Reasons for excitement:
As I just alluded to, this game was almost the polar opposite of last week's. This time around, it was the Browns' offense that did everything it could to help this team pull out a victory, but the defense just kept breaking down in the secondary and it ultimately cost them the game. That doesn't mean there aren't reasons for excitement:
The Browns absolutely needed to see huge improvements from Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson, the team's first-round picks. Weeden and Richardson both more than delivered.
After an abysmal quarterback rating of 5.1 last week, Weeden showed marked improvement on Sunday against the Bengals. He was stepping up into the pocket and delivering accurate throws all around the field. He completed over 70 percent of his passes on 37 attempts, which was up from 34.3 last week, totaling 322 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Trent Richardson was everything the Browns needed their third overall draft pick to be and more in this game. He showed the speed that was missing last week, breaking open for a 32-yard touchdown, his first in the NFL, on the Browns fourth drive of the game. His second TD of the game came on a pass out of the backfield, which he took 23 yards into the end zone, shaking three would-be tacklers, giving Brandon Weeden his first career NFL passing touchdown. Richardson finished the day with 109 rushing yards on 19 carries, 5.7 average, one TD on the ground, four receptions, 36 yards receiving, and another TD throw the air, though the work was done after the catch.
Mohamed Massaquoi has also stepped up as Weeden's primary wide receiver and looked pretty good in the role thus far early in the season. He needs to stay healthy, of course, but many Browns fans are pleasantly surprised with his performance up to this point.
Yes, the Browns are 0 and 2 on the season, but it's only Week 2. That's still very early. After last week many were demanding improvement of the offense and rightly so. Well, they got it. It wasn't enough to produce a win, but it was enough to create some encouragement.
Proceeding with caution:
Cautious optimism is the name of the game for Browns fans. It hasn't really worked out for us over the past several seasons, but considering the other option is pessimism, it's not really much of a choice.
First, I want to point out that the defensive line was stellar once again, despite the loss of Billy Winn after only seven snaps. The Browns' defense managed to sack Andy Dalton a surprising total of six times, actually tying them for second in the league on the season.
The run defense picked up as well, which was an area of criticism last week and last season. They held BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who averaged 5.1 against Baltimore Ravens in Week 1, to only 3.6 yards per carry on the ground and no touchdowns.
The secondary is where the Browns' defense broke down, which again, as opposed to last week was a strong point. The absence of Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown had a huge impact. Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine are decent nickle and slot corners, but they are not reliable number ones. Eric Hagg had a very poor outing too. The secondary as a unit made the entire Bengals' receiving corps look like world-beaters. A.J. Green is an incredibly talented wide receiver, the kind that you only hope to contain, but they can't let Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, and Andrew Hawkins torch them on a consistent basis.
Given the relatively small two-game sample size, I'm attributing these struggles largely on the absence of Haden and Brown. The team is going to need them back. Haden is a shutdown corner and the sort of playmaker on defense that the Browns need. His presence also allows the rest of the secondary to excel. Brown is at least a serviceable No. 2, which may be more than we can say about Skrine.
While they may have an excuse, the problem is that Haden will be out for three more games, and they're against opponents that can score through the air. They have to improve if the Browns are going to pull out wins during that 3-game stretch.
Another slight bright spot is that Josh Cribbs has continued to look good on returns, averaging numbers that we have not seen from him since 2009. On the other side of special teams, that punt return for a touchdown by Adam Jones was unacceptable. That wasn't Devin Hester sort of speed by Jones, it was an absolutely pathetic tackling effort from the coverage team.
With all those things said, if the Browns can manage to win games in Haden's absence, I'll be impressed, but at the same time, I think they need to. Starting the season 0-5, even with progress, will put the Browns in too big of a hole.
Other takes in the order that I noted them (chronological):
- Activating Chris Ogbonnaya in favor of Brandon Jackson because of special teams was a strange move and a stranger explanation. Based on the game, I think they thought Ogbonnaya was a better threat catching out of the backfield on third downs. He actually led the team in receptions.
- They ran that reverse to Travis Benjamin or the fake a number of times. It worked out well the first two calls at least. If it continues to work, I like getting him the ball in open space.
- Weeden was still making some rookie mistakes, mostly in the first half, but that's to be expected from a rookie. That didn't detract from his otherwise good performance on Sunday. I also saw a little mobility from Weeden a few times.
- That many penalties is just bad and not something they had a problem with last week. Pat Shurmur needs to nip that in the bud now before it becomes a regular issue.
- The Browns are too predictable on first and third down. I'm not an expert on offensive play calling, but that's exactly why I don't want to be able to predict whether the Browns are going to run or pass.
- Owen Marecic is terrible.
- The Browns' defense was pretty solid on third downs, keeping the Bengals to only 4 of 12, another improvement from last week.
- I don't understand why Shurmur continues to run the clock out with plenty of time and timeouts to run a two minute offense at the end of the first half. It cost the Browns big last week, and may have again this week as they were down 7 points.
- D'Qwell Jackson continued his possible all-pro campaign, intercepting a pass for the second strait week. He also had three sacks and a pass defended.
- That challenge by Shurmur near the end of the game made sense. As did the choice to kick the field goal rather than go for the touchdown on fourth down. When you're down 10, you have to kick the FG at some point anyway. It's better kick it on a fourth down, giving yourself at least another opportunity on the mandatory onside attempt, as opposed to the greater chance of just ending it right then if you don't convert the fourth down.
- The fans clamoring for Colt McCoy will quiet down.