Browns lose 24-14 to the Bills, start the season 0-3
Whether you fall on the side of tentative optimism or hardened pessimism about the Cleveland Browns' future, the first three weeks of the season have shed light on some coaching mistakes and some lingering problems general manager Tom Heckert has yet to address with this team.
Optimists will point out the fine job Heckert has done acquiring young talent through the draft. The team currently has 18 players that see substantial time on the field, with two or fewer years of experience. Twelve of those players are starters.
Pessimists will point out that isn't necessarily a good thing. They do have evidence on their side to support this theory, as the team is currently sitting at 0-3.
Personally, I fall in line with the optimists. The Browns are an 0-3 team that could easily be 3-0 had a few things in each game gone in the their favor. But I can see where the pessimists are coming from on a few fronts.
Despite a glimmer of a bright future ahead in Cleveland, it looks like it could be a long season this year.
The slides that follow will describe in detail, problems that have persistently kept this team towards the bottom half of the AFC North, and solutions which may have resolved them this year.
It was announced early in training camp, Brandon Weeden, the 22nd overall pick, and the Cleveland Browns second pick in the first round, was to be the starting quarterback in 2012. It was a decision I was in full agreement with. You don't draft a 28-year-old rookie quarterback to sit on the bench.
Where the Browns lost me, was the limited exposure Weeden had during the preseason. As a rookie, there is a certain amount of time necessary to adjust to the NFL's game speed. Likewise, for any quarterback, there is a certain amount of time that needs to be invested on building a rhythm between himself and his targets.
A crucial mistake which has set Brandon Weeden back and consequently, the team as a whole, was not giving Weeden enough live-game snaps during the preseason. While he has shown some flashes, Weeden's deep passes are often inaccurate and judging by the target he's throwing to, out of sync with his receiver.
An example would be a deep pass to Travis Benjamin in the Cincinnati Bengals game. He threw a jump ball that the 5'10" Benjamin simply could not get to with two taller defenders near by. Were it 6' 3", 40.5" vertical Greg Little, there was a chance. With the ball going to Benjamin, there was no chance.
While Weeden has improved quite substantially from Week 1 to Week 3, playing him in the preseason could have shortened his learning curve.
Weeden has been feeling the pressure all season
I am full on board with the idea of drafting young offensive linemen, but it appears a crucial misstep to not put any serious bids in for a solid veteran presence on the line at this point.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden has been sacked eight times this season (ranked 22nd in the league), but that doesn't do justice to the amount of duress he's often under. There are times when Weeden handles the pressure well, and there are times when the rookie quarterback looks like a rookie.
Leaving Mitchell Schwartz on the end next to third-year guard, second-year starter Shawn Lauvao, who is himself still learning the ropes, has thus far proven to be a mistake. Whether they were to address the line in the offseason by adding a veteran right tackle or a veteran right guard, a veteran presence is sorely missed at this point in the season.
Things could, and in reality should change as Schwartz learns the speed of the pro game and this young line learns to gel, but a veteran addition could have allowed for Schwartz to either learn in-game, or as an apprentice on the sideline.
It is obviously early in Trent Richardson's career, but Week 2 against the Bengals is an indication of his potential if the line gives him opportunities. It's tough to call this early in the season, with Richardson yet to establish himself as a consistent rushing threat, but I haven't seen very many carries where Richardson has lanes to run through. Most carries, he's had to make his own paths.
Could it be play calling? Yes it could. But then, If you ask yourself honestly whether this line has established any sort of dominance during any of the first three games, you'd have to answer "No." As the season moves on, we may see an identity develop, but as of now, they are getting pushed over or just getting by.
Third-string running back Tashard Choice runs for 90 against the porous Browns D-line
It would be unfair to suggest that the Browns brass haven't invested in the defensive line. Last year they drafted Phil Taylor in the first round (currently out with a torn pectoral muscle) and Jabaal Sheard (second round). This year they added rookies John Hughes (third round), Billy Winn (sixth round) and picked up Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker via free agency.
All this, in effort to upgrade the defensive line. While it appears to have had a positive impact on the pass rush, the Browns still haven't figured it out against the run.
It has plagued them, seemingly, since the inception of the new Browns franchise. When you play in the AFC North, a crucial element to success, is to stop the run.
The Browns have given up 368 yards (ranked 22nd), an average of 122.7 ypg, at 4.1 ypc (ranked 17th). This past week, against the Bills, they were dominated on the line. C.J. Spiller appeared set for a big game before he left with an injury.
His replacement, third-string running back, Tashard Choice, gutted the Browns for 91 yards on 20 carries. In Week 1 against the Eagles, the Browns surrendered 110 yards on 20 carries to LeSean McCoy and Michael Vick added another 32 yards of his own.
By my count (based on defensive player statistics for combined tackles from NFL.com), the defensive line has 37 of the 212 total combined tackles, the linebackers account for 51, and the defensive backs account for 94. The defensive backs numbers are another story all together, which I will address in the next slide.
As of now, it is a amalgamation of issues in regards to the Browns' inability to stop the run. One, the combination of Ahtyba Rubin and rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes, simply aren't getting penetration on a consistent basis.
Two, the outside linebackers aren't shooting the gaps made by the defensive line quick enough. First-year WLB Craig Robertson has 23 combined tackles. The rest of the outside linebacker core, as a whole, has 11.
I don't know what more the Browns can do to improve the defensive line, it is young, and it will improve, especially when Phil Taylor returns to action. But when you conduct a youth movement, you don't always get what you expect.
While there is promise at the outside linebacker positions in rookies Craig Robertson and James Michael Johnson, an immediate impact could have been felt on a solid veteran at the position. Scott Fujita is not getting any younger and has seen a decline in productivity during his stay in Cleveland. Kaluka Maiava has never produced numbers that are better than average.
Skrine watches rookie Bills receiver T.J. Graham waltz into the end zone on a 9-yard TD pass play
There are a few reasons why the Browns defensive backfield has such a disproportionate amount of combined tackles vs. the line and the linebackers. For one, it's a "passing league" now, it is bordering on cliche, but there is truth to it. Teams aren't running the ball 30 plus times a game any longer.
Another reason is that the opposing team's running back has made it past the front lines. But a major reason why the defensive backfield has as many combined tackles as they do is simply because opposing receivers are getting open and making catches.
While it's true the Browns did not get at Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in this past week's loss, only one other team has been able to this season, and at that, only once. The Browns have otherwise been above average putting pressure on the quarterback this year; the bulk of the pass-defense failures falls on the shoulders of the defensive backs.
After the turnover fest that was the Eagles/Browns season opener, the Browns have allowed 2 straight 3 TD pass games and given up 500+ yards through the air.
The reasons are as simple as they are complex. One is obvious. They are currently without their top and one of the league's up and coming cornerbacks in Joe Haden (serving four-game suspension that started after Week 1, for violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy).
Filling in for Haden is sixth-year corner Dimitri Patterson. While Patterson is an adequate nickel/dime package defender, he struggles against the opposition's top receiver for an entire game.
To his right is Sheldon Brown, who is in his 11th year, and it shows. Brown has to play off the ball submitting to mid/short-range receptions. Once a top corner in the league, his skills have declined since joining the Browns and they haven't improved any with another year under his belt.
Behind the current starters are rookie Trevon Wade, who has seen limited action, and second-year man Buster Skrine, who, unfortunately for the Browns, has seen plenty of action.
While he proved impressive as a pass rusher on delayed blitzes against the Eagles, he's also shown that he has a propensity to give up the big play on passing downs.
Though the current quad of cornerbacks are suspect, the return of Haden in two games should immediately improve the group. The true problem lies just behind the cornerbacks.
Third-year strong safety T.J. Ward is an aggressive run stuffer and a can wreak havoc during safety blitzes, but his coverage skills are lacking at this point in his career. This weakness is magnified by play at the free safety position.
The Browns picked up free agent Usama Young last season, who struggled mightily in coverage. In a sort of head-scratching decision, the Browns opted to keep Young over the versatile Mike Adams, who left as an unrestricted free agent. While Adams is not the ultimate answer at the free safety position, he would have been a better option.
Behind Young is second-year free safety Eric Hagg, who saw action against the Bills, but is likewise a question mark at the position.
And addition of a veteran free safety would have been better served than keeping Young.
Waiting for the team to turn the corner
I see what Browns general manager Tom Heckert is doing, and it may very well pay off in the next few seasons. This is a young team, with young backups in place. The problem is, Browns fans have been waiting for next year for 14 years and patience is wearing thin.
While I don't necessarily fault Heckert for how he is going about building a competitor in Cleveland, it has meant sacrificing this season in order to do so. Using free agency to shore up just three positions would have made a world of difference this year.