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Browns OC Kyle Shanahan sees better days ahead on offense

Oct 31, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Cleveland Browns

The Morning Kickoff …

No worries: Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a tightly-wound worrywart who admits that he has no time to enjoy a season until it’s over. He probably turns his porch light off on Halloween and immerses himself in a Tampa 2 video marathon.  

If anyone is lying awake at night fretting over the Browns’ suddenly paralyzed running game, it should be him. The Shanahan name is synonymous with the wide zone blocking scheme that seemed unstoppable over the first five games.

In two complete games since Pro Bowl center Alex Mack broke his leg, the Browns have been held to 108 rushing yards on 55 attempts for an average of 1.96 yards per run. The opponents were not the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens but, rather, the 1-6 Jacksonville Jaguars and 0-7 Oakland Raiders.

Yet Shanahan professes no concerns.

“I knew this was going to happen,” Shanahan said on Thursday. “I knew it was, eventually.

“You always try to not make it happen, but you’ve never gone through an NFL season where you just do it every single week. Eventually, someone’s going to take it away, and when they do, usually, it opens up a lot of other stuff.

“I do think that they were committed to the run, which I think we earned as an offense because we showed people we could run the ball. That’s what we want. We want people to feel like they have to commit to stop something because when they do have to commit to stop something, it makes other stuff easier.”

Shanahan’s offense heads into Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay averaging 23.3 points a game – precisely in the middle of the pack of 32 teams. Which is still better than anyone expected. It is a decent ranking considering quarterback Brian Hoyer has been without Pro Bowl targets Josh Gordon all season and Jordan Cameron for approximately eight quarters (and more to come).

Shanahan, who admits “I’m pretty much never satisfied,” offered the following observations on the state of the Browns’ offense.

* On hitting rock bottom against Oakland with 39 rushing yards on 25 attempts:

“I definitely thought we did improve. I know it’s hard to see when you look at the numbers and everything, but when you look at the tape, they definitely were committed to stopping the run, which makes it tough as always. That’s why I thought we did a good job throwing the ball on first and second down.

“It takes 11 guys to run the ball. One guy was off, and it was all different guys on all the plays. When they were off, we had an opportunity to get 15 yards or to get to the free-hitter, which is the middle-third safety, and we didn’t. Those runs right there change the game. I think a lot of it was tough sledding, but when we did have our opportunities, we were one guy off. I think that can get fixed. Hopefully we’ll get that fixed, and next week, when we do get that opportunity, you get a 15-yarder.”

* On adjusting to life without Cameron for an indefinite number of games:

“There are certain things that Jordan can do that he’s special at. I think Jordan has a lot of talent, especially stretching the field and everything, but I do feel very good about (TEs Gary) Barnidge and (Jim) Dray stepping in. They’re both good run blockers and they both can help us in the pass game. You don’t feature them as much and stuff that you would a Pro Bowl tight end, but as far as going versus zones and stuff and even some man-to-man situations, I think we’ll be alright.”

* On moving forward with Nick McDonald at center and John Greco back at right guard:

“I feel solid. I thought both of them did a good job. It was McDonald’s first game at center and first time playing football in a couple years. He’s only been practicing with us for a couple of weeks. He definitely wasn’t the reason we struggled in the run game so I was very happy with him. I hope he continues to get better now that he’s got that first game out. I thought Greco did what he’s done all year at guard. He’s been a good player for us.”

* On the abysmal conversion rate on third downs (28 of 90 for 31.1 percent):

“Third down is always the hardest because you’re pretty one-dimensional on third down. They know you’re throwing it. You can mix in a couple runs to try and keep them honest, but that’s a throwing down. People know you’re dropping back there so there’s pressure on the O-line. There’s pressure on the quarterback. There’s pressure on the receivers. I always want to try to give them the perfect call, too, to make it easier on them. None of us have done very good there, and the numbers show for it. We’ve got to get better at every position including coaching.”

* On Hoyer:

“Each week, I get to know more about him. You really only learn about people through succeeding and failing. He’s been up and down with both things in games, and I think he’s responded in both situations. I think we’re seven games into this and we’ve got a bunch more. Each week, I feel more and more like I know what I’ve got, and I hope it continues to get better. I think we’ll have a really good feeling towards the end of the year.”

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns putting Johnny Manziel's improvisational skills to use on scout team

Oct 30, 2014 -- 3:15pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

Extra Points …

Johnny Scout Team: In his true freshman year at Texas A&M, a frustrated Johnny Manziel sometimes drew the ire of coaches for not running plays as scripted on the scout team. Manziel wouldn’t throw the ball for defensive backs to practice making breaks on balls and would improvise to make plays as if he were in a game.

The same thing is happening in Manziel’s “redshirt” rookie year in the NFL.

"Yeah, he does that sometimes where they'll draw it on the card, where they want him to throw it and he'll see a corner sitting right there waiting on the interception -- or a safety -- because the coaches have talked to us and taught us in the meeting what to take away,'' safety Donte Whitner said. “And then he won't throw it in there, and he'll run around and throw it down the field sometimes and make us frustrated as defensive backs and make them frustrated. But that's what a mobile quarterback can do to you.”

Coach Mike Pettine said that Manziel’s improvisations are useful and welcome, however, especially when the Browns are game-planning for a mobile quarterback.

“Those plays aren’t necessarily scripted,” Pettine said. “Plus, when you’re playing quarterbacks that can move and make plays – like (Jake) Locker, (Ben) Roethlisberger, (Blake) Bortles, (Derke) Carr, all guys that can move and free-lance plays -- that’s good for us at practice. Sometimes he’ll just do it naturally. To me, that’s all positive stuff.”

Manziel will tone down the free-lancing when the opposing quarterback is less mobile and more of a conventional dropback passer, like Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon.

“Johnny has enough sense to know it’s not about winning the down. It’s about giving the defense the best look,” Pettine said.

Collaring great plays: It’s official now. The Dawgs are back.

The “dawg” identity popularized by cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnfield in the 1980s is being embraced by the Pettine coaching staff.

Browns defensive players have been given dog collars by the coaches. They earn dog bone tags to hang on them for every “exceptional effort play,” said defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

“We wanted to develop a unique way to keep reinforcing ‘playing like a Brown,’” O’Neil said. “It’s something we preach to those guys constantly.”

The players aren’t necessarily the run-of-the-mill sack or takeaway, but rather, plays that might not show up on the stat sheet but catch the eye of the position coach when grading each off the game tape.

O’Neil said a good team defensive performance might result in “five to eight” such plays. He said earning the tags has “gotten competitive” and players will receive a mid-season report on individual leaders after the Tampa Bay game.

“Obviously, stuff like this is more common in college,” O’Neil said. “But we felt as a staff we had worked so hard to ingrain ‘play like a Brown’ with our guys that we needed to find a way to reinforce that throughout the season.”

Feel the noise: After the win over Pittsburgh on Oct. 12, punter Spencer Lanning remarked that crowd noise in FirstEnergy Stadium was appreciably louder this season. This week, Pettine provided evidence.

“I think, by our count, we’ve forced 10 opponent procedural penalties (at home) this year,” Pettine said. “The Raiders (on Sunday) had two false starts, two delay-of-games and I’m not sure what the count is but a number of timeouts forced, as well. We’re 3-1 at home, and obviously, couldn’t do without the support of our fans. It’s a true home-field advantage.”

The improved team has a lot to do with it, of course. But Lanning said the reconfiguration of the stadium, which enclosed the corners above the Dawg Pound end zone, traps the noise inside. Lanning also said the stadium makes the winds even more unpredictable than before – which can be another home-field advantage if they can be figured out.

“It’s much more difficult,” said the punter. “If you look at the flags at the top of the stadium, and then on the field, we have, like, levels now. So if you keep the ball in that bottom level, it’s fine. But as soon as you get up to that other level, it’ll just start shaking and breaking apart.”

It would be great to get the take of former Browns kicker and part-time meteorologist Phil Dawson on the new wind patterns. Dawson, 39, signed a two-year contract with the 49ers in March. The 49ers play in Cleveland in 2015.

Brownie bits:Tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) missed practice again on Thursday. He likely will be ruled out of Sunday’s game on the Friday injury report … The Browns added another tall receiver to their practice squad, Phil Bates, formerly of Seattle. Bates, 6-2 and 220 pounds, formerly played at Ohio University.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns coach Mike Pettine 'gets it' when it comes to quarterbacks

Oct 30, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/USA Today

The Morning Kickoff …

As the quarterbacks turn: I can make the case that an NFL head coach is only as good as his quarterback. Which makes a coach’s handling of his quarterback probably his most important task.

Whether he is oriented in offense or defense, the head coach must be able to manage his quarterback situation correctly or his team has no chance. A coordinator can’t do it for him. It is the equivalent of a manager in baseball. He might know the game inside out, but if he can’t handle pitchers – when to trust them, when to pull them, how to build his rotation, etc. -- he’s finished.

The list of very good coaches is long. But the list of the great coaches includes only those who were expert in their management of their quarterback.

Marty Schottenheimer is one example. Very good coach. But clueless when it came to the position of quarterback. Mike Holmgren was the opposite. His great record as a coach was built almost entirely on his psychological command of his quarterbacks.

In my time, the best coach at handling quarterbacks was … get ready for this … Bill Parcells.

Parcells won Super Bowls with franchise-type Phil Simms and journeyman backup Jeff Hostetler with the Giants, and was the coach to produce the best seasons in the careers of Drew Bledsoe with New England and Vinny Testaverde with the Jets.

I’ve always felt the Cowboys would have reached a Super Bowl if Parcells would have stayed beyond the 2006 season and molded Tony Romo, whom he warned not to become a “celebrity quarterback.”

Parcells just had a feel for managing his team around the strengths of his quarterback, knew when to pull in the reins or loosen them, knew how to toughen his quarterback, and never let his quarterback get bigger than the team.

All of which leaves me encouraged that Mike Pettine just might have a future as a head coach. He seems to “get it” when it comes to the quarterback position.

Showing faith: I felt Pettine erred in declaring an “open competition” between Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel in training camp. But maybe that wasn’t his fault. Manziel’s celebrity intoxicated a franchise famished for a savior. And Hoyer was coming off major knee surgery.

Pettine’s best move was staying true to his original timetable and naming his starter prior to preseason Game 3. That made Hoyer the only logical choice, even though Hoyer was struggling. Who knows? Another week and Manziel could have stolen the job even though he was clearly not ready.

So Hoyer relaxed and his confidence returned and he was able to keep the Browns from joining the ranks of the Raiders and Jaguars and Vikings – teams with no other choice but to cash in their seasons and hope their rookie quarterbacks magically turn into something they’re not.

Pettine’s faith in Hoyer was steeped in the hand-written note of admiration he sent Hoyer after watching him tear his knee in the game against the Buffalo Bills last year. Little did either know they would be united less than a year later, their relationship bonded in mutual trust.

So when Hoyer stumbled in Jacksonville, opening the conversation about Manziel taking over, Pettine did not waver. While the “noise” was louder externally, I don’t doubt that some conversation did exist internally.

If something becomes of this Browns season, and Hoyer is leading the team at the end, I believe Hoyer’s snappy touchdown drive after the Donte Whitner forced fumble in the fourth quarter against Oakland will be seen as the turning point.

Managing Manziel: The last few weeks have been increasingly frustrating for Manziel. He hasn’t appeared in a game since that hokey, illegal trick play against Baltimore four games ago, which Pettine took accountability for recommending.

All the while, Manziel has watched from the sideline as rookies Blake Bortles and Derek Carr – quarterbacks who didn’t win the Heisman Trophy as redshirt freshmen, or beat Alabama -- led their teams against the Browns.

On Wednesday, Tampa Bay rookie receiver Mike Evans, Manziel’s go-to guy at Texas A&M, asserted, “I know he wants to be out there bad, but he’ll do whatever the team needs him to do – sit back and learn or whatever they have him do, he’s going to do it. He’s a team player.”

Standing on the Browns’ own practice field at the NFL Rookie Symposium in June, Evans flatly stated that Manziel should start from Day 1 as a pro.

On Wednesday, Evans commented, “That’s their team’s decision because they’re winning now. I can’t talk too bad about that,” and added, “He’s a great player, and when he gets his shot I think he’s never going to come off the field.”

So when will that be? The temptation to see Manziel on the field is palpable.

“Brian’s our starting quarterback,” Pettine said. “That’s a difficult thing to say, ‘Let’s just go ahead.’ All our games are meaningful. If it ever gets to the point whether we’re potentially up big, down big, or if there’s a situation that calls for him to go in, we’ll get an opportunity to see him.

“But there’s a lot of football left to be played. You’re looking for an evaluation at some point, but what I’m saying is I don’t think you can force it.

 “To me, it's look at your roster and who gives you the best chance to win. If you have a guy on your roster that's doing that for you and somebody is sitting and waiting … I think the mistakes are made when teams get impatient. They have to know, and that guy has to play. I think it's easy in the coaching world because it's, 'Hey, who gives us the best chance to win today?' We'll worry about tomorrow down the road.”

The Browns are winning more than they’re losing. In order for that to continue, the quarterback has to play well.

How Pettine manages this situation going forward will say a lot about his future as a head coach.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns planning for loss of TE Jordan Cameron for a while

Oct 29, 2014 -- 3:11pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

Extra Points …

Next men up: The next adjustment for the Browns’ offense is to deal with life without Jordan Cameron for a while.

The tight end has not been cleared for work after suffering a concussion Sunday on a violent hit to the head making a catch in the middle of the field.

The Browns won’t even speculate on a timetable for Cameron’s return. He may miss the next two games at least. Cameron has had three concussion injuries in the span of about two years.

So get ready for a healthy dose of Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray in place of Cameron. While they won’t stretch a defense as Cameron did (13 catches for 250 yards and a 19.2-yard average), they are proven receivers when called upon.

Some questioned the signing of Dray, formerly of Arizona, in free agency because he had similar traits to Barnidge – versatile in receiving and blocking, unspectacular after the ball. Now the move looks prescient.

“He and Gary both mean a lot,” coach Mike Pettine said. “Jim’s been the ultimate professional. Hardly says a word. All he does is work. Very intelligent. Very interactive with the staff. Knows all the different spots. Very versatile. And he’s made plays for us. He’s gotten open and when the ball’s thrown to him, he’s caught it. Nothing flashy. Fills a great role for us. He’ll have to step up when Jordan’s out, as will Gary.”

Dray’s 16-yard reception set up the fourth-quarter touchdown against Oakland after the Donte Whitner forced fumble. He has nine catches for 118 yards and had a touchdown against Tennessee. Barnidge had four of his five season catches in the win over New Orleans.

“We weren’t really sure about Gary coming in, what we had, and that’s one reason why we went after Dray in free agency,” Pettine said. “Then we realized this guy is a good fit for us and has played some significant reps for us.”

On Monday, the Browns claimed a third tight end, Ryan Taylor, who was waived by the Ravens – further indication they expect Cameron to be out for a while.

Exhibit A: GM Ray Farmer’s aversion to wide receivers taken high in the draft was a storyline since Josh Gordon’s future suspension was first reported on May 9. It has slowly faded as the Browns’ unheralded receivers rewarded Farmer’s faith.

Farmer’s point was that Super Bowl-winning teams generally don’t have “mega-receivers” on their roster. And the converse is that teams that load up on highly-drafted receivers aren’t helping their cause.

A case in point is the Buccaneers, the Browns’ foe on Sunday. Despite a starting high-wire tandem of 2012 free-agent catch Vincent Jackson and 2014 seventh overall draft pick Mike Evans, Tampa Bay comes to town sporting the NFL’s last-ranked offense and is 1-6.

(Another example is the Chicago Bears, who are 3-5 with elite wideouts Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.)

“I think the driving force behind (Farmer’s) point is that you have to have a system that you believe in and you build your roster that way,” Pettine said. “You can do get it done with first-round receivers, but you build it a certain way based on all your circumstances – how are we going to move the ball, how we going to generate yards, how we going to generate points? It can be done a lot of different ways.

“I agree with Ray. When you do a study, the numbers bear it out. When you look at some of the best teams around, they have good players at receiver, and I also think that’s a position where you can find guys later. Some of the better receivers in the league aren’t necessarily top 15 picks.  You see teams that are very functional … (if) their system is good, quarterback’s good, you can get it done without them.”

Brownie bits: Defensive end Billy Winn was full-go at practice, but Pettine said Phil Taylor (knee) is still “a way’s out.” Taylor isn’t expected to be available until at least after the Cincinnati game … With nickel back K’Waun Williams also a full go at practice after suffering a stinger in the Oakland game, Pettine feels the secondary is as strong as it’s been. “K’Waun’s ability, I think, has really helped us because that doesn’t put so much on (Justin) Gilbert’s plate. I think if we can continue to work those four guys (including Joe Haden and Buster Skrine) in three spots, that will be good,” the coach said.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Tony Grossi's Scouting Report: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Oct 29, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/ESPN

Browns vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

                        Sunday, 1 p.m., FirstEnergy Stadium

Record: 1-6.

Last game: Lost to Minnesota Vikings, 19-13 in OT, Oct. 27, in Tampa, FL.

Coach: Lovie Smith, 1-6, first year; 85-72 overall.

Series record: Browns lead, 5-2.

Last meeting: Bucs won, 17-14, Sept. 12, 2010, in Tampa.

League rankings: Offense is 32nd overall (29th rushing, 28th passing), defense is 32nd overall (23rd rushing, 30th passing), and turnover differential is minus-4.

Offensive overview: Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has been on a leave of absence since undergoing a heart procedure on Aug. 25. The offense hasn’t come out of ICU since. Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, a former Tedford assistant at University of California, has tried to take over. The result is an offense with no particular identity. Which is a shame because there are talented players in receivers Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, running backs Doug Martin and Bobby Rainey and tight ends Brandon Myers and rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The offensive line is the weakest link and that is not a good thing because quarterback Mike Glennon is fairly immobile. Glennon (6-6 and 225 pounds) is a rangy pocket passer with a good arm who delivers a nice ball but doesn’t have a particularly quick release. He is strong and tough, but he takes a beating because of the line’s deficiencies.

Defensive overview: Lovie Smith was Tony Dungy’s linebackers coach in the late 1990s with Tampa Bay before taking the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. So Smith is wedded to the “Tampa 2” defensive system, which leaves the pass rush to a four-man front and drops the linebackers and secondary into pass coverage. Like the offense, this side of the ball has talent, but it hasn’t been able to totally adapt to Smith’s defense as a unit. The defense failed to put away games against the Vikings, Panthers and Saints. The marquee player here is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who recently signed a contract extension for $51.5 million guaranteed and $95.2 million total. McCoy is a penetrating tackle who reminds Tampa fans of Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. Two others are weakside linebacker Lavonte David, who was All-Pro last season but has not adapted easily to the Smith defense, and cornerback Alterraun Verner.

Special teams overview: Rookie kicker Patrick Murray has only nine field goal attempts, converting seven, including three of three from 50-plus yards. His long is 55 yards. Punter Michael Koenen is 32nd in gross average (41.8 yards) and 30th in net (36.2). Koenen also handles kickoffs and is 23rd with 19 touchbacks. Return specialist Trindon Holliday only has one game under his belt since being picked up. He can hit the home run. The coverage team has given up a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Players to watch:

1. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy: Newly minted as the highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history, he kindles memories of Hall of Famer Warren Sapp with his ability to penetrate inside against the run and pass.

2. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson: Still a dangerous vertical threat at the age of 31, the 6-5, 230-pound target has the third-most receptions on third downs over the past three seasons.

3. Wide receiver Mike Evans: Johnny Manziel’s go-to guy at Texas A&M, he mirrors Jackson’s size and can outjump any NFL cornerback. The first-round rookie draft pick has had at least four receptions in each of his first six games.

Injury report: RB Doug Martin (ankle) had to leave during the last game.

Small world: Offensive line coach George Warhop held the same position with the Browns from 2009 to 2013 … defensive line coach Joe Cullen held the same position with the Browns last year … tight ends coach Jon Embree held the same position with the Browns last year … former Browns include guard Oniel Cousins (2011-13), running back Bobby Rainey (2013) and guard Garrett Gilkey (2013) … senior defensive assistant Larry Marmie spent two seasons as head coach at Berea High School.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

In the long run, the loss of center Alex Mack should not paralyze Browns' offense

Oct 28, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP

The Morning Kickoff …

Center of attention: You can make the case that Alex Mack has done more for the position of center in the last six months than anyone since Jim Otto.

First, there was that gigantic contract earned through the unorthodox Browns strategy of giving him the transition tag. Jacksonville signed Mack to the largest contract for a center in NFL history -- $42 million over five years, with $26 million guaranteed – and the Browns matched.

They matched because they saw the mobile Mack as the perfect center in Kyle Shanahan’s wide zone blocking scheme. And they were right.

Mack, a two-time Pro Bowler in his previous five years, indeed was reaching another level in the Shanahan offense. Through five games, he anchored the NFL’s No. 3-ranked run offense and one of the best pass protection lines in the business.

In the two games since Mack was lost for the season with a fractured fibula, the Browns’ running game has done this:

* Against Jacksonville, 30 attempts for 69 yards, 2.3 average.

* Against Oakland, 25 attempts for 39 yards, 1.6 average.

And the Browns’ offense has sputtered to the tune of 6 and 23 points.

Alex Mack for MVP?

Time to regroup: “We talk about how you can’t replace a Pro Bowl player like Alex, but also I think teams know that (running the ball is) what we’re going to try to do. There’s a little bit of both in that,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said on Monday in response to a question about the running game’s slow-down.

Sure, Mack’s sudden absence was a blow. Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme calls for the five members of the line to act like a moving fence. It takes repetition and continuity to mold the necessary cohesion. Take away the middle cog of that moving fence and there is going to be an adjustment period to re-establish continuity and cohesion.

The necessary response by the Browns created two position changes – right guard John Greco moved to center and Paul McQuistan came off the bench and played right guard. The result was four-fifths of the line was disrupted – from left guard Joel Bitonio to right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

So the Browns hurried reserve center Nick McDonald into the lineup against Oakland and Greco returned to right guard. The running game plummeted to a 1.6-yard average. The bottoming-out was inevitable.

By the end of the game, there were encouraging signs, however. Hoyer was able to complete three play-action passes on the pivotal offensive drive after the Donte Whitner forced fumble late in the third quarter. And Ben Tate did tack on a touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the Browns’ ninth of the season – five more than all of last year.

So it’s not as if the sky is falling.

“I think it’ll only get better as time goes on,” Hoyer said after the game on Sunday.

The adjustment needed: The running backs – Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West – are not the problem. They did not suddenly lose their ability to plant and cut downfield. (Although West has to quit auditioning for an invitation to Dancing With the Stars.)

The problem is that defenses will now follow the lead of Jacksonville and Oakland and load the tackling box with eight -- sometimes nine – defenders to stop the run. It is simple math; too many defenders for the linemen to block.

“We played against two teams that came into the game saying, ‘We’re going to stop your run,’” coach Mike Pettine said on Monday. “We’re going to get some teams that’ll do that. If teams want to say, ‘Hey, that’s the blueprint,’ then we have to make them pay in the passing game.

“If you’re one-dimensional in this league, you’ll get beat. I think that’s important for us to realize that if a team wants to take away one aspect of what you do, they can do it. You have to be able to find production elsewhere.

“You have to be effective in the pass game if you want to get teams to kind of back off putting eight and nine guys up.”

The solution to the running game falls on Hoyer’s ability to make plays in the passing game. This will improve when Josh Gordon returns for Game 11. Until then, Hoyer has to get the ball to Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin and Miles Austin. And then those running lanes will widen again.

The mistake would be in not trying to run. Repeatedly. Despite the seeming lack of success.

“We’re not going to just run the ball four or five times and if it doesn’t work abandon it,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to keep going because that’s what our offense is. If we can do that, people still have to honor the run game, and that’s where the play-action passes show up.

“Even spreading it out a little bit – we opened the game yesterday in two empty (formation) passes – that’s not something people probably thought we could do. I think the beauty of this offense is you can attack from a lot of different ways, but I don’t think we’ll ever get away from our core scheme.”

I have a lot of respect for Mack. He played through an appendicitis attack in the 2010 season and didn’t miss a game after appendix surgery (thanks to a bye week). But no offense needs to be crippled by the loss of a center.

Browns fans have argued the importance of the position by pointing out that when Paul Brown started the Cincinnati Bengals from scratch in 1968, his first draft pick was a center, Bob Johnson.

My retort has always been that when Brown gathered up his first team in 1945 – the Browns of the upstart All-America Football Conference – the first player he signed was quarterback Otto Graham.

Ever the pioneer and visionary, Brown knew then that the sport of professional football would be quarterback-driven.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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    • VIP Tailgate Ticket Drop at Bonnie's Lounge

    • High School Hysteria at Hudson High School 9/19/14

    • ESPN Tailgate Alfred Learner Way 9/21/14

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

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