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Cowboys vs. Browns: 7 Talking Points

The road to 0-16 is one game shorter.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Did you expect anything less?

The Cleveland Dallas Cowboys defeated the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, 35-10, showing little life in another difficult to watch home game.

As you all know, the Browns stand at 0-9 on the season, just seven games away from the highest level of mediocrity. Today’s game was nothing but another step in a slow march to the No. 1 draft pick.

Today was slightly different for me, in that I attended my first Browns’ game of the season. I always try to attend at least one game per year, if not more. This time, I took a friend of mine who had never been to a Browns game, and I almost felt guilty for subjecting her to a terrible performance on-field.

As you might have noticed on television, Cowboys fans flooded the stadium today. Every time the Cowboys scored, the stadium erupted with joy, a little felt emotion inside the “Factory of Sadness.”

But surprisingly, the Cowboys fans in my section were really fun. Unlike the Cubs fans I interacted with at Progressive Field earlier this week, Cowboys fans were easy going and sympathetic of Cleveland’s plight. We even bonded over our hatred of the Steelers.

With a seat in the lower bowl near the Dawg Pound, about 15 rows from the Browns sideline, I observed plenty. But to avoid torturing you, too, I’ll keep today’s version a little shorter than usual. After all, I don’t think we should let the Browns spoil a nice weekend.

1. Staying alive: Facing steady pressure from a stacked Cowboys front seven, quarterback Cody Kessler put on a nice show, but could only do so much. Kessler was the only reason to continue watching on Sunday.

The rookie finished the day 19-of-27 passing for 203 yards and 1 touchdown. Kessler’s lone score of the day occurred late in the second quarter, as the signal caller rolled out of the pocket and found Terrelle Pryor in the right side of the end zone for a touchdown.

Kessler’s touchdown throw shows why he can be every bit as good as Dak Prescott, and not like “boy,” as another analyst called Kessler after the game. Kessler rolled out of the pocket to avoid pressure, found room with his feet, and delivered a bullet to Pryor.

Making the play more impressive, Kessler looked shaken up earlier in the drive after absorbing a late hit from a Cowboys’ lineman.

Kessler looked much better in the first half than the second, thanks in part to an underperforming offensive line. Kessler was sacked four times, and understandably looked uncomfortable in the pocket. After all, Kessler took 7 quarterback hits in addition to the 4 sacks.

Of course, Cameron Erving was ejected early in the first half, either helping or harming the situation, depending on how you look at it.

Either way, Kessler only threw 7 passes in the second half, as the offense only ran 14 plays in 30 minutes. You have the Browns’ defense to thank for that one.

We need to see Kessler more before passing judgement on him.

2. Tackling dummies: As we’ve said all season, the Browns simply can’t tackle. The Browns especially struggled on the boundary.

It’s become a constant theme in these talking points that the Browns struggle with the fundamentals of tackling. Based on the film, it’s difficult to diagnose whether it is a lack of execution or a lack of coaching, but it’s likely the former.

The problem lies not with the front seven, but with the cornerbacks and safeties. When the outside linebackers keep the play inside, the interior line and inside backers usually make the stop. Of course, Ezekiel Elliott did punish the Browns inside with his bruising style, but the Cowboys did not kill the Browns with inside runs.

The Cowboys beat the Browns with outside and off tackle runs. The Dallas coaching staff isolated the Browns’ corners and safeties on the outside and said, ‘Hey, go ahead and try to tackle Zeke. We won’t even block you.’

The philosophy worked beautifully for the Cowboys. Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Derrick Kindred, Tramon Williams, and Tracy Howard all missed critical tackles on the outside. Zeke crushed the Browns with cutbacks and outside runs.

The Browns’ inability to tackle led to Elliott’s two touchdown runs, and a host of first downs. The Cowboys dominated the edge and used it to eat the clock, holding a gigantic edge in time of possession, 39:39 to 20:21.

It’s time to go back to the drawing board here.

3. Impressive debut: In his first game as a Brown, linebacker Jamie Collins put on a show. The former Patriot might have been the best defender on the field for the Browns.

Collins finished the day with 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and 1 quarterback hit. The team’s new linebacker played all 73 defensive snaps, as an outside backer in the 3-4 and an inside backer in the nickel. According to PFF, Collins rushed the passer 14 times and played in coverage on 17 snaps.

Collins certainly wasn’t perfect, not helping much to slow down tight end Jason Witten. The veteran smashed the Browns for 134 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Other that that, however, Collins looked great in a Browns uniform.

Time will tell about Collins, as will more film study. But the early results are in, and Collins looks like a steal.

4. Witless in coverage: Jason Witten destroyed the Browns on Sunday, continuing the theme of tight ends hurting the Browns.

Following Witten’s 134-yard performance, the Browns have allowed over 100 receiving yards to tight ends three times now in nine games, previously allowing Rob Gronkowski to roll for 109 yards and Dennis Pitta to pick up 102.

Also consider that Jordan Reed caught two touchdown passes for the Redskins earlier this season.

The Browns have an inability to cover solid tight ends in space. Give Witten credit for hauling in some nice passes – he’s not one of the most reliable tight ends in the league for nothing. But he also had plenty of room to operate.

The Browns tried both zone and man coverage, but nothing seemed to work. Witten snuck under the Browns’ Cover 2, and meandered past any Browns linebackers trying to blanket him in single coverage.

At this point, I’m not sure if there’s anything the Browns’ coaching staff can do to stop trusty tight ends like Pitta, Witten, and others. The Browns simply don’t have any players who can consistently cover the tight end.

Perhaps Collins will prove to be the solution. But for right now, attacking the Browns underneath with the tight end appears to be the way to open the defense for deeper attacks downfield.

5. Dak Attack: Prescott found holes all over the field against the Browns’ secondary, nickeling and diming the Browns down the field.

Before I critique the Browns’ secondary, let me first give a heap of credit to Joe Haden. The veteran almost entirely shut down Dez Bryant, limiting the superstar to just one reception for 19 yards on four targets. Granted, Bryant did have at least one drop, if not two, but Bryant didn't hurt the Browns nearly as much as he could have.

But besides Haden, the rest of the secondary struggled. The safeties often looked lost in coverage, and the other corners failed to limit underneath throws. Jamar Taylor continued to look solid, but Williams and Boddy-Calhoun missed tackles and allowed slot wide receiver Cole Beasley to gain 56 yards on 6 receptions.

As mentioned above, the secondary also struggled mightily with Witten. The Browns will need to use a high pick in the next couple drafts on a corner and a mid-round pick on a safety.

However, not all of the blame lies with the secondary. The pass rush was nonexistent. On 28 drop backs today, the Browns managed zero sacks and one quarterback hit.

That’s astoundingly bad.

Sure, the Browns forced Prescott out of the pocket a couple times. But the pass rush simply wasn’t there consistently. The Cowboys’ offensive line manhandled Emmanuel Ogbah, and Carl Nassib did not register any stats. We’ll see the snap counts soon, but the Browns need these two rookies to produce.

Through nine games, it’s safe to say the 2016 Browns defense is one of the worst in the expansion era.

6. Third and Doomed: The Browns looked terrible on third downs, on both offense and defense.

Take these numbers in: On offense, the Browns converted 1-of-9 third downs. On defense, the Browns allowed the Cowboys to clinch 8-of-12 third down conversions. That’s a 23.8% success rate as a team on third down.

It’s simple — the Browns can’t take care of business in the clutch.

On the offensive end, the problem lies with ineffective route running. On several occasions, Browns’ wideouts did not run routes deep enough to convert the third down. Even Gary Barnidge was culpable on one play.

On defense, poor play on first and second down leads to easy third down conversions for the opposing offenses.

Twice the Cowboys faced 3rd and 9 situations, before the Browns fell offsides on defense, granting Dallas more managed 3rd and 4 plays, both of which the Cowboys converted.

Eight of the Cowboys’ 12 third down chances were 5 yards or less. That shows the Browns’ failures on early downs.

The solution for the Browns on third down is twofold – Avoid penalties, and play better on the first two downs. Easier said than done.

7. Will we ever win? Early in the season, head coach Hue Jackson set high goals for his team. With his club sitting at 0-9, the goal now has to be to win a single game.

Let’s look at the remaining schedule, shall we?

@ Baltimore Ravens (4-4) on Thursday, Nov. 10
vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) on Sunday, Nov. 20
vs. New York Giants (5-3) on Sunday, Nov. 27
vs. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4) on Sunday, Dec. 11
@ Buffalo Bills (4-4) on Sunday, Dec. 18
vs. San Diego Chargers (4-5) on Saturday, Dec. 24
@ Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) on Sunday, Jan. 1

On paper, that’s not bad, right? The Browns’ remaining competition have a combined mark of 28-28 this season.

In reality, the Browns’ win will be hard to find. After a sluggish start in Week 2, the Ravens erupted for 23 straight points. The Steelers have Big Ben back. The Giants look like a contender again with Odell Beckham, Jr. on a hot streak. The Bengals offense steamrolled the Browns earlier this year. Tyrod Taylor is tearing it up in Buffalo with 1,799 total yards and 12 touchdowns. Melvin Gordon and the Chargers lit up the Titans for 43 points today.

The Browns’ best chances to win are against the Bills in Week 15 and versus the Chargers in Week 16. Rex Ryan the Bills might implode by that point, and playing in Cleveland on Christmas Eve might be tough for the warm weather Chargers.

However, neither team looks all that beatable, especially looking at the offensive weapons each team could use to bludgeon the Browns.

The Browns are staring down the barrel of a winless season, with pressure beginning to mount to win just one game.

It’s going to be a long slog to the end of the season.