Browns Preview: Game 2 (Baltimore)

OK, I miss doing previews. Let me see if I can keep this short enough to be less of an ordeal– both to write and to read.

Opponent Preview

It’s early to draw conclusions, but I’m not positive these are the Baltimore Ravens– the perennial championship contender– we’re accustomed to seeing. On opening day of the 2016 season, the Ravens had:

  • Gone 23-25 in the three seasons since they won the Super Bowl in the 2012 season. Yes, they went 5-11 last season, largely due to injuries. But they also went 8-8 in 2013. Even in 2014, when the scheduling gods gave them the weak AFC and NFC South (when the Browns went 7-9), Baltimore went only 10-6.
  • Scored 1,057 points and allowed 1,055. That’s a .500 team. Again, it’s not just due to 2015. They were outscored in 2013.
  • The offense has ranked 25th in points scored in two of the last three years 25th, 8th and 25th, to be exact.
  • The defense has been erratic. It has ranked 12th, 6th and 24th in points allowed. Last season, it gave up 30+ points four times.

Seattle’s 35, we can forgive. Kansas City got 34 when they were on a roll. And I’ll even concede that Oakland– who scored 37– has a ton of talent and is coming into its own.

But when an offense run by Josh McCown hangs 30 on you once– and nearly does it a second time– you have problems. The Browns won the first matchup of 2015 33-30 in overtime— in Baltimore. In the second, had it not been for a crucial assist by kicking teams coach Chris Tabor, Cleveland would have hit 30 again and won both games

Not to dwell on the past, but the teams were tied 27-27 coming down to the last play of the game. The Browns lined up for a 51-yard field goal– an exercise in futility, given kicker Travis Coons’s spaghetti leg.

The Ravens blasted through a hole in the line (Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving, for the second or third time that season, blew the block), blocked the kick and ran it back for a game-winning score. Coons is gone, but everyone else responsible for the loss is still around.

A good team shouldn’t have come that close to losing twice to the Browns

You can blame part of the 5-11 season on losing Joe Flacco, except that he went 3-7 (a .300 winning percentage) and the Ravens’ backups went 2-4 (a slightly-better .333). The Ravens didn’t have the kind of depth one might expect. They went to 34-year-old discard Matt Schaub (1-1, until he got hurt) and then brought Jimmy Clausen (who failed at Tampa and then went 0-2 for them)  before bringing in Ryan Mallett (1-1) after Houston cut him.

Ray Rice hasn’t been in the NFL since 2013. Justin Forsett (who will turn 31 next month) was the starter last year. The Ravens were unhappy enough about his price-performance ratio to cut him on September 3, in an effort to get him to rework his contract. That tells you Forsett isn’t a good player. As does his decision, after throwing a tantrum on Twitter, to re-sign. Forsett is splitting time with former Brown Terrance West. Baltimore drafted Javorious “Buck” Allen in round four of the 2015 draft, but he didn’t even play.

To bolster the receiving corps, Baltimore added veteran troublemaker Mike Wallace at WR and washed-up TE Ben Watson (who struggled in pre-season and is now on injured reserve. Last week Flacco threw 8 passes to 37-year-old Steve Smith and 4 to 31-year-old journeyman TE Dennis Pitta.

The defense still relies on 34-year-old LB Terrell Suggs (who missed all but one game a year ago), 32-year-old DE Elvis Dumerville (out with a foot injury). The secondary includes two 31-year-olds: CB Lardarius Webb and FS Eric Weddle, a free agent pickup from San Diego.

Dumerville and 32-year-old G Marshall Yanda made the Pro Bowl last year, but no one else did. Other than LB C.J. Mosley (a #1 pick in 2014), the Ravens haven’t drafted a player who made the Pro Bowl for them since Rice (drafted in 2008).

Technically they did have two draft picks on the Pro Bowl player last year: QB Tyrod Taylor (sixth round, 2011) and kicking teams player Cedric Perrman (#6 in 2009). That neither player stuck in Baltimore is an issue.

Sure, you can say that last year’s #1 pick (WR Breshad Perriman) missed 15 games– and that FS Matt Elam (#1 in 2012) was on IR last year too (and is already out for the year.. But that’s the point– it was never necessary to make excuses for Baltimore’s issues. A player would go away, for whatever reason; Baltimore would simply replace him with some guy you’d never heard of, who would quickly begin making a name for himself.

Rather than a collection of up-and-coming coaches, the Ravens have a slew of failed head coaches: Marc Trestman (successful in Canada, but 13-19 in the NFL) as coordinator, Leslie Frazier (21-32) coaching defensive backs, Marty Mornhinweg (5-27) tutoring quarterbacks.

Two other coaches were failed coordinators Offensive line coach Juan Castillo did well in that job with Philly but was in over his head as their defensive coordinator. Linebacking coach Don Martindale ran Denver’s league-worst defense in 2010 under Josh McDaniels.

In the opener, Baltimore beat Buffalo 13-7, scoring its only touchdown on a 66-yard pass from Flacco to Wallace. You can read that result in one of two ways– “The Ravens are back”, or “They’re in big trouble”. The game against the Browns should be a big clue about which interpretation should apply.

Browns Preview

The best way to say what needs to be said is to quote from Mary Kay Greenhouse’s puff piece on Jackson earlier this week:

“I didn’t come here to be average and just win a few games and go about my business. I came here to help this organization win a championship.

“How fast that’s going to happen I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s going to be a ton of struggle before there’s a ton of great times, but I don’t worry about people not being happy right now.

“I’m going to do the best job I can with our staff and these players and we’re going to keep working at it. My point is eventually they will love me because we’re going to win. We’re going to win a championship here for the Cleveland Browns.”

And when they do, Mike Holmgren won’t let any of us have tickets– NYAHHHH!!!!!

I try not to let my political views intrude into my sportswriting, but this comment isn’t terribly partisan. Hue Jackson in the NFL’s answer to Donald Trump. They both run their mouths. They both do it constantly, and their connection to factual information is tenuous.

Jackson said, last spring, that Isaiah Crowell and Squire Johnson are one of the most talented backfrields in the NFL That sounds nice, but a friend who would know promises that he didn’t make it after a systematic study of every roster. If you pointed out, say, that Kansas City has Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware and Charcandrik West, Jackson would insist that the Browns have better players.

If you kept naming teams with better running games (there were 19 of them last season, and that was with McCown, Johnny Football and Austin Davis gaining 361 yards of their 1,529 yards, averaging 5.6 per rush), Jackson would blow up at you.

Now he says he’s going to unleash the running game on Sunday. Terrific, except that:

  • Last week’s opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, ranked 28th in rushing average allowed. That was lower even than the Browns (27th).
  • Cleveland’s running backs ran only 15 times last week– four of them after the game was decided. They gained 51 of their 84 yards on four carries. Johnson gained 11 yards when the score was 22-10; Crowell gained 40 on three plays in the last 75 seconds.

My friend put it baldly: “Jackson will say anything that comes into his head. He’ll promise you the moon and deliver his ass. I don’t know if he believes what he says or not– but I can assure you that the team won’t be able to back up his bluster.”

The good news, of a sort, is that McCown is at quarterback. It’s good news because his predecessor:

  • Didn’t like to throw to tight ends
  • Preferred to look for receivers deep than running backs short
  • Would give up on a play and start running if he secondary receiver was covered.

McCown is a very different animal. Johnny Football started throwing to Gary Barnidge first, but McCown kept it up. McCown is the reason Barnidge had a Pro Bowl season– 6 of Barnidge’s 9 TD receptions came from McCown. McCown also likes throwing to backs, so Johnson (61 catches) should get a lto of work. And McCown would throw long  to Travis Benjamin, so Corey Coleman ought to get some throws.

The problem, of course, is that McCown is the mirror image of Robert Griffin. He will stand in the backfield looking for a receiver until his protection breaks down. Since Erving and Austin Pasztor have replaced Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz– and Joe Thomas and John Greco are a year older– that will happen much more often this season.

If McCown sees the rush coming, he freezes. He won’t throw the ball until he is about to get hit. That reduces his total incompletions, which does wonderful things for his completion percentage. But he took 23 sacks on only 509 snaps (315 of which were pass attempts)– and he got hit (by one account) 50 times more. It’s the reason he tied for the NFL lead in fumbles lost (6) despite playing only eight games.

It’s also the reason he got injured three times last season. The last injury came in game 11, on November 30– 29 days after his second injury. The Browns held him out of games so he could heal up– and he still couldn’t last even one game. Baltimore put him out of the game.

That injury put Austin Davis in the game. Davis was a fourth year quarterback who had played 10 games and started eight, going 3-5 in those starts. He’d thrown 284 passes, completed 180 (63.4%, almost equal to McCown’s 63.7% last year) and had a career rating of 85.6.

If McCown leaves the game today, the Browns start rookie Kevin Hogan— a sixth-round pick of the Chiefs who was cut in September. If Hogan goes down, the Browns will have to use undrafted free agent Kessler’s Smooth As Silk” Whiskey, whom they shrewdly acquired in round three. Jackson told everyone to trust him on the pick. An ESPN report after the injury described Kessler’s as “not close to being ready to play.’

The defense gave up 29 points to a rookie making his first start, claims it will be better. It hasn’t explained how.

Game Preview

In week #1, Baltimore beat the Bills 13-7. You can read that in several ways:

  1. Buffalo was 12th in points scored last year and 15th in points allowed. The Ravels held a great offense to 7 points and way able to rush effectively (Forsett had 10 carries for 41 yards) and throw effectively (Flacco threw for .258 yards and a rating over 100) against Rex Ryan’s ferocious defense.
  2. Buffalo had a lot of roster turnover and is not the same team. Its defense, which held the Ravens to 13 points, gave up 38 to the Jets in game two. The Bills returned a fumble for a TD ans Taylor threw two 70+ yard bombs. Other than that, they did nothing.

The Bills seem to believe explanation #2. Ryan already fired his offensive coordinator (at the owners’ suggestion). He’s not going to fire his defensive coordinator– but only because it’s his brother Rob. We all remember how erratic Rob Ryan’s defense was, right?

I’d lean towards the second option as well. It’s very hard to see where the Ravens are strong enough to beat a good team.

But, of course, they’re not playing a good team this week– they’re playing the Browns. And I do suspect they have enough talent to beat them.

Game Prediction

Ravens 23-Browns 13, based on McCown being able to finish at least one game.

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