Browns Review: Game #10 (@Pittsburgh)

Opening Statement

Since NFL teams average 24 points a game, normally I’d consider a 30-9 loss to be the primary responsibility of the offense. They were 15 below par; the defense was only 6 above. But when the score occurred because the Steelers (a) missed an extra point, (b) took a knee on Cleveland’s 1-yard line, and (c) called 13 rushes and only 6 passes in the fourth quarter, it’s fairly clear they could have buried the Browns. I don’t need for the score to be 44-9 before I get after the defense.

The game served as an endorsement of what coaches call “managing the game.” Many media types (Tony Grossi being the leader of the local pack, but there are too many broadcasters to mention) want to see “an attacking defense” that doesn’t play what they call a “prevent.”

Well, you got your wish. The Browns left the corners in man coverage all day, so they could rush the passer and try to “jump routes.” How well did that work?

As painful as this can be to watch, sometimes it is simply better to line up in a zone and force the offense to put together a 9-play, 81-yard drive that takes 5:37. During those plays, you’ll have more of a chance to make a big play– or to benefit from a mistake somewhere along the way. When you always go balls-out, the scoring drive tends to last three plays and burn 1:16. Instead of looking overmatched, you look like you don’t belong on the same field.

This is why Rob Ryan got fired as coordinator of the Saints and will never get a head coaching job. New Orleans is last in points allowed, last in yards allowed, TD passes allowed, interceptions and both yards per pass and yards per rush. The only solution he has is “Let’s blitz even more.”

Since Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neill calls the game, he’s primarily responsible for this, But “Blunt Force Trauma” decided to go into the year with a rookie offensive coordinator and a sophomore DC, so the blame falls heavily on him. Should he avoid Jimmy Haslam’s post-season Royal Flush, one of the prices will most likely be “you have to hire coordinators who have done this before.”

But there is absolutely no reason to do the “Royal Flush” now. The only reason to fire a coach or GM is if you have someone highly qualified on staff that you want to look at. The Browns have jack.

Let me say this again, you can’t blow a 2-14 team up. If your club has gone 9-7, 6-10, 8-8 and then 7-9, then you can blow something up. You don’t have a good team, but you have definitely built something superior to a bad team and you’re taking a risk if you dismantle it.

If you’ve gone 5-11, 4-12, 7-9 and 2-14, you haven’t built anything. That’s a .281 winning percentage– it’s almost impossible to be any worse. If you change things, you could use a ouija board or a coin and random chance might help you improve.

There are times when a mid-season change makes sense. If you have a Marty Schottenheimer running your defense and the team is 1-7, then it makes all kinds of sense to fire “Sam the Sham” Rutigliano and see what the guy running one of the top defenses in the NFL can do with your screwed-up offense. (Marty went 4-4).

If you have someone you’re curious about, it makes sense, too.

“Blunt Force Trauma” owes Future Former GM Ray “Snapchat” Farmer a debt of thanks for saving his job. Had the GM not driven Kyle Shanahan away after the 2015 season due to his unprofessional behavior, this would be no-brainer for Haslam: fire Pettine and use the last six games to audition Shanahan and see how far the apple fell from the tree.

But it would be pointless for the Browns to change coaches– they have nobody even remotely competent to put in charge. Rather than go through the list, I’ll just outsource it to my former boss. If you haven’t been a head coach at any level– or a coordinator under a successful top man– you have no chance.


 

Now Haslam could fire Snapachat. In fact, it would make a great deal of sense to do it. Snapchat doesn’t believe in negotiating contracts during the season– and a substantial part of the team can bolt after the year:

  • TE Gary Barnidge
  • WR Travis Benjamin
  • C Alex Mack (opt-out clause)
  • RT Mitchell Schwartz
  • FS Tashaun Gipson
  • LB Craig Robertson
  • DB Johnson Bademosi
  • LB Tank Carder

The last two are only valuable during kicks, and Gipson and Robertson have limited value due to durability. But do you really want eight players leaving a 2-14 team?

The trading deadline is past, so losing Farmer doesn’t hurt you. If he’s fired, he can’t scout– that improves your chances in the 2016 draft. If the acting GM could talk to agents, repair some of the damage Farmer;s high-handed attitude has caused and get a few people renewed (not Carder and Bademosi– not until other people have signed), he could stem some of the bleeding and the Browns would be better off.

The hitch is that Bill Kuharich, who sat in for him from weeks 1-4, is considered even more abrasive.


 

The game made it obvious that Johnny Manziel has to play. If you’re going 2-14, anyway, it might as well happen while you’re auditioning someone who has a chance to improve. Manziel will still be gone after the Browns pick Rufus Le Petomane, but if he has a few more games like that, it gets much easier to get value in return.

Had Pettine refused to start him, it would have been time to whack him and let Shawn Mennenga (three seasons as head coach of Culver-Stockton College) take a shot. Or maybe Don Delaney.

I don’t have anything else I want to say. Questions?

I’d fire Pettine for all those penalties

I would never fire anyone based on the evidence of one game. Maybe I’d do it for deliberate physical abuse– Bill Musselman, for inciting his players to attack Ohio State’s Luke Witte. Or if a coach pressed an athlete he knew to be hurt to go back. If a game presented smoking-gun evidence of a longstanding trend (Gregg Williams deliberately urging players to injure Brett Favre), sure.

But “You made a decision I disagree with (or had a bad game)– you’re fired!” Never. You don’t rethink a decision based on such limited evidence. The chances of making a mistake due to anger are too high.

Plus, if you did it, you’d never be able to hire a competent replacement.

You don’t think having the most
undisciplined team in the league qualifies?

 

They don’t have the most undisciplined team in the league. They have one of the least talented.

They’re leading the league in penalties.

 

Buffalo has the most penalties (90) and Tampa Bay is second (88). The Browns are third with 83. The Browns are second-worst in penalty yardage (743), also behind Buffalo (808).

Also, the Browns are one of only four teams (Pittsburgh, New Orleans and the Giants) who has played 10 games. At the end of Sunday, many of the teams behind them will pass.

Most importantly, you have to consider the cause of the penalties.

You mean the players’ troubled childhoods?
Or institutional racism on campus?

 

No, I mean the reason a penalty happened. All penalties are not alike. Assuming that a penalty has been properly called, there could be three reasons a player committed it:

1. It is so unusual (or rarely called) that a player might not know it wasn’t allowed. Id’ say Armonty Bryant‘s 5-yard penalty for “Leverage” qualifies. That is definitely a penalty– jumping on top of a player to help yourself get higher, so you can block a kick.

It was a disastrous penalty. The Steelers were kicking a field goal with the score 6-3 in the second quarter. Given another shot, they got the touchdown (and a 2-point conversion) to make it 14-3.

But it’s been called once this year– and not at all in 2014, 2013 or 2012. You have to go back to 2011 to find the last infraction.

I knew it was illegal when I saw the replay– I’ve seen it called before. But I’m 55 and have been watching the Browns for 45 years

{GROAN}. God help me…

Bryant is 25. He wasn’t in the NFL the last time “Leverage” got called. He was drafted from East Central Oklahoma– which might have neglected to tell him that. And possibly kicking teams coach Chris Tabor (not the sharpest knife in the rack) might have overlooked it.

I’d give the player, the unit, their coach and Pettine a mulligan on that. Though obviously if it happens again, you lower the boom.

By the way, the NFL also has a penalty for “Leaping.” Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 lists all the acts the NFL classifies as “Unsportsmanlike Conduct”. It includes “Running forward and leaping in an obvious attempt to block a field goal or (extra point)…”, unless the player is lined up within a yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. That was last called in 2013.

2. Penalties that show lack of discipline or a mental error. These are the ones everyone knows are verboten— ones that can be prevented by proper technique. The Browns committed 8 of those for 57 yards on Sunday:

  • Johnson Bademosi, Illegal Block Above the Waist, 7 yards (half the distance). Bademosi is a kicking teams player; he knows this.
  • Paul Kruger, Neutral Zone Infraction, 5 yards.
  • Meowkevious Mingo, Roughing the Passer (declined due to a pass interference call).
  • Karlos Dansby, Offsides, 0 yards (half the distance; it was inside the 1).
  • Danny Shelton, Personal Foul (offset by a Steeler foul). Apparently these are the only type of big plays that Shelton knows how to make.
  • Desmond Bryant, Offsides, declined (there was a pass interference on the play).
  • Jim Dray, Illegal Formation, 5 yards.
  • Manziel, Delay of Game, 5 yards (thanks for the plug, Johnny)

This was, by the way, an exceptionally well-called game, so none of these were phantom calls or ticky-tack nonsense one gets from the likes of Ed Hochuli, Jeff Triplette or Terry McAulay. They all happened.

I’d never seen a game called by Ray Torbert’s crew before (it’s his second year as referee), but he’s now near the top of my list.

If you want to reclassify Dray’s penalty into group #1 (on the grounds that the Browns try unusual formations or trick plays so rarely that it’s hard for players to know all the requirements well), I’d be OK with that. If you don’t, that’s OK too.

3. Penalties caused by lack of talent. These are, in effect, cries for help. The player knows he is losing the one-on-one battle– that the play is in danger of being blown up. He violates the rules in an attempt to avoid getting beaten– and hopes the officials won’t see it.

There were seven of these penalties for a combined 181 yards:

  • Cameron Erving, Offensive Holding, 10 yards
  • Charles Gaines, Defensive Pass Interference, 35 yards (this was the one that occurred on Mingo’s roughing penalty)
  • Bademosi, Defensive Pass Interference, 39 yards (Pittsburgh accepted this rather than Desmond Bryant’s offsides)
  • Tramon Williams, Defensive Pass Interference, 38 yards
  • Erving, Offensive Holding, 10 yards. In case you were wondering if Farmer had guessed right on him, this certainly provided compelling proof that he did not.
  • Mitchell Schwartz, Offensive Holding, declined (Pittsburgh intercepted on the play).
  • Tramon Williams, Defensive Pass Interference, 29 yards

If the Browns had had only the penalties in groups 1 and 2, they’d have been flagged 9 times for 62 yards. That’s a high number, which produced highly negative results. Dansby’s penalty was meaningless (it moved the ball a few inches) and Manziel’s came halfway through the fourth quarter, with the score 30-9, but the others all hurt. Let me rank them by severity

  1. Armonty Bryant’s penalty cost Cleveland 5 points (instead of a field goal, Pittsburgh came away with a TD and 2-point play).
  2. Dray’s failure turned a First-&-Goal at the 11 to a First-&-16 (the second consecutive negative play).
  3. Bademosi’s illegal block moved the starting point of a drive from Cleveland 14 (bad) to the 7 (worse).
  4. Had Shelton not committed his penalty (which was offset), Pittsburgh would have been kicking off from the 20, not the 35. Certainly there would have been no touchback; maybe a long return.
  5. Mingo’s penalty, if not declined, would have moved Pittsburgh from the Cleveland 49 to the 34.
  6. Desmond Bryant’s declined offsides would have turned a 3rd-&-12 into a 3rd-&-7.
  7. Kruger turned a 2nd-&-22 into a 2nd-&-17

If those mistakes happen, you can reasonably blast the Browns for lack of discipline “If the Browns hadn’t made those mistakes, the game would have been a lot closer.” (At least five points.)

You cannot say that about the 7 penalties for 181 yards committed due to lack of talent. In three cases, the penalty is possibly the better scenario:

  • Erving held on “First and Goal” from the 1. He pushed them back 10 yards, but it was still first down. Would a six-yard stuff (making it “2nd-&-7”) have been better?
  • Schwartz held on a “4th-&-7” where the pressure was so intense that Manziel threw an interception. Would it have been better to let the defender get to him– maybe sacking him (it’s fourth down, so the ball goes to Pittsburgh) or forcing a fumble (again a turnover)…  or have a concussion or a torn knee ligament? We don’t know either way, it can be argued.

And all four of the pass interference plays (which cost the Browns 151 yards) are the lesser of two evils.

Look, maybe the 35-yard penalty on Gaines was unnecessary. The intended receiver was Martavis Bryant; he has been known to drop passes.

But the other three throws went to Antonio Brown, who has outstanding hands. If Williams and Bademosi don’t commit the penalties, Ben Roethlisberger (22-33 for 379 yards, 3 TDs and an INT) gets two more scores and at least 116 more yards passing:

  1. The first penalty on a pass to Brown (by Bademosi) cost the Browns 39 yards and put the ball at the 50. Pittsburgh’s drive stalled at the 7 and they kicked a field goal. Without the interference, that could have been an 89-yard TD– a gain of 4 points, 7 more total yards for the Steelers and 83 more passing yards for Roethlisberger. (not a typo; see below).
  2. Interference #2 (38 yards, on Williams) occurred on the very next play. After the penalty, the Steelers gained 5 yards on 3 plays and kicked a field goal. That could have been a 50-yard TD,
  3. The next interference (Williams again) put the ball at the Cleveland 1 with 1:16 left; Pittsburgh decided to kneel, so no score. Without the penalty, they get a 30-yard TD.

Those penalties produced a field goal and a kneel. Two touchdowns would have produced a final score of 41-9. Roethlisberger would have ended up 24-35 for 512 yards and 5 TDs. Do you want the penalties– or would you prefer having the bomb dropped?

I don’t want either.

Then take your concerns up with the people in charge of (a) drafting, (b) free agency / player retention and (c) game plan design, on both sides of the ball.

Bad Drafting: In the 2015 draft, the Browns spent picks in the first, second, third and fourth rounds to improve the defense. After 10 games of the season, they have the presented the following tangible evidence to indicate that they can play:

  • 10 unassisted tackles and 10 assists from Shelton
  • 15 tackles, 9 assists, 2 pass knockdowns and a forced fumble from LB Nate Orchard
  • 5 tackles, 4 assists and a sack from DE Xavier Cooper
  • 9 tackles and 1 sack from SS Ibraheim Campbell

In other words, virtually nothing. Orchard has a few plays that make you think he might be capable of more– but he certainly isn’t good. As the season progresses, other rookies are beginning to show a return on their investment. DE Bud Dupree, whom the Steelers drafted just after Erving, already has 13 tackles, 6 assists, 4 sacks and a pass knockdown.

The Browns can’t stop the run and are helpless against the pass. Those four picks are a major reason why.

The defense is allowing opponents a QB ratio of 100.7, with a 21-6 TD-INT ratio and 8.2 yards per pass. There are worse teams in those categories (the rating is only 27th; they’re tied for 30th in yards per pass), but not many.

They’ve improved to 26th in rushing average… but they’re still last in yards allowed. And the pass defense has deteriorated materially as the rushing average has improved.

Pettine says they’re coming along well– but he said the same thing about #1 pick Justin Gilbert last year. He doesn’t even play anymore. Chris Kirksey, last year’s #3 pick has settled into a mediocre groove. Last year’s data (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 knockdowns and a forced fumble) wasn’t great; he isn’t on pace to match it (36 tackles, 2 sacks, a knockdown and a fumble forces).

After playing every snap (84) against Denver and all but one (52) against St. Louis, #4 pick Pierre Desir has played only 62 in the last three games, as Pettine explores the exotic delights of Bademosi (62 snaps in the same period), K’Waun Williams(119) and #6 pick Charles Gaines (27).

That’s seven draft picks– every one of them high– that are busts. Free agent Jamie Meder is outplaying Shelton and Cooper, Former #7 pick Armonty Bryant has outshined Kirksey and Orchard. K’Waun Williams (who also was undrafted) looks better than anyone in the secondary.

Free Agency: The Browns believed they could live without Ahtyba Rubin (who has started all 9 games for Seattle), Jabaal Sheard (playing well when healthy in New England) and Buster Skrine (finally doing the job he was drafted for and doing it well for the Jets).

Clearly they figured wrong. Skrine was always overmatched by receivers– sometimes he could look really bad. But Tramon Williams, who was 32 when he signed, is over the hill, and getting beaten constantly.

Williams’s failure should be no surprise to anyone who understands the NFL. Very few corners play until they are 32. Since the rules changes to open up the passing game in 1978 (until then, you could bump a receiver as much as you wanted), only 101 corners in NFL history have played a season at corner when they were 32.

  • 21 were out of the league at the end of the year.
  • 29 lasted two years.

Of the 51 players who lasted more than two years, 8 made the Hall of Fame. Others were Hall of Fame finalists (Albert Lewis) or should be (Lemar Parrish, Louis Wright).

Or, to put it in in a frame of reference that doesn’t require a knowledge of another team, Hanford Dixon wasn’t good enough to play corner at 32– he retired at 31, after his play slipped. Frank Minnifield played one year at 32, played poorly and then hung it up.

The Browns objected to paying Skrine $25 million over four years, with $13 million guaranteed. Admittedly, that’s high for a player with his value (a slot corner or nickel guy). But then Cleveland gave Williams $21 million for three years, with $10 million guaranteed.

Skrine, who is 26, will be able to contribute for the life of that contract. The Jets might decide to cut him to save money (he costs $7.75 next year, then $7.25 for the two years after that). Assuming he doesn’t have a major injury, he will play until he is 30.

Williams is finished. A new GM who looks at the tape will cut him. The only way he’ll avoid giving up 1-2 bombs a game is to play the way Sheldon Brown (the last 32-year-old corner the Browns tried to use) did it: give the receiver a 10-yard cushion at the line and then backpedal.

They have the same problem all over the defense: LB Karlos Dansby (34), Starks (32), Desmond Bryant (30) and Whitner (an old 30) are finished as quality starters. Kruger is 29. He doesn’t seem to be done– but in a year, he probably will be

NFL veterans don’t last as long as NBA or MLB guys do, and they don’t have long, slow descents. It’s like turning a switch off– the wheels go and you gotta get them out. It’s astonishing that the Browns managed to hire an assistant GM who didn’t understand this. Making him the GM– letting him sign players to multi-year contracts– made Ray Farmer’s ineptitude even more damaging.

Game Plan Design: This is one of the two things that lead me to believe Pettine will need to be fired. A great coach uses whatever scheme best suits the players. A good coach will adapt his scheme to suit the players he has, while he finds new ones.

A bad one uses his scheme– whether or not he has the players to make it work.

There are two systems of pass coverage.

1. Zone defenses let players cover predetermined areas of the field. Once a receiver runs into your zone, he becomes your responsibility; the minute he leaves, it’s somebody else’s problems.

Zone coverage is easy for a team with an an accurate quarterback and smart receivers to beat. Just send your receivers to the areas of the field that are on the borderlines– like between the inside linebacker’s zone and the strong safety’s– and throw the ball there. The offense can exploit the “gap” or the “seam”– the “No Man’s Land” where two defenders are momentarily unsure which one should cover him.

You can also “flood” a zone– send two receivers (or more– I’ve seen as many as four) into the same zone, and then throw to the one the defender doesn’t cover.

But a zone has two advantages:

  • Some quarterback can’t beat them. If you have a dumb quarterback (like Josh McCown) or an erratic one (Derek Anderson), he can can be very confused by the zone– or not throw accurate passes– and turn the ball over.
  • Zone defenses let you use players who are slow– or old.  Because they don’t have to cover the whole field– or run very far, once they get to their zone– speed doesn’t matter as much. Also, and some players (safeties or extra corners) can line up in their zone, so they don’t need to run at all.

Even if a receiver fakes a defender in a zone out of his shoes and get open, it isn’t fatal. The minute he runs a few more steps, he’s in someone else’s zone.

2. Man to man means each defender gets assigned to a receiver for the duration of the play. If you put Tramon Williams on Antonio Brown, Williams is responsibility for defending Brown wherever he goes. If Brown catches the ball, it’s Williams’s fault, no matter what.

That’s easier to teach because it’s simpler– and it builds competitive fire. “I want you to stop this man” builds more adrenaline than “I want you to guard the 15-yard by 18 -yard area that begins 10 yards deep and just to the left of the right hashmark.”

The problem is that if the defender gets beaten… Well, you saw what Antonio Brown did.

If you have four great defensive backs (and other fast guys who can double-team), you can use man-to-man to stop the pass– and let your front seven go after the quarterback.

If you don’t have great cover corners, you shouldn’t be playing man to man coverage. Especially if you’re not double-covering.

Pettine prefers to have his corners play man-to-man, and assign only one defender to a receiver. It’s called (to use the NFL parlance) “playing in space” or “leaving him on the island.” It increases the number of rushers you can send after the quarterback.

But if your corners can’t cover, it’s a good way to get beat.

I hate zone coverage.

 

I’m not wild about it myself. But using one of those Romeo Crennel-Dick Jauron soft zones forces the quarterback to gain yardage in 7-12-yard chunks. He can make a mistake, a receiver can drop the ball or tip it or someone can get lucky and make a big play.

Yeah, it’s annoying to watch the opposing QB go 8-11 for 81 yards on a drive. Is it better to see him get 25-50 yards at a shot?

The Steelers looked almost contemptuous of the Browns: “Hey, good for you– you defended that bomb. Let’s see if you can stop this one…”

And it didn’t make things easier to have Flipper calling 45 passes to 14 runs– three by the quarterback. The defense gets toasted, the Browns throw three passes, the defense goes back out.

Johnny Manziel, who got 3 carries for 17 yards led the Browns in both rushing yards and rushing average again. The way that happens week in and week out, you’d swear this team has Mike Vick, Bobby Douglass and Randall Cunningham on the depth chart.

How can you be so sure about him?
He’s only been here 10 weeks.

 

I’ve seem him before. What’s going on here isn’t materially different than Terry Robiskie, Maurice Carthon, Brian Daboll, Norv Turner and Pat Shurmur. When you have an 80-20 run-pass ratio, you lose the elements of surprise and misdirection, because the defense knows what is coming. You can’t run a play-action because people know you aren’t running. You can’t run a reverse; they don’t bite on your run fake.

FB Malcolm Johnson played 11 snaps. I’m not gonna go watch the tape again, but I think Cleveland ran every time he entered the game. That’s the sort of tipoff that an incompetent rookie offensive coordinator makes.

One of the new GM’s conditions– assuming he even wants to keep Pettine– would be to say:

“You can’t keep Flipper or Jim O’Neill. You have to hire people who have served as coordinators before and have demonstrated that they can run an offense and defense successfully. If you want to serve as defensive coordinator, OK. But the guy running the offense can’t be one of your cronies, who is learning on the job. He has to be someone who has proven himself with some other organization.”

That would mean the Browns have
6 different coordinators in 6 years

 

Quite true– but what is the alternative? Let’s keep Flipper even though he’s shown he’s a bust?

The people preaching stability forget something really important: As soon as the Pittsburgh Steelers realize they have made a mistake, they fix it.

They don’t keep doing things they can see are hurting the team. If they hire the wrong assistant or obtain the wrong player, they get rid of him. The fundamental reason the Steelers have stability is that they don’t make mistakes on the initial hire. Had they been dumb enough to hire Rob Chudzynski, I guarantee you they would not have kept him for 20+ years.

Johnny Manziel has started only three games this season. Despite that fact, he has thrown 128 passes (43 a game). Even if you include his three fill-in appearances, it’s still 21 passes a game. He’s thrown 68 passes in the last two games. If he does that for the last six games, he’ll throw between 200-270 times in the last six games.

We’ve been there and done this nonsense– over and over and over again in fact. It doesn’t work. You can’t ask a quarterback to throw passes on 80% of the offensive plays. No matter how talented he is, it will fail.

And it especially doesn’t work when the quarterback has a bunch of scrubs as his receivers.

I am normally outraged when the GM tries to hire and fire the head coach’s staff. It’s an outrageous abuse of power to ask the coach or manager to win games and then deny him the people he feels are most qualified to make that happen. A good coach should do exactly as Marty did when Art tried to tell him who to keep and who to fire– quit.

But we’re not dealing with a good coach. We’ve got Blunt Force Trauma, making the same mistakes many of his predecessors made. If Pettine wants to stay on as coach, he hires a proven offensive coordinator and either hires a defensive coach or runs the defense himself. No exceptions.

I’m done. I have a book to write. I’ll see everyone for the Baltimore preview in a week, barring some major change.

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