Despite their level of talent permeating their roster, the Cleveland Browns dropped yet another contest in Week 9, falling 25-15 to the Baltimore Ravens. With one of the lowest red-zone attempt averages per game, Cleveland needed to make the most of every time it reached scoring position.
Instead, the Browns had five field goals to their name and no touchdowns, leaving them the very worst in the league in getting seven points out of their red-zone appearances. There's a lot of work to be done if the Browns want to turn things around, but luckily, they have a week off to refocus and regroup before returning from the bye in Week 11.
Here's where Cleveland needs to focus its attentions during their bye week to put forth better performances in the home stretch of the season.
A Better Offense
In this case, "better" means "more explosive." The Browns have scored over 30 points just once this season, Brandon Weeden has connected on only nine of his 42 pass attempts of 20 yards or more (and six of those, coincidentally, have resulted in touchdowns) and they have just four rushes of 20 or more yards so far this season.
With such low offensive production, it's no surprise that the Browns rank next-to-last when it comes to red-zone scoring chances per game, but it's also incredibly frustrating how little they've made out of them. This needs to be a more offensively aggressive team coming out of the bye.
However, with aggressiveness, there doesn't need an increase in taking risks just for risk's sake. You could call it aggressive that Browns head coach Pat Shumur elected to call a pass play on every third- and fourth-and-short the team faced in Week 9—nine in total—but it was also incredibly foolish. Game after game this season, we've seen the Browns try and fail to pass on short yardage on late downs while running back Trent Richardson serves either as a pass protector or a check down target (or even not on the field) and not handed the ball.
Shurmur's decision to pass on these downs against Baltimore resulted in only four conversions and an interception and didn't help the Browns produce a single touchdown. This failure of both play calling and execution has doomed the Browns repeatedly this year, and it simply needs to stop if they want to string together any more wins in their last seven games.
Over the past two weeks, Richardson has emerged as Cleveland's best offensive asset, with 100 or more rushing yards each game. At the same time, Weeden has regressed. After six straight games with 230 or more yards, he's had just 129 and 176 passing yards, respectively, in the past two weeks and completion percentages of 40.7 and 54.1. He's thrown no touchdowns over that span, and his two-game streak with no turnovers came to an end against Baltimore, with two interceptions.
Cleveland has now had seven straight quarters without a touchdown. While the Browns were, for a time, seemingly headed in the right direction on offense, with Weeden steadily improving, the receiving corps coming together and Richardson getting healthy, it's now back to being kicker Phil Dawson's show. Though the Browns did, at one point, lead the Ravens 15-14 on the strength of Dawson's leg, that's not how a team can hope to win games.
Shurmur needs to open up the offense, Weeden needs to throw better and with more confidence, Richardson needs to be given the ball on short-yardage downs and the receiving corps needs to focus on catching the ball and taking off on the defenders tasked with stopping them—anything it takes, really, to get into the end zone more often. What's happening as of late simply isn't good enough.
Football, like any sport, is just as much about proper physical execution as it is being in the right mental place to do it. And with the Browns currently at 2-7, there's not a lot to be pleased about. However, if Cleveland is going to dig itself out of this considerable hole, it cannot focus on that record and instead look to make improvements and to its next game.
There's a lot the Browns could have done in those seven losing contests to come out winners in nearly all of them, but that's something that could have happened during the games. Now that they're over, they are immutable, and dwelling on the fact that they've lost so many games doesn't serve to prepare them to win later on.
"Here's what didn't work in this loss and here's how to fix it," is a far different thought than "if we didn't do these three things, we would have won." Getting mired in the could-haves and what-ifs don't serve to improve the situation, nor do they help improve the clearly shaken confidence of a team well below .500.
The Browns have a long list of improvements they need to make. They must figure out not just how to win games, but also how to finish them—they gave up 11 points to the Ravens in the final four-and-a-half minutes on Sunday and lost by 10—they need to score more, convert more than just 4.4 third downs per game, produce more turnovers and commit less of them.
All of these improvements are huge; they are of the make-or-break sort that will ultimately define their 2012 season, and none can be done without the the belief of every player that they are possible. Just one or two of them can mean the difference between ending the year 4-12 and 7-9, so it's important that no single player on that roster lacks the belief that the season can indeed turn around.