That was painful.
The Return of Tom Brady led to the demise of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, as the New England Patriots laid waste to the home team, 33-13.
Today’s game served as a painful reminder of how far away the Browns are from playing competitive football.
The Browns simply have a large deficiency in talent compared to a world-class franchise like the Patriots.
To the club’s credit, a lot of bad luck, particularly in the injury department, has contributed to the Browns’ 0-5 start. It’s not the front office’s and coaching staff’s fault that Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, and Charlie Whitehurst have all sustained injuries this season.
At the same time, it’s time for some soul-searching in Berea.
1. Are they playing the same game? The Patriots didn’t simply outplay and outclass the Browns, the Pats embarrassed the Browns.
In every facet of the game, from passing offense to rushing defense, the Browns played horribly. Head coach Hue Jackson was severely outcoached by his counterpart on the Patriots’ sideline, too.
Perhaps the toughest part of the game were the injuries to Cody Kessler and Charlie Whitehurst.
Kessler looked promising the last couple of weeks and at the start of the game today. His arm certainly isn’t on par with Tom Brady’s cannon, but Kessler’s accuracy and smarts are promising.
Take, for example, Kessler’s smart read in the red zone on the Browns’ second drive of the game. Kessler saw Andrew Hawkins in single coverage in the slot on the left side, and lofted a beautiful ball to Hawkins on his corner route.
Besides Kessler’s solid play, the Browns do not have much to hang their hats on.
The running backs sputtered. Receivers dropped pass after pass. The linebackers didn’t fill gaps on runs. The safeties performed poorly in pass coverage.
The Browns have such a talent deficit that it’s hard to judge the team on this game alone. Based on the team’s whole body of work, today’s result is unsurprising.
2. Running into the ground: The Browns’ running game couldn’t gain any sort of traction against the Pats.
Entering today’s game, the Browns have been one of the best running teams in the NFL. Last week, the Browns ran all over the Dolphins’ defense, as Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson found wide openings created by the offensive line.
Today, the offensive line could not create the same space. The line did not generate push off the line, leading to crowded running lanes easily closed by the Pats’ inside linebackers. Linebacker Elandon Roberts lead the visitors in tackles with seven today.
Also noticeable was the Browns’ inability to seal off the Patriots on the edges. Outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower pushed the Browns’ running backs inside to the teeth of the Patriots’ defense.
Another small detail I noticed: Unlike last week, the Browns did not pull backside blockers. Last week, Joel Bitonio and Joe Thomas pulled from left to right on runs. Today, the Browns used man blocking without much counter or pull action.
On the afternoon, the Browns rushed 22 times for 27 yards. The club’s lack of rushing game increased the pressure on the passing attack. The Patriots’ gameplan of making the Browns one dimensional worked flawlessly.
Next week against the Titans, the Browns better improve at running the ball.
3. Clipboard Jesus, take the wheel: The Browns’ popular backup got his chance to shine today.
As expected, Whitehurst struggled some in his first time under center with the Browns. The career backup finished the day 14-of-24 for 182 yards and an interception, though the pick was not his fault.
Whitehurst often faced heavy pressure, forced to make quick decisions in the pocket. The veteran did not always effectively find the open option, though he improved as the game continued. Whitehurst thrived when the Patriots played a soft zone cover scheme later in the game, tossing passes to open receivers underneath.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. As Whitehurst started to find some consistency, Clipboard Jesus was clipped in the fourth quarter. Grabbing his knee, Whitehurst limped off the sidelines, leaving the Browns with just the versatile Terrelle Pryor at quarterback.
As for next week, who knows who the Browns will start at quarterback? Does it matter?
4. Brady’s Back: Tom Brady tore the Browns apart like a police dog would tear into a runaway convict.
Returning from a 4-game suspension as a result of Deflategate, Brady annihilated the Browns, completing 28-of-40 for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns. The game marked his eighth 400-yard performance of his career.
Brady smartly carved up the Browns, especially in the first half. The veteran tossed the ball to Julian Edelman in zone coverage and also found his outside wideout when the Browns used soft coverage. Brady also recognized man coverage on the tight end, leading to big days for Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski.
In some ways, it was fun to watch Brady work. The master diagnosed exactly what the Browns were doing on nearly every play. Even when the Browns tried to blitz and pressure him, Brady called out the blitz schemes and helped his offensive line deflect the Browns’ pass rushers. Brady released the ball quickly on blitzes, too, counteracting Ray Horton’s aggressive scheme.
Brady also received plenty of help from his receivers. For example, running back James White torched the Browns for 36 yards off a screen late in the first quarter, dodging blockers en route to a huge play.
To some extent, nothing the Browns could have done would have completely stopped Brady. But the gameplan failed to contain Brady in any way, shape, or form.
5. You might want to cover that guy: Bennett exposed a major weakness of the Browns’ defense today.
The Browns’ linebackers and safeties are not quick in space and look poorly suited for pass coverage.
The Patriots have a great duo in Bennett and Gronkowski. The two have plenty of talent, and burn many defenses. But the ease in their exploits should sound alarm bells.
On his first touchdown, Bennett found himself wide open in the flat. On his second score, Bennett beat Demario Davis on a drag route across the right side. And on his final score, Bennett beat Campbell deep for a 37-yard score down the right side. Campbell’s eyes were glued to the backfield, allowing Bennett to slip by a weak bump at the line.
Even when not covering the tight end, the Browns’ safeties struggled. Campbell was turned around by Chris Hogan on a deep post route for a 43-yard gain in the first half. Campbell was playing a Zone 1 coverage as the lone deep safety, and Hogan’s route was the lone deep route of the play.
Jordan Poyer similarly stuggled to cover Gronk on a drag route across the middle, leading to a 48-yard completion for the Pats on 3rd and 8 early in the third quarter.
The Browns need to adapt on defense to better cover opposing tight ends.
6. What’s wrong with Gary? Gary Barnidge dropped a pair of easy passes today, indicative of a solid, but overall disappointing, season for the 31 year old.
Look at the statsheet, and you might be impressed with Barnidge. A team-best 5 catches for 76 yards, his best numbers of the year.
The tape shows a bit of a different story.
Barnidge, without a doubt, did make a few nice catches. The tight end hauled in a big catch on 3rd and 9 early in the second quarter, one of a couple nice catches.
On the other hand, Barnidge had two egregious drops across the middle. Last season, Barnidge would have vacuumed up those passes across the middle. But for whatever reason, perhaps the lack of consistency at quarterback, Barnidge has not consistently showcased his flashy skills that were on full display last season.
Through five games, Barnidge has 21 receptions for 236 yards and no touchdowns. At this point last season, Barnidge has 24 catches for 374 yards and three scores.
I’m certainly not calling out Barnidge. He’s been one of the club’s best players in the past couple of seasons. But something appears slightly off. Call it bad quarterback play or injuries or bad luck, but Barnidge hasn’t performed at the same level as last year.
7. Soul-searching time: The Browns need help at offensive line.
Everyone talks about the tumult at quarterback as the reason for the Browns’ woes. But we need to start talking more about the poor offensive line play.
Once a source of pride, the Browns’ offensive line is now a hindrance. Left tackle Joe Thomas played a terrific game, as per usual, but the rest of the line, especially the interior, struggled today.
Filling in at center, John Greco experienced a rough day. Typically a guard, Greco missed several Patriots’ blitzes, including Hightower on his blitz that crushed Kessler, costing the Browns both Kessler and two points.
Greco allowed another sack in the third quarter, and earned a holding call in the red zone. Give him credit for avoiding any bad snaps, but Greco struggled with pass protection today.
Alvin Bailey also had an iffy day, missing blocks on a couple runs and not showing much efficiency in pass protection. Jackson kept Bailey after his run-in with the law, but the Browns might want to try rookie Spencer Drango inside for longer spells.
As much as pundits have criticized the Browns for not drafting Carson Wentz, perhaps the bigger error was bumbling the resigning of Mitchell Schwartz. His presence might have made a difference today.
Other positions also need big upgrades, but for now, the Browns are stuck with what they have.
Hue Jackson has a big task ahead of him. Can he coax a win out of this beleaguered group? It will be a harder challenge than he once thought.