Grades from the blowout loss to the Cowboys
The Cleveland Browns were manhandled by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. Did any major position group perform well in the 35-10 loss?
It was another ugly Sunday for the Cleveland Browns. The Dallas Cowboys, on the other hand, didn’t even need to shower following their 35-10 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Cleveland’s offense fights for every inch, while their defense allows opposing offenses to walk for large chunks of yardage on seemingly every play. The Cowboys made it so easy early on that by the time the third quarter came around, all they were trying to do was get home in time for dinner.
While not a pleasant afternoon for the Browns, fans are not in shock over the team’s ninth consecutive poor performance to open 2016. The Browns have had troubles closing out even the worst of NFL teams, so they knew that they would have their hands full against one of football’s best.
Cleveland cannot dwell on the defeat for too long, as they have a Thursday night matchup with the Baltimore Ravens quickly approaching. But to prepare, they must first analyze the numerous areas in which they fell short against the Cowboys. The following is this week’s grade book of every major position group. Grades are on an A-F scale and take only into account the way the team performed during Sunday’s game.
Rookie Cody Kessler has shown improvement over the past several weeks he has played, but this week was a much different story. His numbers don’t look horrible, as he completed 19 of 27 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown. But with the exception of two flashes of chunk plays, Kessler and the offense were silenced by a beat-up Dallas defense.
Of course, the lack of success was not entirely a reflection of Kessler’s play. The third-round draft pick out of USC never had a chance, as he was constantly pressured, and sacked four times.
But when he did have a solid pocket, which was hardly ever, Kessler couldn’t find the open receiver. When he rolled out, he had little room, and really had no choice but to be hit or to throw the ball away.
At the end of the day, Cleveland’s problems go far beyond the quarterback position. Kessler is a player that many believe can become a long-term quarterback if the Browns could have any sort of talent around him. The fact that they are far from this was on full display during Sunday’s game.
Running Backs: F
As anticipated, there was absolutely no running room for the Browns all afternoon. Even though they were set up to fail, the running backs took failure to a whole new level. Dallas, who plays a very soft style of defense, rarely allowed Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson across the line of scrimmage.
The numbers are incredibly ugly. Johnson rushed for 30 yards on five carries, and Crowell pushed forward for four yards on six carries. Even for a team without a running game, this type of stagnant rushing attack is unprecedented.
The offensive line is partially to blame for this, but it doesn’t excuse the running backs unit. Often times, they tried to do too much, knowing that they couldn’t ride blocks. The Browns also ran the draw play several times, hoping that the pass would set up the run.
This strategy blew up in their face though as the running backs could not find any holes to sneak through. Nothing as far as the running game was concerned ever even got started for the Browns. It was a miserable afternoon for Crowell and Johnson.
Wide Receivers: F
There was nothing on Sunday that instilled any confidence for Browns fans in their wide receivers. While they undoubtedly have some talent at the position, it wasn’t visible in Sunday’s loss.
Crowell, a running back, was the team’s leading receiver. Browns receivers as a whole only accounted for 124 yards, not nearly enough considering Cleveland’s obvious bias towards their passing attack.
Terrelle Pryor led the way for the receivers with 47 yards on five catches and the lone touchdown on the afternoon. In his return, rookie Corey Coleman was not far behind, catching three passes for 41 yards. Andrew Hawkins also found his way into the action, catching two passes and gaining 13 yards.
Other than those three receivers though, no other was even targeted. Clearly, this is never going to get the job done. The Browns can’t ride the same weapons throughout the course of the game when they’re throwing the ball on the vast majority of the plays.
Even against the nickel, which left Pryor one-on-one against a struggling Dallas cornerback, Cleveland couldn’t find the explosive play. This partially reflects on how poorly the receivers played, as well as a severe lack of depth at the position.
Offensive Line: F
The first important point to mention is that the grading system used for this analysis goes no lower than “F”. Therefore, the offensive line is in luck. It was one of the all-time bad sort of afternoons for an already struggling unit. The line was equally incapable in run blocking and pass blocking, leading to an all too familiar result.
It isn’t so much the sacks allowed that caused the problem, but the relentless pressure that no player on the line ever had a chance to slow down. Joe Thomas, John Greco, Spencer Drango and Shon Coleman appeared sluggish and completely overmatched by the Cowboys’ 11th-ranked run defense.
Of course, it didn’t help that Cleveland’s first-round draft pick Cameron Erving decided to miss out on the beat down. His ejection in the first quarter threw off the rhythm of the line after a solid opening drive. This forced Greco to center, and the rest is history.
Moving forward, the Browns must find a way to keep a pocket secure for more than three seconds. Kessler is a methodical quarterback who ideally goes through several progressions before making a throw. This requires time.
Also, the running game has to get going, as 34 yards is just not going to cut it. This starts at the offensive line, as their play is so critical to the flow of the game. Their horrendous outing on Sunday is the main reason that Cleveland’s offense never really got rolling.
Tight Ends: D
The tight ends did little to help or harm the Browns in Sunday’s loss. Gary Barnidge was the only member of this unit targeted in the pass game, and he was virtually the only one who played at length during the game.
The final numbers for Barnidge were disappointing, as he caught three passes for a total of 23 yards. However, the 2015 Pro Bowl selection was only targeted those three times, further confirming his role as Cleveland’s sure-handed safety valve.
Barnidge was a limited factor in blocking as well. On the majority of the plays, he ran routes and served as a decoy which attracted linebackers and safeties. Since the Browns got very few runs down the field, Barnidge was irrelevant on most plays.
Since Barnidge is continuing to play consistently, many fans wonder why he doesn’t play a more active role in the offense. This is a legitimate concern, as Barnidge has Jason Witten-like ability. Witten, who caught 8 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown for Dallas, is thriving. Barnidge, on the other hand, rarely gets an opportunity to do such damage to opposing defenses.
Defensive Line: F
It is safe to say that the Browns’ defensive line was dominated in every way on Sunday. They failed against the running game, failed to manufacture a pass rush and failed to keep a contained pocket.
Nothing more needs to be said when considering running back Ezekiel Elliot‘s numbers. The rookie averaged over five yards a carry, recording 92 yards on 18 carries and scoring two touchdowns. The defensive line had no answer all afternoon for the budding superstar, either being beaten physically or losing the edge.
They also failed to create any pressure on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott. The rookie out of Mississippi State was not sacked, rarely hurried and not contained in the pocket. The offensive line of the Cowboys did their job so effectively that it often appeared that Cleveland’s defenders were not even moving.
They got no push off of the line of scrimmage and could not fill the holes created. They also jumped offsides three times on third down plays. If there was ever a day to forget for Cleveland’s defensive line, Sunday was that day.
It was an equally miserable afternoon for the linebackers, for similar reasons. They generated no pass rush, missed tackles all over the field and looked lost in their own scheme against a dynamic offense.
Once again, Demario Davis and Christian Kirksey led the team in tackles. Unfortunately, these tackles were more often than not much too far down the field. Recently acquired linebacker Jamie Collins also got into the action right away in his debut, recording eight tackles, the third most on the defense.
Even though the linebackers made far and away more tackles than any other defensive unit, they also missed their fair share. Many of these were due to Elliot’s ability to escape, and many came as a result of the team’s inability to seal the edge.
The most disappointing aspect of the linebackers’ performances though was their pass coverage. The unit has been solid in this area over the past few weeks, but Sunday was a much different narrative. Defending the tight end was an adventure, as Witten torched Cleveland for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Helping out in this area was not a success for the linebackers, as they left Witten and Gavin Escobar wide open all over the field.
Unlike past weeks, the secondary was not where the Browns struggled most in Sunday’s drubbing. Still, missed tackles and numerous instances of blown coverage defined a miserable effort.
Besides Witten, who as previously mentioned dominated the Browns, the Cowboys did not do a whole lot of damage through the air. Cole Beasley was the next best receiver, followed by Terrance Williams. Other than those two though, Cleveland did not allow multiple receptions to another Dallas receiver. Joe Haden shut down Dez Bryant, and Brice Butler was also surprisingly held in check.
While this is a credit to the unit, it must be remembered that the Cowboys only attempted 22 passes as opposed to 42 runs. When Dallas did throw the ball, they still had a reasonable amount of success over the middle of the field, an area which the Browns focused especially on containing.
More importantly, the Browns’ secondary missed a slew of tackles. While they got contributions from Tracy Howard, Ibraheim Campbell, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and even Ed Reynolds II, they didn’t get solid tackling. Howard especially missed tackles on Elliot when he got to the secondary, and Witten also shed several possible tacklers on his way to an enormous afternoon.
Of course, the Browns are undersized in the secondary, and lack experience. While this is an excuse that does warrant some understanding, it is not acceptable for the secondary to blow coverage at any time. The Browns must improve, and must overcome the urge to make excuses.
Special Teams: F
Though they did not have a significant impact on the outcome of the game, the Cleveland special teams unit once again proved why they rank among the worst in football.
Most notably, the kick returns were horrendous. The Browns were actually given three opportunities to run the ball out this week, two courtesy of Ricardo Louis, and one thanks to George Atkinson III. In these attempts, the Browns averaged under 18 yards, far short of the 25-yard goal which seems to be reasonable.
To add insult to this, the unit also committed three penalties on punt and kick returns. These are the types of penalties which are especially costly, pinning Cleveland back on offense.
When the Browns finally made a play on special teams to down the ball at the Dallas one-yard-line, the edge in field position was only squandered as a result of a missed 41-yard field goal attempt by Cody Parkey which hit the left upright.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t meant to be for the group. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor certainly has a lot of work ahead of him, but at least he can rest assured that the play of the unit did not cost the team the game this time. Moving forward, the Browns must get better in the area of special teams, starting by being more disciplined.
Once again, the Browns had absolutely no balance on offense, and had no game plan with a chance at success on defense. Led by Hue Jackson and Ray Horton, all of this added up to an embarrassing 25-point loss.
On offense, the Browns dropped Kessler back for a throw on 28 of their 40 plays, an all too predictable strategy. Coming in, it was clear that the goal was to set up the rushing attack with a successful passing attack. What ended up happening though was an offense which was so off schedule because of their lack of passing on early downs that they never gave themselves an opportunity to run the ball. This is why they should have done everything they could to establish a running game, as they will never have a chance if they don’t run the ball.
Defensively, the Browns had no answer for Elliot. This isn’t too troubling, as the rookie out of Ohio State is giving every one of his opposing defenses fits. But the Browns had no game plan in place to even slow down the star back. Horton did not bring nearly enough pressure, took no risks, and acted like everything in the game was going grand. The lack of adjustments was evident, and it gave the impression that the defensive coaching staff was quitting.
At one point after the Cowboys scored their final touchdown of the uncontested contest, Jackson called his defense over to the sideline, visibly upset at their lack of effort. What he didn’t do, however, was follow through with his frustration or make any changes to the unit. It is a coach’s job to make sure his players give maximum effort. Jackson may have been upset, but there is no indication that Cleveland’s coaching staff will hold their players accountable in any way.
This isn’t to say that the coaching staff can not be the answer in the long-term. In reality, it isn’t totally fair to judge them due to the lack of talent on the Browns roster. But how can one not notice the lack of active coaching from Jackson and Horton?
Even if the Browns were ready to win as far as talent is concerned, their coaches aren’t putting forth the game plan which will allow the team to get over the hump.