Last week I was forced to keep tabs on the Browns game on the road while the Dude drove us back to Denver from Vail. Because cell service was pretty intermittent, I felt like I was receiving news about the game in massive, disappointing blows and gashes. A concussion and fumble in the endzone. An interception. Two more lost fumbles. But, when I went back and watched the game on Tuesday night, I realized the Browns didn’t lose on four big, bad plays. The loss was, instead, an excruciating death by a thousand cuts. A missed tackle. Cut. A dropped pass. Cut. A penalty. Cut. And while some cuts were undeniably bigger than others, it was the many small cuts that drove me crazy as I watched the game.
So how do the Browns avoid such a tortuous result this week? It has to start with eliminating penalties. Yes, there will always be more penalties at the beginning of the season. Teams do not practice as much in the offseason as they used to, so they don’t look very polished in week one. We saw this across the league. And NFL referees are driving home the points of emphasis laid out by the league since the end of last season. Which we also saw across the league. (Anyone catch that Niners game? Those refs were not going to allow a football game to happen on their watch, no sir.) And rookies will be rookies across the league… Except that’s not really what happened to the Browns against the Jets. For the most part, the penalties were committed by veteran players who should know better: Greco-false start; Mack-personal foul; Kruger-neutral zone infraction; Robertson-holding; Schwartz-false start; Haden-unsportsmanlike conduct and pass interference… The Browns racked up 12 penalties against the Jets, and the majority were committed by very talented, experienced players. These players cannot continue to commit penalties and expect to win games.
The Browns also need to focus on ball security this week. McCown lost the ball making an ill-advised dive into the endzone at the end of his first drive. Manziel one-upped him (and then some) by throwing an interception and losing two fumbles in the second half. Even Tashaun Gipson managed to lose the ball to Brandon Marshall after an awesome interception. And Manziel, as the starting quarterback this week, has to lead the way on ball security. That means playing with better awareness of the defense from both inside and outside of the pocket.
And the Browns defense, which was supposed to be the saving grace of this team, needs to play an all-around better game. After finishing last in run defense last season, the Browns drafted Danny Shelton and picked up Randy Starks in free agency in an effort to improve against the run. But I didn’t see any improvement last Sunday. Chris Ivory ran up and down the field at will. And to make things worse, there was no visible pass rush, and the Lockdown on the Lake, comprised of Haden and Williams x2, allowed passers to get by them, over them, and around them all game. The Browns’ biggest accomplishment on defense last week was making Ryan Fitzpatrick look like a decent starting quarterback. Not good.
So, let’s hope things look better this week for our Brownies. Otherwise, it’s shaping up to be a long season.