The Browns’ Silver Linings

They are what their record says they are, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of encouraging signs for the winless Cleveland Browns
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This is an article highlighting all the positives with the 0-8 Cleveland Browns. Please don’t confuse it for an article that argues the Browns’ record could be much better than it is. Yes, the Week 2 loss to Baltimore was by just five points. The Week 3 loss to Miami, by six points in overtime, only took place because Cody Parkey missed a 46-yard field goal at the end of regulation (and two others earlier in the game). The Week 6 loss to Tennessee was by two points but, like yesterday’s three-point loss to the Jets, the score was closer than the game itself.

Close scores or not, the axiom first uttered by Bill Parcells is true: You are what your record says you are. The Browns have earned all eight of their losses.

You’ve probably noticed most of what’s causing these losses. Already, six different players have taken more than 10 snaps at quarterback for Cleveland. Only the 1984 and ’87 Bears have had this many different QBs through the first half of a season. Three of those quarterbacks have started. This team’s best wide receiver, Josh Gordon, has been in rehab. (He reportedly just got out.) Its best young receiver, Corey Coleman, has missed six games (broken hand). Injuries have rocked the interior O-line. The defense is without a quality pass rush. The secondary has been up-and-down, particularly at safety. In fact, right now, you or I could tackle better than Ibraheim Campbell.

Still, this is an article shedding light on the positives of these 0-8 Browns. And, indirectly, shedding light on just how high-level and competitive the NFL really is. Because look at all the bright spots on even the league’s worst team:

The passing game design. Hue Jackson remains one of the best play designers in football. He employs a litany of formations, pre-snap shifts and personnel packages. Lately, those have all been part of concepts that define the read for the quarterback. In other words, Jackson’s play designs alone determine where the ball goes. Often it’s an “either here or there” read, typically against a predicted coverage. All teams do this to a certain extent, but doing it on an every-down basis with a cavalcade of inexperienced (and physically limited) QBs is a whole other challenge. With 14-year veteran Josh McCown now back, Jackson can expand the sophistication of his passing concepts. This will be a better aerial attack in the second half of the season.

Terrelle Pryor. He has become Cleveland’s No. 1 wide receiver. And, remarkably, this says more about him than the rest of the receiving corps. Pryor has a great frame and obvious athleticism. What was clear in Week 1 was he’d had very little practice applying these traits to his new position. What’s clear coming out of Week 8 is he has polished up as swiftly as maybe anyone who has ever played it. Pryor’s route running has improved gargantuanly. His ball skills, though at times still uncouth, are catching up. On Sunday, Pryor dismantled a (granted) declining but still sagacious Darrelle Revis. He’s been moving around the formation more and expanding his route tree. Pryor has the potential to one day be a 1,300-yard caliber target.

Joe Thomas. He’s still a top-tier left tackle. The only negative was a few hiccups two weeks ago against Cincinnati. Other than that, Thomas remains fundamentally sturdy and one of the best ever at adjusting his mechanics on the fly when the situation demands.

The running game. Duke Johnson has more wiggle than you’d expect, and he’s versatile in the passing game. In fact, he’s one of only four players since the start of last season to register 500 yards rushing and 700 receiving (the others: David Johnson, Devonta Freeman and Giovani Bernard). Isaiah Crowell is a tackle-breaking thumper who also can surprise with his elusiveness. Together, these backs are averaging just over five yards a carry.

The schematic wrinkles. As good as Pryor and the backs have looked, overall this offense’s talent remains subpar. And so we’ve seen Jackson camouflage it schematically. He’s used tactics like what some call the “chaos” formations, which he did in Cincinnati, with offensive linemen split out to wide receiver spots to stress the defense and set up screen possibilities. Or, two weeks ago, with Kevin Hogan under center the Browns sliced the Bengals with newly minted read-option concepts. Even the littler things. Like, for example, Pryor’s nine-yard touchdown catch against Washington. On that play, Pryor was in a reduced split, meaning he wasn’t lined up as wide as usual. That forced his defender, Josh Norman, to line up a little further outside. (If Norman were to fully align over the receiver inside, he’d compromise the spacing of the inside defenders and leave too much field exposed toward the sideline.) With Norman shaded outside, Pryor’s slant route became easy. And Pryor, to his credit, flattened off at the top of his route, which boxed out the middle-field safety who was stepping to help. It was an illustration of quality coaching: a formation that influenced a defense, a route that was made easier by said formation and took advantage of a player’s size, and the player executing that route with the type of nuance that, nine times out of ten, must be taught.

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Danny Shelton. The 2015 first-round nose tackle has already become not just Cleveland’s best defender, but one of the league’s best. Shelton has the strength you’d expect from a 335-pounder. But he also plays light on his feet, which helps him shed blocks and move laterally. His impact is being felt against the run and the pass.

Rookies Eric Ogbah (2nd round) and Carl Nassib (3rd round). Neither has the twitchy athleticism to be an edge-bender, and based on the way they’re being used, the Browns seem to be accepting this. But both have the combination of strength and quickness to win in traffic and beat blockers mechanically. We’ve started to see these two play more inside. Eventually, they’ll settle in as quality first down defensive ends and third down defensive tackles.

Christian Kirksey. You’d like to see the third-year linebacker make more plays than he does, but inevitably, two or three times each game, he jumps off the film racing to the ball. He’s also athletic enough to match up to running backs and the occasional tight end in man coverage. Kirksey is the type who needs quality players around him. If and when those trickle in (especially at safety), we could see him really blossom.

Improving cornerbacks. Jamar Taylor still makes too many bizarre mistakes to be considered trustworthy. (His blown coverage in Week 2 against the Ravens on Mike Wallace’s 17-yard touchdown took the cake. Clearly unaware of the coverage call, Taylor appeared to hedge not by guessing a coverage and playing that, but rather, playing one that didn’t exist. It would have been a blown coverage regardless of what D coordinator Ray Horton actually called.) But, Taylor has settled down the past few weeks, and his game against the Jets on Sunday was the best of his career. More intriguing, though, has been the play of undrafted rookie Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Thrown into action because of injuries to Joe Haden and Tramon Williams, Boddy-Calhoun has been solid in deep coverage. He smothered Cincinnati’s James Wright several times two weeks ago and even survived a bout with A.J. Green. No position requires a greater deal of raw athleticism than cornerback. It’s impressive for an undrafted rookie to step in on a team with a bad pass rush and play well.

The blitzes. When you have a bad pass rush, you must manufacture pressure through scheme. Ray Horton hasn’t blitzed often, but he’s been successful when he has. Particularly with corner blitzes. When the ball is aligned on a hashmark, quarterbacks must be on high alert for a pass rush by a Browns cornerback to that side of the field. The Browns fooled Tom Brady twice with this in Week 5. The week before, a Demario Davis’s fake blitz fooled Washington’s five-man protection, leading to a Cam Johnson sack-fumble. And on Tramon Williams’s interception against the Titans in Week 6, Marcus Mariota had been flushed from the pocket by a fire-X blitz that had the crisscrossing linebackers penetrate not the typical A-gaps, but the B-gaps (between the guards and tackles). The Titans had enough blockers to handle it, but the blitz’s altered geometry confused them.

Are any, of even all of these items significant enough in and of themselves to win games? Obviously not. But the point: the Browns, at 0-8, are a professional football team. Not a single opponent of theirs has come into the contest expecting an easy win. And if one ever does, the Browns will get off the snide, guaranteed.

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