrick as much time as he needed to throw– then suggest that Tennessee’s inability to do so shows how good Cleveland is.
Plus, look who he’s singling out. Armonty Bryant? The seventh-round pick who admittedly has some good quickness– but has, in the previous 18 games of his NFL career, had 2.0 sacks.
So he doubled his career total– should I do anything other than shrug? Not until he has a game against a line that I know can block.
In his previous 37 games, John Hughes had 4 sacks. We’re supposed to believe that a single game materially changes the assessment that he’s an adequate backup?
We have 6 professional seasons of evidence showing what Desmond Bryant is capable of– 2 of which were in Cleveland. Why would 3 knockdowns alter the perception one iota?
What is disturbing about the paragraph is what it means when you read between the lines. Bryant is a converted defensive end who can”t play the run at all, but has shown some ability to get after the passer. That’s almost identical to a description of the Browns’ #2 pick, Nate Orchard.
Hughes is a big body who played both end and tackle. He got indifferent grades on run defense, but he impressed some people with his pass rush skills. That’s the same summary of the skills offered by #3 pick Xavier Cooper.
It begs the question: Why were Bryant and Hughes getting the sacks, rather than Orchard and Cooper? The answer is very simple– because the two rookies weren’t playing. Look at the total defensive snaps played by the Browns:
Cooper, for the second straight week, was inactive. As were two other draft picks in the Farmer-Pettine era: SS Ibraheim Cooper (#4 pick in 2015) and CB Justin Gilbert (a #1 last year).
Bryant, who played 44 snaps, got more playing time than two other former #1 picks: Danny Shelton (39) and Meowkevious Mingo (22). Mingo’s 22 snaps tied him with Kirksey, whom the Browns burned a #3 pick on.
It’s only two weeks into the year, Geoff
Yes, that’s what people said about Gilbert and West last year, until it became clear that the “slow start” might last for the rest of their careers. Shelton didn’t have trouble winning playing time. Nor did Bitonio.
K’Waun Williams (47 snaps) has played since Day 1. As has Jamie Meder (33). Meanwhile, Kirksey has moved backwards (Craig Robertson is clearly playing better) and Scott Solomon became a key player.
Kirksey’s best chance to play will be as Dansby moves more toward the bench. He had another weak game– the forced fumble and a few pressures offset his struggles, but didn’t wipe it out. Whitner struggled in coverage and run support. Ideally, Campbell would be getting playing time– instead, Jordan Poyer (23 snaps) did.
I hate to see what you’d write if they lost
Unfortunately, you might have 14 more chances to find out.