Browns Review: Game 2 (Baltimore)

Unlike some writers– and many coaches– I do believe a loss can qualify as a “moral victory.” But I don’t hand them out easily– I have to see one of three things:

  • One or more units (or some players on a unit) elevates their / his game.
  • The team mounts a ferocious comeback after a horrible start– or starts well and hangs on gamely until the more talented and experienced opponent pulls it out in the final moments.
  • Facing a much stronger opponent– coming in as enormous underdogs– they keep the game close all the way.

The Baltimore game fails on all three tests. Cleveland was playing at home, facing an opponent that beat an inept team by less than a touchdown in week 1. The Ravens played a below-average game, but the Browns played almost as poorly as they did against the Eagles on the road– making the same mistakes they always do.

They scored three touchdowns in less than 11 minutes– but two of the three scores were produced by terrible play by the Ravens. After that, they let the Ravens score 25 unanswered points. After holding the Ravens scoreless on Baltimore’s first four possessions, Cleveland let them score on 5 of the last 7 possessions.

Other than WR Corey Coleman showing he might be worth a #1 pick– and CB Joe Haden having the sort of game he used to have every week– nobody played especially well.

You can say some positive things about RB Isaiah Crowell and NT Danny Shelton, but it’s difficult to say whether they were playing well or the Ravens were playing badly.

There isn’t anything uplifting to say about the game.

Run Offense

The Browns ran for 145 yards, averaging 6.3 yards. It would be terrific, except that almost all of it came on two plays

  • 85 yards and a TD on a run where Crowell got a ridiculously wide hole (due to a missed switch on the defense) got 7 yards downfield before anyone came near him (another blown assignment)  and went all the way when two Ravens missed tackles.
  • 15 yards on a pitchout in the third quarter. To be fair, the Browns blocked well and Crowell ran well.

But that’s 100 of his 133 yards. On his other 16 carries, he had 32 yards. Squire Johnson had 12 yards (8 coming on one carry).

The only positive thing– something you might be able to build on– is that the Browns ran effective to the left side. They ran 9 times for 130 yards behind LT Joe Thomas and LG Joel Bitonio— a five-yard average even when you subtract the 85-yard scamper.

Of course that means the Browns gained 15 yards on 14 carries when they ran right. That’s a pretty damning indictment of the right side of the offensive line.

Pass Offense

QB Josh McCown, in what we can only hope will be his last game, threw for 260 yards. 101 came on three plays– 47 and 31-yard tosses to Coleman and a 28-yard pass into the flat where Johnson outran the defense. On all there plays, the Raven secondary looked old and slow.

One of my friends who works in a front office saw the game. He had three comments:

1. “Baltimore is too slow to stop a league-average passing offense.” The only reason the Browns had trouble beating the Ravens, he said, was Baltimore’s ability to get into the backfield. On 6 of the 36 pass attempts, the Ravens produced pressure.

2. When I opined that the Ravens seemed to get more pressure, he replied “Your line created half a dozen pressures and your quarterback created as many more.”

Like most NFL teams, they expect their quarterback to release the ball within 3 and 3.5 seconds. If the pocket collapses in less than that minimum, they hold the lineman accountable for the sack– or, if a stunt creates a mismatch, the center for making a poor line call. If the quarterback takes more than 3.5 seconds, unless it is a deep pattern, they assign the sack to the passer.

“I don’t know why a player with what looks like a separated shoulder would take that long to throw,” he commented. “If desire to win isn’t sufficient inducement, you would think desire not to get hit again would be.”

I guess I should mention that my friend intensely dislikes McCown. He doesn’t understand why a rebuilding team would ever have signed a quarterback in his late 30’s. Especially, he says, since McCown is a very poor role model for a young player.

“His accuracy is erratic because his mechanics are poor. He helped cost you the game by throwing two interceptions off his back foot, into coverage.

“He doesn’t read defenses well and holds the ball too long.

“He hasn’t played for a winning team, or as a backup to a Pro Bowl player, so he has no lessons to impart. What can young quarterbacks learn by watching him play?”

If you couldn’t get Matt Hasselbeck (who is retired), he suggested Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill,  Kellen Clements– even Brian Hoyer– as veterans who did some things well and could help groom a player. “Cody Kessler could be a positive influence on McCown, quite frankly.”

3. Given the above, this comment might not be surprising. My friend felt McCown’s refusal to leave the game was selfish– not admirable– and that he arguably cost the the the game and set the rebuilding back. As he sees it:

  • The Browns lost the game, so Kessler’s could not have had any impact on the outcome.
  • McCown played badly after the injury. In the third quarter, he went 2-8 for 59 yards and took a sack. In the fourth, he went 8-11, but against a defense intended to stop the long pass. He threw for only 60 yards (less than 6.0 per attempt), was sacked and threw the game-ending interception.
  • Since the Browns knew McCown was injured badly enough to miss the next game, they knew they would have to play Kessler. It would have been better to get his feet wet against the Ravens.

“I don’t know how much work Kessler got during the week, he said. “I assume, since he was the backup to an aging player who hasn’t stayed healthy, that he must have gotten enough work to prepare himself to be able to play.

“Which is the better scenario? To put Kessler in the game with a 20-2 lead, against a weak opponent, before he has time to get nervous? Or are you better off starting him against a defense with Cameron Wake, Mario Williams and Ndumakong Suh?”

He points out that Kessler (a player he does not like and would not have drafted, to put this into perspective) is intelligent and has exceptional work habits. (He suggested that Kessler might know Jackson’s offense better than McCown.)

“Since your goal is to rebuild,” he said, “I would consider every snap given to players like McCown and Charlie Whitehurst to be wasted. The only reason not to play Kessler is that you feel he is so unready that playing him would damage him more than develop him.”

I’m not sure I agree… on Monday this might look line counterintuitive genius (if Kessler plays well) or like rank idiocy (if he gets sacked every other play and gives up three safeties).

But playing the #3 pick makes more sense than keeping him out here if you know he won’t be able to play any more games in 2016.

Since I mentioned that Coleman had a good game– and he’s injured– we’ll skip him. Johnson and TE Gary Barnidge both had pretty good games– but we knew they could do that. So let me end with WR Terrelle Pryor, who caught only three of the ten passes thrown to him– and drew a penalty that set back the drive for what would have been the winning touchdown. Four points:

  1. His poor day (3-10 for 32 yards) isn’t shocking. Once a player demonstrates that he is a threat, defenses try to jam him at the line and take away his favorite routes.
  2. Some of those 10 targets were poor passes by McCown.
  3. The call wasn’t a great moment in officiating… but the rule says that if a player throws the ball and it hits an opponent, it’s a penalty. There’s nothing about “Unless the referee thinks he didn’t mean it.”It’s the sort of play where each side only wants a “no-call” if it benefits them. Plus, he could have just dropped it– or handed it to the official.
  4. Suppose the call doesn’t happen. It’s first down at the Baltimore 10 with 20 seconds left. The Browns had no timeouts, so they could run two plays– maybe three. That isn’t a gimme; McCown has thrown interceptions close to the goal line before.
Run Defense

The Browns held Terrance West to 42 yards on 11 carries (3.8 per carry). Since West has played in nine games since leaving the Browns– and he has averaged more than 3.9 yards only twice in a game (7-35 and 7-37), it’s hard to get excited about shutting West down

Justin Forsett going 14-37 (2.6 yards) is a little more encouraging. Two years ago, he had 28 carries for 182 yards (just over 6 per carry) against Cleveland; last season, he went 21-121 (just under 6).

You can see that as a victory… except that he’ll turn 31 in October and the Ravens were willing to cut him, when they were getting down to 53 men, in order to get him to reduce his contract. If Baltimore doesn’t think that much of him, then we probably shouldn’t, either.

If you’re wondering how Baltimore’s running game could get so weak, the answer is “injuries.” They drafted running backs in the fourth round of both the 2014 (Lorenzo Taliaferro) and 2016 (Ronnie Dixon) drafts. Both players are on the injured list and aren’t eligible to play for a few more weeks.

Obviously holding the Ravens to few yards is better than getting gashed, but I wouldn’t go a lot farther than “above average.” In the fourth quarter, the Ravens ran 10 times for 27 yards. They were down 20-19 after three quarters; they were content to kick two field goals and try to burn the clock.

The Browns had only two tackles for loss– the statistic that, after rushing average, correlates best with “stopping the running game”– even though they knew the run was coming. The best thing I can say is that Shelton had 2 tackles and 6 assists; LB Chris Kirksey had 5 tackles and 2 assists, so maybe there is progress.

Pass Defense

How many times have you heard the following speech in a post-game press conference?

“When we fell behind early, we had to throw our game plan out the window and pass more than we wanted to in order to catch up. Their defense could ignore the run and come after us on almost every play. That really hampered our offense.”

Welcome to one of the few games in NFL history where that sequence of events did not happen. The Browns had no sacks– in a game they led 20-2 in the first quarter. After two weeks, they have a whopping two, which would set a record of futility at this pace.

They did hit the quarterback five times– but a hit is credited only after the pass has been released. Also, when the opponent throws 45 times and runs only, 26, you ought to hit them a few times.

One other comment from my friend in the front office– this time about QB Joe Flacco:

“Other than [TE Dennis] Pitta, [WR Steve] Smith and Forsett, he looked very uncomfortable with his receivers. I’m sure he’ll develop chemistry with [WR Mike] Wallace, but I don’t know about the younger players.”

The worrisome mismatch is WR Kamar Aiken, who had 75 catches for 944 yards and 5 TDs last year– which breaks down as:

  • 37 for 456 yards and 3 TDs in 10 games with Flacco
  • 38 catches for 488 yards and 2 TDs in 6 games after Flacco went out for the year.

If Flacco and last year’s #1, Breshad Perriman also can’t click, the Ravens will be easy to shut down. All four of the receivers my buddy mentioned are over 30– Smith is 37.

Other than Haden (4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes knocked down) and arguably SS Derrick Kindred (5 tackles, two knockdowns–  but a lot of balls caught on him), it’s hard to award any gold stars. Losing DE Carl Nassib might be a real problem.

Kicking Teams

I don’t have anything to say other than what I said in the quick take. In a game where every point– every yard– mattered, Cleveland had:

  1. Their extra point blocked and returned for a safety.
  2. A 52-yard field goal missed.
  3. Opponents return their kickoffs for 48 and 32 yards.
  4. Kickoff returns of only 19 and 13 yards.
  5. To send out Joe Haden to return a punt.

I’ve given up hope that the Browns will ever fire Chris Tabor and replace him with someone more competent (like my wife’s cat). My goal for the season is merely that people in Cleveland stop referring to him as one of the top coaches in the NFL.

I mean, I’m not a momentum guy. You will never hear me say that anything– unless it’s an injury that subtracts a player, or a play that gains or loses points– “changed the game.”  McCown throws a terrible pass that gives the Ravens possession at their own 39 with 42 seconds left. It’s a bad play– the kind of play McCown is still making after 15 years. But the defense could have stopped the Ravens. Or they could gone into halftime with a 20-17 lead and come out determined to make an impression.

But what happened after halftime didn’t help.

  • Patrick Murray kicks the ball 7 yards deep in the end zone– not out of the end zone, like many kickers do.
  • The Browns give up a 32-yard return to put the ball at the 25.

Rather than a touchback– or pinning Baltimore behind the 20 due to good coverage, so the defense could get riled up– Tabor’s crew gave them a positive: a long return that moves the ball an extra five yards and gets the offense fired up.

We’ll never know if that helped the Ravens get a touchdown on that drive. But it certainly couldn’t have helped the Browns.

But when the Browns missed a 52-yard field goal, the Ravens got the ball at the 42. They needed to move only 27 yards to kick a 49-yarder and take the lead.

That mattered. Rather a lot. Jerry Rosburg– who used to coach kicking teams for the Browns and now does so for the Ravens– is one of the elite. He helped his team win.

Tabor did not.

The thing that infuriated me most was the decision to put Haden– the only good cover corner on the club– into a role where he could blow up his knee with one bad hit, and possibly miss more than a season.

That ought to be the job of the 47 receivers they picked in the draft. A kicking teams coach who can’t even find a punt returner ought to be selling shoes.

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