5 Valuable Lessons the Cleveland Browns Can Still Learn in Their Remaining Games
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Riding a trio of victories into Week 15, the youngest club in the NFL finally looks to be clicking.
Although only three games remain in the Cleveland Browns schedule, there are still valuable lessons that can be learned.
Who deserves a new contract, rookie performance and coaching are a few of the juicy topics up for debate.
Let's break it down.
5. Sheldon Brown Can Still Contribute
Cornerback Sheldon Brown returning an interception against the Bengals
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The old dog Sheldon Brown continues to prove that he is still a valuable contributor in Cleveland.
Brown has already surpassed his total tackles and interceptions from last season. The 11-year veteran is also on pace for his best statistical campaign since joining the club back in 2010.
Not bad for a guy who has been accused of being past his prime at various times during the first 12 match-ups.
"You keep hearing people say Sheldon is too old and we need another corner," his stand out CB partner Joe Haden told the News-Herald. "We don't need another corner. Sheldon is good enough. He still has that elite status. He's been doing it for a long time."
With his contract expiring, Brown also stated that he wants to remain in Cleveland.
While having a 33-year-old No. 2 cornerback may not be ideal, it would be nice to know that if a stellar option at the position is not taken during the draft that Brown would be around.
In a perfect world, the South Carolina native would move to free safety or inside corner where his experience and tremendous field vision could still be utilized.
Brown must typically leave more cushion at the line of scrimmage where faster and more physical top receivers have often burned him. Most recent examples of this came during the losses to Dallas and Baltimore.
This means he can be a liability on the outside. However, his being tied for the team lead in interceptions and knack for anticipating plays indicates that the Browns must learn how to keep him effective.
Signing Brown to a two- or three-year extension with modified job duties would allow him to finish his career and carry on as one of the key leaders on this young squad.
4. Josh Gordon Will Only Get Better
44-yard touchdown catch to Josh Gordon versus Oakland
The progression of first-year wideout Josh "Flash" Gordon is nothing short of remarkable.
Being selected in the supplemental draft's second round meant no training camp and add on that he had not played football in over a season.
"Josh Gordon is an absolute monster. I'm not surprised by what he's done and anyone who played with him would feel the same way," explains former Baylor teammate, Kendall Wright, to the Plain Dealer.
Everyone is familiar with Gordon's highlight-reel long bomb catches (like the one at the top of this slide).
At 6'3" and 225 pounds, the raw athleticism allowed for him to average 19 yards per reception and also lead all Browns receivers in touchdowns with five.
Those impressive plays make the offense entertaining to watch, but it has been his recent work in the slot that should make fans around Cleveland smile.
Running crisper routes underneath gives Gordon the opportunity to utilize his large frame and create space.
The former Baylor Bear produced a game-high 86 receiving yards, where he averaged 10.8 yards a catch.
The importance of these statistics is that several of those eight receptions were short-yardage passes that he turned into double-digit gains.
In the final three contests, Gordon must learn to not turn up field before actually catching the ball as he did over the middle on a play vs. Kansas City.
Another area to improve on is being more aggressive on jump balls or if a cornerback has a play on a pass intended for him. Brandon Weeden's interception back in Oakland may have been avoided if "Flash" was more physical in trying to break up the pick.
The pattern of Gordon's weekly development suggests that by season's end, he could very well be the most dominant rookie receiver in the entire NFL.
3. Benjamin Watson Deserves a New Contract
Browns veteran tight end Benjamin Watson
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Finishing up his third campaign as a Brown, Benjamin Watson will be a free agent at year's end.
The rock of an inexperienced tight-end group, Watson is being counted on more than ever as a reliable go-to target for rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.
He is an asset that this offense must learn to utilize in greater volume.
Having excellent hands and a sturdy 6'3", 255 lb. frame for blocking is essential to keep on board for a young Cleveland offense.
With three touchdowns, the nine-season veteran has already surpassed his total number of scores from 2011.
Ever since Nov. 18 in Dallas, the Georgia Bulldogs alum has averaged over 12 yards per reception and is playing extra physical to earn additional ground after the catch.
His past history of concussion and other injury troubles have also been kept at bay thus far through 13 games.
Watson provides stability where the skills of fellow tight ends Alex Smith and Jordan Cameron are still under evaluation.
At the age of 31, offering the pride of Norfolk, Va., another three-year deal makes perfect sense.
That time frame gives the Browns an excellent transition period to groom from within or go out and find their next star TE.
2. Creativity in the Play Calling
Browns head coach Pat Shurmur discusses strategy with quarterback Brandon Weeden
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Creative play calling is definitely an area where head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress can still improve on through the remaining schedule.
Taking away Sunday's match-up against the Chiefs, it had been a long time since the Dawg Pound had seen much outside-the-box thinking on offense.
Two wildcat formations for Josh Cribbs, a double reverse featuring a Travis Benjamin rush, and receiver Greg Little lining up at halfback were a breath of fresh air in the win over Kansas City.
Those schemes, along with the surprise touchdown punt return by Benjamin, clearly threw the visiting defense off track and showcased how versatile this Browns attack can be.
All too often, Shurmur's decisions have been predictable during this 2012 campaign.
Does a right-side screen pass to Chris Ogbonnaya or Trent Richardson sound familiar? It did to opposing teams as well and in part have contributed to the Browns' 31 percent conversion rate on third down.
The simplistic strategy is mainly due to the number of rookies playing at key positions.
First-year starters at quarterback, running back, right tackle and wide receiver does warrant a gradual introduction to this squad's west coast system.
However, the training wheels need to come off.
Greater responsibilities must be thrust upon QB Brandon Weeden and Co.
From deciding on audibles at the line to variety of calls worked into a drive, 13 games in means that the rookie card is no longer valid.
The brain trust should want to see what they truly have, and a good way to go about that is to make things more complicated.
Players like tight end Alex Smith certainly thought that stirring the pot was a good idea yesterday.
“I was all for it. You can’t run the same plays all year long,” Smith told ESPN Cleveland. “I think (the coaches) break up (the season) into quarters. They always go back and do a little summary of what they’ve done and make changes."
From a development and entertainment standpoint, hopefully the creative itinerary used vs. the Chiefs was not a one-off.
1. Use Josh Cribbs More
Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs rumbling down the field
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Josh Cribbs proved that he is as dangerous as ever when given the opportunity to touch the football in different ways.
During the home victory this past weekend over Kansas City, the fan favourite hopped back into his once-familiar wildcat formation.
Cribbs twice took the snap and on the second attempt fell just inches short of the end zone. He scampered for a total of 15 yards and still succeeded in his usual role of kick/punt returner.
Back on Nov. 16, the eight-year veteran's frustration boiled over in an interview with the Plain Dealer.
"Me going from being able to run the wildcat, to playing receiver last season and catching 41 passes and four touchdowns to nothing...I can't believe it," said Cribbs. "By me not playing, I feel like they think I'm not good, that I've lost it. But I haven't. I feel when I'm out there I can contribute, but I'm not able to."
In that same article, head coach Pat Shurmur's defense was that Cribbs' return numbers were up this season because he was only focusing on special teams.
If Sunday's performance was any indication, it appears that No. 16 has the ability to help this young club in more ways than running back kicks.
Could Travis Benjamin's 93-yard punt return for a touchdown actually lead to the 6'1" playmaker getting his wish of becoming a larger part of the offense?
Someone needs to be groomed as the future KR/PR. Giving the rookie Benjamin more touches in that area would allow Cribbs to spice up the Browns attack.
The former Kent State quarterback would continue to play an important part in special teams.
However, sprinkling him in regularly as a receiver or rushing threat now gives opposing defenses an extra problem to prepare for.
Following the 2012 finale in Pittsburgh, Cribbs will be a free agent.
This coaching staff has three weeks left to figure out how to creatively spread around his unique talents.
If nothing else, Cribbs adds a dynamic element to a generally predictable offense that is still finding its way.
The Wrap Up
Head coach Pat Shurmur and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
New team owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have plenty of decisions to make come season's end.
Management, coaches and players at all levels are working hard to impress and ultimately to keep their jobs. Overall improvement and progression will be thoroughly evaluated from top to bottom.
That's why even though the Browns are out of a playoff hunt, the effort and preparation will be as if they were battling for a division title.
Browns backers everywhere should be in store for some exciting football to close out 2012.
Follow Andy McNamara on Twitter @AndyMc81