Cleveland Browns: Midseason Report Card for Every Positional Unit
The Cleveland Browns failed to build on their momentum from a Week 6 victory, losing to the Indianapolis Colts and falling to 1-6 on the season. It has been a frustrating first half of the 2012 season, in great part due to the fact that the Browns have played well enough to be in every game—aside from perhaps the New York Giants game, which was still the best start to a game they've played this season.
Though this team has shown promise, the "next level" has eluded them throughout the first half of the season. The slides that follow give first-half grades for each positional unit.
Offensive Line: C
The Browns offensive line features rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, third-year right guard Shawn Lauvao (his second year starting), center Alex Mack (2011 Pro Bowl second alternate), second-year left guard Jason Pinkston (now out for the year due to a blood clot in his lung) and All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas.
It is a young unit and one that has limited time to jell. Having said that, they haven't been overwhelmed. It should also be noted that they also haven't had any overwhelming performances as a unit either.
Pass Protection: B -
As a whole, the unit has performed fairly well in the passing game this season. The team has given up only 11 sacks up to this point (good for fifth in the league). However, they have allowed 32 QB hits, which ranks them 22nd in the league. The unit seems to be improving as the season progresses, however, particularly right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
The question now is: How does Pinkston's absence affect the budding chemistry of the offensive line? With him, the Browns were mostly able to keep QB Brandon Weeden upright and allow him time to make throws. This is good, considering the Browns have averaged 38.9 pass attempts per game (I will save my opinion on that philosophy for another article).
Weeden does not, however, consistently have an opportunity to run through his progressions before making his throw, many times settling for dump offs to running backs or safety valves running short routes.
Run Protection: C -
Just two weeks ago, after analyzing the Browns' offensive statistics, I suggested that they run the football more. The offensive pass to run ratio was 70 percent pass to 30 percent run.
They did in fact adjust this, as the split over the last three games is close to 60 percent pass vs. 40 percent run. The problem that has come to light from this increase in running plays is that they just aren't that good at run blocking.
Three weeks ago, their average rush per carry was 4.1 (13th in the league). It is now 3.8 YPC (22nd in the league). No matter which direction the ball carrier goes, the Browns line has trouble generating any sort of push or running lanes.
According to stats taken from footballoutsiders.com, the highest success rate for Browns runners comes from the right end at sixth in the league, but these numbers are skewed by a couple of successful Travis Benjamin reverse plays that occurred on that side. Aside from that, the Browns average rank for runs to the left, off the left tackle, up the middle, and off the right tackle is 20.5.
The most disappointing part of that stat is that they are ranked 28th in the league running behind All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas.
Were it not for a few good performances in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Week 5 against the Giants and even with limited carries in Week 7 against the Colts, the grade would have been lower.
Running Backs: C
As mentioned in the previous slide, it has been difficult to honestly evaluate the Browns at the running back position. The line is having a tough time making lanes for the running back core to run through. The running backs are also getting limited touches per game, making it hard to build any sort of rhythm.
Trent Richardson has been a victim of box crowding when he gets the ball and has also had to deal with a recent rib injury that limited his touches over the last two games.
These aren't excuses but realities. While he has shown flashes of the great prospect the Browns saw in him when they drafted him third overall, he has thus far had very average numbers.
On the year, Richardson has 348 rushing yards at 3.4 yards a carry. The bright spot is that he does have four rushing TDs this season and has been a reliable receiving target out of the backfield for Weeden, with 24 receptions and an average of eight yards per catch.
A pleasant surprise in terms of depth has been Montario Hardesty, who has battled health issues his whole career. The Browns have seen little production drop-off with Hardesty in place of the injured Richardson. While 84 yards on 22 carries over two games isn't dynamic, it is promising that the team hasn't utterly collapsed like it did when it lost Peyton Hillis for various reasons last year.
Better production from the offensive line may help this stat in the coming weeks. While the run game looks to be a potential strong point of this team's offense, based on potential and play from the bench, it is still average at best at this point in the season.
Running Backs overall grade: C
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: D
The Browns' receiving core gets the lowest mark on the offensive side of the ball. The reason for that is simple and has been highlighted numerous times in previous articles: Catch. The. Football.
It isn't even that drops occur at an alarming rate but rather when they occur. Greg Little (No. 1 WR on the Browns depth chart) and Josh Gordon (No. 2 WR) have both dropped TD passes. Both came at crucial points of the game, and both games ended in losses.
The Browns have yet to find a wide receiver who is a consistent threat that defenses must hone in on. This is not to say that the core is without talent and promise. Little, Gordon, Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper are three rookies and a second-year player (Little).
They are raw but athletic players. All of them have shown that they can be difference makers, though none of them do so with consistency.
Josh Gordon has played well the last few weeks, minus the unforgivable go-ahead TD drop last week. Branden Weeden's college target Josh Cooper has also done a nice job filling in for the injured Jordan Norwood.
This is a core with tons of promise, but they must eventually bring that promise to fruition and, to put it bluntly, catch the dang ball when it hits them in the hands—if just for the sake of Browns fans' sanity.
Tight end play has been pretty good when they see the ball. In terms of receiving talent, I'd put Benjamin Watson and Jordan Cameron up there as one of the better receiving tight end cores in football. The problem, it seems, is that Weeden's preferred safety valve is the running back.
Likewise, there are points in the game where the Browns are forced to throw downfield and it isn't logical to have Benjamin Watson on the field in those situations, considering the speed the receivers have to offer.
Jordan Cameron has been a pleasant surprise this season and is worthy of seeing more targets. He is starting to show that he is as advertised: a fast tight end who is highly athletic. On the year, he has 11 catches for 128 yards.
Brandon Weeden has come a long way since the first game of the year, in which he posted a QB rating below 10. Since then, he has averaged 277 yards per game and has nine TD passes to six interceptions. Granted, those numbers are not amazing, but he does keep the Browns in the game.
His passer rating is up to 72.3. While that is still only good for second-to-last in the league amongst all starters, he has seen rapid improvement with each game.
Weeden throws a very catchable ball, and in most cases enables his receivers an opportunity to get yards after the catch. He has shown an ability to bounce back after mistakes and seems more and more composed as the season progresses. He has also adapted well to taking snaps from the center and has shown leadership qualities while running the Browns' offense.
The Browns' offense averages 21 points per game under Weeden. While he doesn't have everything to do with that stat, he does have a great part in it. And though it isn't a dazzling statistic, it is considerably better than last year and could be even better were it not for some not-so-timely drops.
Weeden can get ambitious with his throws, trying to force balls into double coverage. It should also be noted that, while the Browns offensive line owns part of the blame for the number of times he has been hit, Weeden shares some of that blame by holding onto the ball too long. Both issues lead to the solution that he must throw the ball away more often in such scenarios.
He must also do a better job of reading through his progression. Many times, when the ball is snapped, his primary target is his only look. The ball either goes to him or it's dumped off to a back.
All of these negatives are quite common for a rookie quarterback but are nonetheless the difference between being an A or B-grade quarterback and the C-grade he was given here.
Defensive Line: C -
The Browns' run defense is giving up 133.7 yards a game and an average of 4.5 yards per carry. This failure starts up front with the beat-up defensive line.
It certainly doesn't help that the Browns have been without starting defensive tackle Phil Taylor all season, and the other starting defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin has been nicked up the last few games (and listed as questionable for the coming week).
The Browns have had to supplement rookies in place of their starters at the tackle position. The play of Billy Winn, John Hughes, and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen has yielded mixed results.
Billy Winn is the best of the bunch, but he had a huge encroachment penalty last week when it was fourth down and the Colts were clearly trying to draw the Browns offsides. This generally results in a delay of game and the opposing team punting the ball five yards further back.
Stopping the run is something that Tom Heckert has invested heavily in over the last two drafts, and it has yet to yield results. It has been a lingering problem of the Browns' defense since their return.
Having said that, as much of the blame lies on the defensive line for a porous run defense, they deserve equal credit for an above-middle-of-the-pack pass rush. In passing situations, the Browns have done a decent job at getting at the quarterback on the season.
The Browns are ranked ninth in the league with 18 sacks on the year. Of those 18 sacks, nine of them have been generated from the defensive line.
Both Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker, two free agent defensive ends brought in by Heckert this year, each have two sacks. But a surprising disappointment has been Jabaal Sheard, who has only one sack in seven games after an impressive 8.5 sack season a year ago.
The linebacking core has contributed six of the 18 sacks, three of which have come from D'Qwell Jackson. Not nearly enough production has come from the core in terms of pass rush.
D'Qwell Jackson is putting together another Pro Bowl-type year on paper. He is third on the team in total tackles with 46, and he has the aforementioned three sacks and two interceptions (one of which went for a touchdown).
But he is as much a part of the rush defense woes as any. Often times, tackles he makes are after positive gains. As a middle linebacker in a 4/3 defense, his primary objective is to stop the run.
Though not as athletic as Jackson, UDFA rookie Craig Robertson has played above many's expectations in his rookie campaign. He is behind only DB Buster Skrine, with 47 total tackles (33 of which are solo efforts), and he has two interceptions.
The official depth chart shows him behind Kaluka Maiava, but in all reality, he should probably be starting. The problem with both, being that they are both listed as weak side linebackers, is that a great deal of responsibility of the position is that of a pass rusher. Combined, the two have only one sack (Maiava).
On the strong side, Scott Fujita is, not surprisingly, done for the year with a neck injury and in all likelihood will retire due to the injury. Behind him is a plethora of unknowns, including a promising late-round pick, rookie James-Michael Johnson, who has been banged up this season.
It is clear the Browns must get better at the linebacker position. This could come from maturity, as the younger players learn the game at the next level, but in reality, none of them have that "it factor" to be a difference maker on their own.
When healthy, Jackson has been statistically impressive throughout his career, but those statistics don't equate to success on the field at the position.
There is an above-average support cast waiting for a stud. Browns must address this issue this coming offseason by adding a dynamic player at the position.
Defensive Backs: D
The problems start up front and, like a shock wave, affect the defensive backfield the greatest in terms of pass protection. The Browns have a genuine star in corner back Joe Haden. Surrounding him is a cast of liabilities.
Sheldon Brown played his best game of the season last week with 10 total tackles and one sack; the week prior, he had an INT return for a touchdown.
But at 33, Brown's simply too old for a starting role. He has looked bad in coverage on multiple occasions. However, having Haden opposite him has reaped statistical benefits.
The weakness at the corner back position opposite Joe Haden can easily be summarized by the fact that the second best corner on the team is 33-year-old Sheldon Brown.
In the four games Haden missed due to suspension, the Browns defense gave up an average of 285 yards passing and 10 passing TDs. With Haden in the lineup, the Browns give up an average of 295 yards passing and five TD passes.
Interception totals when Haden is in the lineup versus out are seven to three. While they give up 10 more yards a game on average through the air, it is clear from TD and interception totals, just having him on the field makes a big difference.
The Browns' pass defense backfield has surrendered 2,025 yards (ranked 27th) to opposing teams receivers and have given up 92 first downs through the air (also ranked 27th).
Further back at the safety position, Usama Young is routinely out of position, and while he can hit, he isn't especially a good tackler. T.J. Ward plays injured more often than not. While Ward has played well against the run, his pass coverage skills have also been questionable. Behind both of them is a cast of unproven players.
Even with Haden, this is the weakest unit on the defensive side of the ball, magnified by poor play at both the defensive line and linebacker position. While it is possible that the negative impact of the unit as a whole would be lessened by improvement of the other two squads on the field, it is still a positional unit that needs an upgrade of their own.
Special Teams: B -
The shining player of the unit is no great surprise. Phil Dawson is as consistent a kicker as any in the NFL. Since the Browns' return, Phil Dawson—the only remaining member of the '99 Browns—has been the true face of the franchise. This season, Dawson is 12-for-12 in field goals, including four over 50 yards.
Statistically, punter Reggie Hodges has been a different story this season. It could be argued that field position has something to do with some glaring, below-average statistics, but however you analyze it, he ranks in the bottom half of the league in some key areas.
Hodges ranks 28th in the league with an average of 43.5 yards per punt. His percentage of punts inside the 20 is a 28th best at 28.6 percent.
The worst offender on the Browns' special teams is punt coverage, which has been abysmal. The team gives up a league-worst 17.2 yards per return.
This might have something to do with the hang time of Hodges punts (although I could find no measurable on this statistic), but it is painfully obvious watching their play, they are often out of position on punt returns.
The special teams' returners have done well. Josh Cribbs has been solid in both kick and punt returns. Ranked second in the NFL, he averages 14.3 yards a return on punts and has four 20+ returns. His kickoff returns are also impressive, averaging 30.9 yards a return.
Minus punt coverage, the Browns have been solid on special teams. Unfortunately, they punt the ball second-most often in the league, with 42 punts this season.
Deficiencies in this area will and have come back to haunt them. For example, Adam Jones' punt return for a TD ended up being the difference in the game against the Bengals.