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Browns vs. Chargers: 7 Talking Points

A delayed version of this column offers more X’s and O’s.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers
Josh Gordon looked solid in his return.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The beautiful weather of Los Angeles offered the Cleveland Browns no respite this week, as the club dropped to 0-12.

Due to a work commitment, I had to tape the game and watch it on Monday evening, and post a delayed article. It was nice having a Browns-free Sunday, although it does make Mondays longer.

So, this week’s talking points is more X’s and O’s driven, with an increased emphasis on analytics (please don’t pelt me with tomatoes). Let me know what you think of this approach in the comments section below. And without further ado, here are your talking points:

1. Fun in the gun, no dice under center: One positive of writing this article later is an ability to look deeper into the X’s and O’s. An item of note – the Browns have a relatively predictable playcalling scheme on offense.

The Browns ran 16 plays in the first quarter – 11 out of the shotgun, 5 from under center. The offense executed six passes and ten runs. Not one play from under center was a pass. When utilizing a singleback or I-formation, the Browns gained 3 yards on 5 carries. On each play from under center, the Chargers load the box and anticipate the run. This was most obvious on Duke Johnson’s run of negative-two yards. The third-down back had zero chance of gaining anything on the play.

Out of the shotgun, the Browns were more effective in the first quarter, as the run worked quite well. The five running plays resulted in 35 yards, including dashes of 12 and 16 yards. The option play worked wonders, fooling even Joey Bosa.

Jackson seemed to go over tendencies between the first and second quarter, throwing a playaction pass on the first play from under center in the second.

Looking at the end of the game stats, the Browns ran 54 plays – 22 runs and 32 passes. The Browns ran 44 plays from shotgun and 10 from under center.

Of the 44 plays run out of shotgun, 35 were passing plays and 9 were running plays (three of the passing plays resulted in Kizer scrambles).

Of the 10 plays run from under center, 9 were running plays. Just one was a playaction pass.

As an opposing defense, you know what to do if you see Kizer line up under center. Load the box and expect the run. If you see Kizer in the shotgun, you can typically expect one of three things – 1. A read option run with Kizer and Crowell/Johnson; 2. A short, quick read pass; or 3. A long fly pattern to Josh Gordon or a seam pass to David Njoku.

Now, the Browns’ predictability is partially a result of Kizer’s inexperience. Kizer only does so many things well, so you have to limit your offense considerably.

Even still, it’s no wonder to see why the Browns are easy to stop on offense. Yes, they throw in a couple wrinkles here and there, but the Browns must be awfully predictable for defenses. If I can see this stuff, you can bet that a highly paid defensive coordinator whose pinky finger knows more football than I do will see these trends.

So, what’s the fix? That’s not an easy question. Jackson cannot add too many wrinkles, out of the fear that his rookie will make a mistake or become overloaded. Perhaps the best solution is to continue to utilize the option run, with an option to pass the ball to the flat if the run doesn’t work. Or, maybe you try to setup Duke Johnson more in the run game. Or, try more passing from under center, focusing on easy throws to the tight end. Hopefully Jackson can make some fixes to make the offense less predictable.

2. Intermediate issues: The Browns’ pass defense has struggled all season, and continued to do so on Sunday, with tight ends and intermediate coverage. The Browns’ linebackers have done fairly well against the run, but cannot effectively cover the pass.

The Browns obviously miss the pass coverage ability of Jamie Collins. Joe Schobert, James Burgess Jr. and Christian Kirksey did not play well in coverage against San Diego. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers sliced and diced the Browns to the tune of 344 yards, much of it in the intermediate passing game.

Rivers used his tight ends and wideouts frequently with passes across the middle. The Browns’ linebackers often played off coverage in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ defense, allowing tight ends Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates to find open space over the middle.

The Chargers did the same thing, over and over, especially in the first half. Send the wideouts deep and leave the tight end or running back as a safety valve or primary option. Rivers often found his tight end underneath, as the Browns’ linebackers are often charged with stopping the deep ball. The space opened perfectly for the shallow cross route with Henry and Gates, particularly on critical third downs.

The Browns have to make adjustments to ease the burden on the linebackers. Schobert is great against the run, but you can’t match him up with Melvin Gordon and expect him to succeed.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers
Joe Schobert has been solid this year.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

3. Off and running: For some reason, Williams and the defensive coaching staff elected to grant the Chargers’ wideouts cushions of 10+ yards in coverage. Keenan Allen and the Chargers did not mind at all.

On nearly every play, the Browns’ corners gave the Chargers’ receivers between 10-15 yards of space in coverage, electing to take away the deep ball. The decision limited the Chargers’ output on the scoreboard to 19 points, but did not allow the Browns defensive backs to make plays on the ball.

Adam Archuleta, a former defensive back, avowed that the Browns play the most off coverage of any team in the NFL, and I believe him. The Browns rarely press opposing wideouts.

Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are not the most talented trio of corners in the league. However, these three can make plays on the ball and deflect passes in coverage. McCourty knocked a ball out of Allen’s hands on a fade route in the end zone and Taylor batted down a pass on a nice play in the second quarter.

The soft coverage makes the job of the cornerback more difficult, in many cases. You have to close on the ball more quickly and avoid overpursuing. The wideout has more of an opportunity to generate momentum before you can be there for the tackle. You also have a harder time making an impact in stopping the run.

With yards after the catch and the intermediate passing game hurting the Browns more often, it’s time to think about easing away from soft coverage.

4. Accuracy woes: DeShone Kizer scuffled during several stretches on Sunday, completing just 15-of-32 passes under the sunny skies of LA. Kizer missed on a host of completable passes.

Kizer has shown potential this season, but his lack of accuracy in the last few games is quite concerning. Head coach Hue Jackson vows that accuracy is teachable, and he’s right. However, the Browns don’t have a lot of time to teach the 21-year old.

Jackson has babied Kizer to some extent this season, running a college-type of offense. The Browns heavily relied on the shotgun against the Chargers. Kizer was asked to execute mostly quick, one-look passes, with an emphasis on the slant route and short pass. Even still, Kizer missed on some short throws that he should have completed.

Most notably, Kizer missed Josh Gordon on a few underneath throws. These were plays in which Gordon might have gained first downs and more by using his big body. ESPN’s Pat McManamon suggested that Josh Gordon might have gained 200 yards with more accurate passing. That might be slightly exaggerated, but not by much.

To Kizer’s credit, he did make a couple beautiful passes down the seam. The rookie has the fly route down the seam down perfectly. However, Kizer has to throw the vertical route better on the sidelines. Gordon bailed him out once with a circus catch, but he created an opening on another play, but Kizer underthrew him.

Kizer needs to throw the ball more effectively, on a more consistent basis, particularly in the short passing game. Until his accuracy improves, we’ll see the same thing every week – a few promising throws and a majority of underwhelming ones.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers
You two still have more work to do.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

5. A screenplay for failure: The Browns fell victim to the screen pass once again on Sunday. The Browns don’t know how to defend it.

Part of the Browns’ struggles with the screen pass result from the defense’s off coverage. With the corners taken out of the play, the onus falls on the linebackers to cover the flat. With less speedy linebackers defending the play, the Chargers can set up a wall of offensive linemen and rest easy knowing that a Browns defensive back will not speed through the blockers.

The Browns’ defensive linemen are also slow to recognize screen plays. Often a lineman can disrupt a screen by hanging back and deflecting the pass or waiting for the wideout. The Browns have not read the screen play well at the line of scrimmage.

Missed tackles have also plagued the Browns far too often. The defense has whiffed on tackles time and time again, making it quite frustrating to watch.

On the opposite side of the field, the Browns have not executed the screen play well on offense. Duke Johnson had no room to run on his screen play. The Browns cannot take advantage of opposing teams blitzing at the line of scrimmage.

6. Josh’s return: Josh Gordon finished the day with four catches for 85 yards. Not bad for his first game in three years.

The maligned wideout thrived in his first game back, showing few signs of rust. We read about Gordon staying in shape, running a 4.3 40-yard dash at some point. Working with a renowned speed coach, Gordon definitely stayed in shape.

Many expected Gordon to be out of football shape. That was not the case, as Gordon ran clean, crisp routes. Jackson did not force Gordon to run many elaborate routes, opting for the speedy wideout to run the fly route more often than not.

Save for Kizer’s inaccuracy, the strategy might have worked out. Credit Jackson with using Gordon on the deep route, as Gordon surprised the Chargers with his speed downfield. The 26-year-old receiver found openings and should have notched more than 85 yards.

Jackson started off Gordon smoothly with a couple slant passes underneath, starting off the talented receiver with a catch on the first play of the game. Gordon ran nice routes in the short game.

Gordon’s best catch came on an outside move in man coverage on the outside. Gordon fought through the jam at the line of scrimmage, coming open along the sideline and snatching the football out of the air on a 50-50 ball.

Let’s see more of that. Keep allowing Gordon to run the deep route and have some fun fighting for the ball.

7. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: Inopportune turnovers once again burned the Browns on Sunday. The Browns were mere yards away from a scoring drive to narrow the deficit to one score before a Kizer fumble buried the Browns.

Kizer certainly deserves the blame for turning the ball over on Sunday. Kizer’s fumble and interception ended the hopes of a comeback.

On the fumble, Kizer did not have any clear, wide-open options. Kizer did have a receiver slightly open at the top of the screen, and might have completed the pass for a touchdown had he thrown the ball before Joey Bosa arrived. However, it would have been a tight window with the safety lingering close behind the wideout.

That’s a play in which you wish your quarterback had eyes in the back of his head. Kizer has no way of knowing that Bosa is coming. Shon Coleman did a fine job of keeping Bosa at bay and can’t be expected to hold him off for longer. The wideouts faced tough coverage and could not come open. So it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault.

The interception? Definitely Kizer’s fault. No one was open on that play. And worse, the pass came after a sack that Kizer never should have taken with under two minutes to play.

Kizer’s two minute drill skills are underwhelming. Sure, the Browns were not going to win. But an inability to perform in the clutch does not bode well for the Browns if they ever manage to keep a game competitive in the fourth quarter.

The Browns are -19 in the turnover margin through 12 weeks. That’s a large reason behind the Browns’ failures.