State of the Union: Cleveland Browns
Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
Things aren't going so well in Berea, Ohio at the headquarters of the Cleveland Browns. The team is off to an 0-5 start on a season in which many thought things would start to turn around. There have been glimmers of hope—many of them, in fact—but when the stat that matters most in the NFL is wins, the positives about the season thus far provide little reassurance.
Let's take a closer look at the state of the Browns through the first five weeks of the season and see what's gone wrong, what's gone right and where they may be headed in Week 6.
Weeks 1 Through 5: A Look Back
Loss, Loss, Loss. Loss, Loss. That's the first five weeks of the Cleveland Browns' schedule. However, it's not as cut-and-dry as simply saying the Browns have no wins up to this point, so everything should be scrapped, everyone should be fired and the roster must be fully rebuilt.
No, it's not panic time. It's not as though the Browns have been blown out week after week—no, for the most part, the Browns have been involved in wholly winnable games, with mistakes on either offense or defense (or special teams, or a combination thereof) bringing them losses that needn't have been.
Cleveland's season started out with a difficult opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, coming to town. The Browns and Eagles squared off in the preseason, and though neither side tipped its hand as to what could be expected come the regular season, the way that Philadelphia manhandled the young Browns team was reason for concern.
Fortunately for the Browns, the Eagles appeared wholly unprepared for this regular-season game. Though Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick had over 300 passing yards and threw two touchdowns, he was also picked off by the Browns defense four times. And while LeSean McCoy had 110 rushing yards, none of them were for a touchdown.
Unfortunately for the Browns, their offense played worse than their Eagles counterparts. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had four interceptions of his own, Trent Richardson had just 39 yards on 19 carries and receiver Greg Little pulled down none of the four passes thrown his way. Though Cleveland's defense kept the team in the game, it still lost, 17-16.
Week 2 saw another close loss for Cleveland, but this time Weeden rebounded, posting 322 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Richardson notched his first score of the year—a 23-yard pass from Weeden—and he also rushed for 109 yards.
What cursed the Browns this time was their defense, primarily their secondary. In their first game without the services of cornerback Joe Haden, who was serving his first of a four-game suspension, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw three touchdowns (and one pick).
Though Dalton was sacked six times, 103 Browns penalty yards (many on the defense) kept several of the Bengals' drives alive. The Browns had 27 points in this game, but never once held the lead; Cincinnati scored 34 and the Browns' record went to 0-2.
The following week, the Browns hosted the Buffalo Bills in a game that they seemed well-poised to win as long as they could keep surging Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller at bay. Spiller did leave the game early with a shoulder injury, but Tashard Choice took over and was able to get 91 yards on the ground.
Further, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three touchdown passes, again exploiting the Haden-less Browns secondary. Though Weeden had another solid game, going 27-of-43 for 237 yards and a touchdown, he also threw two more interceptions. Cleveland's only other score came via Richardson, and the Browns lost, 24-14.
Weeks 4 and 5 presented a serious set of challenges for the Browns. First, they travelled to Baltimore to face the Ravens in a Thursday night prime-time game and then headed to New Jersey to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
In the former game, it seemed like Cleveland could come away with an upset victory. The game was close throughout, though yet again the Browns never once held the lead. Weeden went for over 300 yards yet again, but had no touchdown passes and threw a costly pick-six to cornerback Cary Williams.
Cleveland's defense sacked Joe Flacco four times and picked him off once and also managed to hold Ravens running back Ray Rice to just 49 yards. However, that pick-six ended up being the nail in the coffin. The Ravens never scored in the fourth quarter, but costly drops, namely by Greg Little (including one very likely touchdown), also assisted in the 23-16 losing effort.
The Giants game went quite differently than any of the other contests the Browns had been on the field for in previous weeks. Cleveland got off to a strong, 14-0 lead, putting together two back-to-back touchdown drives. Weeden escaped without a single sack despite the reputation of the Giants' defensive front seven, but the defense simply could not withstand New York's offensive onslaught.
Cleveland's defense gave up three passing and two rushing touchdowns to the Giants—with all three passing touchdowns scored by receiver Victor Cruz. Injuries on defense, to cornerback Dimitri Patterson, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin didn't help matters. New York ran for 243 yards, 200 of those (and a touchdown) belonging to Ahmad Bradshaw.
With a defensive performance like that, the Browns simply didn't stand a chance. Their hot start led to a 41-27 drubbing, their worst loss of the year and the 11th in a row dating back to last season.
A Closer Look: Offense
It was evident back in April of this year that the Browns offense would be dealing with its fair share of hiccups this season. After drafting quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson in the first round, it was clear that this side of the ball would be seeing a facelift—the question was just when it would take hold.
Already, Richardson is living up to his billing as the No. 3 overall draft pick of the year. Though he has just 303 yards on 81 carries (a 3.7 yards-per-carry average), he's picking up yards that no other back in the league would manage behind an offensive line not well-suited to run-blocking.
His four rushing and one receiving touchdown represent five of the Browns' nine total touchdowns thus far, and in that sense, he can be considered almost the sole motive force behind Cleveland's offense.
Weeden has been up-and-down. On the one hand, he currently has the second-most passing yards for a rookie quarterback in NFL history, with 1,288, but on the other, he's the league-leader in interceptions with nine, and has thrown just five touchdown passes.
Weeden's mistakes can be attributed to a few factors, one being his inherent rookie-ness. His propensity to hold the ball too long, throw ill-advised passes into difficult coverages and to stare down his receivers are all to be expected out of first-year starters, and he's shown improvement in these areas as the weeks have passed.
Other reasons for his down performance include dropped passes—a whopping 19 of them according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), six of them belonging to Greg Little, whose role in the offense may be decreasing as a result. Successful passing games are a two-way street—they require the compliance of both receivers and quarterbacks. There were times in which Weeden did not do his part, but oftentimes he did, and his targets did not bring down the passes.
Another issue is simply the system and play-calling. Weeden is a shotgun quarterback brought into a West Coast system, which requires adaptation from either head coach Pat Shurmur or Weeden. While Weeden can certainly master his new system, it will take more than just his first year, and Shurmur can make the process easier by incorporating more plays that work to his pre-existing strengths.
Further, Shurmur is not making good use of Richardson. With a better offensive line, he could easily be the best back in the league right now, but even with the hand he's been dealt, he'd have better overall stats (and more likely touchdowns) if he was featured more prominently.
Richardson provides a great safety valve for a rookie quarterback like Weeden. Weeden has already proven that short, quick slants are a path to success, and if he threw more of them—especially to Richardson—chances are the yards would pile up.
Further, there's no reason, not even in a West Coast system, to ask a rookie quarterback to pass 40 or more times per game (currently, Weeden is averaging 40.4 pass attempts per game). Granted, the Browns have yet to hold a lead beyond the beginning of Week 5's game against the Giants, but they've never been that far behind, to the point that the run game needs to fall by the wayside.
Richardson is a feature back and should be treated as such, with 25 carries per game. Yes, he had offseason knee surgery, but he's shown few ill-effects. Chris Ogbonnaya remains the Browns' third-down back, and while he's good at that job, Richardson, as a third-overall pick, needs to be an every-down contributor. More reliance on Richardson would relieve pressure on Weeden and probably net the Browns more points to boot.
As it stands, the Browns offense ranks 24th in average yards per game (324.2), 21st in yards per play (5.3) and 26th in first downs per game (17). It has the fifth-most pass attempts per game, but the 14th-most passing yards, and it ranks 30th in rush attempts per game, at 18.8, again while possessing one of the most dynamic backs in the league.
Cleveland's offensive priorities are backwards (and upside-down); considering Jimmy Haslam is about to take over ownership of the Browns later this month, this approach could easily cost Shurmur and other members of the coaching staff their jobs if they don't realize what a jewel they have in Richardson.
A Closer Look: Defense
The Cleveland Browns headed into the 2012 season down one key member of their defense—tackle Phil Taylor, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the offseason. Worst yet was the announcement that star cornerback Joe Haden would have to serve a four-game suspension after testing positive for Adderall, a banned substance, and linebacker Chris Gocong's torn Achilles only made matters even more dire.
Though Haden's suspension is now over and Taylor still may return later in the year, the damage done by the two's absence is clear.
Without Haden, the Browns secondary has been porous. Nickel corner Dimitri Patterson has had to take over for Haden in games two through four, and he's given up 14 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Sheldon Brown has given up 14 receptions and 149 yards, while Trevin Wade has allowed three receptions, two of which have resulted in touchdowns and Buster Skrine has been burnt for 24 receptions for 286 yards and two scores.
As such, Cleveland's passing defense ranks 28th in the league in passing touchdowns, allowing an average of 2.4 per game, 26th in passing yards allowed, at 280.6, and it gives up 13.4 passing first downs per game, ranking it 20th overall in that category. At the very least, Cleveland's defense is performing well when it comes to intercepting opposing quarterbacks—it is tied for fifth, with seven.
The front seven is also doing well when it comes to pass defense, with 13 sacks on the year. However, against the run, Cleveland is still faltering. Last season, it ranked 30th in rush yards allowed, at 147.4 and so far this season, it isn't doing much better, giving up 142.4 rushing yards and 7.6 rushing first downs per game on average.
Even though the Browns made a number of draft and free agency moves designed to shore up their run defense, it doesn't seem to have worked with consistency thus far. Last year, the Browns had the second-best pass defense in the league and still ended the season with a 4-12 record because it was just so easy for opposing offenses to run on them. They need to take care of this run defense problem or history may repeat itself.
A Closer Look: Special Teams
With Josh Cribbs still returning kicks and punts, the Browns have one of the better return games in the league. Their 616 total return yards on the season is the second-best total in the league through five weeks, and they have the third-best total punt return yards as well, with 196.
This is one area in which the Browns' considerable youth on both offense and defense comes to haunt them. Younger players are often asked to cut their teeth on special teams, especially in coverage, and their lack of discipline has directly led to them giving up so many yards.
Field-goal and extra-point kicking is not a worry for Cleveland, however, with the ever-reliable Phil Dawson as its kicker. Dawson is thus far 10-of-10 on his field-goal attempts, with a long of 52 yards, and he is also flawless in kicking his extra points.
Quick Preview: Week 6
This Sunday, the Browns will host the Cincinnati Bengals in their second and final meeting of the season. The matchup provides a good shot for the Browns to notch their first win of the season—but so did the other games they've been in so far this season, and still, they have no wins.
However, things look bright. The Browns need only to look at how the Miami Dolphins bested the Bengals last week for clues to how they can do the same this week. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is having a strong second year, but he still has some of the issues he was dealing with in his rookie season, namely getting flustered under pressure.
The Dolphins defense continually pressed Dalton last week, and the result was a glut of errant passes. In combination with the efforts up front, Miami's secondary stayed close with Dalton's many receiving targets and practically neutralized each and every one.
Joe Haden comes back to the team this week, which means an instant boost to Cleveland's secondary—he's one of the best corners in the league, without hyperbole—and shouldn't have too much trouble keeping Cincinnati's best receiver, A.J. Green, under wraps.
At the same time, however, Cleveland's offense needs to get its collective act together. Replacing Greg Little with Josh Gordon and Jordan Norwood is a start, and it will help immensely if either or both Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin return from their respective hamstring injuries.
The Bengals were able to stymie the Dolphins' run game, led by Reggie Bush, to just 68 yards; however, they've also been gashed by the run in earlier games, and Trent Richardson could very easily have a strong game—that is, if Shurmur's play-calling complies.
0-5 is a terrible hole to dig out of, and 1-5 doesn't feel all that much better—but it is a start. At some point, something has to give and the Browns will finally get that first win. A home game against the Bengals is as good a time as any for it to happen.
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