The important thing to understand: the Oakland Raiders that Cleveland beat 23-13 last year are gone. Because they are a terrible team– and have been for years– almost every competent free agent they had signed with another team. Because they changed coaches– and Jack Del Rio (a) uses different schemes than Dennis Allen and (b) is a lot smarter smarter than Allen– Oakland dumped a huge number of players.
Looking at Sunday’s projected starting lineup. only 4 offensive players who played in game 7 return at the same spots: QB Derek Carr, FB Marcel Reece, LT Donald Penn and LG Gabe Jackson.
The total might be higher if RT Menelik Watson hadn’t torn his Achilles. He’s on IR and last year’s RG, Austin Howard, moved into Watson’s spot.
On defense, there is only one returnee: NT Justin Ellis. Two other Raiders did play in last years game. The strongside linebacker, Khalil Mack was shifted to defensive end. DE Justin Tuck (whom interim Coach Tony Sparano had demoted for disciplinary reasons) is back in the lineup.
The nigh-complete turnover makes sense if you look at the number of over-the-hill players that Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie had been using. In addition to Tuck (who is now 31), the 2014 Raiders used:
- FS Charles Woodson (38)
- CB Carlos Rogers (33)
- DT Antonio Smith (33)
- DE LaMarr Woodley (30)
A team hoping for one last shot at winning it all might be able to justify starting five old guys. But Oakland had gone 4-12 in 2013. Tuck is the only starter over 30 on defense now. Oakland’s starting defense includes:
- One rookie (SS Keenan Lambert)
- Three second-year guys (Mack, Ellis and CB Travis Carrie)
- One third-year (their #1 pick in 2013, CB D.J Lambert).
A lot of starters have drifted around the league– if FS Larry Asante sounds familiar, it’s because he was Cleveland’s #5 pick in 2010; Oakland is his fourth team. But they don’t have anyone who’s too old to run.
So far, the defense has shown close to zero improvement. Oakland was last in points allowed a year ago (allowing 28.2); they’re currently 31st. They allowed 33 points in each of their first two games: a 33-13 loss to Cincinnati and a 37-33 win over Baltimore. The best you can say for them is “Well, that’s a pretty tough crowd.”
How can they be 31st? because Chicago had to play Arizona (31-23 loss) and Green Bay (48-23). Allowing 39.5 points a game is appalling however you slice it.
Last week could have been a disaster. When the fourth quarter began, Oakland had a 30-20 lead. The defense gave up a field goal (at 13:37) a touchdown (7:03) and field goal to blow the lead with 2:10 left. It meant the offense had to score a TD to win in regulation. And it did– moving 80 yards in 1:44 to get a touchdown.
If you’re wondering who is responsible for that drive, you can argue it either way. Baltimore is struggling because GM Ozzie Newsome (as he often does) tried to rebuild the team on the fly. He traded 30-year-old DT Haloti Ngata for a #4 and #5, figuring it was a good deal for a guy with a few years left at best. (Also the Ravens believe Tim Jernigan can be a good player). But then LB Terrell Suggs got hurt in game #1 and will miss the year. The players has left left struggled all game– and panicked during the final drive. Baltimore committed two dumb penalties (roughing the passer, defensive holding) to help Oakland along.
But there are five good reasons to believe the Raiders have actually improved.
1. The 2014 team did have talent– most of it was on the line. Sparano was an excellent line coach; only four teams allowed a lower percentage of sacks Oakland’s 4.3% a year ago. The Raiders returned 4 blockers (3 linemen, 1 fullback), losing only C Stefen Wisniewki.
The Browns were 15th (5.9%) partly due to the loss of Alex Mack and mostly due to deficiencies at quarterback.
2. Carr was a #2 pick a year ago. He gamely tried to master Greg Olsen’s wretched offense (which has never ranked higher than 15th in points, failing in Detroit in 2006, St. Louis in 2007-08, Tampa from 2009-11 and Oakland in 2013-14). Del Rio brought in his longtime coordinator. Bill Musgrave, whose version of the West Coast Offense is more QB-friendly than Olsen’s.
3, For the past seven season,s the Raiders hoped RB Darren McFadden would someday justify being chosen with the fourth pick in the 2008 draft. Other than gaining 1,157 yards in 13 games in 2010, he never came close.
This year Oakland cashiered him and entrusted the ground game to 24-year-old RB Latavius Murray, who gained 424 yards and averaged 5.2 yards a carry as a backup last year. Because the Raiders have been behind in both their games, they’ve called 89 passes and run 35 times, so Murray’s output (26 carries for 109 and a score) isn’t overwhelming. But 4.2 yards per carry in limited time isn’t bad.
4. The top three wideouts on the 2014 Raiders (Andre Holmes, James Jones and Kenbrell Thompkins) combined for 135 catches (on 248 targets; a 54.5 completion percentage) for 1,568 yards (11.6 yards per catch) and 10 scores. Other than TDs, it’s a sad performance
Oakland sent Jones and Thompkins away, signing Michael Crabtree, a former #1 pick who has often teased, but (except for 2012) never really pleased. He’s been paired with #1 pick (fourth overall) Amari Cooper. Since they have 26 catches (on 44 throws) for 304 yards and 2 scores (Holmes has added 3 catches for 50 yards), I feel pretty confident they will surpass the output of their predecessors.
5. Both backs (RB Murray and FB Reece) are next on the team in catches; the Raiders spent their #3 pick on TE Clive Walford in April.
The most likely reason to doubt Oakland’s offense will blossom is Del Rio. In nine seasons as a head coach, had a good offense only twice (2006-07, when David Garrard was healthy). Del Rio is another one of those DC-turned-HC who thinks scrambling quarterbacks (because he never could game plan against them) are better than guys who stay in the pocket.
I doubt Del Rio would have drafted Carr in 2014. His history suggests, in fact, that he would have urged his GM to trade up and get Johnny Football.. But he inherited a QB who looks like he can play, and this might make his tenure in Oakland more successful than Jacksonville.
New game, new set of problems. The week since the win over the Titans has produced two good reasons to think the Cleveland defense is less impressive than anyone believed.
1. K’Waun Williams has his third concussion. He’ll miss the game– and probably the week after. More importantly, his usefulness to the Browns has now ended.
I’ve been reading every new piece about on concussions and CTE. The data (what little there is of it) drawn from using sensors in helmets shows that each player responds differently to the same amount of force. This has spawned three theories:
A. It’s not just the amount of force– it’s the location of the impact. Boxing studies have shown that blows to the head the same amount of force– if applied to different spots– will produce different effects. Could the same thing be true for concussions? It seems reasonable.
B. Some people are more vulnerable than others. Different players have different pain thresholds. They get injured at very different rates– and in different spots– and recover at different speeds. So why couldn’t some people be more susceptible to concussion than others?
C. Each concussion makes you more vulnerable to the next. This is the disturbing one. The numbers are really sketchy (concussions weren’t reliably reported until the Colt McCoy rules), but it appears that time between concussions decreases after each new injury. Elbows and knees get weaker with each injury– the brain’s ability to recover from injury might, too.
The point, as it relates to K’Waun Williams is that he’s had three concussions in less than a calendar year– and 15 games total. His concussions came in his 5th, 13th and 15th NFL games, so this probably isn’t bad luck.
What little we know suggests that:
- He’ll have more
- They’ll occur more frequently
- He’ll need longer and longer to recover
This, plus the his other issues– he had a stinger and a hamstring pull– tells us the Browns need to move Williams out. You can’t have a player who gets hurt that often– to protect yourself, you’ll need a backup who can replace him with no dropoff in play. And if the backup is just as good, why not play him?
Needing to replace Williams shouldn’t be a problem, since the Browns spent a #1 and #4 on corners in 2014, signed a veteran free agent in the off-season and then drafted developmental guys in in rounds #6 and #7 this year.
But since both the 2015 picks went on IR and the 2014 picks have both struggled, they’re short on talent. With Williams hurt, Justin Gilbert hurt again and Buster Skrine off in New York, Pierre Desir will be the #3 guy and then Johnson Bademosi.
In 2008, I was talking to an NFL scout about the Browns’ problem in the secondary. I pointed to the loss of Daven Holly– who had started in 2006 at corner, getting 5 interceptions, a fumble recovery and 2 scores. He snorted and replied:
“If a team struggles to overcome the loss of Daven Holly
it ain’t gonna go very far.”
Ditto for K’Waun Williams– and also LB Scott Solomon.
2. Desmond Bryant probably won’t play. This should not be an issue on a good team. The Browns extended the contract of John Hughes, drafted Xavier Cooper in round 3 and discovered Jamie Meder. They pronounced themselves so satisfied with these players that they traded Billy Winn for a #7.
But nobody seems excited about the chance to start Hughes– or give Cooper his first playing time (he was inactive for the first two games). I’m sure it’s happened on good teams. but a losing team shouldn’t draft players that can’t contribute immediately. This tells us something about what the team really thinks of their pick.
3. The Browns will be starting Josh McCown. It is a bit unfair to describe the situation as “The Browns will replace a 23-year-old quarterback with a passer rating of 99.7 (a #1 pick that they also spent a #3 to ensure they get) with a 36-year-old with a 79.7 passer rating.” That sentence doesn’t acknowledge that Johnny Manziel:
- Has tendinitis, which he admits is affecting his play
- Didn’t know his playbook at all last year and still doesn’t know as much as McCown– a guy who was signed in April
- Has a career rating of 72.6, a 3-3 TD-INT ratio and 5 fumbles. Manziel currently leads the NFL in fumbles, with 4.
Saying that ‘only’ two of the four fumbles were recovered by the other team doesn’t make Manziel look better. A recovered fumble usually loses yardage and almost always costs you a down (unless the other team picks it up and then loses it). He clearly isn’t 100% ready to start– as even he grumpily admits.
Plus (though few people want to acknowledge it) he’ll almost certainly get his chance soon, because McCown is a terrible player.
Because McCown only played 10 minutes of the season, people have largely avoided discussing the drive he did have. I wasn’t impressed by it. Moving 90 yards is good. Needing 17 plays and 9:59 of game time is problematic. Very few drives take that many plays or as much time.
If it’s the third or fourth quarter, and you’re trying to kill the clock– OK, great. Otherwise it’s the sign of an offense moving the ball in fits and starts.
The Browns had the ball on first down 6 times– they needed to go to third down 5 times out of 6 (the exception was when the Jets were called for offsides on 2nd-&-6, giving Cleveland a 2nd-&-1). They averaged 6.1 yards per pass (more than a yard below the NFL average) and the running backs (Isaiah Crowell and Shaun Draughn) gained 18 yards on 7 carries (2.6 per carry).
Maybe the struggles to move the ball were due to the Jets (who are 2-0 and have only allowed 17 points, best in the NFL). Maybe it was growing pains (first game, new offense, lots of new people). But when a team needs nearly 10 minutes to get a field goal chance– and it plays a team that can move 80 yards to score in 1:44– the tortoise risks being down 17-6 to the hare at the end of a half.
Try as I might, I can’t see any evidence suggesting the Browns will win the game. Here is the best argument I can make.
1. The game is at home. It’s not just that home teams usually win– it’s that Oakland never does. The Raiders went 0-8 on the road last year; they’re 2-24 on the road since 2012.
2. The Browns are coming off a 14-point win, so they should be feeling positive.
3. They beat Oakland last year and in 2012. It doesn’t mean anything; the Raiders turned close to the whole roster over. But the Browns ought to feel confident.
4. A win will put them over .500 and maybe in undisputed possession of first
The 2-0 Bengals play the 0-2 Ravens in Baltimore. If Baltimore expects to make the playoffs, they can’t start the season 0-3.
Pittsburgh is 1-1; they’ll be in St. Louis– and the Rams beat Seattle in Week 1.
5. The Raiders have allowed 33 points in each of the first two games.
6. The Raiders haven’t been running the ball, so the Browns’ Achilles Heel (run defense) might not be an issue.
7. I am probably less impressed by Jack Del Rio than anyone outside of Jacksonville. Aside from his offensive issues, his game management is awful.
8. Maybe the Titans’ game was the real Browns arriving, and not Tennessee beating itself, as I suggested.
Other than points #1 (Oakland doesn’t win on the road) and #5 (the Raider defense hasn’t played well), there’s no substance there. The Browns should be confident, not nervous– what’s the tangible value?
But when I look at reasons Oakland could win, I see:
1. The Browns have played an opponent (the Jets) better than anyone the Raiders have faced. But both Cincinnati and Baltimore (even in its weakened state) are better than Tennessee. Oakland wins on strength of schedule.
2. Del Rio compensates for his flawed game management by being really good at inspiring his players. This will be the third straight game Oakland has played against the AFC North– he’ll point out that the guys they played in weeks one (Cincinnati, who went 10-5-1) and two (Baltimore, 10-6) were a lot better than the Browns (7-9).
3. Del Rio is also a solid coordinator. His defense is young; it hasn’t played together and it should improve. (It would probably be better if he hadn’t shifted Khalil Mack from linebacker to end.)
4. Del Rio usually has good kicking teams– and the Raiders haven’t (so far) made any mistakes that Travis Benjamin will be able to exploit.
5. Given the splash Benjamin made last week, the Raiders have probably spent all week planning how to stop him.
6. The Raiders (4.6 yards per carry) have a better running game than the Browns (3.8). The Raiders have a weak run defense (4.2 yards per carry allowed), but the Browns (4.8 yards allowed) are worse.
7. The Browns have 7 sacks (tied for fourth), but they came against an outgunned Tennessee offense… and they’ll be missing Bryant (who has been the closest thing to a good defensive lineman Cleveland has had).
Oakland has allowed only 3 sacks (tied for ninth)– and 2 of the 3 came when backup Matt McGloin went in the game after Carr jacked up his thumb against Cincinnati
8. Carr (94.8 rating, 3-1 TD-INT ratio and 7.4 yards per pass) looks like he is on the verge of greatness. The Browns’ pass defense (96.1 rating, 4-1 ratio, 7.1 yards per pass) has been as bad as Carr has been good this year. And this week, they have only three healthy corners.
When I pick a team to win, I really like to have a reason– something the guys wearing orange and brown do better than the silver and black ones. I got nothin’.
Turnovers? Both teams are -1 in the giveaway/takeaway ratio, though they got there by different paths The Browns (5 giveaways; 4 takeaways) are a highlight reel; Oakland (3 giveaways, 2 takeaways) is struggling to make big plays on defense.
Intangibles? The Raiders have to be close to believing (if they aren’t already there) that they have finally found their quarterback. Carr got them a lead against Baltimore– and when the defense tanked, led them to a come-from-behind win. In the 33-13 loss, Carr injured his thumb midway through the second quarter, with Oakland down only 10-0.
The Browns, meanwhile, have grave doubts (at least they should have doubts) about their quarterbacks. Because of that, home field might be a disadvantage. Many of the people who will be there probably think the Browns made a huge mistake by benching Manziel for McCown; it wouldn’t take much for the fans to turn on the offense.
The most probable outcome, based on what we have seen is:
- Unless Cleveland comes roaring out of the gate– getting way ahead before the Raiders know what hit them– the game score will permit Oakland to call running plays. And they’ll run successfully– especially if Cooper, Armonty Bryant and Nate Orchard are playing end instead of Desmond Bryant.
- Unless the front seven rains holy hell on him, Carr will have time to throw– and he’ll be throwing against a defense whose linebackers don’t cover well and has only three healthy corners. Also, both Cooper (6’1″) and Crabtree (6’2″) are bigger than the Cleveland secondary.
So what will the offense do? Can they also get 33 points? It seems doubtful:
- Since Isaiah Crowell (1 carry, 1 yard) was the only Brown to run the ball against Oakland last year, we can’t claim the Raiders shut him down. (The Browns had 25 carries for 39 yards, but Ben Tate went 15-26, Terrance West 7-11 and Brian Hoyer 2-1). But neither Crowell nor Duke Johnson has played well.
- The change at quarterback means the Browns are replacing a player who has thrown 3 TDs for more than 50 yards in a 7-game career with someone who has thrown only 3 TDs of 50+ yards in 13 NFL seasons. McCown’s inability to drop bombs can’t be blamed on lack of talent. He had Anquon Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, and Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Chicago.
If it comes down to “Can Josh Josh McCown out-shoot Carr?”, the Raiders win. The strongest argument for not starting McCown is that he probably won’t know what to do with Benjamin or Taylor Gabriel.
As for the notion that the Browns can win with defense– that Mike Pettine’s defense should be able to confuse Carr as badly as it did Mariota– I have two thoughts. The first is “Bull” and the second is a synonym for Miley Cyrus’s singing voice.
There are 3 good reasons for thinking that notion is ridiculous:
- Mariota was 22 years old. He’d played only 3 seasons in college and was playing his second NFL game. Carr is 24, he played 4 seasons in college and will be playing in his 19th game.
- Cleveland was Mariota’s first exposure to a 3-4 Zone Blitz scheme. Carr just played Cincinnati (the team that invented the scheme and still uses it) and Baltimore (who not only uses it, but trained Pettine and his mentor, Rex Ryan).
- Carr has already seen the Browns’ defense before. It didn’t faze him in the slightest.
When Carr played Cleveland last season , Oakland’s running game wasn’t entirely AWOL (21 rushes for 76 yards; 3.6 yards a carry) but it wasn’t piling up yards. As a result, Carr was asked to throw 54 times (58 counting the four sacks).
When a bad team asks its quarterback to throw that many times, it almost always results in a rout (the Browns are 2-6 in those games since 1999 ). Carr didn’t have a great game but it wasn’t bad:
- He went 34-54 (63%)
- He gained 328 yards (6.1 yards per pass; McCown had 6.0 in game 1)
- He threw a touchdown and wasn’t intercepted.
The Browns did intercept a pass– it set up their first score– but it occurred on a fourth down play, where Matt Schaub threw it.
Carr was sacked 4 times, but only for 17 yards. Also, 3 were “coverage sacks”, where no one was open and the pocket finally broke down. .
Cleveland didn’t have veterans Randy Starks, Danny Shelton and Tramon Williams or draft picks Cooper and Orchard. But Carr didn’t have a receiver nearly as good as Crabtree or Cooper.
I can envision the Browns winning… but a win requires them to do things that (other than the sacks last week and Benjamin’s big plays) they have not done so far.
And I don’t pick games on that basis.
I don’t see Cleveland getting 33 points– they’d be lucky to get half that total. And I can see Oakland getting close to the 37 it scored last week.
Prediction: Oakland 27, Cleveland 17