Add 3rd Downs to Must-Improve List for Browns

There's been lots to like about certain aspects of the Cleveland Browns' first two preseason showings. But one area that needs a tune up is third-down conversions, both those attempted on offense and those allowed on defense.

There’s been a lot to like about the Cleveland Browns’ young preseason. Though their two games to date have ended in losses, there have been moments of excitement, particularly from the first-team offense. Robert Griffin III looks comfortable as Cleveland’s starting quarterback, receiver Terrelle Pryor has vastly improved in his second year transitioning from playing quarterback and we’ve seen numerous examples of head coach Hue Jackson’s offensive creativity. Defense, unsurprisingly, has been the team’s weakest suit but there are still flashes of talent ranging from the play of rookies Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah to the promotion of Jamar Taylor to the team’s No. 2 cornerback.

Still, something negative has been standing out over these two games, areas of concern that could stretch into the regular season and thus affecting the Browns’ ability to improve in the win column: Third downs. Both the offense and defense have struggled to convert and hold, respectively, and that includes the starters. 

In the Browns’ first preseason game, against the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland’s offense converted only two of their eight third downs, compared to the Packers going nine-for-22. The Browns had a total of 11 first downs in the game, while Green Bay had 19. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland converted one of their eight third downs, while Atlanta converted 11 of their 17. The Browns had 12 first downs versus 31 for the Falcons. 

Without an ability to sustain drives, the occasional deep-ball touchdown from Griffin to Pryor, Corey Coleman or Josh Gordon won’t be enough to win games, especially when opposing offenses are able to hold onto the ball for 40 minutes of game time, which is what the Packers and Falcons have thus averaged.  Further, while the Browns and Packers were both one-of-two in the red zone when it came to touchdown production, Atlanta went two-of-three while the Browns came up empty in their lone attempt. 

While one can expect improvements on third downs in regular season contests, simply given the numerous differences in play calling and personnel compared to what we are seeing in the summer, there remains cause for concern, particularly on defense. In fact, Cleveland’s offense ranked ninth in third-down conversion percentage last season, at 41.85 percent and it would have been even better had that percentage not dipped to 37.21 in their final three games. In contrast, Cleveland’s defense ranked 21st in opponent third-down conversion percentage, at 39.90 and 46.88 percent in its final three games.

Speaking to the offense, this third-down and red-zone drought should be less of a cause for concern given that Griffin has attempted just 16 passes and the expected first-team offense has not worked together in a preseason game—their first chance comes Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the Browns had better hope that the starters can advance the ball with more authority than the backup unit because the defense’s issues with creating stops are far more pressing. 

Griffin and Company will need to be an explosive, high-scoring offense to keep games close; last year, Cleveland’s offense averaged 17.4 points per game while its defense was allowing an average of 27 points per game. So far in the preseason, the Browns have given up an average of 20 points per game, a sign of improvement to some degree, but it must be noted that while most of these games have been played against second- and third-string offenses. Extended first-team playing time against the Buccaneers will be even more telling about the defense’s ability to clamp down and if it can do better than what we saw last year and in the first two preseason contests.

There is much for the Browns that is a work-in-progress, something that’s only natural with a new coaching staff, front office and numerous brand-new players to the team’s roster. But, at least at this preliminary point of analysis and observation, third-down conversions both on offense and defense must be added to the list. 

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