Cleveland Browns: Position grades from an ugly loss to Pittsburgh

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Cody Kessler (6) is led off the field after suffering a concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns missed an abundance of opportunities to make Sunday’s game interesting. How did each major position group perform in the defeat?

A slew of missed opportunities proved to be costly once again in the Cleveland Browns’ 24-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The incompetent coaching staff failed to make the necessary adjustments to keep the team close, and as a result, the win category remains empty.

The loss was disturbing in so many ways, as the inability to protect the quarterback became so unbelievably predictable. Cody Kessler ended up needing to leave the game and was later diagnosed with a concussion. Veteran Josh McCown was forced to replace him, coming off of the bench for the second consecutive week.

In the end, one of the better defensive performances of the season was wasted by a discombobulated and sloppily inadequate offense. Now, at 0-11, the frustration continues.

The following is a complete analysis in the form of letter grades. Each major position group is graded based on their play in this game only, as no other factors are taken into account.


Quarterback: C

The problem of abuse and bullying in the NFL reached a whole new level on Sunday. This time, the victims were Cleveland’s two quarterbacks. Sacked a total of eight times, Kessler and McCown never had a chance to make anything happen all afternoon.

Due to this, it is quite a challenge to evaluate the quarterback position. When Kessler and McCown had opportunities, they made plays and mistakes about equally. Kessler was 7 of 14 for 128 yards and an interception. McCown finished 14 of 27, totaling 118 yards and a touchdown.

Overall, it wasn’t a productive day for Cleveland’s offense from any angle. Completing just over half of their passes despite throwing the ball on virtually every play is a good indication of just how miserable the day was.

For the quarterbacks though, they really couldn’t do anything about the pressure, except maybe reconsider their choice of career. A few mistakes were made, such as McCown’s inability to throw the ball away on the goal line, leading to a Pittsburgh touchdown.

But generally speaking, Cleveland’s quarterbacks both deserve a great degree of credit for their toughness and their willingness to approach the impossible task of facing a Pittsburgh defense with no running game and a horrendous offensive line.

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) during the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Steelers won 24-9. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs: F

When analyzing the trainwreck known as the Browns’ offense, one needs not to look much beyond the rushing attack. All season, the inability to stay on schedule has been fueled by a lack of a run game. This week was no different, and even worse in some cases.

Cleveland running backs totaled 20 yards on the afternoon on 10 carries, which may as well wrap up the recap. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson shared the yardage, taking ten a piece.

For purposes of comparison, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell produced 146 yards on the ground, more than seven times the production of the Browns. Even with a wide gap of talent in the offensive lines, the backs are still partially responsible. Bell’s ability to wait for the hole to open up was on display, while Crowell and Johnson had no patience whatsoever. Each Cleveland running back seemed satisfied when just falling for a one-yard gain.

The Browns can search for answers offensively all they want, but they aren’t going to get anywhere without a rushing attack. The inability to get anything going on the ground sparked a relentless pass rush which gave the team fits. With both Johnson and Crowell completely overmatched in pass protection as well, they did the Browns no favors on Sunday.

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell (31) fight for the ball on a pass play during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receivers: F

For a team that heavily favors the passing game, they sure don’t have the weapons one would expect. And for a team that dialed up 41 passing plays, they sure didn’t put up the numbers through the air one would anticipate.

Terrelle Pryor led the way with five receptions totaling 97 yards, though he didn’t receive any assistance around him. Corey Coleman was the next leading receiver in yards, catching four passes for 39 yards. After that, only Andrew Hawkins had a catch, just one for 20 yards.

So in the end, the Browns ran 41 passing plays, yet only three receivers had catches. They also totaled only 10 catches. This is incompetence at its finest.

The reasons for this are not completely the fault of the receivers, of course. But the inability to get open against a very poor secondary certainly contributed, as well as Coleman’s two drops. For whatever reason, a position that has been somewhat of a bright spot for the Browns this season completely laid an egg this week.

But at least Pryor can get along with everyone, even defenders who seek to remove his head. Him and Mike Mitchell had a friendly moment following Mitchell’s violent and uncalled for blow, lightening the mood a bit.

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) checks on quarterback Cody Kessler (6) who was injured by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line: F

It was a disastrous afternoon for the Browns’ offensive line. Overwhelmed by a far superior Pittsburgh pass rush, the line was dominated all afternoon.

Early on, when the Browns tried to run the ball, Steelers defenders would not allow even the slightest of openings. When Cleveland finally realized that running the ball wouldn’t work and abandoned it altogether, the offensive line was manhandled by an aggressive pass rush.

The edges especially gave the Browns trouble. Joe Thomas and Austin Pasztor struggled mightily, as well as John Greco. Cameron Erving played as well as expected, as he was dominated on snap after snap. Erving also made his presence felt later in the game, committing penalties on two consecutive snaps.

Stunts were the real problem though, accounting for eight sacks, a bunch of incompletions, and even a touchdown. Pittsburgh always brought one more pass rusher than the Browns could block, proving to be an effective strategy against a team that appears to have something against in-game adjustments.

The unit is now back to square one, finding that they are capable of doing absolutely nothing an offensive line sets out to do. What this means for them is that they will likely go back to focusing on establishing a running game, something that will be a challenge no matter how hard they try.

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge (82) catches a touchdown pass defended by Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns (25) during the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Steelers won 24-9. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Tight Ends: D

Much like past weeks, the tight ends were virtually irrelevant in this game. Of course, on a positive note, Gary Barnidge found the end zone for Cleveland’s only touchdown. He also had a key fourth-down catch, but made no other plays in the passing game.

For the majority of the game, the tight ends were asked to block. This went about as well as it did for the offensive line, as the Steelers showed the Browns all sorts of exotic blitzes which fooled them.

In an otherwise uneventful afternoon for this unit, it is worth noting that Hue Jackson‘s offense contains numerous formations including two tight ends. The objective of these sets are to enhance the blocking up front as well as provide another target that a defense must account for.

This sounds wonderful, yet somehow, it seems to be having a reciprocal impact on Cleveland. All of a sudden they can’t block, and they struggle to find open receivers. Not to mention, Barnidge is the only capable tight end on the roster. Something just isn’t working out with this unit.

Defensive Line: F

Anyone who watched the duration of Sunday’s contest could attest to the fact that Cleveland’s defense was not the major issue. However, this does not excuse the incredibly poor play of the defensive line against an explosive Steelers offense.

Bell was certainly an issue for the Browns’ 3-4 defense, penetrating through holes for small chunks of yardage on every play. Throughout the entire game, the Browns had no tackles for loss on Bell’s 28 carries. They also got no pressure on Roethlisberger, failing to sack him and struggling to force the ball out of his hands.

An especially revealing stat is that of Cleveland’s 62 tackles, their defensive line only made 5. This means that virtually every attempt made by Bell went through the front three and into the second level. The result is evident, as Bell averaged more than five yards a carry.

The defensive line may be large, but all they seem to be doing is taking up space. The leading tackler for the defensive line was Jamie Meder, who was only the ninth-leading tackler on the team. This is a direct reflection of Cleveland’s inability to penetrate and break through to make tackles. This allowed Pittsburgh to control the clock by running the ball consistently, and didn’t make for a fun afternoon by any means.

Linebackers: D

Much like the defensive line, the linebackers struggled to slow down Bell. However, they did tackle more soundly, refusing to give up large chunks of yardage. This aided the Browns in their effort to keep Pittsburgh from running up the score, but it wasn’t nearly enough for Cleveland to get off the field consistently.

Christian Kirksey led the way for the linebackers, and was the Browns’ leading tackler. Jamie Collins and Demario Davis were close behind, rounding out the three leading tacklers for the Browns.

The fact that the linebackers were in on so many tackles is encouraging, but it doesn’t define their overall performance. Kirksey, Davis, and Collins all struggled to defend the pass, as they just couldn’t keep up with Pittsburgh’s speedy receivers. They also had issues defending the screen pass, allowing the running backs and tight ends to run free on multiple occasions.

Most of all, the inability to finish tackles one-on-one has plagued the Browns’ linebackers. The fact that they make tackles does not redeem the fact that they miss a bunch too. Gang-tackling is nice, and a lot of effort is undoubtedly being put forth, but the Browns will continue to struggle defensively until they can make individual tackles.

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs through the Cleveland Browns defense during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Steelers won 24-9. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Secondary: B

Shockingly, the Browns slowed down Pittsburgh’s potent passing attack for most of the afternoon. This pleasant surprise was overshadowed by other shortcomings, but it is encouraging.

Most notably, Joe Haden kept Antonio Brown in check, as he only gained 76 yards. Other players who performed well included Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Ed Reynolds II, and Derrick Kindred. Of course, Cleveland was overmatched in the passing game, as Pittsburgh had an advantage in size and speed. But the Browns compensated for this fairly well, communicating well and tackling solidly.

The one lapse the unit had was at the end of the first half, when they gave the Steelers two additional chances to score because of penalties. This proved costly, as Pittsburgh ended up going in for a touchdown and converting on a two-point conversion after two untimed downs.

All in all, this week provided a performance to build on. Hopefully, going against another formidable passing attack next week, Haden and company can have a repeat performance. Most of all, it is fair to say that the play of the secondary put the team in an unexpected position to pull the upset.

Oct 30, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns kicker Cody Parkey (3) and punter Britton Colquitt (4) celebrate a field goal during the second quarter against the New York Jets at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams: D

The special teams unit of the Browns has been adventurous in 2016 to say the least. This week was no different, as they had their ups and downs.

Field position actually wasn’t a major issue in this one, though the poor weather played a significant role. The Browns actually set up some punt returns, as Duke Johnson took three for a total of 32 yards. They also punted well and kept Pittsburgh punt returner Antonio Brown in check. Britton Colquitt averaged 46.3 yards per punt over three punts, and Brown was held to seven total return yards.

The problem this week was a combination of small errors which added up. Once again, the team committed a block in the back on a return, and a holding on a punt. Penalties on special teams is becoming an epidemic for the Browns, as they are a weekly occurrence.

Obviously, the biggest blunder came by way of a Cody Parkey missed extra point. This was ugly, but like the special teams play in general, it had little impact on the outcome of the game.

Nov 20, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson checks field conditions before the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching: F

Hue Jackson and the Browns’ coaching staff seem to be lost. After all, they failed to make adjustments in pass protection, they failed to run a balanced offense, and they failed to prepare their defense for a dynamic offense.

For an offensive-minded head coach, Jackson certainly isn’t doing the offense any favors. On 54 total plays, the Browns dialed up passing plays on 41 of them. This is stunning, especially since Cleveland was in the game into the fourth quarter.

Defensively, the Browns just aren’t disciplined enough. This is a direct reflection on the coaching staff, including Ray Horton, who spends the game in the booth rather than on the field. They also aren’t cut out for a 3-4 scheme, yet Horton insists on it. As mentioned earlier, the defensive line is doing absolutely nothing to help the team, putting the rest of the defense in a very difficult situation.

Most of all, the inability to make adjustments during the game is concerning. The fact that Jackson, an offensive expert, can watch a free rusher run past the offensive line untouched on every play and not make a change is maddening. After all, it was simple math, the Steelers were sending one more than the Browns could block. But Jackson, instead of noticing this during the game, allowed the same problem to bite the Browns over and over and over again.

After the game, Jackson delivered his weekly onslaught of clichés to the press, acting as if he had just completed a stroll in the park. “We have to play better,” and “We’re not quite where we want to be,” probably won’t make Monday’s headlines. What may though is Jackson’s inability to find a single win through the first 11 games of the season.

For Cleveland fans who just want one win in a 16-game season, why this is so difficult is puzzling. Ultimately, it reflects negatively on a coaching staff unable to prepare their team sufficiently and make the necessary in-game adjustments.

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