The Cleveland Browns fell to the Atlanta Falcons Thursday night but for many fans there was a level of excitement that was missing from Game 1. Fans in Cleveland have been begging for an explosive offense, an identity and something to give them hope. Thursday provided all three for them, which can't be minimized.
Just before the game started, the story was of a very empty stadium. Maybe it was that the Cleveland Indians were playing, even though their crowd was very small as well. Maybe it was the concert. Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers title win has upped the ante and Cleveland sports fans aren't going to spend as much time on a losing franchise.
Or maybe, it was just Preseason and no one had high expectations for a good game.
On to this week's 4 Downs:
First Down: Robert Griffin III Lifts Expectations
#withaflickofthewrist should be a trending hashtag in Cleveland this year. RG3, or Griff as many players call him, threw a 50 TD to Terrelle Pryor that was just that, a flick of the wrist. No wind up. No bunny hop. No big exertion. Griff's deep ball has never been a question but for Browns fans it was a unicorn sighting, something mythical we have never really seen.
His "in the bucket" TD to Gary Barnidge showed some of the development that Hue Jackson, and fans of the young QB, have been hoping to see. A perfectly placed ball that the tight end was able to catch in stride and score. It was the perfect NFL throw. Either Barnidge catches it or it falls incomplete, there was little chance for an INT. The placement of the ball was something coaches dream of.
We also saw a couple vintage (is it really okay to use that word to describe a 26 year old QB?) runs from Griff. His speed is clearly still there as he rocketed past defenders for big chunk gains. Not only did he take off selectively, instead of looking to do so quickly, he slid at the first sight of a tackle. While we all love the player who "fights for every yard," for Griffin it is much better that he is cautious. The Browns are counting on him for much more than that extra yard or two.
All that positivity has raised expectations to some impressive levels. Fans have visions of those kind of plays extrapolated over a full game. While Griff may be able to produce some games with 3 TDs and a couple big runs, it will be tough for this to be the norm. In Preseason, defenses are generally pretty vanilla and allow athletic abilities of players to take over. In the Regular Season, teams will scheme against the Browns mobile, big armed QB and make life tougher on him.
Will fans expectations lead to fan displeasure if Griff only throws for one touchdown, has limited running room and teams take away the deep explosive plays? Or does this performance buy the electric QB more rope with fans since they now feel good about what he is capable of?
Second Down: Where is the Run D?
There are quite a few things that have been linked to the Browns over the last few decades: losing, coaching changes, great fans, losing, no identity, uncertainty and losing. One that has been impressive, in futility, has been the constant inability to stop the run. No matter the scheme changes, the coaching changes and the players brought in, the Browns have rarely stopped the run. Kind of a big problem in the AFC North.
So the problem continues this Preseason. With John Hughes missing time for family issues and Desmond Bryant out for the season, the Browns are down two of their starting defensive linemen. The other starter, Danny Shelton, hasn't looked great either but better than last year. That isn't saying much.
The two areas that fans can look at to understand the team's problems stopping the run: Linemen leverage and containment.
The first is actually easy to see, if you don't watch the ball. At the snap of the ball, watch the Browns defensive linemen, do you see their numbers of the top of their shoulder pads. If you see their numbers some, they are keeping their waist bend and are able to keep their leverage and not get pushed off a spot. You shouldn't see a flat back however, this means they are about to be pancaked. If you see the top of their shoulder pads, it means they have been stood up by the offensive line and are at the mercy of the offense. They can be pushed anywhere the offense wants them to go.
Thursday, Nick Hayden started and was the prime problem with this issue. He was stood up almost immediately on every play. He put up little resistance which made life easy for the offensive line to get to the second level and create big holes. Shelton continues to struggle with his leverage as well. Fixing this problem isn't always easy. Some is technique but core strength, hip flexibility, knee fluidity and ankle flexion are very important as well. With limited time with the training staff, due to CBA rules, these things are tougher to get fixed.
Second, the containment has been a huge problem for the Browns the last two seasons. Players aggressively pursued the ball inside allowing wide open running lanes to the outside. Containment requires the outside players to keep leverage to force the ball back inside where there are more defenders. Outside linebackers and cornerbacks are taught to not allow runners to get past their outside shoulder. This allows the defensive line, linebackers and safety to get involved in the play and limits big gains.
On quite a few plays, the Browns didn't trust the interior players to do their jobs and tried to get in on the play inside out. This is a leverage issue in a different way but allowed too many big plays outside. Given what many of the young players "learned" from the last two years, there are some tough habits to break. Instead of playing with gap assignments and integrity, the Browns of the last two seasons reacted to the plays. This created many problems, particularly in containment. Ray Horton has a lot to untrain with the youngsters.
Hopefully the return of Hughes, Joe Haden and experience with a real system will help turn around the ship but history lends against it.
Third Down: Oh What the Offense Can Do!
Already hit on Griff, the QB who runs the show, but Browns fans are more than drooling over the thoughts of Pryor, Barnidge, Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, Duke Johnson and the rest of the young weapons (3 more rookie WRs and a rookie TE) running routes. Each player has specific talents but the big play ability of them puts a great many thoughts in fans heads. We haven't seen Gordon or Coleman in Preseason yet, and Gordon will be out the first four Regular Season games, so right now it is only in dreams.
Or, for me, it is drawing up plays that put the Browns in positions to succeed and wonder how great can the offense really be? Here is one example I shared on Twitter the night of the game:
Starting on the outside, Pryor has shown that he can take the top off the defense with his 9 routes, and win. Defenses have to respect the possible #flickofthewrist deep ball to TP. On the other side, Gordon's long strides and big frame make for a perfect target on crossing routes. He will draw the attention of the corner as well as linebackers and safeties as he crosses the middle. Having three or four defenders noticing him opens up the rest in the middle.
Barnidge, a reliable route runner and pass catcher, on an out, takes advantage of the attention thrown at Pryor's deep route and should have space to be open and to work after the catch. Coleman, with his speed and physicality, comes off the line on a wheel route off of Gordon's route. With the attention Josh gets, Coleman just has to beat a smaller slot corner or a much slower linebacker or safety for what could be a very long gain. Duke can either stay in to protect before leaking out or get right into his route in the space cleared by Gordon and Coleman.
Worst case scenario, Griff has a lot of space to run with these guys out in the route.
Fourth Down: Why is Justin Gilbert?
Gilbert has been a bust since entering the league. His unique physical gifts have meant little because he has no feel for the game. He doesn't have great reaction time which minimizes his physical gifts. He lacks confidence in how he should respond to plays and is often timid. He struggles to tackle in space, is beat by simple moves and gets grabby when he thinks he might get beat.
I've been asked, "Who else is there to play?" My answer is always, first, Pierre Desir and, second, ANYONE ELSE! I am higher on Desir than many. It makes no sense that they have him practicing at safety during practice but then play him at corner during the games. While they may not like Desir, even the unknown corners have played better than Gilbert. For those who follow the NBA, he is the Hasheem Thabeet of the NFL. Thabeet stood 7 foot ball, had decent feet and soft hands. He also had no clue how to play the game which made his physical talents pointless.
The Browns are wasting time on Gilbert but, based on comments from HC Jackson, will continue to give him chance after chance. Give those practice and game reps to Desir, or anyone else, please!
With all that said, Game #2 of the Preseason was encouraging for the offense and discouraging for the defense. Not the worst result in the world.
Look for 4 Downs after each Browns game, and maybe even after the Bye Week.
Start the conversation in the forum below or reach out to me @JaredKMueller on Twitter.