Cleveland Browns: Keys to second half, midseason report cards

By The Sports Xchange
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel. File photo Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel. File photo Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Cleveland Browns: Keys to second half, midseason report cards


Record: 2-7, fourth in AFC North

Remaining games:

Week 10 Sun, Nov 15 @ Pittsburgh

Week 11 BYE WEEK

Week 12 Mon, Nov 30 vs Baltimore (MNF)

Week 13 Sun, Dec 6 vs Cincinnati

Week 14 Sun, Dec 13 vs San Francisco

Week 15 Sun, Dec 20 @ Seattle

Week 16 Sun, Dec 27 @ Kansas City

Week 17 Sun, Jan 3 vs Pittsburgh


At 2-7 the Browns' season is almost beyond salvage. One more Bengals victory or one more Browns loss will mathematically eliminate them from contention in the AFC North. But if they are to at least save themselves from total embarrassment they must improve their run offense and run defense.

The plan never was to have quarterback Josh McCown take the offense on his back. The plan was to run the ball and let McCown manage the game, but through nine games the Browns are 31st averaging 82.3 yards a game. Three things must happen: 1 -- They should not abandon the run so quickly (Isaiah Crowell had the only carry among Browns running backs in the second half in Cincinnati on Thursday); 2 -- They need to get the ball in the hands of rookie running back Duke Johnson more; 3 --The offensive line and backs have to work together better.


Fixing the run defense, last in the league yielding 147.6 yards a game, will be more difficult. The Browns do a horrible job of setting an edge and funneling the ball carrier inside. It has been the problem since the start of the season. The players and coaches know it but it doesn't change. Stronger play from inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson could help, but this can only be repaired in the draft.

KEY PLAYER FOR SECOND HALF: Left cornerback Joe Haden.

Haden had a miserable first half of the season. He missed one game with a finger injury, suffered a concussion the next week and then missed two games, was concussed in his first game back on Nov. 1 vs. the Cardinals and missed the game with the Bengals last Thursday. When he did play he struggled, especially against Raiders receiver Amari Cooper. The Browns need him to be at his best when he returns from his latest concussion, but when that will happen is unclear.

MVP IN FIRST HALF: Quarterback Josh McCown.

McCown gets the call although a good argument could be made for punter Andy Lee.

Despite his personal record of 1-5. McCown completed 65 percent of his passes, has 11 touchdown passes to four interceptions and a passer rating of 95.2. Those normally are not the numbers of a quarterback on a 2-7 team. He hung in against the pass rush behind an offensive line that has not lived up to its reputation. Rib and shoulder injuries prevented him from playing against the Cincinnati Bengals last Thursday. It is too early to know when he will be ready to play again.


OFFENSIVE ROOKIE IN FIRST HALF: Running back Duke Johnson.

Taken in the third round, Johnson started slowly because of a hamstring injury. He is a dual threat as a running back and receiver out of the backfield and is shifty in the open field. Johnson is third on the team with 35 catches for 369 yards and two touchdowns. Head coach Mike Pettine said the Browns must get Johnson more touches the rest of the season. He has 59 carries for 179 yards and is the only offensive draft pick to have any impact. Offensive lineman Cameron Erving is a backup, fullback Malcolm Johnson plays mostly on special teams and tight end Randall Telfer is on the reserve/non-football injury list with a foot injury.

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE IN FIRST HALF: Nose tackle Danny Shelton.

Drafted 12th overall, Shelton had success taking on two blockers on running plays and collapsing the pocket on pass plays. His value cannot be measured by 20 tackles, which are only 13th best on the team. He is part of a rotation and is improving as the season progresses.


--PASSING OFFENSE: B. Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel have combined for 15 touchdown passes through nine games. That isn't great, but more than acceptable considering opponents have no fear of the run offense. Tight end Gary Barnidge leads the team with six touchdown catches. The Browns will be in trouble if that well runs dry because there is no other reliable big target. Dwayne Bowe, 6-foot-2, did not catch a pass this season until he caught three in Cincinnati. Brian Hartline has been inconsistent. Travis Benjamin has four touchdown catches but hasn't had any since the third game.


--RUNNING OFFENSIVE: D. Part of the low grade is on the coaches but a bigger part of it is on running backs Isaiah Crowell plus Duke Johnson and the offensive line. If the line blocked better and Crowell and Johnson did a better job finding running lanes offensive coordinator John DeFilippo would have more confidence calling running plays. Each is averaging 3.2 yards a carry. Robert Turbin, after missing the first five games with an ankle injury, has only 18 carries for 60 yards. The Browns have scored only two rushing touchdowns and one of those was by McCown.

--PASS DEFENSE: D plus. The Browns have already been blistered for 19 passing touchdowns. The secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense but it is not living up to expectations. Injuries are part of the problem. Left cornerback Joe Haden missed one game with a finger injury and three with a concussion. Free safety Tashaun Gipson missed three games with an ankle injury and strong safety Donte Whitner missed one with a concussion. The Browns have given up nine passes 40 yards or longer. Only the Saints with 11 yielded have allowed more.

--RUN DEFENSE: D. The Browns are last in the league in run defense. Just as with the pass defense, they are vulnerable to chunk yardage. They have allowed 11 plays of 20 yards or more, tied with the Chargers for most in the league, and they have allowed four runs of 40 yards or more which ties the Lions for most in the league. The Browns are sloppy tacklers. Strong safety Donte Whitner (10th season) and linebacker Karlos Dansby (12th season) are showing their age.


SPECIAL TEAMS: B plus. Special teams year in and year out form the best unit on the Browns. Punter Andy Lee has a 48.5 average and has nailed 16 inside the 20 with only four touchbacks. Rookie Travis Coons is 15 for 15 on field goal tries and opponents ae averaging only 22 yards a kick return. Travis Benjamin consistently performs as a punt returner (13.0 average) despite opponents gunning for him.

COACHING: C minus. The Browns' defense has regressed from last season. Part of the blame goes to defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil and part of it goes to general manager Ray Farmer for overestimating the talent at linebacker. O'Neil keeps saying his scheme has worked in the past so it should work now, but it isn't. John DeFilippo has had moderate success as offensive coordinator but he gives up on the run too quickly. Head coach Mike Pettine seems at a loss to find a way to halt the four-game losing streak. He already played the "Every player has to look himself in the mirror" card and it didn't work.

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