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Browns vs. Texans: 7 Talking Points

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The Browns are tanking, and Hue Jackson deserves much of the blame.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Embarrassing.

Browns fans have watched some bad football, but this was something else.

The Houston Texans demolished the Cleveland Browns on the road, 33-17. The score doesn’t begin to tell of the team’s performance.

By halftime, the Browns trailed 24-3. The deficit increased to 33-3 in the third quarter before the Texans ceded some points to the Browns. We’ve seen bad football, but to be dominated so thoroughly by a 2-3 team?

What should we take away from one of the most lopsided losses in recent memory? Mostly negative points, but a bright spot or two, in today’s talking points:

1. Not heroic: Kevin Hogan did not perform well, especially in the first half, during his first start in a Browns’ uniform.

Hogan orchestrated a pair of lengthy drives for the Browns in the first half, starting off well. Smart, short throws combined with a solid ground game helped the Browns drive down the field.

Hogan’s debut soon soured. Hogan failed to get the Browns into the end zone on the team’s first trip to the red zone. A Zane Gonzalez field goal did tie it at 3, offering some solace.

The next trip to the danger zone proved disastrous for Hogan and the offense. Hogan first took a delay of game penalty, pushing the Browns back on 1st down. The signalcaller then promptly sailed a pass to Duke Johnson, directly into the hands of Johnathan Joseph. The 12-year veteran high-stepped all the way to the end zone, placing the Browns behind by two scores.

Hogan continued to airmail his passes, on both short and long passes. Hogan’s high throws resulted in several incompletions on plays that should have resulted in completions, particularly in the short to mid-range game.

Besides his high throws, Hogan showed another fatal flaw – throwing the deep ball too often and in the wrong scenarios. On a 3rd and 1, Hogan tried to force a long throw down the sideline to Duke Johnson. The throw resulted in an interception, stopping a decent Browns drive.

Hogan’s third interception of the first half occurred late in the second quarter. Joseph picked Hogan for the second time on an ill-advised toss to Sammie Coates. The new Browns wideout did not run a good curl route, not coming back to the ball enough. Hogan should not have thrown it, as Coates was not open.

Hogan decided to scramble out of the pocket several times, leading to mixed results. Hogan did gain a first down on a 3rd and 6 scramble, and notched 11 yards on another run. But Hogan also took some big hits.

Hogan will get more chances to run the offense, without a doubt. Jackson wants to see Hogan’s potential. But if today is a representation of Hogan’s abilities as “the guy,” the Browns might go back to Kizer sooner rather than later.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans
Not a great day for Kevin.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

2. Angel of Death: Jabrill Peppers and the Browns’ defense struggled against Deshaun Watson, who might have been a Brown.

I was dreading this game all week, knowing the “Watson might have been a Brown” tweets and takes would fill my timeline. The noise became worse when CBS’ telecast reported that Hue Jackson told Watson to “be ready” on draft day. So much for that.

When given time in the pocket, Watson picked apart the Browns. The rookie found openings in the defense and found holes in the coverage downfield.

The Browns utilized zone schemes for much of the first 30 minutes. The Browns often called a Cover 2 scheme, with two deep safeties. Jabrill Peppers frequently lined up as the “angel of the defense,” back deep to prevent the big play. The strategy did not work out well.

Peppers missed Will Fuller V on a long touchdown pass to give the Texans the lead for good in the first quarter. Peppers missed Fuller on what looked like a deep flag route, as the Texans called for a max pass protection scheme with three receivers running deep. Peppers was caught looking towards the middle of the field, preventing him from reacting to Fuller’s break. With the corner playing short to take away the edge in the short to intermediate range, Peppers was isolated and beat.

Instead of playing a Cover 1 (man coverage with one deep safety) or a Cover 2 (two deep safeties with corners playing the flats), perhaps the Browns should have utilized more Cover 3 schemes.

The Browns do not have a player on the roster with experience at free safety, which is why Peppers has been designated as the “angel” on defense. Now, I’m not an NFL coach, but in my humble opinion, the Browns might want to play more Cover 3. In a Cover 3 defense, the two outside cornerbacks and one safety drop deep, with each player covering a third of the field.

The Cover 3 can take away the deep pass and lessen the responsibility of the free safety. This coverage scheme does leave a team open to short plays in the flats, as two linebackers are expected to cover the edges. However, Watson did miss on some short passes, so the Browns should have wanted to force the Texans quarterback to work hard with the short game.

On one play that looked like a Cover 3, Jason McCourty took an interception to the house, making Watson pay for a bad throw. McCourty did not always play well, as he was beaten on a touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins. But on the whole, McCourty was a rare plus for the Browns today.

3. Feed Crow and the Duke: The ground game continued to show improvement on Sunday, particularly early on. Trailing by double digits at halftime, the Browns had to pass the ball quite often in the second half, but the Browns ran the ball well in the first half.

Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, along with a couple scrambles by Hogan, combined for 13 carries for 68 yards. Crowell and Johnson hit the holes well and utilized cutback lanes when necessary. The duo shined and helped Hogan move the ball down the field.

Crowell, in particular, used his blockers in a smart way. Crowell ran behind JC Tretter and the pulling guards, exploding into holes and picking up chunks of yards. Crowell finished with 58 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. Johnson tabbed 40 yards on 5 rushes.

Johnson and Crowell continued to show off stunning moves even late in the game, helping to keep the Browns’ offense respectable. Jackson avoided his mistake of abandoning the run game today.

Crowell and Johnson continue to show improvement for the Browns, though their impact on the game is limited by the fact that the team is out of the game by the second quarter.

Kudos to the offensive line for improving in the ground game, though few probably noticed.

4. Attacking the quarterback: The Browns’ pass rush showed some improvement on Sunday, though could not make a significant impact on the game.

Myles Garrett played in his second game in a Browns uniform, applying pressure on both passing and rushing plays. Garrett showed good pursuit, especially on running plays, and fought off some double-teams well, narrowly missing a couple sacks.

The rest of the defensive line performed adequately, too. Danny Shelton occupied space in the middle and pushed through the offensive line efficiently. Besides an encroachment penalty, Larry Ogunjobi played well. Trevon Coley and Jamie Meder were also solid, though Meder does not do a great job of attracting double-teams, due to his lesser size. Carl Nassib did not see frequent time, but did notch one tackle for loss.

When Watson tried to throw deep, especially early, the Browns’ defensive linemen pressured Watson and made him uncomfortable. The Browns did generate some pass rush, though the Browns’ secondary and missed tackles by the Browns’ backers led to bad plays. Jamie Collins, returning from injury, showed some rust in missing several tackles.

As a unit, the Browns’ defensive line has talent. Now, the Browns need consistent play by the linebackers in the ground game. Collins, Joe Schobert, and Christian Kirksey need to shed blockers more effectively and fill holes better. The front seven has talent, but needs to put it all together.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans
Kirksey was quite active for the Browns today.
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

5. Still struggling: The Browns’ receivers remain without a big-play guy, and are still struggling to find open space. Sans Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt (though Britt was not missed much), the team’s receivers could not find much open space.

Entering the fourth quarter, no Browns’ receiver had more than two catches or 25 yards. Hogan’s struggles contributed, but it’s a sign of a larger trend – the Browns’ wideouts have trouble getting open.

Creating separation has been an issue from the start of the season. Be it Kizer or Hogan at quarterback, the team’s wide receivers have created little separation in the secondary, unable to find space or use their speed.

That’s a major problem. No matter who plays at quarterback, if you don’t have receivers who can find openings, your passing offense will be awful. The Browns have invested significant draft capital in wide receivers in the past two drafts. The current front office has selected four receivers and two tight ends in the past two years:

WR Corey Coleman (1st round, 2016): 13 targets, 6 receptions, 62 yards, 1 TD

WR Ricardo Louis (4th round, 2016): 35 targets, 18 receptions, 229 yards, 0 TD

TE Seth DeValve (4th round, 2016): 25 targets, 14 receptions, 167 yards, 1 TD

WR Rashard Higgins (5th round, 2016): 28 targets, 12 receptions, 125 yards, 0 TD

WR Jordan Payton (5th round, 2016): Not on roster

TE David Njoku (1st round, 2017): 20 targets, 14 receptions, 118 yards, 3 TD

Total: 121 targets, 64 receptions, 701 yards, 5 TD (10.95 yards per catch, 6 drops entering today)

Take a long, hard look at these stats. What story do you think they tell?

First, the wideouts have a 52.9% catch rate. Yes, Hogan and Kizer have struggled this season, but the Browns’ wide receivers above should have a higher reception to target ratio. The Browns’ receivers are not catching as many passes as they should.

Second, the yards per catch rate is low. We need more research and stats in this area, but the initial thought is that the Browns’ wideouts are primarily catching short throws. This stat does not account for yards after the catch, so we can’t necessarily say how well the Browns’ receivers are doing in terms of gaining yards after catching the ball. However, the low ypc figure tells us that the Browns are not getting open deep.

Third, why does Njoku have just 20 targets? Three of his 14 receptions have been touchdowns. The Browns targeted Njoku today in the red zone at the end of the game, just like in past games. But why are the Browns not utilizing Njoku more outside of the red zone? Sometimes the Browns do have to keep Njoku back to block. Still, Njoku should have far more than 20 targets through 6 games.

Feel free to make your own conclusions in the comments section, but to this writer, the Browns’ drafted wideouts and tiget ends are underperforming as a whole.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans
Get this man the ball more often.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

6. Much-needed improvement: Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor and the Browns rebounded from an absolutely awful week to respectability on Sunday. The special teams unit was the only one with a positive impact on the game today.

Last week, the Browns missed field goals, had poor returns, and penalties. It was ugly.

This week, the Browns converted on the lone field goal try, enjoyed great punt returns, and didn’t have any major miscues.

Jabrill Peppers performed particularly well, taking back six punts for 43 yards, including a nice 17-yard return. Not included on the statsheet was a lengthy return brought back by a block in the back penalty by Coates.

Peppers showed elusiveness and slick moves in the return game, providing brief moments of entertainment for Browns fans who stuck out today’s terrible game. Peppers should continue to see action in the return game.

By not missing another field goal, Gonzalez rewarded Tabor with his faith in the much-maligned kicker. Gonzalez also had a nice onside kick, which the Browns should have recovered but missed.

7. Inexcusable: The struggles of the Browns sit largely on the coaching staff. The Browns have looked terrible as a team through six weeks.

Yes, we are in a rebuild. Yes, Hue Jackson wanted Watson. Yes, Jackson does not make personnel decisions. Many caveats come before criticism of Jackson. Including this one: The Browns should not fire Jackson.

Knowing all of this, Jackson deserves much of the blame for the 0-6 start. The Browns have looked ill-prepared coming out of the locker room this season. Absorb this stat: The Browns have been outscored 111-31 in the first half this season.

Look over that stat again.

The Browns have not been ready to play in any of the first six games of the season. Each team has outcoached the Browns in the first half, exposing weaknesses and embarrassing the Browns in the first 30 minutes. Sure, the Browns have made decent first half adjustments, but the Browns cannot come back from 21-point deficits. The game was over before the team went into the locker room.

It’s not all on Jackson. Tabor has had a rough start to the season overall. Gregg Williams’ hard-charging, always-blitzing defenses have been burned repeatedly by over-aggressiveness. Williams has squandered the talent of Jabrill Peppers and seen his secondary burned time and again by both elite and inexperienced quarterbacks.

On the opposite side of the ball, Jackson also could probably use an offensive coordinator. The second-year head coach did not make the mistake of forsaking the ground game, but failed to utilize Njoku in the passing game and establish both a short and long passing game.

And while many fans agreed with the decision to start Hogan, it was not necessarily the right move. No quarterback, save maybe Tom Brady, could succeed in this offense with limited options at wideout and an ineffective defense forcing the passing game to work in overdrive in the second half.

Not to mention the frequent, avoidable, drive-killing penalties.

The Browns have some young talent. Duke Johnson, Njoku, Garrett, Peppers, Shelton, Schobert, etc. The coaching staff has not made the most of it this season. And for that, a large heaping of the blame falls upon them.

Again, Jackson should not lose his job. But perhaps it’s time to think about hiring an offensive mind or making a change on defense.