Looking at the NFL schedule back before the season started, a bye week for the Browns in Week 5 didn't necessarily look like a good thing. It seemed way too early. Who wants to use up the one chance they get for a breather during the season after playing only four games?
And yet, given the current state of affairs in Browns Town, it now looks like a bye in Week 5 might not be such a bad thing after all.
While the Browns have not had a bad season so far, and have in fact broken even going into their bye week at 2-2, it has also become clear that they still have a lot to work on in order to continue to be on pace for their targeted goal of being a competitive franchise in 2012.
And perhaps more importantly at this point, things they need to work on in order to ensure they'll have a respectable season this year.
Following are six things the Browns should be working on during their bye week. If they make the following improvements, or at least put the wheels in motion to do so, they should be in good shape for the remainder of the season, beginning in Week 6 when they face the tough but beatable Oakland Raiders.
Be sure to add your own ideas for the Browns Bye Week Improvement Plan in the comments below!
I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here when I say that the right side of the Browns' offensive line is currently one of their most pressing problems, but apparently, the dead horse didn't respond appropriately to the last 300 or so beatings.
So here we go again.
The Browns absolutely must find a solution to their problems at RG, and on the right side of the line as a whole, before they play another game. Obviously we can't expect to see major personnel changes during the bye week, but the Browns need to find a way to get the players they've already committed to to do what they're being paid for.
Obviously the biggest issue here is that they're going to get Colt McCoy killed if they keep letting him get hit as hard as he has been in the first four games. But it goes beyond that.
First, even when McCoy isn't being sacked or knocked down, he's constantly being pressured and forced to throw on the run. Thus far, that hasn't gone well for the Browns. While McCoy has done an admirable job of salvaging plays in some instances, he's also had his share of mistakes when pressured, or been thwarted by the fact that his receivers haven't had enough time to get open.
Second, the blocking on the right side in general has been a problem in ways that aren't really about whether McCoy winds up in a heap behind the line of scrimmage. Running plays to the right side have been a disaster. The blocking for Browns' rushers has been so bad that they've been repeatedly stuffed at the line of scrimmage or pulled down behind it for a loss.
The o-line, albeit indirectly, is largely responsible for a good deal of the problems that have occurred on the offense through trickle-down effect. Until they step up their game, McCoy, his receivers and the Browns ground game will continue to be crippled by their failures.
While we can certainly blame a great deal of the failings in the Browns passing game on the offensive line, McCoy and his receivers do have to own a share of the responsibility.
To be fair, I don't have major complaints about McCoy's efforts so far, and the receivers, while still disappointing, have been better than expected.
What is and will continue to be a serious problem though is the fact that McCoy and his wideouts just seem to be having trouble getting in sync, particularly on plays where the pressure is on.
We've discussed over and over how when he's under the gun, McCoy looks for his "safe" targets TE Benjamin Watson and RB Peyton Hillis. For a quarterback to have a go-to guy who he always looks for when he's under pressure is fine and in fact necessary, it's concerning that neither of his safety nets is a wideout.
And it goes beyond that issue specifically. McCoy and the receivers just don't look synced up period, no matter what the situation is in the game.
Some of this is just youth and inexperience. It takes time to develop that kind of relationship between a passer and a target, though I'll admit I thought this summer's Camp Colt would have moved this along a bit more quickly than it did.
Obviously, no one can create chemistry over one bye week, and no one expects Colt and his receivers to be perfectly in sync all the time at this stage in their development. But we do need to see some noticeable improvement in this area, and it would be nice if the bye week could serve as a jump start for that.
First, let's get one thing out of the way: the Browns' secondary has struggled more than expected and has cost the Browns hugely on a number of occasions. T.J. Ward and Joe Haden notwithstanding, their is very little depth in the secondary and several players who are being asked to fill starting roles just don't have what it takes to do so successfully.
While it had to be mentioned, that isn't something that can really be fixed (or even dramatically improved) over one bye week. What the Browns defense (as a whole, not just the secondary) can work on over the bye week is improving their ability to stop the run.
This is an area in which both the front seven and the secondary have struggled. The defense ceded over 100 yards to the Titans' Chris Johnson last week, and while that may have been par for the course for Johnson last year, this season he had yet to log a 100-yard game before he came up against the Browns. And really, a truly good defense shouldn't be allowing 100-yard rushing games to anyone.
Obviously no one is saying the Browns defense should be at the point in their development already where they can completely stall top-tier running backs, but they absolutely should not be giving up the kind of yardage (especially on big plays where there are multiple missed tackles that should have been made) that they have been.
Blocking on the line needs to be better, the linebackers need to be more aggressive and do a better job anticipating the run and the secondary cannot allow rushers who have broken through the front seven to rack up huge gains downfield.
We saw two examples of horrible playcalling on third and fourth down last week against the Titans; once when Peyton Hillis was stuffed at the line after being deployed to rush without a lead blocker, and once when the ball didn't even go to Hillis for the short gain conversion when it should have.
Last week's game was the first time we really saw two terrible, glaring examples of this, but the evidence of the problem has been there all season.
While many of us have had some issues with the offensive playcalling in general all season, last week's game was so horrendous in this regard that I had Brian Daboll flashbacks. Nobody expects a team to convert every time, even on short yardage, but it is reasonable to expect the team to give themselves the best chance to do so by making the smartest call possible.
With a rookie head coach, there will be mistakes in this area. And sometimes the players involved in the play just can't execute. But if the strategy of the play is bad to begin with, the offense is being set up to fail.
By this point, the Browns should be able to figure out what works for them and what doesn't in these sorts of situations. It won't guarantee they'll convert every time, but it will increase their chances and get critics off their backs if they don't.
So as much as a lot of the improvements we're hoping to see over the bye week need to be made on the field, the playbook clearly needs a few tweaks as well.
There's that dead horse again.
We've all been ranting about the Browns inability to be aggressive and productive right out of the gate in the first quarter all season, and we've yet to see much improvement.
To put it in perspective, the field goal Phil Dawson made in the first quarter against the Titans last week was the first time the Browns have scored in the first quarter all season. And that was only one measly three-pointer.
To date, the Browns have either looked slow and apathetic in the first quarter, or frantic and disorganized. Neither has resulted in putting points on the board.
By taking an entire quarter of the game to get going, the Browns put themselves in a position of either perpetually having to play catch-up, or failing to capitalize on other teams' similar slow starter issues.
Even if the other team doesn't score much in the first 15 minutes, the Browns are wasting a valuable opportunity to demoralize the opponent or give themselves a cushion for defensive failings later in the game. And if the opponent does produce a decent amount of points in the first quarter, then the Browns are stuck in the position of having to find a way to stay motivated even when they're already way in the hole before the first half even ends.
The Browns aren't scoring enough points total or keeping the opponent from scoring enough to be able to eschew an entire quarter's worth of opportunities to score and build a cushion. And it's never a good gamble to bank on eking out a win by playing catch-up in the second half.
The coaching staff and the leaders of this team have to find a way to get their players more fired up and aggressive from the moment the clock starts, or all that wasted time spent getting things going will come back to haunt them again and again.
There is nothing more frustrating to a team or to its fans than when that team makes huge, costly mistakes that effectively result in their beating themselves.
In both losses the Browns have suffered this season, they made just such mistakes and essentially gave away a possible win, and they nearly did it in their narrow win over Miami as well.
This suicide play seems to manifest in two different forms: penalties and giving up big plays.
Penalties were a huge problem in their loss to Cincinnati. You can make the argument that if the Browns hadn't been penalized so often and at such critical points in the game, they might have started the season 3-0. And while we didn't see too many costly penalties in the loss to Tennessee, we certainly saw a number of them against Miami, and they nearly cost the Browns that game as well.
Then there's the issue of giving up big plays. This happened against both Cincinnati and Tennessee, and in the Titans game especially, these plays had devastating consequences.
The Browns gave up two touchdowns on huge plays—one on offense and one on defense. Each play took less than a minute, and together they cost the Browns 14 points. So in two minutes, the Browns put the game too far out of reach to make up for in the other 58 minutes they had on the field.
Granted, great teams can certainly make up a 14-point deficit. But for a team still in the early stages of gelling into a cohesive whole, two touchdowns can easily be the nail in the coffin.
And of course, the demoralization from those two big plays caused the Browns to shut down and barely even try to come back, which of course resulted in more points for the opponent and an inability to mount a comeback that was effective at all, even if they ultimately still fell short on the scoreboard.
Upon occasion, big plays happen to everyone. Even the best quarterbacks throw interceptions that wind up returned for touchdowns, and even the best defenses occasionally let a receiver slip through for an 80-plus yard score. But the Browns have struggled with ceding big plays regularly. Even those that didn't result in an immediate score still hurt when they set one up later in a drive or resulted in a turnover that led to a scoring play.
These issues of frequent and ill-timed penalties and giving up big plays have really hurt the Browns so far, but they're also issues that (especially in the case of the penalties) are correctable. These are things the Browns could make major improvements on just over one bye week. If they do, it will make a huge difference for them going forward.