As prefaced toward the end of last week, the Browns current tour through the playoff powers of the AFC North is as much about measuring organizational progress as it is earning wins and losses. Of course, such a statement is easy to make considering the Browns season is officially over after Sunday's 23-20 in Cincinnati.
As such, it's an appropriate time to evaluate the type of talent the Browns are carrying into their tour of the AFC North. After all, any real improvement under the current Mike Holmgren/Tom Heckert/Pat Shurmer has to be weighed against how the Browns fare against the likes of the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers.
What follows is a quick review of just where the Browns stand – following their second divisional loss of the season.
1. Skip the Cliches
I would like to think any logically-thinking Browns' fan has moved far past simple-minded clichéd debates such as franchise quarterbacks, arm strength and Madden curses. Simply put, the Browns' offensive woes do not revolve around either Colt McCoy or Peyton Hillis. While this is not a clear endorsement of either player as a franchise staple, it's becoming clear that the Browns' wide receivers and offensive line are holding them back.
Or – stop me if you've heard this before – the wide receivers need to start catching passes.
And how about that right side of the offensive line?
Anyway, while rookie Greg Little occasionally flashes signs of becoming a solid NFL player, he also exhibits spectacular evidence of being yet another Browns' second-round draft pick. Against Cincinnati, Little again led the Browns in receptions, but committed three drops – each of which stalled otherwise promising drives.
For all the talk about the Browns acquiring a "deep threat" in the offseason to stretch opposing defenses, the first step towards improving the team's passing game would be to add some reliable hands. Currently, the Browns lead the league in dropped passes – which is a damning statistic given the struggles the offense has had in protecting McCoy.
Speaking of which – there are moments when the Browns' still relatively young offensive line appears to be turning the corner in terms of progress. At times against Cincinnati, young guards Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston were able to move fluidly and open up some off tackle running room for both Hillis and Chris Ogbonnaya.
However, when asked to stand up to opposing pass rushers, both Lauvao and Pinkston still struggle in keeping their feet underneath them. Lauvao in particular was badly beaten by Cincinnati's Geno Atkins for a late sack.
Of course, any discussion regarding the Browns' offensive line has to include entire chapters devoted to Tony Pashos. While certainly an upgrade over John St. Clair, Pashos simply can't handle quicker defensive ends. Against Cincinnati, Robert Geathers was continually able to get outside of Pashos. The anticipation of Geathers eventually led to Pashos attempting the old dog move of dropping his right leg into the Browns' backfield and drawing an illegal motion penalty. Even more embarrassing was Pashos' clumsy pantomime attempt at screen blocking.
2. Cover the Screens
I've been railing about the Browns' lack of speed at linebacker since the Romeo Crennel days, which says a lot considering that D'Qwell Jackson is the only linebacker on the current roster actually drafted by the team.
Anyway, for what seems like the 12th consecutive season, the Browns can't defend a screen pass.
For further evidence, just refer to an early possession when the Bengals were facing a 3rd and 19. One expertly timed screen later, the Bengals picked up 20 yards and made Scott Fujita look every bit his age.
3. And Stop the Run
In addition to not being able to chase plays down, the Browns' linebackers have also been manhandled in recent weeks. Again, Fujita's name has to be used as a reference – particularly thanks to his getting destroyed by a Bengals' blocker on a long Cedric Benson run.
Adding to the Browns' problems against the run is a simple lack of depth. Because of starting left defensive end Jayme Mitchell's recent injury, the Browns have rotated a trio of Emmanuel Stephens, Brian Schaefering and Austen English. All three offer parts of a working defensive end, but none are a multi-dimensional player. Stephens has some quickness, while Schaefering brings size and English offers a change of pace.
Of course, Stephens gets swallowed up by bigger left tackles – such as Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth. Schafering is not athletic and allows tight ends like Jermaine Gresham to get the better of him, while English plays with stick figure arms.
4. Because the End Is Near
The "end" in this case refers to the Browns' battered secondary, featuring some of the most razor-thin depth in the league. With the exception of Joe Haden against more athletic wide receivers and Usama Young against anyone, the problems previously laid out indicating the Browns' defensive line and linebackers are multiplied when compared to the secondary.
Or in other words – once the likes of A.J. Green breaks into the Browns' secondary – it's game over.
Here's a great example of how the Browns' lack of speed in the front seven leads to soft holes in the secondary. Keep in mind that the Bengals continually blasted Benson into the right side of the Browns' defense for most of the game prior to this play. On this play, the Bengals ran play action to the left, which isolated both Gresham and Green along the left side of the Browns' secondary.
5. Back to Basics
Because after all, you know things are bad when one of the Browns' last Pro Bowl talents – long snapper Ryan Pontbriand – is mired in such a deep funk. Against Cincinnati, Pontbriand launched three high snaps – one coming on a Phil Dawson extra point, another on a 54-yard field goal and third on a Brad Maynard punt.
Of course, Pontbriand saved his worst snap – a dribbling ground ball affair – for Dawson's potential game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. Considering the prowess Dawson has shown for connecting beyond 50 yards this season, Pontbriand's effort couldn't have come at a worse time.
But then again – if the Bengals' loss can be viewed as a validation of establishing an offseason agenda – then perhaps yet another long snapper will be taken next April.
Along with the many other needs the Browns have to fill.