The patrons of FirstEnergy Stadium could only watch and boo as the Cleveland Browns were taken to task by the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-7.
For the third straight week, the Browns saw the opposition claim a double-digit lead heading into halftime. Another fun fact: The Browns have outscored foes 35-16 in the second half this season. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t score early.
If you wisely avoided the television today, here’s what you missed:
1. Dalton Pounds the Dawgs: The Bengals’ passing attack broke the back of the Browns’ defense. The Browns could not do anything to stop Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ short passing game.
Here are the numbers you need to know about the critical first half, which saw the Bengals take a 21-0 lead:
Bengals: 17-of-18 passing for 215 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 7 different wide receivers catch a pass
Browns: 8-of-16 passing for 72 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 3 wideouts involved
That’s all you need to know about the first half.
Dalton picked the Browns’ pockets on the short game all day. The Browns’ linebackers struggled to cover tight end Tyler Kroft and the Bengals’ backs. The Browns’ defensive backs could not run with the Bengals’ wideouts, either.
Openings in the short passing game allowed the Bengals to gradually march down the field, especially on a crushing 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive concluding with a strike to Kroft that beat Christian Kirksey.
The Browns’ secondary did not place a finger on the football until Jamar Taylor nearly intercepted Dalton on the first drive of the second half.
Part of the blame lies on the inability of the Browns’ defensive backs to stick with AJ Green, Brandon LaFell, and Co. Green hurt the Browns repeatedly, but it’s a lot to expect a corner to go one-on-one with one of the best receivers in the league.
Instead, much of the blame falls upon the coach, Gregg Williams.
2. Gregg and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Gregg Williams’ did not help things today. The defensive coordinator’s blitz calls, man coverage on Green, and use of Jabrill Peppers as an “angel” harmed the Browns today.
Williams’ 6-man blitz with 1:21 left in the second quarter led to a 61-yard touchdown screen reception by Giovani Bernard. The lengthy score broke the Browns’ back, giving the team a near insurmountable deficit to overcome, especially with the Bengals received the ball to start off the second half. With time ticking down in the half, the more conventional and smart play is to dial up a Cover 3 or Cover 4 scheme to stop the deep pass. Not a blitz call with man coverage.
Speaking of man coverage, Jason McCourty, a solid veteran but no Richard Sherman. Asking McCourty to cover AJ Green one-on-one is rarely a smart move. Asking Peppers to cover AJ Green is never a smart move. Green burned both on passes today on critical plays. Green’s second quarter touchdown pass from Dalton was too easy, as a young Peppers could not stick with the perennial All-Pro.
Peppers has talent, but his role is not angelic. Peppers follows Williams’ orders and sets up shop every play about 20-25 yards from the line of scrimmage. This grants other teams a huge advantage in the short passing game. Sure, it does help take away the deep pass. But even so, Peppers is not used to the role, and thus takes poor angles to the ball. For example, Peppers had a chance on the lengthy Bernard score, but took a bad angle and was eaten alive by a Bengals’ offensive lineman.
The Browns not only have a secondary problem, but a coaching problem.
3. Catch the dang ball: Kenny Britt and the Browns’ wideouts dropped pass after pass versus the Bengals. This is why we can’t have nice things.
When the Browns signed Kenny Britt, many hailed the move as a smart decision to bolster a weak wide receiver corps. Instead, the move has brought a famine upon the Browns’ offense.
Britt caught a nice pass in coverage midway through the second quarter, but for every nice play the veteran makes, he drops two passes. One of Britt’s drops was especially deadly. Inside the red zone, Kizer slung a pass to an open Britt, who allowed the ball to clank off his hands and into the waiting arms of a Bengals defender.
Wasted chances in the red zone can’t happen. It’s one thing when your rookie quarterback has a mishap. Rookies will make mistakes, that’s a given. But a veteran making an avoidable mistake in a critical spot in the red zone? That should not occur, and hurts when it does.
Britt was not the lone Brown with a case of the dropsies. Seth DeValve dropped a catchable ball off a shallow route. The second-year tight end did the same thing last week, culpable of looking downfield too early. Kasen Williams and Ricardo Louis also dropped catchable passes.
4. Bengal busters: The Browns’ defensive line starred as the defense’s best unit on Sunday. The line often caused chaos in the backfield and limiting the Bengals’ ground game.
Taking advantage of a weak Bengals’ offensive line, the Browns pressured Andy Dalton in the pocket on a number of plays. Emmanuel Ogbah enjoyed a particularly great game, with a strip sack and fumble recovery of Dalton early in the game. Ogbah forced another fumble later on in the first half on a Jeremy Hill run, nearly causing another turnover. Ogbah has plenty of talent, as he showcased on Sunday.
Unfortunately, the youngster suffered an injury on the Bengals’ third touchdown of the day and didn’t have as much of an impact afterwards.
Others performed well, too, as Caleb Brantley notched a sack of his own. Jamie Meder did nice things on run plays, filling in well for an injured Danny Shelton. Trevon Coley notched a late sack and showed good pursuit from the backside.
The Browns also stood strong against the run. The Bengals could not manage much in the ground game, thanks in part to the Browns’ interior linemen standing strong. The Bengals ended the game with 30 attempts for 86 yards.
The Bengals largely neutralized the Browns’ advantage, however. Dalton’s offense played to the Browns’ weakness by utilizing the short passing game and using screen passes to defeat the Browns’ frequent blitzes.
Credit the defensive line with doing what it could to try to hinder Dalton, even though the secondary sucked.
5. Duuuuuuke: The one bright spot of the day was Duke Johnson. The team’s second back served as DeShone Kizer’s primary wideout and ran the ball well.
Amidst the mediocrity, Johnson excelled. The third-year back caught every pass that came his way, even when a defender was hot in pursuit. Besides David Njoku, Johnson was the only receiver on the field today who secured every pass that hit his hands.
Johnson hauled in 9 passes for 47 yards today, rarely going to the turf easily. Johnson has an aptitude for evading defenders and fighting for extra yardage. That’s refreshing to see in a running back / wideout.
The Browns only rushed the ball 13 times, including four scrambles by Kizer, so Johnson only got two carries. Those two carries resulted in 12 yards, though. Johnson can read the field well and find the hole. Isaiah Crowell has lobbied for a contract extension and more touches, but it’s Johnson who has earned playing time this season.
Crowell has 46 carries for 134 yards (3.56 yards per carry) and 12 receptions for 167 yards on 20 targets. Johnson has 8 rushes for 56 yards (7 ypc) and 19 receptions for 198 yards on 27 targets. Crowell is no slouch, but Johnson’s numbers and performance is better through four games.
Johnson also pounded the ball into the end zone to avoid a shutout.
Regardless, credit Johnson with playing well even though his team has not.
6. I get knocked down, but I get up again: DeShone Kizer deserves the admiration of Browns fans. He has been given an impossible task and shown strength in the face of adversity.
Even if you paid me millions, I’m not sure if I would want to play quarterback for the Browns right now. The offensive line is better than in years past, but that hasn’t stopped the weekly beatings in the pocket.
The blocking by the team on blitzes, particularly by the running backs and tight ends, has been less than stellar. For example, Crowell failed to chip a blitzing Bengal, leading to an easy sack and a huge hit absorbed by Kizer. The Bengals often got a player through on blitz plays, as the Browns could not pick up blitzers.
Kizer took a number of big hits today, but resiliently rose from the turf each time. Some of those hits had to hurt, but Kizer somehow got up every time.
Sure, Kizer did not play perfectly. The rookie stared down receivers at times, failing to cycle through his reads. He also remained in the pocket too long at times.
However, Kizer cannot be blamed for being shutout and the poor performance by the offense. His receivers did not help him, failing to find openings downfield. Kizer often went through several reads before settling on an underneath option. Kizer simply did not have receivers open to throw the ball to downfield. It’s that simple.
Kizer has a live arm, and has shown his zip on the rare throws that a wideout has created space downfield. Kizer has the ability to go through reads and mostly avoids poor decisions.
Here’s the problem: It’s tough to evaluate a quarterback and determine how viable he is without reliable wide receivers.
7. Looking ahead: How can you fix a team off to an 0-4 start? It’s easier said than done.
It starts with adjusting your defensive schemes. The Browns need to lay off the blitz and start playing more zone coverage, particularly Cover 3 or Cover 4. Playing Cover 1 with one deep safety (Peppers) has not worked for the Browns this season.
Finding ways to place the ball in the hands of the Johnson is another way to help things. Screen passes, wheel routes, and more runs are ways to place the ball in Duke’s hands more often.
The easy answer is to sign or trade for a more talented wide receiver, but that will probably not happen. The loss of Corey Coleman due to injury hurts more by the day. Involving Rashard Higgins might help some, though, as Hollywood has not received too many targets despite his playmaking ability.
Overall, the outlook is not great for the Browns. The Jets played fairly well against the Jaguars on Sunday, and the Texans, who the Browns play on October 15, smoked the Titans today with a 57-14 rout.
At the quarter pole of the season, the Browns need to start turning things around and fast, before the situation snowballs.