Todd Gurley. The Browns' rushing defense. Yeah, this one sets up well.
To get some info from the Cleveland side of things, I linked up with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature, the SB Nation community for Cleveland Browns fans.
So Rams fans are, understandably, excited to see rookie RB Todd Gurley face off against the Browns' rushing defense which is ranked 32nd in yards per game, 31st and yards per carry and is tied for 22nd having given up six rushing touchdowns. Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher, though, spoke much more kindly of your defense after practices this week. How would you explain the struggles both in run defense and in general on that side of the ball? What can you point out that Rams fans should expect with or without CB Joe Haden?
If Jeff Fisher spoke kindly of the Browns' defense, then he's just not trying to ruffle any feathers with the truth. The Browns' defense has been a complete mess this year. Cleveland's run defense was horrible in 2014, and this offseason, the team drafted nose tackle Danny Shelton with the No. 8 overall pick of the draft and signed free agent defensive end Randy Starks to help stabilize another starting position on the team. I thought we would see some marginal improvements, but we haven't. I wouldn't even pin the blame on Shelton -- although he's had a very underwhelming regular season compared to his dominant preseason, the Browns' defensive line hasn't been the problem. Instead, the problem has been with the team's linebackers and safeties. There is no easy fix to it because too many players are either out of position, missing tackles, or simply not quick enough on any given play.
Cleveland's secondary, even with free safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Joe Haden banged up, is still a pretty good unit. I thought the Browns' secondary would be close to one of the best units in the NFL this year, but they haven't come close to approaching that level of play because Cleveland's pass rush has been non-existent. If you take away the game in which the Browns sacked Marcus Mariota seven times, they haven't even been touching other quarterbacks. The Chargers could barely even field one starting offensive lineman a few weeks ago, yet Cleveland's pass-rush couldn't even touch Philip Rivers. Peyton Manning has been knocked around in Denver this year, but Cleveland gave him a clean pocket all of last week.
Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil made a mistake by trying to turn our best pass-rusher, Paul Kruger, into an all-around linebacker who would cover tight ends and running backs too. Now, there have been some hints that he'll return back to his role of being strictly a pass-rusher, but nobody on the pass-rushing side has been winning their battles. When you can't stop the run or can't generate a good pass rush, the only way Cleveland's defense can look good is if the other team shoots themselves in the foot on third down with inaccurate or dropped passes.
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Offensively, the pass yard totals have come in pretty big numbers even with WR Josh Gordon suspended for this season. And outside of the season opening loss to the Jets, the points seemingly haven't been tough to find either. How are things working on offense? What do you expect to see from them this weekend?
The Browns' passing game has been excellent and the strength of the team. While Josh McCown deserves a fair amount of the credit, I give a ton of credit to first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo for being willing to utilize the unique personnel he has on this team, and being able to say, "screw it, if we see we can't run the ball early on, even in a close game, we'll just throw it." I think we're going to see a little bit of that this weekend, as I anticipate our offensive line struggling to open holes on the interior of the Rams' defense in the running game.
When I speak of the Browns' unique personnel, three of the team's regular wide receivers are Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins, and Taylor Gabriel. All three don't have the size of your typical receivers, but they are very quick. Running back Duke Johnson has also shown to have very good hands out of the backfield. DeFilippo schemes to get Johnson matched up with linebackers on quick passing routes, or ways to get the ball to our smaller receivers right away to let them run after the catch. Benjamin has also blossomed into a borderline No. 1 receiver -- teams are respecting his speed, but he runs a lot of slants, button hooks, and dig routes too. When you also factor in the emergence of tight end Gary Barnidge, who is savvy when it comes to getting open and sitting down in the soft spots of coverage, Cleveland actually has a very stable receiving corps, albeit probably the least-known corps in the NFL.
Okay, elephant in the room. It's Year Two with Johnny Football. Obviously, the recency bias probably weighs last week's incident unfairly, but you're in the best position to assess things overall. Now nearly a year and a half into his career, he's only found three starts. With Josh McCown under contract through 2017...when does Manziel break through, if ever? What's going to be the tipping point? Is his future still in front of him in Cleveland or do you think the moment has already passed?
Although I'm very surprised and encouraged by what Josh McCown has been able to do this season, I think it's too naive of me to think that a guy who has been a veteran backup his whole career can be the team's savior at quarterback for a couple of years. We already tried that with a guy named Kelly Holcomb over a decade ago, and it didn't work out too well. I think Johnny Manziel's future is still with Cleveland. Granted, Manziel set the bar very low to improve upon his rookie season, but the improvement from his rookie year to 2015 has been night and day. He also seems to have earned a lot more respect in the locker room -- nothing that creates a divide at the position, but enough to where if the coaching staff makes a change at the position later this year, there won't be an uproar. All of the other minor storylines with Manziel is just background noise to be -- as long as he's not skipping practice, I'm not concerned.
Perhaps more important overall, it's Year Two under HC Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer. How would you grade their performances thus far? Did the 7 wins in 2014, more in one season than any under Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur or Rob Chudzinski, give them a longer leash from the outset? What do you think fans needs to see from the Browns in 2015 and 2016 to get them beyond the three-year bar?
I like Mike Pettine and think the team responds well to him, but it's definitely a major concern how much the Browns' defense is struggling in year number two. Pettine is a defensive coach and hired a lot of his former colleagues as his defensive coaches, yet the defense has been the worst part of the team. Naturally, as with any coach who starts losing, his catchphrases ("Play Like a Brown") and buzzwords ("toughness") that once inspired confidence among fans have now grown irritable when the product on the field isn't matching it.
Ray Farmer is a different story. While I think he's done some good things, for public relations reasons, the past two years have been a disaster. He's had four first-round draft picks the past two years, and of those four, their current statuses are kickoff returner, backup quarterback, starting nose tackle, and backup offensive lineman. He also had the texting situation last season, and has reportedly been at odds with Pettine in the past over his draft picks not playing more on gameday.
The seven-win season helps extend the leash for them, but I think the thing that helps both of them more for another year is the fact that owner Jimmy Haslam had such a quick trigger with Rob Chudzinski, Michael Lombardi, and Joe Banner, that he now feels obligated to be patient and let the new regime take their time in seeing their entire team-building plan through. I think Pettine definitely gets at least another year and Farmer is likely back too, but it wouldn't surprise me if Farmer was tossed aside for the reasons mentioned earlier.
Overall, what do you expect on Sunday? What should Rams fans expect? What have you seen from the 2015 Cleveland Browns that you didn't anticipate? What's something you saw against the Broncos and/or Ravens that suggests the Browns moving forward have fixed or at least significantly altered something from the early season Browns? How would you define you guys heading into Week 7?
Whoa, that's a loaded question! Let me hit all of these with a couple of bullet points:
- While I'm fearful of the Rams' ground game, I have my doubts as to whether or not Nick Foles can do enough to convert all of those good drives (via the run) into touchdowns. If Cleveland's pass-happy success continues, I'm optimistic about the Browns being able to out-score the Rams.
- Although I said that Josh McCown looked like the best Browns quarterback that I'd seen in my five years of attending training camps, I didn't actually think his success would translate to the extent that it has during the regular season. That's my biggest surprise.
- Against the Ravens, the Browns didn't really "fix" anything. The defense was still broken, and the offense just played lights-out all the way through. When you play in a shootout-type-of-game every week, eventually some of them go your way. Against the Broncos, the defense tightened up in the red zone to keep Denver's scoring low, but I attribute a lot of the Broncos' failures to their own fault -- Peyton Manning had time to throw but was either too inaccurate, or Demaryius Thomas would drop a pass when he was wide open.
- On offense, I would define the Browns as a very pass-happy, up-tempo offense, almost along the lines of what New England runs when they are rolling. On defense, I would define them as underachieving in every facet. That means Cleveland will be competitive into the fourth quarter each week, but whether or not they can actually pull off the win is up to the flip of the coin that week.
Thanks to Chris for the time.