Review: Game #4 (@ San Diego)

Opening Statement

Most of sports analysis boils down to asking and answering two questions:

  • How (or why) did this happen? and
  • What (in real terms) is it worth?

All of the analytics you find on a site like Fangraphs are simply ways of saying “So how good is this guy, really? If you put Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa in the same park, gave them the same teammates and let them face the same pitchers, with the same game conditions, who would contribute the most?”

Answer: Bryant, for two reasons. First, he played a full year. We can’t be sure if Lindor would get even better if he’d played 60 more games, or worse, because teams would have started to figure him out. Second, Bryant was in a pennant race and Lindor wasn’t.

Baseball, basketball and football games are zero-sum universes. Everything that happens to one team simultaneously happens to the other. The offense tries to score, while the defense tries to prevent them from scoring. The abilities of both teams (or the lack of it) determines the outcome.

Hence, if you want to get a handle on the Browns-Chargers game, you have to look at both sides of the ball. You can’t simply say (for example) “HOODLEY-DOOOOO!!!!! Duke Johnson‘s 34-yard touchdown catch was great. He’s an amazing player and when he gets going, think of how great he and Josh McCown will be!!!!” You have to ask questions like:

  • Did the San Diego pass rush put on any pressure (or did the Browns get great protection)?
  • Did the defender covering Johnson do a good job (or did he do a great move to beat the linebacker– who had no deep help from the safety)?
  • Were the safeties deked away because McCown is a crafty veteran– or did they make an incredibly dumb decision?
  • Did McCown throw a perfect pass because he’s a great talent, or because he got lucky?
  • Could the San Diego defender have tipped the ball away?
  • Did Johnson make a good catch– or did the ball simply hit him in the hands?

The answers to those questions determine what you say. At least, if you want to say something intelligent, it does.

Similarly, you can blame the 438 yards San Diego gained (on 61 snaps, meaning they gained 7.2 yards per play) on:

  • The Chargers’ incredible offense
  • The Browns’ wretched defense
  • Poor schemes by defensive coordinator Jim O’Neill, that Philip Rivers had no trouble decoding?
  • Injuries that robbed the defense of five starters: DE Desmond Bryant, LBs Scott Solomon and Craig Robertson, and CBs Joe Haden and K’Waun Williams.
  • Incredible game-planning by Rivers, San Diego head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Frank Reich
  • Some combination of the above

My assessment of the opponent– which determines my opinion of what the Browns did– was:

1. San Diego did not put a good offense on the field Sunday. Rivers is a very good player (when he’s on his game, which he hadn’t been the last two weeks). But he was playing without his best receiver (TE Antonio Gates, missing his final game for using performance enhancers); as the broadcast team mentioned repeatedly, San Diego was missing starters at center, left guard and left tackle.

The Chargers normally use a three wideout scheme. but two starters– Stevie Johnson (36 of 65 snaps) and Malcom Floyd (only 12)– were injured during the game. The Chargers had to use their backup wideouts– and (due to the blocking problems) move to two or three tight ends and extra blockers.

Of the two running backs, Danny Woodhead is a journeyman; Malcolm Gordon is having a difficult rookie year.

2. San Diego’s defense is below average– bordering on poor. It had allowed 27.7 points per game going into the game– 28th in the league. That average was based on allowing 28 points against Detroit (which ranks 29th), 24 against Cincinnati (currently 4th) and 31 against Minnesota (21st).

San Diego was allowing 4.9 yards per rush– tied with the Browns for worst in the league. It had forced 5 turnovers in 3 games (a little above the 1.5 per game average), but had knocked down only 11 passes (22nd) and gotten one sack.

San Diego was also playing without three defensive backs:

  • CB Jason Verrett, their #1 pick (and best corner) a year ago
  • S Jaleel Addae, an undrafted free agent in 2013 who won the job this year and went down in game 1,
  • CB Craig Mager, their #3 pick this year, who was trying to move from kick coverage to defense

3. San Diego clearly was adapting during the game. The simplest way to see this is by looking at the splits for the quarters show– runs/passes, yards and average for both teams:

Quarter SplitsCleveland was able to run effectively only in the first quarter– after which point San Diego either adjusted or the Browns got away from the run (or both). The compensation for not being able to run was the ability to throw quite effectively in quarters 2-4. Any team will be thrilled if they can get between 8.6 and 11.3 yards per pass (and that factors in sacks).

The Cleveland defense shut down San Diego almost entirely in the first quarter. In the second quarter, the Chargers had success running, but still couldn’t throw. After the half, they shredded the Cleveland pass defense. Again, those are not yards per completion– they’re yards per pass attempt.


So when I apply the appropriate filters, here’s what I see:

  1. The Browns scored 27 points against an opponent that allows 27.7, which isn’t anything to celebrate.
  2. San Diego’s run defense had been allowing 4.9 yards a carry; the Browns gained 4.8.
  3. Cleveland allowed 4 sacks and 9 hits to a team that came into the game with 1 sack. It’s the second consecutive game it was overwhelmed by a weak pass rush.
  4. On the positive side, they gained 8.7 yards per pass against a defense that had allowed 7.3 per pass.
  5. They only turned the ball over once– San Diego had been forcing nearly two a game.
  6. San Diego had been averaging 22 points per game. They scored 30.
  7. The Cleveland defense gave up the lead four times– including what should have been (had Mike McCoy not decided to play solely for a field goal) a game-winning touchdown drive.
  8. The Cleveland run defense allowed 4.3 yards per rush to a team averaging 3.8.
  9. It allowed 9.4 yards per pass to an offense averaging 8.6.
  10. San Diego had committed 8 turnovers in three games– against the Browns, they played turnover-free ball.
  11. Against a line with 60% of its starters missing, the Browns had 2 sacks, 3 stuffs and 4 quarterback hits.
  12. The Browns committed 12 penalties for 91 yards. While the final one was relatively meaningless (the Chargers would probably have had little trouble scoring in overtime), the total was appalling.

So the bottom line, for me, is that there is virtually nothing to be excited about. The Browns could have won the game; they managed to lose yet again.

They have a longshot chance at beating St. Louis in week 7 (the game is on the road and in a dome) and possibly (the 49ers seem to be melting down) San Francisco in week 13. Barring some major step forward, I don’t see another win on the schedule.

Questions?

What about all the missing starters
on the Cleveland defense?

Except for Haden, none of these guys have been to the Pro Bowl, and none are likely to be. Also, the Browns have been signing and drafting depth

1. Aside from Bryant being a mediocre player, the Browns signed Randy Starks, drafted Danny Shelton and Xavier Cooper, extended John Hughes and picked out Jamie Meder. The glut of talent at defensive line was the reason Cleveland let Ahtyba Rubin sign with Seattle, traded Billy Winn to Indianapolis and sent Phil Taylor and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen packing.

2. Solomon is a seventh-round draft pick in 2012 who has played with Tennessee, Tampa (twice) and the Jets before coming to Cleveland. This is his fourth season; he’s played 23 games and started none. He has 17 career tackles, 3 sacks, no interceptions and no passes knocked down.

He does have 2 fumbles forced and 1 recovered. And players have certainly come from humble backgrounds to play well before. But given the presence of former #1 pick Barkevious Mingo, current #2 pick Nate Orchard, and the oft-touted Armonty Bryant, why is Solomon’s absence so critical?

3. Robertson is the same general story:

  • 5 seasons with the Browns, 49 games and 29 starts.
  • 4 sacks (the most recent in 2013), 5 interceptions, 5 fumbles, 11 knockdowns.

He does have 291 tackles… but when Pettine and Future Former GM Ray “Snapchat” Farmer took over, they signed Karlos Dansby and drafted Chris Kirksey in round 3 to replace him.

Both Dansby and Kirksey were healthy– Kirksey played every defensive snap; Dansby missed only three. Defenses don’t rotate linebackers– so why should the Browns miss Robertson.

4. If the Browns are lamenting the absence of Williams, they need to stop. Based on the number of injuries he’s already had (three concussions, a neck stinger, hamstring, etc…) the Browns can’t count on him. They can pretend he’ll stop getting concussions, but they’re destined to be disappointed.

5, Haden could be a loss, but he hasn’t been been healthy, he hasn’t been playing well and his loss didn’t really hurt the team.

Can you believe Haden didn’t play?

Not only can I believe it, I agree with the decision. He’s been banged up. He’s been playing badly. Rather than play hurt (again) and play badly (again), he opted to take a game off and hope he could heal. What’s wrong with that decision?

More to the point, the Browns benefited from his absence. Pierre Desir (the Browns’ #4 pick in 2014) played all but three snaps and did astonishingly well for a first start.

He got lit up all game

The Chargers did complete 5 out of 8 passes they threw at him; they did get 95 yards. But he knocked all three of the passes missed away. More importantly, Rivers, who has been to the Pro Bowl 5 times, threw 38 passes and looked Desir’s way only 8 times– even though Keenan Allen was playing against him much of the day.

Allen is starting his third season. In the 32 games before he faced Desir, he had 177 career receptions, 2,144 yards and 14 TDs. Holding a receiver who has 89 passes for 1,057 yards and 7 TDs to 4 catches for 72 yards and a score isn’t a bad first game. And when Allen wasn’t on Desir, Malcom Floyd was.

It wasn’t a fabulous game, but Desir played well enough in his first start to show he ought to be the #3 corner, not Johnson Bademosi.

The problem with the pass defense wasn’t Allen (4-7 for 72 yards), Floyd (1-2 for 20 yards) and Stevie Johnson (4-8 for 32 yards) going 9-17 for 124 yards and a score. That’s not a positive outing (it’s a 96.2 rating and 7.3 yards per pass), but the guys who did the damage were the supporting cast:

  • Second-string WR Dontrelle Inman was targeted 5 times, caught 3 and gained 88 yards.
  • Woodhead went 4-4 for 84 yards.
  • Both backup TEs caught touchdowns. Ladarius Green went 4-6 for 53 yards; John Phillips went 1-2 for a yard.

Those guys primarily got loose on the non-corners. When Rivers targeted a corner, he went 11-23 for 155 yards and a TD– a rating of 84.5. Not the stuff of legends… but Rivers went 12-15 for 203 yards and 2 scores– a perfect 158.3 rating– against linebackers and safeties.

The secondary isn’t playing well… but the real problem with this defense is that Cleveland is playing a 3-4 where everyone in the “4” group sucks.

Sucks? Way to overstate things.

How else would you summarize it? The run defense is terrible. The unit has 4 sacks in four games. And the pass coverage state are horrific:

  • Dansby’s legs are going. According to one source, all 10 pass attempts against him this season have been completed. The receivers gained 120 yards– 93 of it after the catch.
  • Kirksey gave up the two longest plays of the game– the 68-yarder to Inman and the 61-yarder to Woodhead. Of those 129 yards, 117 came after the catch. Opponents are 10-13 for 213 yards when they pick on him.
  • Kruger has only been targeted twice; both passes were completed (for 15 yards). We can’t be sure if he gets targeted rarely because he’s great in coverage, or because quarterbacks can find easier marks.

Robertson and Mingo are playing acceptable pass coverage– they’re not being targeted often, and nobody completes many passed. Bryant and Orchard aren’t getting beat in pass coverage… but only because they virtually never drop into coverage. If they’re on the field and it’s a pass play, they rush.

Isn’t that what they should be doing?

Actually, no. This is the whole point of the “Zone Blitz / Fire Zone / 46 defense” scheme: The offense should never know where the pressure will be coming from. On one play, it might be the line, on another the secondary– then the linebackers. Sometimes it could be guys from each unit.

The goal is to send a different person (or people) on every play, and shuffle the remaining players to cover the gap. There won’t too many situations where the nose tackle drops into coverage, but the idea is to have players who can do each other’s jobs– at least for a play or two.

If Robertson and Mingo have to cover, because no one else can do it… When Bryant and Orchard only rush, because that’s all they can do… If you never want Haden or Tramon Williams blitzing, because nobody else can shut down a wideout… it makes things a lot simpler for the opposing quarterback.

Is that why the defense looks so predictable?

To a degree. Rivers is a pretty sharp guy, but Derek Carr and Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t seem confused. The only guy who struggled was the rookie playing his second NFL game.

To be fair, it isn’t surprising that Williams thinks this defense is more predictable than Green Bay’s. O’Neill is in his second season as coordinator; Dom Capers has been a coordinator for 14 and head coach for another 8.

But the big thing is that Capers has better players in his front seven. O’Neill is right about sloppy execution being a big problem.

You have anything else?

Can’t you find anything positive
to say about the offense?

Is “I’ve seen worse” positive?

No– not when they scored 27 points
and gained 432 yards.

That’s the “Daboll Syndrome” at work. The Browns haven’t had an offense finish in the top 10 in points since 2007– and that team was the first top 10 finish since 1987.

Of the 260 games the Browns have played since 1999, they’ve scored 27 points only 44 times. Having been conditioned to expect mediocrity or worse, this seems like an incredible explosion. But if you put it into context, you find that:

  • Cincinnati has scored 27 or more points 76 times
  • Baltimore has achieved the milestone 81 times
  • Pittsburgh has done it 90 times

And the AFC North isn’t a hotbed of great offense. The top 5 in the NFL are New England (133 times). Green Bay (127), Indianapolis (126), New Orleans (111) and Denver (106).

San Diego, which isn’t any great shakes, has scored 27 points 103 times, and allowed it 80 times. Four TDs and a field goal is S.O.P. for them.

To that point:

1. The Chargers came into the game allowing 27.7 points a game. The Browns scored 27. Statisticians have a term for that– it’s called “below-average” performance.

2. Cleveland’s offense had 11 possessions. It scored only six times. On four of the six scores, it settled for field goals. The need to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns is a reason for the loss.

3. The offense was 1-4 in the red zone and 4-13 on third downs.

The best I can say is that it only committed 4 of the 12 penalties, costing itself only 25 yards:

  • Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio got called for a false start
  • Alex Mack had a holding call
  • Duke Johnson committed offensive pass interference

I can do a few bullets:

  • Gary Barnidge (6 catches on 6 targets, for 75 yards and a score) might force me to retire the “Clank” nickname, if he keeps this up. he’s on pace for 64 catches, 920 yards and 8 scores.
  • Travis Benjamin (6-10 for 79 yards) had a bad day by his recent standards, but a good one by most others.
  • Isaiah Crowell (12 carries for 63 yards; 3-3 in catches for 62 yards) had both the longest run (32 yards) and pass (53 yards) of the day.
  • McCown threw for 300+ yards in consecutive games for only the fourth time in his career: Games 4-5 of 2005, Games 11-13 of 2013 (that counts as two).

This isn’t praise, but since I happened to spot it, I’ll mention it. McCown has only thrown for 200 yards 11 times and is 2-9 when it happens.

What’s the reason he’s playing so well?

The same reason the temperature is 73 today. As Jeb Bush said after the guy in Oregon ran amok with a gun, “Stuff happens.”

He won’t keep putting up these numbers. But if you want to imagine he will, feel free. It’ll be a long season, and any distractions you have will make the time pass faster.

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