Third Down Troubles

Browns' inconsistency on third downs stalled comeback effort vs. 49ers

Sometimes the numbers don't tell the entire story.

In the specific example of Sunday's loss in San Francisco, the stats posted by an offensively challenged Browns' offense do reveal one obvious truth – most NFL teams don't win by earning only 290 total yards.

Throw in five fumbles, five more penalties and another collection of multiple dropped passes – and the case could be made that the Browns had no business being on the field with a now 6-1 49er squad.

Yet, as another reminder of the odd paradox that has been the 2011 season, the Browns were again in position to steal a win from a far superior opponent.

That is – until the Browns' tepid offensive attack had to line up on third down.

Considering the circumstances – i.e., a rookie head coach/pseudo-rookie play caller feeding plays to a quarterback previously deemed a "rookie," a leaky offensive line, a lack of receiving talent and a rapidly disappearing running back depth – the Browns finished 3-for-6 on third down conversions in the first half.

Among the highlights of these early possessions included an expertly-timed third and 9 call, as the Browns were backed up at the 49ers 2-yard line. On the play, McCoy swiftly rolled out right, sprung into a solid stance and delivered a first-down strike to tight end Ben Watson.

Two drives later, McCoy completed another third-down pass on an all too characteristic check down pass – this time to wide receiver Jordan Norwood.  A few plays later, McCoy threw perhaps his best of the game on a third and 5 late in the first half.  McCoy dropped a pass along the left sideline to wide receiver Josh Cribbs, whose feet were planted on the far edge of the field.

Despite this initial progress, each of McCoy's early third down successes was matched by a maddening lack of consistency.  On two third downs, McCoy overshot wide receiver Greg Little.  Little, who is slowly emerging as the Browns' top receiving target, was first offered a slant pass that was thrown at least a yard in front of the rookie wide out.  On the Browns' next possession, Little had no chance of tracking down a McCoy hotshot delivered in the heat of a 49er blitz.

In the second half, what was once considered a 49er blowout, eerily began to resemble the makings of an earlier comeback against the Dolphins.  The Browns – despite still trailing by two touchdowns – had stifled the 49ers offensive attack and began to receive some excellent field position.

Early in the second half, the Browns faced an opportune third and 2 from the 49er 43-yard line. On the play, Little dragged in motion before settling into the Browns' backfield as a deep back. Virtually every eyeball in the stadium followed Little, as he raced out of the backfield horizontally and caught a swing pass.  San Francisco's all-world middle linebacker Patrick Willis quickly swallowed Little up and the Browns' best scoring opportunity of the afternoon was wasted.

Two drives later – following an ill-fated McCoy end zone interception – the Browns faced another third and 2 from the 49ers' 40.  Again, Shurmur decided to rely on the passing game, calling for a sprint right pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya.  Considering the ferocity of the 49ers' pass rush throughout the game, time was of the essence on the play.  McCoy took the snap and raced right at hyper speed, before delivering a rocket that his running back couldn't handle.

After these two failed possessions, the stalled momentum of the game shifted back to the 49ers. With the Browns unable to take advantage of a stellar second-half defensive effort, the 49ers again controlled the game via their potent rushing attack.  More third down opportunities followed – including an embarrassing third and 1 example that found McCoy in a shotgun, surrounded by four receivers.

In the end, the numbers were probably where we expected them to be. McCoy managed to post 241 yards and connected with Cribbs on a late scoring strike. In all, McCoy completed a respectable 65 percent of his passes and again withstood a savage beating from another dominant defense.

However, it's clear that the current Browns' evolution is based on an offense that has to virtually play mistake-free football in order to succeed. Because of both injuries and an already limited depth chart, even the most modest of successes has to be characterized as a small miracle.

Yet, because of these same circumstances, the variety of third-down play calling has become baffling – if not completely foreign to a team who clearly struggles in simply throwing the football. Of course, concerns have to be raised regarding injuries to Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty, but at times the Browns' play calling resembles the lofty aspirations of another bored West Coast disciple – rather than the realities of a responsible NFL coordinator.

In the specific example of Shurmur, the realities of his team's situation have to match his own desires as both a head coach and offensive coordinator.  No matter what the numbers say, the Browns simply aren't good enough to overcome erratic play calling.

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