The Cleveland Browns turned in a lousy effort in a 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon.
Head coach Hue Jackson said after the game, “I’ve never lost like this.” Poor Hue might be in for a few more like this one.
Racked by injuries, the offense did not have its best day, especially with Cody Kessler out. But the defense’s utter inability to even slow the Bengals down is the story of this game.
With that, we begin with the talking points, one for each loss the Browns have suffered this season.
1. Hogan’s heroes: With Kessler KO’ed, rookie Kevin Hogan was forced to step into the game. The Stanford product put forth a solid performance after the Bengals knocked Cody Kessler out of the game.
Thanks to another lackluster performance by the offensive line in pass protection, Kessler found himself on the sidelines again with an injury early in the game. The rookie out of USC had to be yanked from the game after absorbing a big hit. He would not return to the game, due to a concussion.
Hogan became the sixth quarterback in seven games to throw a pass for the Browns. Facing a dangerous Bengals’ pass rush, Hogan performed decently under pressure.
His best plays seemed to be short passes and running plays. The rookie found open wideouts underneath, particularly Gary Barnidge. The veteran tight end greatly helped the youngster, serving as a reliable security blanket.
Hogan did his best Johnny Manziel impression on designed runs and scrambles. Even before Kessler departed with an injury, Hogan entered the game to run the ball 3 times for 37 yards in the first half.
In at quarterback for the first drive of the third quarter, Hogan gashed the Bengals for a 28-yard rushing touchdown. According to ESPN, the play was the longest touchdown run by an NFL quarterback this season. The score kept the Browns in the game and narrowed the deficit to 21-17 early in the third quarter.
Hogan did throw an awful interception to safety Shawn Williams late in the third quarter, but Williams fumbled and Austin Pasztor recovered, erasing Hogan’s mistake.
As the second half continued, Hogan began to have issues finding open receivers. To Hogan’s credit, the Browns’ wideouts could not find many openings. Thanks to a stiff Bengals’ defensive line that created pressure without needing a linebacker blitz, the Cincinnati secondary dropped into coverage and shutdown the Browns’ wideouts.
Hogan finished the day 12-of-24 with 100 yards and 2 interceptions. Hogan certainly isn’t an all-star, but he’s worth a further look if Kessler or Josh McCown aren’t 100% by next week.
2. Swiss cheese secondary: The Browns’ secondary is simply awful right now. This sums up the secondary right now.
To the Browns’ credit, the Bengals have one of the most fearsome quarterback-wide receiver duos in the league in Andy Dalton to AJ Green. But that doesn’t explain the secondary allowing deep passing plays to Brandon LaFell and others.
Filling in for an injured Joe Haden, rookie Briean Boddy-Calhoun struggled with Green all day. Boddy-Calhoun didn’t play terribly, but he was a step or two slow on most plays. He was isolated in single coverage on several plays, and couldn’t respond under pressure.
Jamar Taylor also experienced a difficult day. The former Dolphin allowed LaFell to slip through his fingers on a lengthy touchdown. Taylor was caught flat-footed on the play, and would have been called for holding even if LaFell had not caught the ball and galloped down the sidelines for a score.
The play of the Browns safeties is a major, concern, too. Ibraheim Campbell and Tracy Howard took terrible angles on both passing and running plays. The most notable example occurred on Jeremy Hill’s 74-yard touchdown run. Campbell whiffed on Hill after the back broke through the first two levels of the Browns’ defense, allowing Hill to transform a short gain into a back-breaking touchdown.
Based on the team’s secondary woes, the Browns will need to invest highly in a cornerback in the 2017 draft.
3. Friend becomes foe: Former Bengals coordinator Hue Jackson called a solid game on offensive for the Browns. Creative playcalls marked a solid first half for the offense.
The Bengals’ dominant play on offense will undoubtably hold the headlines. But Jackson’s playcalling on offense kept the Browns in an otherwise unwinnable game.
The Browns faced many challenges on offense — two inexperienced rookies at quarterback, a hobbled No. 1 wideout in Terrelle Pryor, and injuries on the offensive line.
Still, Jackson made the most of what was available, with well-design quarterback runs, easy to complete short passes, and effective run plays for Isaiah Crowell.
The designed run plays to Hogan were brilliant, as the Browns faked runs to one side and ran Hogan to the others. The feints confused the Bengals defense, leading them to flow to the ball as Hogan easily ran to daylight on the weak side.
Many of Jackson’s successful pass plays came on screen passes with well-executed blocks. Jackson also utilized Barnidge well with short passing plays to him near the hashmarks.
Headed by Crowell, the running game rebounded with a solid game. More on that below.
From what I’ve seen, Jackson is doing a solid job of game planning. The problem with the Browns lies in a sheer lack of talent rather than a lack of smarts, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Jackson looked truly defeated and dejected on the sideline for the first time this year, and for good reason. There’s only so much a coach can do with a team so devoid of talent is so many areas.
4. A truly offensive line: Injuries have hobbled a Browns’ line that has performed terribly, especially in pass protection.
With Joel Bitonio out at left guard, Spencer Drango found himself making the start. Then the rookie departed due to injury, leaving fellow rookie Shon Coleman to sub into the game.
To further the issues, Cameron Erving did not come out of the locker room after the break due to injury, leaving John Greco to shift to center. Drango re-entered at left guard, Alvin Bailey took Greco’s place at right guard, and Coleman replaced Pasztor at right tackle.
Coleman showed his inexperience on the second-to-last play of the third quarter, allowing a quick sack that set the Browns back with a third and long.
Even tight end Gary Barnidge missed a block on the left-side on one play, allowing a sack in the third quarter. Crowell also struggled with blocking responsibilities on several plays.
Here’s a fun stat: Hogan’s first four drop backs resulted in three hurries and two quarterback hits.
The injuries and resulting shifts in positions have killed the Browns this season. Until the injury bug stops biting the Browns and the coaches find a combination of linemen that block well together, the club’s many quarterbacks will continue to sustain injuries.
5. A Hill to climb: The Browns’ front seven did the rest of the team no favors, allowing Jeremy Hill and the Bengals to run wild. Tackling again proved to be an issue for the Browns.
A theme this season for the Browns has been poor tackling. Injuries and a lack of depth have also afflicted the Browns, but the most glaring problem is a simple inability to plug holes and wrap up tacklers.
The problem starts with the defensive line. The big boys up front are being pushed around and into the linebackers. The linemen, particularly Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, generated some pressure in the passing game today, but were not able to plug gaps.
As a result, the linebackers absorbed blocks from Cincinnati offensive linemen, not the fullbacks or tight ends. The Browns’ linebackers could not shed the Cincy big uglies, allowing the Bengals to rush for an astonishing 271 yards.
The Bengals had 539 rushing yards in their six previous games.
Hill alone notched 168 yards, including a 74-yarder. Gio Bernard managed 80 yards on 17 carries and a score. The Bengals averaged 9 yards per carry, which is an absurd stat.
Give Hill and Bernard credit for an outstanding game. But the Browns’ defense has significant problems to solve before facing Matt Forte and the Jets next week.
6. At least one guy showed up: The lone bright spot of the Browns’ defense today was Emmanuel Ogbah. The tweener rookie, stuck between defensive end and linebacker all season, enjoyed a breakout day.
The Browns have a history of drafting tweeners and misusing them, unable to pick one position for them. But Ogbah seems to be making progress, even as the rest of the defense sputters.
Ogbah notched 6 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hits, leading the team in all of those categories except for tackles.
The rookie seemed to be all over the field on Sunday, flashing his special combination of speed and strength. He used his speed to beat the Bengals on the edge before utilizing his strength to corner Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ ballcarriers.
To place Ogbah’s success into perspective, Cam Johnson entered the game as the Browns’ sack leader with two.
Given time to improve, Ogbah could become a stellar defender for the Browns. With Nassib and Danny Shelton also in place, the Browns might soon have a decent defensive line.
7. Cutback city: Crowell and the Browns enjoyed plenty of success on the ground against Cincinnati.
Unlike the last few weeks, Crowell showed vision and skill when running the ball. The Browns’ top back ran 12 times for 63 yards and a touchdown, including a 21-yard scamper.
The cutback is the key with Crowell. When the third-year back ran away from the designed point of attack, he succeeded and picked up yards. When he blindly followed the play design, Crowell sputtered and did not gain any yards.
Also credit improved run blocking and better schemes. The Browns used both zone and man blocking schemes to pave the way for Crowell and open holes. And surprisingly, Erving blocked fairly well. Bailey seemed to perform well on run plays, and Joe Thomas dominated his opponents.
As mentioned above, Hogan also had a big day on the ground, running 7 times for 104 yards and a 28-yard touchdown. The reason for the success? Cutbacks and weak-side runs.
The first reaction to a 31-17 loss to a rival is to say everything sucked. That’s not the case. The Browns ran the ball quite well, to the tune of 180 yards and 6.9 yards per carry.
Typically, if you rack up those types of numbers, you’ll win the game. But not if you allow 271 yards and 9.0 yards per carry to the opposing team.
At the end of the day, its wins and losses, and the Browns are 0-7 after a mostly poor effort today. But the Browns have some young players with great potential. The key to the rest of the season is not ruining these young guns by losing every game or running them into the ground.
Good luck, Hue. I don’t envy you, my friend.