Browns Preview: Game 5 (Jets)

Opponent Preview

The first question I always want to know about an opponent is “How good (or bad) are they?” I’m still trying to figure that out, frankly. The Jets went 5-11 a year ago, then lost their first two games. But they won their last two to reach .500, suggesting something good is going on.

The reality is that they lost to Buffalo (which is 3-1) and Oakland (who made the playoffs last year and are 2-2 now). There’s no disgrace to losing to either team.

They beat Miami for a fairly simple reason. Head Coach Adam Gase builds his offense around a superhero quarterback. Ryan Tannehill (who had a 95.5 passer rating last year) went down for the season in pre-season– the best replacement the Dolphins could find was 34-year-old team cancer Jay Cutler (a transaction that, in and of itself, proves Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed).

Miami scored 19 points against the Chargers (who are 0-4), then 6 against the Jets. Last week they were shut out by the Saints.. an achievement New Orleans has achieved only one other time in the century (2012, against Tampa).

Last week New York beat Jacksonville late in overtime, after the Jaguars punted from their own two. The punt traveled only to the Jacksonville 47, was returned for 7 yard (to the Jacksonville 40) — at which point Jacksonville was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. That gave the Jets a first down at the opponent’s 25 in sudden death– something even free agent QB Josh McCown couldn’t screw up.

Whose crew could miss a player being blindsided by an opponent– but throw the flag when he shoves the guy? Gene Steratore, rapidly moving into the realm of of dreadfulness occupied by Ed Huchuli, Terry McAulay and Jeff Triplette.


I’ve followed McCown from a distance and still consider him the best argument for reform of the passer rating. He’s compiled an 87.8 rating because:

  • He’s completed 82 of 117 passes (70.1%)
  • He’s gained 826 yards (7.1 per attempt)
  • He has 3 TD passes and 3 interceptions– and TD passes are grossly undervalued.

McCown has been sacked 12 times (tied for eighth-highest)– on 9.3% of his throws (seventh-highest) and lost 88 yards (also seventh)– but none of that counts. He’s fumbled a league-leading 6 times, losing 2 (tied for second):

None of that– the sacks, the fumbles (which, like sacks, cost you a down and lost yards), the fumbles lost (which are turnovers, and often more within his control than interceptions– which can be tipped by a receiver) or the points or yards gained on the runbacks– is included in the rating.

McCown threw three interceptions against the Bills. One interception came on a two-point conversion attempt (which isn’t counted, because the NFL doesn’t consider it an official play). The second killed a drive on the Buffalo 23. The third was a desperation heave with 1:44 left and New York down by 9 (thanks to the missed two-pointer), so meaningless.

The other interception also came against Jacksonville, giving the Jaguars the ball on the Jet 35, which set up a field goal.

I mention this for two reasons. First, McCown’s fans treat his frequent mistakes as things it would be unfair to blame him for.

Second, if the Browns have any chance to win, it will be partly because they pressure McCown into errors.

Mistakes won’t happen if New York runs the ball. Bilal Powell is averaging 4.8 yards a carry, Matt Forte 4.1, and Elijah McGuire 6.8 (but on only 23 carries).

105 of McGuire’s 156 yards have come on only five carries– but he’s had a couple of long runs in each of the last three games, and his total carries have gone from 0 in game one to 6 to 7 to 10 last week.

He also caught two balls for 38 yards last week– meaning he could make mincemeat of the Cleveland linebackers if they give McCown time to throw. Since Forte is expected to miss the game with a toe injury, his touches will be going somewhere.

The Jets don’t have nearly as good a line as they had last season; WR Brandon Marshall went away and Quincy Enumwa is on injured reserve. But the Jets got Jeavon Kearse from Seattle and got Jeremy Kerley back from the 49ers. Undrafted free agent Robby Anderson caught 42 passes last year and has 12 so far– he’s a deep threat.

I’ll mention TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (acquired late last year from Tampa) for two reasons. First, he isn’t any good (never had more than 21 catches; this is his fourth year), but the tight end usually burns the Browns. Second, because “Austin Seferian-Jenkins” is fun to say, and I’m hoping he’ll be guarded by Briean Boddy-Calhoun, just to torment the announcers.

The Jet defense is ranked 21st, which probably states its quality accurately. Turnovers (two other Jets have fumbled and lost it) have put them in a hole a lot. On the other hand, they’re playing bad offenses. New York has traded most of its high-salaried players; DL Muhammad Wilkerson (shoulder injury; probably won’t play) and CB Buster Skrine are the only ones still around.

Hey, remember when Terry was talking about how the Browns had gotten Tramon Williams (3 years, $21 million) for less money than Skrine (4 years, $25 million) — and how “Snapchat” Farmed believed Skrine would be out of the league before Williams?

He isn’t. Williams is technically still in the league (he’s played seven snaps for the Cardinals), but he’s not likely to last. Skrine also reworked his contract to save the Jets $2.5 million.

Browns Preview

The 31-7 loss to Cincinnati set off a finger-pointing spree that is still iterating. People in Cleveland are picking all different sides. The rest of the universe sees it pretty simply:

  • Gregg Williams has been a successful coordinator for years and was 17-31 as a head coach. He’s also been missing overall #1 pick Myles Garrett, Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins and backup DT Danny Shelton (a former #1).
  • Hue Jackson went 8-8 as a head coach in Oakland, was a successful assistant when Marvin Lewis was riding herd on him and always has a juicy quote for reporters.
  • The Marx Brothers (Sasho, Paulo and Ando, successors to The Three Stooges) have never worked in college scouting, have barely worked at all (Sasho was a lawyer for the Jaguars; Ando did Pro Personnel for the Colts) and are now 1-20 running the show.
  • Jimmy Haslam has fired (1) Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur, (2) fellow Stooges Moe Banner and Curly Lombardi, and Rob Chudzynski and (3) Snapchat Farmer and Mike Pettine. Jimmy also lets his wife weigh in on all decisions.

There are people cutting Haslam slack because he’s friendly to reporters, also gives good quote– and, frankly, isn’t going anywhere unless he gets convicted of a federal crime.

His detractors note that he’s on his fourth management team since 2012, and some of those people are working for other clubs:

  • Heckert is in Denver’s front office.
  • Shurmur (Minnesota) and Chudzynski (Indianapolis) are running offenses
  • Curly Lombardi has a sinecure from his friend in New England– but the reigning champs are still paying him

The people blaming the front office point to the number of wins, and blown draft picks (pretty much everyone).


Since I’ve been asked, the five best players from the draft are probably:

  1. RT Shon Coleman (the 76th pick in 2016), has started four games, played 279 snaps and only committed two penalties.
  2. DE Emmanuel Ogbah (32nd pick in 2016), who has 7.5 sacks– but 4.5 in three games against the Bengals, and is considered to be a one-dimensional pass rusher– a young Armonty Bryant.
  3. TE Seth Devalve (who would have gone undrafted, had the Browns not used pick 138 on him in 2016), who is 19-30 for 261 yards and a TD.
  4. DE Carl Nassib (taken 65th in 2016) might become a decent blue-collar player.
  5. DT Larry Ogunjobi (taken 65th this year) had made some plays in his 81 snaps.

Other than Coleman– Ogbah, if you believe it’s coincidence that 60% of his production comes against Cincinnati– nobody is doing well, given where he was taken.

You could argue LB Joe Schobert (though he can’t cover) or K Zane Gonzalez (who’s missed one of his three field goal tries) belongs on the last two spots. If I had to fill out the top ten, it would be those guys, Garrett (on potential), Spencer Drango and Derrick Kindred.


RB Isaish Crowell is furious that not getting 20 carries a game in which to average 3.0 yards. He intends to leave. If the Browns did offer him a new contract (they won’t) he would turn it down unless it included a huge signing bonus. Jackson is denying that Crowell is in the doghouse, but not giving him much to do.

Meanwhile, “Duck” Johnson is wondering why he isn’t getting more touches. (He’s not angry, I’m told– he’s guessed that Crowell is on his way out.)

The front office won’t cut WR Kenny Britt, but Jackson has no plans to play him. Meanwhile Terrelle Pryor is providing ammunition for both sides. He’s on pace for 52 catches, 744 yards and 4 TDs– better than anything the Browns have, but not close to last year’s production (much less what he wanted to be paid).

Also, Pryor caught 55.0% of his throws, and blamed his quarterbacks for not giving him catchable balls. He’s catching 54.2% of the balls from Kirk Cousins, whose stats (107.6 rating, 8.3 yards per pass, 7-1 TD-INT ratio) make it fairly clear that he isn’t the problem.

Pryor is close to losing his status as most favored receiver to fourth year man Chris Thompson (14-21 for 235 yards– 16.8 per catch– and 2 TDs).

The poor play of the defense– 26.8 points per game (29th), 2 interceptions (tied for 22-25), and 9 sacks (16th) has also blown up any plans to cut Jackson loose and put the club in the hands of the analytics-friendly Williams. According to ESPN, he’s blitzing more than any other club. It isn’t working– doesn’t even look like it might work if he had Garrett, Collins and Shelton, so he’s taking criticism.

It’s likely the reason Garrett is going to start even though high ankle sprains don’t normally heal this quickly. Collins probably has recovered from his concussion (thanks to Mike Holmgren, the NFL now takes that seriously).  SHo knows if Shelton (also expected to play) has.

Jackson (who said he doesn’t have enough talent to win this year) isn’t making his case effectively. Nobody can understand why Jackson has called the fourth-highest number of pass attempts (161, tied with Green Bay, behind New England’s 195, Arizona’s 183 and the Giants’ 166). It’s putting enormous pressure on DeShone Kizer (50.9 rating, 5.4 yards per pass, 3-8 TD-INT, 11 sacks).

The team definitely isn’t pulling together. It’s unclear how close they are to coming apart at the seams.

Game Preview

The Jets play a phenomenally dreary brand of football. Their game plan consists mostly of sucking– a lot on offense and a fair amount on defense– and hoping the opponent sucks worse. They run the ball and throw dink passes, hoping to avoid turnovers, while they force opponents into turnovers.

The hitch is that they’ve forced only four, but give up (thanks to McCown) seven. And he has a sore shoulder, but will play anyway.

There is no excuse for the Browns failing to win this game. The game is at home; the Jets are 0-2 on the road this year and went 2-6 last year.

The Jets are allowing 4.7 yards per rush. They’ve gotten only six sacks; Wilkerson and DT Leonard Williams have no sacks. Ealy won’t play. Kizer will get none of the pressure he’s received in the last four weeks.

Skrine and Morris Claiborne (dumped by Dallas after five disappointing years) are the corners; Rookies Jamal Adams (the sixth pick in the draft) and Marcus Maye (the 39th) are the safeties. They’re both highly rated, but neither Adams (16 tackles, a sack and two knockdowns) nor Maye (19 tackles; nothing else) have lit up the league.

The Jets can run the ball, but Forte, who was getting 25% of the carries, won;t be playing.

When McCown played the Rams two years ago, Williams pressured him to death, sacking him four times and hitting him seven other times. McCown fumbled twice, losing them both– and didn’t finish the game. The line committed four false starts and two holding penalties.

The Browns don’t have the pass rush the Rams did– but the Jet line doesn’t have Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz and Joel Bitonio. New York has allowed 12 sacks. That’s largely because McCown won’t throw the ball away– he holds the ball until he’s brought down. But, for whatever reason, it’s an opportunity. And if McCown goes down, Bryce Petty was dreadful last year.

If the Browns can’t win this, it’s almost impossible to see any other wins on the schedule. Maybe the Chargers, or Chicago in week 15.

Game Prediction

I really am tempted to pick Cleveland to win– I could even see this becoming a blowout. But my rule is “If a team is on a roll, bet it continues until they show you differently.” I can see all kinds of scenarios where the Browns can win– but I could see those in each of the last three weeks. I didn’t pick them to win– and they didn’t.

Currently, there is no evidence that the Browns can score until the other team is playing a prevent. They haven’t yet shown they can run the ball– or that they want to. I have no idea who they expect to throw to; other than the Duck, nobody has been able to catch the ball. TE David Njoku (9-12) and Crowell (5-8) have caught a handful of passes. Everyone else is 50% or worse– largely due to drops.

The Jets got 163 yards rushing out of Powell last week, and 93 from McGuire, with both guys breaking runs of 69 yards or more. The Browns have been playing good run defense on straight-ahead stuff, but they still don’t seal the edges; they still let opponents cut back. It the back gets past the 8 guys up front, Cleveland has given up some big runs.

Every week, the opposing tight end– and a pass-catching running back– tears them to pieces.

Last week the kicking teams missed a field goal and let 34-year-old Pacman Jones run a punt back 40 yards.

Plus, they don’t sound like a team pulling together– they look like one coming apart. That’s what I’m guessing will happen.

Prediction: Jets 24, Browns 10

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Review: Game 1, ALDS

Well, that was fun. After a while.

As the preview made clear, I thought this was a game the Indians were going to win– Gray hadn’t pitched well against the Indians on two of his three starts this year, while  while Bauer had beaten the Yankees at the beginning and the end of August. New York was playing well by that time.

But you never know how someone will play in post-season until you see them.  It’s why they play the games.

Random thoughts about the game.

Continue reading “Review: Game 1, ALDS”

Playoff Preview: ALDS

People often begin a speech by saying “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…” I know what they mean. I’ve been predicting for fun and profit for 31 years, but I’m unaccustomed to calling a Cleveland team the favorite. There was one season during Marty Schottenheimer’s tenure that I picked the Browns to advance to the Super Bowl, but lose. I liked the Indians a few times in the John Hart era, but not the years they did well.

But I never thought the Indians would win when Mark Shapiro was running the show. The Cavs in the Mike Brown era were always unlikely. It was fairly clear that the Cavs in LeBron James II: The Sequel were going to the NBA finals. But I never predicted them to win the championship. (If you remember that the NBA suspended Draymond Green for one game, you can argue they wouldn’t have won.)

But, yes, I’m predicting the Indians will go back to the World Series. I mean, why wouldn’t I?

  • They had the best record in the American League and the second-best record in baseball
  • They’re third in the AL in runs scored and first (by a wide margin) in runs allowed
  • They’re well ahead of everyone in Wins Above Replacement
  • They have experienced, successful field management
  • The players have the experience and confidence that comes with reaching game 7 a year ago

The only shortcoming: They’re a much worse defensive than two of their opponents. Or, at least, they were.


Frankly, I’m as surprised to be saying this as anyone. Actually, a lot more so– I predicted the Indians (who went 94-67 last year) would struggle to match that record, and would probably finish with 84-89 wins.The issues I was concerned about were:

  1. Neither Michael Brantley nor Jason Kipnis (now both 30) being able to play a full season– much less at their his past level.
  2. Tyler Naquan not duplicating his career year– and neither he nor Austin Jackson playing acceptable defense in centerfield.
  3. Neither Lonnie Chisenhall nor Brandon Guyer staying healthy– or duplicating their production
  4. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco being high risks for injury– and Josh Tomlin being a dead bang cinch
  5. 34-year-old Edwin Encarnacion continuing his three-year-long decline
  6. The team playing substandard defense–especially in the outfield– which was hurting the pitching.

I thought they had solutions. The big one was to use Jose Ramirez at second base, replacing him with (depending on whether you wanted offense or defense) Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela, sending Kipnis to the outfield. Kipnis was a converted outfielder– a good one in fact– who would probably hit better and stay healthy there

In center, Brad Zimmer probably wouldn’t hit if they brought him up from AAA; Greg Allen certainly wouldn’t (they’d have to get him from AA). But both would give them good outfield defense, a few singles and a lot of speed– and they would eventually develop. (I really said that– go look.)

If they were willing to play Urshela at third– which I felt they should, since Urshela might win half a dozen gold gloves– Diaz could play right.

I was sure Mike Clevinger could be an effective starter, which solved one of the problems.

Since the Indians have usually been reluctant to use unproven players– Mark Shapiro always preferred a shopworn veteran, even if he was on the downhill slide– I assumed that most of that would go untried.

But I’ll be damned if they didn’t do all of it. Not as quickly as I wanted– it took an injury to Kipnis to get Ramirez to second and Zimmer breaking his hand to get Kipnis into the outfield. And it pretty much all worked.

They solved part of the problem by acquiring Jay Bruce. I wasn’t happy about it… since he’s hitting .248 (.222 in September), I think my guess was proved right. But the psychological value– “Hey, we got a three-time All-Star to fill the gap!”— was very helpful.

The big surprises have been:

  • Carrasco stayed healthy all year. He led the team in starts, hit 200 innings for the first time and looked like a player you would trade Cliff Lee to get.
  • Bauer cut his ERA for the second straight year and managed to stick around long enough to get 17 wins.
  • Ramirez showed an enormous increase in power– 10 more doubles (led the league), nearly tripled his homers (11 to 29)– and did it without increasing his strikeouts or hurting his defense.
  • Encarnacion dropped a few points in batting average, but walked 17 more times– in 33 fewer plate appearances. His 104 walks was second– higher than Carlos Santana.

Unlike last season, when they overachieved, they’re going into the playoffs as legitimate favorites. They have six viable starters– four more than last season– are better at every position (except third base) and have a year of experience


How can they lose? Very simply:

1. Too much of their talent is in the staff. Pitching hasn’t been 90% of the game since the introduction of the lively ball– and it certainly isn’t 90% in a five-game series. The Indians have six starters– at most, they’ll need four. That means a significant part of their edge won’t be used.

The simplest way to show it is to give you the four teams, ranked by Wins Above Replacement:

Pitching
WAR
Starting
Relief
Players
Cleveland 26.5 13.8 6.7 6.0
Yankees 18.8 5.7 5.3 7.8
Houston 18.6 2.7 -3.5 19.3
Boston 7.4 3.8 4.7 -1.1

The Indians have a weaker lineup than anyone except Boston. And since more than 50% are those six starters– two of whom will not start– most of their edge over the competition vanishes,

The Astros, on the other hand, can use 100% of the talent in their lineup. Their bullpen is wretched– but if they get a large enough lead, that won’t matter.

Terry Francona’s bizarre decision to start Trevor Bauer (the least consistent of their big three)– and to use Josh Tomlin (the worst of their six starters) in game four– means that he’s negative even more of their value.

2. They have a lot of questions. The value of having an Aaron Judge in right isn’t merely that he’s a great player– it’s that he played 155 games. Brett Gardner played 151 games in left; Jacoby Ellsbury 112 in center. Joe Girardi has no decisions to make.

The Indians, on the other hand, will need to decide which three of their six outfielders (Greg Allen, Brantley, Bruce, Chisenhall, Jackson, Kipnis) will play. Brantley, Chisenhall and Kipnis are coming off injuries and might or might not be sharp; Allen is a rookie.

Also, if Urshela makes even one mistake, the pressure to pit Kipnis back at second and move Ramirez over will be irresistible.

3. It’s a short series. Anything can happen. A couple of lucky breaks– or bad bounces– and the better team can lose. One midding guy on a hot streak– or a star having a cold spell– can shuffle the outcome.

If you gave me a choice of catchers over the season? Obviously, I would take Gary Sanchez. In a short series, Rafael Perez and Yan Gomes could very possibly out play him.

It’s the reason we have to play these games.


Still, I always go with the odds. And, unlike last year, the odds entirely favor Cleveland

1. The Indians won 11 more games. That indicates a stronger team.

2. They have a run differential 66 better than the Yankees. Clevelane scored 40 runs less but allowed 106 fewer runs. The Yankees are slightly better at scoring runs, but the Indians are much better at preventing them.

3. Cleveland won 5 of the 7 games played this year. They didn’t win squeakers– they outscored New York 31 to 20.

4. The Indians have a substantive edge in game one. Sonny Gray pitched three times against Cleveland this year; Trevor Bauer pitched twice against the Yankees. Their lines:

  • Gray: 1-2, 4.85 ERA. Allowed 15 hits and six walks in 16.2 innings.
  • Bauer: 2-0, 1.38 ERA. Allowed 11 hits and six walks in 13 innings.

The lifetime stats are different– but since both teams have a lot of players who are new to the majors, it’s not significant. Sonny Gray went 2-0 with an 0.75 ERA in 2014. Since neither Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion nor Jay Bruce played in those games, that has no value.

5. C.C. Sabathia, the starter in game two, has not pitched well in postseasons. Corey Kluber has. Sabathia’s lifetime ERA is 4.53. In 12 playoff serieses, he’s had an ERA of 4.50 or higher in seven of them.

That isn’t all Cleveland In 2012, he had ERAs of 1.53 and then 12.27. In 2011, it was 6.23. In 2010 they were 4.50 and then 6.50. He is 9-5, because the Yankees have always scored lots of runs.

That isn’t likely to happen this time– his opponent is Corey Kluber.

6. The game 3 starter, Masahiko Tanaka had an ERA of 4.74 this year. He isn’t the same pitcher he was in 2014– or even last year. Tanaka allowed more hits than innings for the first time since 2010. He allowed 35 homers. He’s only 28; I don’t see him enough to know what is wrong. But something is wrong,

I’m surprised Girardi is using him. After an OK June and July– and a very good August– he had an ERA of 4.99 in five starts in September

If Carrasco is on, this shouldn’t be much of a contest.

6. The Indians have a big edge in post-season experience. The Yankees lost the wild card two years ago. They reached the ALCS in 2012. But because they are the Yankees, that was an entirely different team. Gardner, Ellsbury and Holliday are the only hitters with more than a game of post-season experience; Gray and Sabathia the only starters.

I stress this fact because, every year, some heralded player goes into the playoffs for the first time and humps the bunny. We never know who it will be. Bryce Harper hit .130 in his first post-season and .235 in his third. Corey Seager has yet to have an OPS over .661 in a series, and his averages have included .188 and .130. Don’t assume Judge will do any better.

The Indians, meanwhile, went to game 7 of the series last year. Every major player except Brantley and Urshela has significant experience. (Bruce and Encarnacion have it with other clubs.) Carrasco and Bauer (no, last year doesn’t count) are new– so is Tyler Olson. Nobody else is.

Prediction

I’m always wary of saying “Team on a mission”. That said, the Indians went to Game 7 of the World Series– and nobody expected them to. They won more games this year, almost everyone improved.

The odds say they’re going to win in three or four games. I’ll be conservative and say Indians in four.

Browns Preview: Game 4 (Cincinnati)

Opponent Preview

In the wake of the Bengals’ 0-3 start, I’ve seen a lot of “What’s Wrong With The Bengals?” pieces.Permit me to offer my considerably shorter take:

  1. Their offense has sucked, because
  2. Their coordinator was a nitwit

Nothing more complex needs to be said. Here’s a look at the Bengals– wins, points scored and allowed, and their rank among the NFL teams (highlighted in yellow)– for every season in the decade  With one exception, the defense has never been the problem, but (with two exceptions) the offense has been:

You know you have a good defense when finishing 12th in points allowed (as they did in 2014) seems like a bad year. Except for 2010, they’ve played great every year in this decade. Marvin Lewis was the defensive coordinator of that 2000 Ravens team, which won the Super Bowl with an awesome defense, despite an offense that struggled to avoid losing games.

The offense? Not so much. Two seasons in the top 10; five in the top half of the league.

It’s easy to explain the playoff ‘jinx’: The Bengals roll up points against the weak sisters and struggle against good teams. Once they get in the playoffs– where pretty much every team has a good defense– they sputter and die.

It’s his own fault that Marvin Lewis is in danger of getting fired. He’s hired subpar offensive staff and stayed with them– to the point where he put his own job at risk.

2010, for example, was the tenth and final season that Bob Bratkowski ran the offense. Bratkowski had three seasons in the top 10 in points (2005-07; the years Carson Palmer was playing well), but he had five seasons where the offense was ranked 20th or below. After the Bengals fired him, Jacksonville hired him– and they finished 30th.

Let me note something for the record: Bratkowski is the son of Zeke Bratkowski, the longtime backup quarterback (among other places, for Vince Lombardi’s Packers). Zeke was also quarterback coach or offensive coordinator on various NFL teams between 1969-95.

With his job in danger, Lewis fired Bratkowski and hired Jay Gruden— younger brother of Jon Gruden. He was the coordinator from 2011 through 2013, and the offense finished 18th, 12th and 6th.

When Washington hired Gruden as their head coach, Lewis hired Hue Jackson– who is not related to anyone in the NFL Jackson got the Bengals to 15th and 7th, before he got hired as a head coach.

To replace him, Lewis promoted QB coach Ken Zampese— son of longtime coordinator Ernie. This legacy was even worse than Jay and non-silent Bob. They scored 96 less points in 2016– this year they were dead last.

You could make excuses for 2016– and I did. Owner Mike Brown let both the #2 (Walter Jones) and #3 (Mohamed Sanu) get away in free agency. TE Tyler Eifert, their #1 pick in 2013 (and a Pro Bowl player in 2015) missed half the season (he’s missed 27 games in four seasons).

But Zampese couldn’t decide who his #1 back was. Jeremy Hill averaged 14.8 carries a game, Giovanni Bernard got 9.1 and Rex Burkhead got 4.6. None played really well.

Zampese also gave 30-year-old Patriots castoff Brandon LaFell more targets (107) than potential Hall-of-Famer A.J. Green (100). Green did miss six games– on the other hand, Tyler Boyd started only two games and still got 84 targets. (Green, normally a very quiet player, made a few comments about the way he was being misused.)

It got worse this season. Brown ditched Burkhead and drafted Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon in round two. But Zampese still kept three players rotating, and it wasn’t working. Through the first two games:

  • Mixon had 17 carries for 45 yards (2.6 average)
  • Hill had 12 carries for 43 yards (3.6)
  • Bernard had 12 carries for 51 yards (4.2)

The passing game looked equally confused. Green had 18 targets, LaFell 12 and Boyd (a #2 pick in 2016– who had a better rookie year than anyone on the Browns) had only four. And the three backs had 12 throws.

After losing the first two games– scoring only 9 points; gaining 516 yards– the offensive players went to Lewis and said “Fire this clown.” Lewis did.

Bill Lazor isn’t exactly a topnotch replacement (he was Joe Philbin’s coordinator in Miami) but he did coach quarterbacks for Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren and Chip Kelly, and spent a year with Dan Reeves. (Plus,. he isn’t related to anyone.)

In Lazor’s first game, the offense scored 24 points and gained 301 yards. QB Andy Dalton, who’d looked dreadful under Zampese (47.2 rating, 6.0 yards per pass, no TDs, 4 INTs and 8 sacks) went 21-27, getting 7.7 yards per pass, throwing two TD and posting a 124.1 rating.

Mixon got 18 of the 28 carries and gained 62 yards; Green had 10 catches for 111 yards and a score.

Unfortunately for Cincinnati, their opponent was Green Bay. It normally takes at least 30 points to beat the Packers (who were 10-1 in games they allowed 27 points or less last year).

Cincinnati is 0-3. But the defense is in the top 10 again. And there is a plausible reason to expect the offense to be better than it was under Zampese.

Browns Preview

In the season preview, I noted that the Browns often go 1-1 against Marvin Lewis. Since this game is at home, I had them penciled in to win this one.

Not anymore. The Browns are 0-3; Chris Pokorny, of the Dawg-Gone Awful Blog is probably the only person who remembers they went 4-0. Terry Pluto, who thought they were going 4-12, is now scribbling about how long it takes to build a team.

The wheels are beginning to come off. The fans have been incredibly kind to DeShone Kizer, but Hue Jackson classified their comments as “crucifying.” When a defensive coordinator is citing statistics to demonstrate that his defense is playing pretty well, that’s always a sign that things are going south. Gregg Williams has been doing that.

Danny Shelton is saying that he’s playing hurt. Jamie Collins isn’t playing. He had a concussion; he certainly shouldn’t rush back. But he hasn’t even been saying “I’m almost ready to play”– which is what a player eager to get back on the fiels normally proffers.

The normal amount of time missed after a high ankle sprain is 6-8 weeks– with another 4-6 weeks where the player is visibly below par. The Browns announced that #1 pick Myles Garrett was close to making a miraculous recovery… and then said he won’t play.

Isaiah Crowell reluctantly admitted– to everyone who came within earshot– that he’s been distracted by thinking about the status of his new contract.

Earth to Crowell: You won’t get a new deal before the end of the season. If you don”t play a lot better, you won’t get one at all. You’re acting a lot like Payton Hillis— but he gained 200 more yards in his career year.

Worst of all, last week’s drop-fest (making it clear that there isn’t a bona-fide #1 receiver on the team) only added to the chaos. Bringing back another receiver who couldn’t make the opening day roster (last week Rashard Higgins, this week Jordan Leslie) — then seeing said receiver outshine everyone else– emphasizes that the team has a group of guys.

The Browns are very close to being back into the kind of free-fall we saw in 2016.

Game Preview

In week one, the defense got scorched by its inability to cover on the the NFL’s top receivers (Antonio Brown). In game three, another one (T.Y. Hilton) burned them for 7 catches, 161 yards and a score. This week, they’ll face Green. This should not end well.

If the Bengals choose to throw to TE Tyler Kroft or their backs, the linebackers should get beaten for large gains. S Jabril Peppers and Derrick Kindred made a series of bad decisions last week as well.

Kizer didn’t have a good game last week. His stats would have looked much better if his receivers hadn’t dropped the ball 4-6 times (depending on what you consider a drop), But he threw three interceptions– and the Colts have a substandard pass defense.

The Bengals have a good secondary– and they’re sixth in sacks. Rookie DE-LB Carl Lawson had 2.5 last week,giving Geno Atkins a partner.

The Bengals have a habit of blowing games where they are clearly superior, but there is no area of the Browns that is functioning well. The brightest area is probably tight end– but the Bengal linebackers cover well. Emmanuel Ogbah did most of his damage against Cincinnati last year and I’d normally predict a big day. But he’s banged up, so that seems unlikely.

Game Prediction

The Bengals should have absolutely no trouble. Bengals 27, Cleveland 6

Browns Preview: Game 3 (@ Colts)

Opponent Preview

In any given year, only 30% of the head coaches in the NFL will be people I’d consider hiring. They range from Bill Belicheat and Mike Tomlin (clearly proven they know what they’re doing) to Marvin Lewis and Andy Reid (visible limits on their ability, but teams could do worse).

The largest slice (about 50%) are people I’m not sure about. Dan Quinn took over an Atlanta team I thought was being mismanaged. The front office also brought in a ton of talent at the same point it changed coaches. He’s gone 21-13, and could have won a title. Maybe he’s a great coach. But Atlanta folded under pressure… and I don’t know how much of the improvement is him.

I’m not impressed with Ben McAdoo; Adam Gase seems very overrated. I know their records look impressive… but Todd Bowles went 10-6 his first year and now looks hopeless.

John Fox has been a very solid coach for a long time. But he’s now 9-25 in Chicago. Has he lost it– he’s in his 60’s and seems to have lost something. But his GM hasn’t made his life easy.

About 20% are coaches I know I wouldn’t hire. Mike Mullarkey has struggled with three teams; Bill O’Brien understands nothing about handling quarterbacks.

Then there are people like Chuck Pagano, the Colts coach. I have no idea how he got hired, much less how he keeps his job:

1. Nothing in his resume suggests that he can coach. He spent 20 seasons coaching defensive backs (including four years with the Browns under Butch Davis) and only three seasons as a coordinator (UNLV in 1991, North Carolina in 2007 and the Ravens in 2011).

2. He had immense luck. Indianapolis went 10-6 in 2010– then lost Peyton Manning for the entire 2011 season. They went 2-14, got the #1 pick, hired Pagano… and the #1 pick in the 2012 draft turned out to be Andrew Luck, a gifted quarterback almost identical in style to Manning.

A year earlier, the #1 pick was Cam Newton. He’s a find player, but he had growing pains– and wouldn’t have fit the system at all. A year later, the draft was historically weak, and the best quarterback was E.J. Manuel.

3. 20% of his wins belong to someone else. He’s credited at 49-33, but he missed 12 games in his first season due to cancer, and Bruce Arians went 9-3 as an interim coach.

4. His win total is inflated by his schedule. The AFC South is, by any standard, the NFL’s weakest division by far. The Colts have gone 22-8 against their division rivals:

  • 10-0 against Tennessee, scoring 289 points and allowing 204.
  • 6-4 against Jacksonville, scoring 250 and allowing 178.
  • 6-4 against Houston, winning by a combined 224-194 margin

The Colts are 4-7 against the AFC East, 4-4 against the AFC North (with two wins coming against the Browns), 6-5 against the West and 12-8 against the NFC.

5. I don’t see any area of strength. With a good coach, you see areas of strength. With Pagano, it’s been fairly random. The defense– supposedly his area of expertise– has been bad.

W-L
Offense
Defense
2012
11-5 18 21
2013
11-5 14 9
2014
11-5 6 19
2015
8-8 24 25
2016
8-8 8 22

Remember, in five seasons, the only good quarterback any divisional opponent has offered is Marcus Mariota.

A list of the Pro Bowl players by year is also enlightening. Other than Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton, they’ve all been players he inherited, free agents signed or kicking teams players:

  • Three Selections: QB Andrew Luck (2012-14); WR T.Y. Hilton (2014-16)
  • Two Selections: DE-LB Robert Mathis (2012-13); SS Mike Adams (2014-15), CB Vonta Davis (2014-15), P Pat McAfee (2014, 2016)
  • One Selection: WR Reggie Wayne (2012), LS (long snapper) Matt Overton (2013), LB D’Qwell Jackson (2014), K Adam Viniateri (2014)

Yes, that’s Mike Adams the former Brown. Pagano hasn’t developed anyone to take up the slack for Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Every so often, a player has a career year (last year, 31-year-old Erik Walden had 11 sacks), but basically the defense has been very ordinary. It hopes Luck has a big game, and that it can hang on.

In five years, Pagano hasn’t found any offensive linemen to protect Luck. That’s why he has taken 156 sacks, missed 10 games in 2015-16 and been out for the first two games on 2017. There’s no young running back to diversify the attack (they’re using 34-year-old ex-49er Frank Gore) and no weapon other than Hilton (last year it was Gore, TEs Jack Doyle and Dwayne Allen).

If you like Pagano, you can say the problem is GM Ryan Grigson. I wouldn’t argue– he did trade a #1 pick for Trent Richardson in 2013. Owner Jim Irsay apparently thought Grigson was the weakest link– Irsay fired him and brought in Chris Ballard from the Chiefs.

Ballard, like Grigson, is a first-time GM. He signed DE-LB Jabaal Sheard to bolster the defense, and drafted defenders in each of the first four rounds. They’re starting. Whether they’re doing well is debatable.

The offense got dicey enough that Ballard traded WR Philip Dorsett (a former #1 pick in 2015, with 51 catches in 98 throws) to New England for QB Jacoby Brissett on September 2. After saying he wouldn’t rush Brissett, Pagano started Brissett against Arizona last week.

That’s a crisis that could have been avoided had Pagano simply done what he said he would. It illustrates why I dislike him.

Browns Preview

The reaction to Sunday’s 24-10 loss to Baltimore– a game that many people had thought the Browns could win– was predictable.

  • Now that WR Corey “Hands” Coleman is out for the year with a broken hand, coach Hue Jackson (who wanted to keep Terrelle Pryor) is screaming at Kenny Britt that he needs to do better. Terry Pluto blasted Britt as well, meaning that either the coach or front office has the knives out for him.
  • RB Isaiah Crowell, (26 carries for 70 yards– 2.6 per touch) has told the media that he needs more carries and his #1 concern about the season is getting an extension. The way this front office reacts to criticism, that’s a good way to prevent one.
  • The Marx Brothers simultaneously claim that (a) they knew all about QB DeShone Kizer‘s migraines and (b) it never caused him to miss a practice or a game at Notre Dame. If he never missed time, how did they know? Players rarely volunteer than sort of issue.
  • LB Jamie Collins (who got barbecued by 37-year-old Ben Watson) has a concussion. I don’t think he’s faking, but it just adds to the chaos.

This, of course, is the problem with dumping all the veterans and bringing in people from all over the league. Nobody knows anyone, so nobody looks up to anyone– which means nobody can rally the troops. The other day I read a story that said “Browns secondary surprised that Jason McCourty can play pretty well.”

He actually isn’t that good– he just hasn’t been targeted when there are so many other options, But of course the players think that– how would they know?

Game Preview

It’s difficult to tell how bad the Colts really are, after two games.My guess is that:

They’re not nearly as bad as they looked against the Rams in game one. Los Angeles won 46-9 because they  (a) added receiver Sammy Watkins (who can play), (b) subtracted Jeff Fisher and his incompetent coordinator Rob Boras and (c) added QB coach Matt LeFleur (who worked for the Shanahans) as their coordinator. They scored 20 points against Washington and 41 against San Francisco, so the beating looks more respectable.

The Colts also started Scott Tolzein at quarterback in that game. Tolzein is 30, is with his fourth organization and had thrown only 128 passes before this season. His career rating was 66.7; he had 2 TDs and 7 INTs and had taken 7 sacks.

He was sacked four times, threw two picks , fumbled once (recovered) and a ball that Hilton caught but fumbled. He ensured they wouldn’t score, putting unneeded extra pressure on the defense.

The Cardinals game was misleading. Arizona’s offense has gone into the toilet– at 38, Carson Palmer has looked washed up for more than a year. The Cards also lost their franchise RB David Johnson in game one, putting former #7 pick Kerwynn Williams into that role.

On the other hand, Arizona still has a world-class defense. Even last year, when it was on the field most of the game, it was only 14th in points.

Which means that losing 16-13 in overtime isn’t the worst offensive showing ever… but the defense ought to hang its head.

Brissett played nine snaps in relief against the Rams and looked decent. Arizona gave him fits– four sacks, a fumble and a pick. They held Gore to 46 yards on 14 carries– and rookie Marlon Moore (a #4 pick) to -3 yards on six carries.

But, of course, the Browns do not play defense nearly as well as the Cardinals.

Another factor clouding the issue: Indianapolis has many starters injured. Most won’t play– if they do, the probably won’t play well.


Can they beat the Browns? The opportunities will be there.

Cleveland has done a hideous job against backs and tight ends– now Collins is out. Davis, Gore and Mack should be open all day. Brissett isn’t a high-percentage passer– but if he calms down, he’ll be able to complete balls.

The Browns haven’t played good run defense. Gore doesn’t seem to have much left (his contract expires at year’s end, and he’s been telling writers he’s probably done). That said, he still knows how to follow blockers– and Mack does have a burst.

Kizer is starting and there is no reason to think he’ll be any better about avoiding the sack. Sheard, as you might remember, has a nice strip sack move. That could produce a fumble or two.

The Colts haven’t played good pass defense, but they spent a #1 on S Malik Hooker and a #2 on CB Quincy Wilson. Most young players get better over time. Plus, the Browns have a bunch of receivers (other than TE Seth Devalve) who can run fast but struggle to catch the ball.

The game could boil down to “Who makes the last mistake?” or “Who makes the most egregious error?” That could be the Browns– or it might be the Colts.

This would be a good spot for Jabril Peppers– and one of the backs– to show up.

If I liked Pagano better, I’d expect him to be able to rally the troops. It’s a home game against a bad team, Luck will be back soon. But his team often underperforms.

On the other hand, Hue Jackson hasn’t been able to get anyone playing for him either, and they’ve been rotating receivers in and out, seemingly at random. The Browns aren’t on the same page at all.

The Colts are playing at home; they have better kicking teams. This might make the difference

Game Prediction: Colts 13, Browns 10

Browns Preview: Game 2 (@Baltimore)

I have the season preview done, but experience shows that if I spend 5
hours trying to make it format correctly in WordPress, I’ll blow my chance
to preview game two. so…

Opponent Preview

This will be the fifth season since Baltimore won its Super Bowl against the 49ers. They haven’t been good years. The Ravens (who’d been taking on payroll to try to win it all) dumped a ton of it and slipped to 8-8 in 2013. They managed to go 10-6 the following year– but when several players got hurt, they finished 5-11. Last year they were 8-8, which makes them 31-33.

The Ravens have had slow periods before–  they went 24-24 from 2005-07, with two losing seasons. But that could be traced to Brian Billick’s inability to identify a quarterback. Owner Steve Bisciotti and GM Ozzie Newsome got tired of trying to build a quarterback out of bungie cords and coathangers every year. They hired John Harbaugh, drafted Joe Flacco and went 54-26 over the next five years.

Five playoff trips, culminating in a Super Bowl.

But it’s been downhill ever since, and I can’t help thinking the problem lies elsewhere.

2000 Championship: The Ravens 2000 roster had regulars (which I define as players who started 10 or more games) at 19 of the 22 spots (not counting kicking or return men). 12 of the 19 were players drafted by Baltimore (or Cleveland) or signed as undrafted free agents.

The Ravens had seven veterans (TE Shannon Sharpe, WR Quadry Ismail, T Harry Swayne, DE Mike McCrary, DT Tony Siragusa and FS Rod Woodson were all over 30), but most were people they’d signed or traded as long-term solutions. McCrary was in his fourth season in Baltimore, and would go on to play two more years

2012 Championship: This roster was even more home-grown. Baltimore had 16 regulars– plus a veteran (Terrell Suggs) who missed eight games with an injury, and a rookie (Courtney Upshaw) who played all 16 games, but started only
nine.

11 were drafted by Baltimore (two others were undrafted signees). The five free agents were two veteran stars (WR Anquon Boldin and C Matt Birk) brought in for a ring, and three veterans who’d completed their rookie contracts with the team who drafted them and then joined the Ravens to do better.

Newsome entered the NFL in 1978– he played against the last Steeler team to win a Super Bowl as a rookie. Chuck Noll believed in growing your own players– as did Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs in the 1980’s and Jimmy Johnson with the Cowboys.

That’s the best way to do it. But to do it, you have to be able to get production out of your draft.

That isn’t happening any longer.


Here’s the roster of the 2016 team. They went 8-8. If you want to look on the bright side, you can say that they had 19 spots filled by regulars.

If you don’t, you can look at one of two things:

  • Only 12 of the 19 were draftees or non-drafted signees
  • 9 of the 19 regulars were over 30
  • Only five of those 30+ players were developed by the Ravens,

It’s a good thing, intangibly speaking, to have players like QB Joe Flacco or TE Dennis Pitta there to provide stability. LB Albert McClellan can tell stories about Ray Lewis; FS Lardarius Webb can say “Ed Reed did it this way.” And, like Joe Thomas, Terrell Suggs is one of those players you value for what he can say– and what he still can do.

At 34, coming back from an injury where he missed 15 games in 2015, he still had 8 sacks. And he had two sacks in game one.

It’s not such a great thing to have Mike Wallace hanging around. He did catch 72 of his 116 balls, gain over 1,000 yards and score four times. But an 8-8 team doesn’t need a 30-year-old on his fourth team– still yapping about his role– taking opportunities that need to go to your former #1 pick Breshad Perriman (who came back from his knee issues to go 33-66 for 499 yards and 3 scores).

SS Eric Weddle (who’s 31) went to the Pro Bowl. So did C Jeremy Zuttah (30). They provide value and still have time left. An 8-8 team– which is coming off a 5-11 season– has no business playing 37-year-old Steve Smith.

I don’t see the young players, taken in rounds 3-5 (the time when great teams are made), developing. Yes, LB C.J Mosley went to his second Pro Bowl; rookie LT Ronnie Stanley looked very promising. But they were the 14th and sixth players taken in their respective drafts. You used to just assume those picks would become stars.

Something is wrong in Baltimore. Their current depth chart has eight starters– and 13 backups– obtained from other organizations.

This certainly could change. Harbaugh never just hands a high pick a starting spot. By game 14, #3 pick Chris Wormley and #5 pick Tim Williams might be starting on the defensive line, with #2 pick Tyus Bowser at LB and #1 pick Marlon Humphrey at corner.

But that’s always the case at the start of the season. The problem for Baltimore is that their draft choices are often still subs at the end of the season.

Browns Preview

Dear lord do I hate listening to idiots screaming “Hoodley-ooooooooooo!!!!!!”
and “OOOOOOKIE-WAH!!!!!!” It’s a reason the game review stayed undone.

Without giving away the Game 1 review, Pittsburgh (thanks to holdouts and keeping its key players out of pre-season) wasn’t remotely ready to play. Their 13 penalties for 143 yards demonstrates just how sloppy they were

The Browns came out in a defense that nobody had ever seen before. It used a quarterback no one had seen– and it gave him a very rookie-friendly game plan (20 called runs, 30 passes– nine to backs).

The Steelers still gained 290 yards– 55 more than Cleveland– and led for 43:07 of the game. For the other 16:53, the score was tied.

The Browns handed the Steelers the lead– then let Pittsburgh retake on the last drive of the half. When Cleveland got within four points (in the middle of the third quarter), the defense set up the go-ahead touchdown with a 41-yard penalty.

The Steelers sat on the lead, allowing only a “Shurmur Time” score (a TD after the game is out of reach) to screw up bookies, and boost DeShone Kizer‘s passer rating from 65.5 (as of the start of the drive) to a respectable 85.7 mark.

The Steelers took the kickoff, gained 61 yards on three plays– and when they hit two minutes with the ball on the Cleveland 29, lost eight yards on three kneels to end the game.

“Hoodley-Dooooooooooo!!!!!!” Analytics rules! “OOOOOOKIE-WAH!!!!!!” The Browns are headed to the playoffs.

This is even being said on Lou Groza Boulevard. The mind reels.

Game Preview

I don’t have a clue what the Browns will do. If they use the same sort of game plan on offense– run nearly as much as they throw, concentrate on high-percentage plays– they stand a better chance than they do with anything else. The Ravens (who don’t have the talent to play man-to-man) played zone all day. If Jackson sends TE Seth Devalve and RBs Duke JohnsonIsaiah Crowell and
Matt Dayes into the seams, Kizer could roll up completions.

Those four guys caught 10 of the 14 balls thrown to them, for 104 yards (7.4 per pass).

If the bulk of the remaining plays go to Crowell and Dayes (who only got 17 and 3)– the Browns will be able to set up the Ravens for play-action passes deep. If Kizer throws only 2-3 long balls per quarter, he’ll probably complete 50% of them, and wind up with another 120-150.

If that going to happen? It didn’t happen at any point in 2016. If the Browns decide it’s time to unleash Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Sammie Coates, Kasen Williams, et al,  the Ravens (who had five sacks last week) might hit double-digits this week.

During the Steelers broadcast, Trent Green kept expressing disbelief at the defensive alignment the Browns were using (7-8 guys on the line, with two safeties 10-20 yards deep). Green, a former QB in the “Greatest Show On Turf” offense kept saying it should be easy to pick the defense apart– saying “A few weeks from now, either the Browns will quit doing this– or a lot of teams will start doing it.”

The notion that Williams might simply have used that scheme for that game never crossed Green’s mind. The Steelers had only one receiver anyone needs to fear– so why pull people out of the box to cover them?

Williams was right, by the way. The Steelers went elsewhere in the red zone, but Antonio Brown was 70% of the offense.

He could try to use the same defense– Danny Woodhead went on IR with an injury, so the #1 receivers are Wallace, Perriman and Jeremy Maclin (whose last good season was 2015). Or he could try a more traditional scheme– or bring not only the house, but the garage and tool shed. QB Joe Flacco has always relied on Dennis Pitta, who now isn’t there (Smith was also put out to pasture).

There is a possibility that RB Terrance West (744 yards last year, good game one) has put things together– that he and Javorus “Buck” Allen (who collected 157 yards on 42 carries against a much tougher defense) can chew the Browns up. There is an equally good chance they will not.

Flacco had a wretched game; I would come after him. But that might not work. Williams might try something different. That might not work.

I’m going to assume the probabilities– what has happened before– rule. Which means an erratic game from Flacco– with a few deep balls– and the Cleveland defense messing up some run plays.

If the Browns’ offense is its own worst enemy, it could get ugly. Crowell did get 133 yards on 18 carries 364 days ago, but that was in Cleveland, The Ravens normally had no trouble with him at home (26-78).

This definitely won’t be pretty. And, unlike Game #1, it isn’t likely to be fun.

Prediction: Ravens 24, Browns 13

Browns Preview: Game 1 (Pittsburgh)

Opponent Preview

Well, I’m close to finishing my team profile, but I had a 14-hour detour in an effort to make money, so it might show up Tuesday. But I can’t preview a game on Tuesday, so…

The good news is that it never takes much time to profile the Steelers. They don’t sign marquee free agents; they don’t give eye-popping money to retain players who are competent but not outstanding. They expect the players they draft high to perform; if not, they don’t get a second contract. Jarvis Jones was the 13th pick of the 2013 draft, but he played only 50 of 64 games, started only 35. He made only 119 tackles; neither his sacks (6.0), fumbles forced (4) fumbles recovered (3) and or interceptions (2) made much of a ripple.

So he has departed and the Steelers used the 30th pick on LB T.J. Watt (yes, he’s J.J.’s younger brother). They’re reaching for him– he played only two years and started only one year– but the Steelers don’t care what anyone else thinks.

Part of the Steelers’ success, frankly, is luck. Ben Roethlisberger has missed 21 games in 13 years. He often hasn’t played well when he’s hurt, but he almost always plays. Unlike Brett Favre (to name one), Roethlisberger understands what he can’t do when he’s (say) 70% healthy, and he plays within himself.

Antonio Brown, who is 5’10” and 180 pounds,  has missed four games in the last six years, even though he’s been targeted more than 100 times (over 180 twice) and has 100+ receptions in his last four (leading the league twice). Pittsburgh cut James Harrison, but then brought him back as a situational rusher– he’s worked his way back as a starter at age 39.

You can’t scout for that stuff– you just get lucky, Roethlisberger was drafted after Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers in 2004 (and, let us note, Kellen Winslow Jr.) and he’s been better than both of them. Brown was a sixth-round pick; Harrison a free agent (from, let us note, Kent State).

The Steelers have also mastered the black art of drafting 3-4 defensive linemen. Virtually no college plays the 3-4, so teams have to project. The Steelers do it very well– Cameron Herwayd and Stephon Tuitt have been very impressive. Tuitt was drafted in 2014– the very year that Brett Keisel finally wore out after nine seasons. Last year, rookie Javon Hargrave took over at NT. The road, as they say, goes ever on,

The Steelers have also gotten much better at retaining players. You can almost always tell when a player has impressed them, because they extend him the next off-season. They used to play musical chairs with their line– their starters would get signed by other teams and they’d try to fill the hole. They just extended LT Allajandro Villanueva (an undrafted free agent), he joins LG Ramon Foster (also a UFA), RG David DeCastro (a former #1 pick) and RT Marcus Gilbert (a #2)– and, when he can stay healthy, C Maurkice Pouncey— to give them an amazingly solid line.

The two problems they’ve had are running back and corner. The Steelers often haven’t run the ball well (some arguably due to the line issues) and they can be beaten deep. RB Le’Veon Bell only reported to camp when he absolutely had to; he signed a franchise tender. He’ll be out of shape.

Bell demanded substantially ridiculous pay for a guy who’s missed 17 games in four years (some of it due to drugs) and has only two seasons of 1,200 yards or more. Of course, as Bell sees it, he’s had 900 carries (fumbling only five times), averaged 4.7 yards or better for the last three years, and also caught 227 passes. I wouldn’t pay him $17 million a year… but the Steelers don’t have anyone else to run the ball… at least not yet.

The problems at corner were such that the Steelers grabbed Joe Haden when the Browns made him available. and traded for safety J.J. Wilcox (signed by Tampa from Dallas, who played himself off the team). They drafted corner Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis high in 2016,– they both started as rookies, but the jury is still out on them. When Mike Mitchell is a valued piece of the puzzle you know the situation is in flux.

But that’s the admirable thing about Pittsburgh. They draft people and play the people they draft. If the draft picks don’t work, they depart– and so do some of the scouts who chose them.

Pittsburgh reached the AFC Championship last year; it reached the Super Bowl in 2010. It has won 10 games or move five of the seven years in this decade. In the previous decade, it won two Super Bowls, lost the AFC championship twice and had six seasons of 10+ wins,

They have been, by far, the most successful franchise in my lifetime– and they haven’t done with with one or two masterminds, but with an organization. They’ve had three coaches since 1969 and 5-6 GMs (their GMs never run the show– it’s always 3-4 people– so some of them leave). Their commitment to following a roadmap is remarkable, and it is good to see a team succeed.

Browns Preview

Pittsburgh’s opponents, on the other hand, are the NFL’s worst franchise– have been one Marty Schottenheimer away from being the worst in my lifetime– follow no roadmap (not that I would have wanted them to adhere to the vision of Carmern Policy or Eric Mangenius) and have not a clue as to what they are doing.

This season’s isn’t any different– Gregg Williams is merely the defensive incarnation of Norv Turner or Mike Holmgren. He’s more proven than Romeo Crennel (whose best seasons have all come as an assistant to a guy named Bill) or Rob Ryan, but he isn’t a guy who changes the fortunes of a team.

Now, thanks to injuries to Myles Garrett and Danny Shelton, fans don’t get to drink the Kool-Aid at full strength. With Joel Bitonio unable to practice at full strength, they can’t even say “Golly, gosh is our new line awesome.”

The problem with the Browns is simple: there’s nothing one can count on. They have a rookie quarterback behind a sketchy line. The receiving corps has been a track team that, except for the veteran, struggles to catch balle. The backs are unproven– erratic, if you’d prefer– and there might be better tight ends in Arenaball.

The defense has a bunch of high draft picks– none of whom are proven. Emmanuel Ogbah is a one-dimensional player who got twothirds of his sacks against one team. Jamie Collins is a Kyrie Irving type– here for the money and a chance to look good on a team worse than the one he left.

The head coach of the team doesn’t know or care about his defense or kicking teams. Hue Jackson makes impulsive decisions (he just demoted Cody “Trust Me” Kessler to third string) and has trouble keeping control of his emotions and
sticking to a plan.

Game Preview

The Browns’ chances to win rest on a few things. First, everyone knows what the Steelers will do. Second, they rely on three skill position players. Because Roethlisberger is old and Brown absorbs mo much punishment, Roethlisberger threw only 9 passes in pre-season and Brown was targeted only twice. Bell, who didn’t want to be franchised, stayed out of camp until league rules required him to report.

Pittsburgh’s #2 receiver, Martavis Bryant (who’d been suspended) was allowed to practice, but didn’t expect to be cleared to start game one. So he loafed his way through the pre-season. Pittsburgh also changed out two of their three tight ends (and Jesse James isn’t that good).

The Steelers scored only 73 points in the pre-season, and probably will be rusty and sloppy. If Bell isn’t in shape, they’ll have to go with Terrell Watson (undrafted free agent who kicked around the league– but gained 173 yards on 37 carries in pre-season) or #3 pick James Conner (24 carries for 124 yards).

Exhibition stats don”t mean much– but doing well (a) makes both players feel optimistic and (b) gives their teammates some confidence.

Isaiah Crowell, by comparison, gained 55 yards on 17 carries; no scores and his longest carry was eight yards. He’s not a perennial Pro Bowl
player, so you can’t assume this is meaningless. New guard Kevin Zeitler is from Cincinnati, so he knows what Crowell can do. New center J.C. Tretter
and new receiver Kenny Britt  were in the NFC; right tackle Shon
Coleman
was rehabbing an injury. Maybe they believe in him; maybe
they don’t.

Williams is an excellent motivator and his defense is fun to play. Players should be excited.

If Hue Jackson picks the six routes that DeShone Kizer likes to throw most and stays with those… he stands a better chance to execute. Especially since Haden will be trying to make spectacular plays– and either commit penalties or take foolish chances and fall on his face.

If the Browns let Crowell and Duke Johnson get half the plays– it would require 20 carries for Crowell and 10 for Johnson– they can keep Pittsburgh off the rookie quarterback and ensure the defense doesn’t get worn out.

If the Browns don’t let the Steelers march down the field, they can force kicks– which give Jabril Peppers a chance to return kicks.

The chances decline a lot without Garrett and Shelton. But being smart and managing the game would give the Browns a shot.


The problem, of course, is that the Browns tend not to be smart. Let’s start with a simple issue: both Jackson and Williams have usually run units that produced a higher-that-normal number of penalties.

Last season the Browns had exactly one game– the win against the Chargers– where they ran the ball as often as they passed (29 runs to 28 passes). In the two overtime losses, they ran on 46% (Miami) and 45% (Pittsburgh). Needless to say, those were games decided by one score.

In six other games, they threw between 41.1 and 44.7% of the time, losing by 5, 11, 14, 20, 13 and 19 points.

In the seven other games, they threw at least 60% of the time. In four of them, over 70%:

  • They lost 28-7 to Baltimore, with Josh McCown and Cody Kessler throwing 31 times and the backs getting 13 carries.
  • They lost 28-26 to Tennessee, with Kessler (41) and Terrelle Pryor (1) throwing 42 times and the backs running 15 times.
  • They lost 31-28 to the Jets, with McCown throwing 49 times and Kevin Hogan throwing twice. There were only 18 carries– three by McCown.
  • The 24-9 loss to Pittsburgh featured 41 throws (27 McCown, 41 Kessler) and 13 runs (three by the quarterbacks).

Jackson let Charlie Whitehurst— a 34-year-old incompetent whose long hair and beard, coupled with his inability to crack the starting lineup have saddled him with a highly unflattering nickname– throw 24 times against New England. Who in his right mind tries to have a shootout between Tom Brady and “Clipboard Jesus”?

Williams has a tendency to put too much of a load on his cornerbacks. This time he’ll be putting the pressure on Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty and Briean
Boddy-Calhoun
. One of his safeties (Derrick Kindred) is a second-year player with no coverage ability; the other (Peppers) is a rookie who has ability, but hasn’t played against NFL teams before.

Oh, and while I don’t disagree with the decision to cut Cody Parkey, Zane Gonzalez is a rookieone who missed a field goal (excusable– over 50 yards) and an extra point (never OK)– kicking in a place that is a challenge for veterans.

I can see scenarios where the Browns win, but they mostly involve one of the Steeler linemen missing a block and a Cleveland defender earning his bounty. Against Landry Jones, they got a shot.

Otherwise, I’ll guess the Steeler offense gets two big plays and the Steeler defense gets one. The Browns– who scored even fewer points in pre-season (68– of which 24 came in the fourth quarter) might get two nice ones.

Prediction: Steelers 27, Browns 12