Optimism abounded in the week leading up to this week’s Browns vs. Colts game. Many saw the contest as a chance for the Browns to win their first game of the season against a team that is nearly as inept as the Browns while Andrew Luck sits on the bench.
Instead of an uplifting win, the Browns experienced a disappointing loss defined by an awful first half in which Jacoby Brissett tore the Browns’ defense asunder.
DeShone Kizer orchestrated a comeback to respectability, but the loss still stings.
Here are the takeaways from a third straight loss to start the season:
1. Burned by the blitz: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his blitzing, but teams are adjusting to Williams’ strategy. A mobile quarterback such as Jacoby Brissett can be especially deadly to Williams’ defense.
Williams and the defensive coaching staff frequently dialed up risky, 6 and 7-man blitzes in an attempt to disrupt Brissett and throw off the Colts’ offense. The technique did not work so well in many instances.
Here’s why the blitzes didn’t work: The Browns telegraphed them and did not cover well (more on the latter in point #2).
On just about every play, the Browns lined up with four down linemen with 2-3 linebackers. On blitz calls, the Browns lined up with the linebackers on the line of scrimmage. On non-blitzes, only four linemen occupied the line of scrimmage, with the linebackers playing off ball.
Now, if this writer (a relatively well-read football fan, but not a coach) can notice this, then the coaches and experts on the field and in the booth working for the opposing team can definitely see this.
The key to the blitz is its unpredictability. When opposing teams don’t see a blitz coming, the quarterback cannot make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and the center can’t adjust blocking schemes. However, if you telegraph the blitz before the play, the quarterback can audible, call max pass protection with the running back and tight end, then look for a wideout downfield against soft, zone coverage almost always paired with 6 and 7-man blitzes.
A major drawback with big blitzes is the vulnerability to quarterback scrambles. Once the quarterback get past the first line of defenders, there is often no spy or linebacker waiting to attack him once he passes the line of scrimmage. The next line of defense is defensive backs in coverage.
Brissett took advantage of this, twice scampering into the end zone for rushing touchdowns in the first half.
Now, I’m not an NFL defensive coordinator. I don’t study film for a living. However, based on my observations, the Browns are shooting themselves in the foot by telegraphing blitz calls.
It’s part of the reason why the Browns ceded 28 first half points to the Colts, a team that managed 22 combined points in its two games.
2. Soft zone, hard times: The Browns’ secondary surrendered pass after pass to Brissett, T.Y. Hilton and the Colts. The soft man-zone coverage employed by the Browns hindered the Browns.
The first half saw the Browns burned for 197 passing yards on just 12 passing attempts, or 21.8 yards per completion. That shows how effective the Browns’ coverage was.
As excellent reporter Nathan Zegura told the Browns Radio audience at gametime, the team wanted to limit Hilton by employing man coverage, with Jabrill Peppers over the top as a deep safety. The Browns tried to do just that in the first half, but failed. The Browns’ corners often started with a 10-yard cushion, not jamming the Colts’ wideouts at the line of scrimmage.
Utilizing crossing routes and distraction routes to find space for Hilton, the Colts helped Hilton to haul in 5 catches for 145 yards. The Browns’ corners could not keep track of Hilton, with Jamar Taylor and his fellow backs falling behind the veteran wideout on numerous occasions.
Even with the corners playing man coverage, Peppers was the team’s failsafe. The Browns told Peppers to sit deep and keep an eye on Hilton. Peppers followed orders, but took bad angles to the ball. Hilton’s 61-yard touchdown pass saw Peppers take a poor angle and allow Hilton to charge down the field for an important touchdown.
Peppers will improve. He’s a rookie, and will learn to take better angles. Still, it’s frustrating to watch. Was Peppers the best player to use in that role? Did the Browns’ coaches set up Peppers for failure?
3. Almost the hero: Following two crippling interceptions, DeShone Kizer nearly redeemed himself with two late touchdown drives. The effort came too late, though, as the Browns ran out of time.
Kizer finished with a so-so statline of 22-for-47 passing for 242 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. The picks will likely stick out to fans, as Kizer twice threw behind his receivers in the third quarter, leading to a Colts field goal and a steeper hill for the Browns to climb.
At the same time, Kizer orchestrated two timely drives, showing no confusion or deer-in-the-headlights looks like many previous Browns’ quarterbacks during two minute drills.
Kizer weaved the Browns down the field for two scores, finding Kenny Britt on a pretty but gritty touchdown throw. Kizer also finished off a drive with a touchdown run, after nearly scoring on a nice scramble. Credit the rookie with finding open receivers and marching down the field on the two drives.
Despite his mistakes in the third quarter, Kizer is improving at knowing when to throw the ball away. Sure, he needs to work on his accuracy, but he’s beginning to look at multiple options more and showing adeptness for finding open options inside the red zone.
Kizer needs plenty of work, especially on his accuracy on intermediate throws. Throwing behind receivers, even catchable balls, leads to interceptions and lost games. Continually relying upon the short game can also bite you in the behind if you don’t occasionally throw deep.
However, Kizer has plenty of promise and showed why he’s the future when he continued to battle and lead his team late in the game.
4. Failure to launch: The Browns’ wideouts experienced a difficult day. Kizer did not receive much help from his wideouts, with several dropped passes and an inability to find open space.
Missing Corey Coleman and Sammi Coates, the Browns started Kenny Britt and Rashard Higgins. The two combined for 5 receptions for 64 yards on 16 targets. Each wideout struggled at times today, though Britt’s touchdown catch was nice.
Each wideout dropped passes, which is concerning. As a receiver, you need to catch the ball if it comes your way. That’s obvious, and sometimes easier said than done, but Britt and Higgins each dropped arguably catchable balls today. Britt also saw a pass clank off his hands and into Robert Melvin’s hands, leading to a key interception. Granted, the pass was behind him, but you have to catch the ball. Besides Britt and Higgins, Ricardo Louis dropped at least two passes.
Dropping passes is not the only thing you should be concerned about. The Browns’ receivers displayed an inability to get open.
With a young quarterback, receivers play an increasingly important role. To help out your rookie, you need to find ways to get open. Come back to the quarterback, run to open space, give your guy an option, and look back for the ball quicker. The Browns’ wideouts did not help Kizer today.
Also troubling is Higgins’ struggle to avoid penalties. Higgins twice committed pass interference, setting the Browns back twice. Hollywood has plenty of promise, but pushing off and costing your team yardage will not help to keep him on the field.
Now, not everything can be blamed on the wideouts. The Browns’ coaching staff opted for a healthy heaping of fly routes. That’s not always the best thing to do with a rookie quarterback still without a tuned internal clock. Waiting for the deep route to come open, knowing a hit is coming, can be a difficult skill to learn for a rookie.
Despite the poor play by some of the receivers, David Njoku, Jordan Leslie, and Duke Johnson all contributed great plays. Njoku caught a touchdown pass in the first half. Duke Johnson galloped for 23 yards on a short pass turned into a long gain. Leslie leaped into the air and hauled down a beautiful one-handed grab, setting up Njoku’s score.
Leslie has a feel-good story, posting a nice message on Twitter today voicing his gratefulness for the opportunity. Leslie has bounced around the last two years and was sleeping on his brother’s couch as recently as last week. It’s nice to see hard working guys like Leslie succeed.
5. Starting to gel: The Browns’ offensive line is starting to improve and show its talent. The Browns’ linemen are beginning to work as a complete unit.
The Browns’ ground game gained traction today before a large deficit forced the Browns to turn primarily to the air. A payday-hungry Isaiah Crowell looked solid, though not incredibly flashy, against the Colts. The Browns’ line opened some space for him, and Duke Johnson, who only saw two carries but notched 23 yards.
It would be interesting to see how the running game performs over the course of a full, 60-minute game in which the Browns do not fall behind early on.
As for the passing game, DeShone Kizer enjoyed more time to work in the pocket. The Browns gave Kizer plenty of time to work, though the rookie experienced trouble in finding an open receiver.
Kizer was only sacked once in the first three quarters, a testament to the line’s ability to pick up blitzes and find time for the rookie. As always, Joe Thomas performed well. His linemates also stepped up, especially JC Tretter. The center helped his signalcaller stay out of trouble and avoid debilitating hits.
The offensive line’s improved play is promising for the rest of the season.
6. Clogging the middle: The Browns’ interior linemen played quite well. The middle of the defense made running up the middle difficult for the Colts.
Yes, the Browns allowed 31 points, but the Browns’ defensive tackles and defensive ends played quite well in the loss.
Trevon Coley, Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi, and Emmanuel Ogbah all deserve credit on a job well done today. Coley blew up a pair of plays in the backfield. Shelton attracted and fought through double teams well. Ogunjobi showed tenacity in attacking the ballcarrier. Ogbah came off the edge and applied pressure.
The team’s linemen deserve kudos for limiting Frank Gore, a rare exhibit of an “old” running back who keeps on trucking. Gore managed just 57 yards on 25 carries, and the Colts ended with 92 yards on 36 attempts, just 2.55 yards per carry.
7. A game of thirds: The Browns lost the game on third downs. The Browns’ offense scuffled on the critical down, and the defense allowed several big conversions, even on third and long.
To become a better team, the Browns must perform better on third downs. The Browns converted just 5-of-13 third downs on offense and surrendered 8-of-17 third down conversions to the Colts.
For some reason, the Browns exhibited softer coverage on third down plays. Yes, you want to prevent big plays on third downs. But you have to protect the sticks. For some reason, the Browns seemed to ease off coverage on third down. You can’t do that.
On the offensive side of the ball, Kizer’s receivers did not help him. Kizer often ran out of time while waiting for his deep options to come open. Forced to roll out of the pocket, Kizer waited for his wideouts to either come back or sprint downfield and look for the ball quickly. His receivers did neither, not providing Kizer with an option. Without anywhere to throw, Kizer often had to throw the ball away and waste the play, in order to avoid the greater evil of a turnover.
Without a doubt, there is plenty of room to grow for this Browns team.