AFC North: Cleveland Browns
- Pettine said the Browns are preparing to see Jake Locker play quarterback Sunday for the Titans. Locker missed this past Sunday’s bad loss at Indianapolis with a wrist injury but said in a conference call with the Cleveland media that he was able to take part in all of practice Wednesday. Locker was at quarterback for the Titans’ only win of the season, the opener over Kansas City.Locker
- Pettine said Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey “might be the best defensive player in the league that nobody’s really heard of.” Casey has two sacks, eight quarterback pressures and one tackle for a loss in three games.
- Ben Tate was listed as limited before practice, but Pettine said that was the normal progression as Tate returns from a sprained right knee. “Assuming things progress the way they should, he should be listed as full at some point,” Pettine said. Expect Tate to start, barring a setback during the week.
- Adding a long snapper to the practice squad means there is competition for the spot. “We’ll rotate those guys in practice, and then I’ll rely on (special-teams coach Chris Tabor). We’ll talk about it at the end of the week if we want to make a move or not.” Christian Yount has struggled with some snaps, so the Browns signed Charley Hughlett to the practice squad.
- Pettine on Yount: “Christian’s a competitive guy, and he’s very serious about his job. We’re not going to hide from the fact that he struggled. He’ll be the first one to tell you. He knows he needs to get better, but at the same time we have to move forward and put the team in the best position to win. He’s done well here. He’s had his struggles of late, but that’s something that (general manager) Ray (Farmer) and I talked about from the beginning and it’s been ad nauseam about competition at all positions.”
He doesn’t have to; his father, Mike Sr., keeps him informed of the pulse. So when Pettine Sr. pointed out that folks were chattering about the Browns next five opponents being 4-16, he let his son know.
The response from the Browns coach was to address the issue with his team.
“That (talk) is for fans and media only,” Pettine said. “It is hard to win in this league, especially on the road.”
He stressed that looking at any team as anything other than difficult -- two of the Browns next five opponents are winless, two have one win and one has two -- is fool’s gold.
“That’s jut not how we operate,” Pettine said. “It’s a dangerous thing. I talked about being confident at 1-2, but it is so hard to win in this league.”
On many levels it’s foolish to even bring this subject up related to the Browns. They’ve had six double-digit loss season in a row, and it's been more than a year since they've won a road game.
They have every right to believe in themselves and prepare with confidence, but to assume anything before actually doing it is way premature.
“Teams are probably looking at us like ‘That’s a struggling team and we can beat them,’” safety Tashaun Gipson said.
“I don’t think any part of the schedule is favorable,” running back Ben Tate said. “Who says the schedule is favorable? That’s something y’all came up with huh?
“We all get paid. We’re all good athletes in this league. If you don’t come to play, you’re gonna get beat.”
Tate then pointed out that few thought Kansas City would blow out New England Monday night, but the Chiefs did.
“They didn’t come to play, and look what happened,” he said.
Gipson pointed to Tampa Bay visiting Pittsburgh after getting blown out by Atlanta. The Buccaneers beat the Steelers.
“We’re not in a position to look ahead,” Gipson said. “Sitting at 1-2 we’re definitely not in a position to look ahead.”
Pettine stressed that a team’s mental attitude has as much to do with winning as the physical ability. These five games on paper do present the Browns an opportunity, but the coach does not want his team looking at it that way.
“Teams that are right mentally,” Pettine said, “are the ones that win on a consistent level.”
BEREA, Ohio -- A long snapper can never breathe easy.
If he struggles, teams do not wait long to make a move.
The Browns added a long snapper to the practice squad a few hours after practice on Tuesday, which can’t help Christian Yount’s REM sleep much.
Yount’s tough snaps contributed to a missed extra point against New Orleans and missed field goal against Baltimore. The missed point almost was the difference against the Saints; the missed field goal was the difference in a loss to the Ravens.
Tuesday the team signed Charley Hughlett to the practice squad. Hughlett was signed by Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2012, and has spent time with the Cowboys, Patriots and Jaguars.
His presence might mean a move is coming soon, it might mean that the Browns are holding “competition” at the spot during practice (something Mike Pettine seems to enjoy), or it might mean that Yount’s practice snaps are still not what the team wants.
Yount is used to people breathing down his neck as he snaps.
Now he has someone doing just that as a teammate.
The Cleveland Browns are about to challenge that bromide.
Because when Ben Tate returns -- which will likely happen this week -- the Browns will have three talented running backs, all of whom will want the ball. This is not a bad thing, except that by Tate’s own admission, only two can play.
“That’s tough to have three running backs," Tate said. "As a running back you want to get in a rhythm, so it’s tough to have three. But two? Yeah, I think definitely two running backs can get the job done.”
Which means that either Terrance West or Isaiah Crowell may see his touches drop Sunday in Tennessee (assuming Tate plays). Which means someone might not be happy.
The Browns signed Tate to be the starter. He did well in preseason and in the limited time he had in Pittsburgh before spraining his right knee. Coach Mike Pettine and running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery both said Tate would return to the starting lineup when healthy.
West was drafted in the third round to share time with Tate, and he’s played well, running for a team-high 204 yards and two touchdowns. But Crowell has really opened eyes. The undrafted free agent is a punishing runner who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
How do they see the playing time shaking out?
“I envision all of us being out there, getting time, getting reps, running the ball (and) being the best backfield in the league,” Crowell said.
“Whoever’s got the hot hand and whoever will get us the win, that’s who we’re going to roll with,” West said.
The Browns had all three active in Pittsburgh, and Crowell scored two touchdowns. That happened after Tate was hurt, but it’s possible the team could find carries for all three. Tate, though, is the clear starter by virtue of his experience and ability.
If there are issues with the setup, it might be worth thinking back to the halcyon days of 2013.
Then the Browns’ leading rusher was Willis McGahee, who had 377 yards, less than twice what West has in three games.
Then the Browns had no 100-yard rushing games; West had one in his first NFL game.
Then the Browns had four rushing touchdowns all season; now the Browns have five.
Then offensive coordinator Norv Turner scoffed incredulously at a question about running the ball more; now Pettine says the team is committed to a mentality that they will run the ball.
Then the team had a safety (on a fake punt) and two receivers lead the team in rushing in games. Now there are three running backs who are averaging at least 4 yards per carry.
The Fozzy Whittaker/Edwin Baker days are over.
The Browns addressed the issue in the offseason, signing a veteran free agent, drafting a back and bringing in another undrafted free agent. If addressing the issue leads to occasional unhappiness, so be it. Fantasy team owners just have to pick the right guy.
In Cleveland, the running game matters, and the fact the Browns recognize that truth is a welcome development.
The bench, otherwise known as the coaches.
The Browns have been penalized for having 12 men on the field or in the huddle four times, the most frequent penalty called against the team.
Thus coach Mike Pettine’s emphasis prior to the bye week was on fixing procedures, because all are a result of not getting the right substitutions done properly.
The 12-men calls broke down this way:
- The offense had 12 in the huddle against the Saints.
- The defense had 12 on the field against the Saints.
- The defense twice had 12 on the field against the Ravens, and it would have happened a third time had Karlos Dansby not used a timeout to avoid the penalty, a move he called “an executive decision.”
The four 12-men penalties leads the NFL, two ahead of the Panthers and Jaguars, who have two each, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Browns were called for five all of last season and have accounted for 22 percent of the 12-men penalties in the NFL this season (four of the 18). The Browns have played three games; 26 teams have played four.
This explains Pettine’s anger and his taking accountability for the loss to the Ravens. And it is partly the result of change, because new coaches have new systems that require new signals that require adjustments. Consider: The Browns and Raiders lead the league in 12-men calls since 2001, per ESPN Stats and Information. The two teams have had 31 flags for that violation during that span and combined have had 16 coaches (including interim coaches) -- seven for the Browns and nine for the Raiders.
The day after the loss to the Ravens, Pettine said things had to change, immediately, because the way things were going was “trouble.”
He said the Browns would practice it better and learn to better deal with crowd noise, an oddity given the calls happened at home. Pettine has adjusted to make many signals come through the communication system between the sidelines and huddle.
“There are no excuses for that,” Pettine said. “We need to get better.”
In other penalty oddities through three games:
- Justin Gilbert has the most penalty yards on the team by virtue of his 31-yard pass interference penalty against the Ravens.
- Two Pro Bowlers lead their units. Joe Thomas has been flagged twice for 20 yards and Joe Haden three times for 15 yards. Don’t expect the Browns to start working people out at their positions.
Pittsburgh lost to Tampa Bay 27-24. At home.
Jacksonville lost 33-14.
Oakland lost 38-14.
And Tampa Bay ... well it beat Pittsburgh, because either Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay had to win. The game prior to beating the Steelers, Tampa Bay lost 56-14 to Atlanta.
Two of the teams are winless. Two have one win. Pittsburgh has two wins, one over the Browns on a last-play field goal.
If the Browns ever are going to get something accomplished this season, this is the time and these are the teams to do it against. The Browns' defense has struggled, especially against the run, but facing this non-gauntlet of teams presents the defense an excellent chance to find itself. The numbers for the five present a challenge, but also an opportunity.
Combined, these five teams are 4-16, winning just 20 percent of their games. On Sunday, the five gave up 24, 27, 38, 33 and 41 points -- an average of 32.6.
Heading into Monday night, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Oakland are the league’s three worst-ranked offenses. Tennessee is 17th, but it's without starting quarterback Jake Locker. Pittsburgh has talent, but struggled to beat the Browns in Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Oakland are the league’s four worst scoring offenses. None average more than 15 points per game.
The Browns are 1-2, but coach Mike Pettine said before sending the team away for the bye that it is about as confident a 1-2 team could be.
“I think we’ve proved over the first three weeks that we can win football games in this league, that we’re close,” Pettine said. “As I said, pass-fail league, we failed two out of three, but there’s a different feel to it just because I know our guys have confidence coming out of it and that if we go out and execute a game plan that we can beat any team in this league.”
If that’s true, the Browns have a prime opportunity in the next five weeks to establish themselves as more than just another team trying to win, more than the pretenders they have been the past six seasons.
A year ago, the Browns talked about playing a meaningful game in a trip to Cincinnati and fell flat. The rest of the season went south in a hurry.
But the circumstances a year ago were different. The team had no running game whatsoever. Brian Hoyer was hurt; Jason Campbell was at quarterback. The team was so fragile that it couldn’t withstand one really bad quarter against the Bengals.
This season the Browns came back from 24 down at halftime to tie Pittsburgh, before eventually losing 30-27. They have two difficult losses, but much to build on. The running game could be a strength and Hoyer has played well. The defense has struggled, but Pettine and the assistant coaches believe in their scheme and promise it can and will work if the players trust it.
The one player missing this season is Josh Gordon, who remains suspended for the first 10 games of the season. But if the Browns can get something accomplished in the next five games against teams that are 4-16, it can build something positive for when Gordon returns.
The Browns have an opportunity the next five games.
If they are going to make something of this season, it has to start with these five games.
"Right now, my role is to be a supporter, because one thing that jumped off the map for me once I started working with him in the spring is he does want to be great," McDaniel said. "He truly does."
McDaniel said he supports Gordon "in everything he does," presumably meaning on the field.
"As a young person being pulled in every sort of direction, you’ve got to remember he was a three-star athlete coming out of high school," McDaniel said. "Then he goes to Baylor. He goes through that process, and he’s in the supplemental draft. He’s a second-round draft pick, and then all of the sudden he’s an NFL star.
"It’s a lot to handle. He wants to be great, so I support him in everything that he does. I try to do my best job to get him to be what his ultimate desire to be is, which is the best receiver that he can be."
Gordon has immense talent. He led the league in receiving yards a year ago despite missing the first two games with another suspension. He said during a visit to ESPN in March that there is no limit to an individual’s potential.
"In his mind, he wants to be the best receiver in the league," McDaniel said. "As far as a day-to-day standpoint, I check in on him and we talk. I’m just supportive of the stuff that he’s going through and the stuff that he’s learning, because he’s just learning on the fly -- how to be an adult and an NFL player within the confines of our league."
BEREA, Ohio -- Barkevious Mingo has been on the field for 101 defensive snaps this season and has no tackles for a loss and no sacks.
Fleury, in fact, said he’s pleased with Mingo.
“We’re asking him to do some different things than what he did last year," Fleury said. “When you guys watch the film, he’s in coverage a lot more than he is going after the quarterback. I know there’ve been some questions as to why the sack numbers aren’t there, and I think it’s just simply a reflection of the amount of reps he’s had rushing the quarterback relative to everybody else. We’re happy with where he is and the production he’s given us.”
Fleury added that on many plays Mingo isn’t being asked to get a sack or get into the backfield. Coach Mike Pettine constantly discusses mismatches, and clearly the Browns are trying to create one by using Mingo different from a year ago.
In the opener, it appeared the Browns wanted Mingo to rush the passer. He rushed often and came close to sacking Ben Roethlisberger on a touchdown pass, but Roethlisberger avoided the sack.
Against Baltimore, it appeared Mingo was dropped into coverage more.
“He’s a remarkably talented athlete,” Fleury said. “He can run like the wind and cover a lot of the guys that maybe some of the other guys can’t cover. So we’re doing everything we can to take advantage of that.
“He creates a unique mismatch because you don’t know whether to identify him as a coverage linebacker or a rush end. We’ve just been using him a little bit more in the coverage phase so far.”
Pettine admitted Mingo is "battling the shoulder," referring to an injury that kept Mingo out of the win over New Orleans. Pettine added that although there's always room for improvement, Mingo is "doing his job" when he's on the field.
"I don’t get caught up in the statistical part of it," Pettine said. "I’ve seen too many guys over the years, especially defensively, get criticized. Like, 'Hey, why isn’t this guy playing well?' Just because it’s not on the stat sheet doesn’t mean they’re not doing their job. We’re more concerned with a plus on the grade sheet based on our standards than anything that would show up in a game book post game."
“You hate dwelling on the negative, but we’ve very aware of the scrutiny that NFL players are under,” Pettine said. “We’re more under -- coaches and players -- more under a microscope than most.
“They represent not just themselves, but their families and the Cleveland Browns -- their teammates -- when they’re out of the building. I just kept stressing it to them. ‘Surround yourself with good people. Make good choices.’”
Most players left in a hurry. Johnny Manziel was one of the first ones out of the locker room and did not address the media. Joe Thomas was gone in less than 15 minutes.
Quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains said he thought Manziel would attend the Arkansas-Texas A&M game in Dallas on Saturday, and Loggains addressed the quarterbacks as a group.
Obviously, the Browns are aware that a photo of Manziel could appear on the internet at any time, but Pettine said he had no special message for Manziel other than the one he gave the team.
“We’ll check in with our guys over the time,” Pettine said. “But we didn’t treat him any different.”
BEREA, Ohio -- Running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery added confusion Wednesday to the discussion about whether Brian Hoyer's pass to Johnny Manziel was legal.
Except he didn’t.
"He said he was gonna call it," Montgomery said.
The play was illegal because Manziel lined up too close to the Browns' bench area; he needed to be at least five yards from the sideline. But the officials never called that unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and coach Mike Pettine said he was told the way the Browns ran the play was within the rules.
Montgomery said he knew the formation was illegal, and he was hoping the refs wouldn’t see it. According to him, they did.
"He was going to call it," Montgomery said.
That might not make everything clear. But on the half-full side, the illegal shift that was called against Cleveland on the play instead of unsportsmanlike conduct saved the Browns 10 yards.
BEREA, Ohio -- Dowell Loggains addressed the four plays Johnny Manziel has run from scrimmage this way: “We’ve been pleased with what he’s done when he’s gone in and the results we’ve gotten from him.”
Those plays also set up a 39-yard Manziel reception on a trick play that was negated by penalty and technically was illegal.
But Loggains, the Browns' quarterbacks coach, is happy that the offense is running those plays because it forces the opposing defense to use time to prepare for the read-option.
“It depends on how you look on it,” Loggains said. “[Manziel) played the two plays and Brian [Hoyer] came in [against New Orleans] and knocked down the two third downs for us.
“So I think that the goal is being accomplished.”
A simple "what's next for Johnny Manziel" question was put to Cleveland Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains on Wednesday, as the team graciously made its assistant coaches available to the media.
Loggains answered with the obligatory "just get better ever day" statement. But then he added more.
"It's understanding how to be a quarterback and how to learn and do all those things that he's going to have to do. It's just the process, the grind of that, fighting the boredom of sitting in a meeting room learning a game plan, memorizing a game plan, but not get to go execute it."
Not-so-hidden in that statement is a concession that the Browns quarterback position, which was so jumbled five or six weeks ago, has settled down.
And Hoyer has settled it down.
Nowhere in Loggains' assessment is there any indication that the team expects Hoyer not to play. It is his job at this point (barring injury), and the fact that it's being made so clear in the bye week is also important.
Because the scenario most painted prior to the season was that Hoyer would get the first three starts against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore, that it wouldn't go well and the impatient Browns would make a switch during the bye week.
That possibility seems farther removed than the water pump station in Lake Erie is from shore.
"He's a pro," Loggains said of Hoyer (after he of course first credited Hoyer for managing the huddle well).
Loggains then admitted that Hoyer relaxed once the competition factor was removed. That has seemed evident, though Hoyer has always insisted he was never affected by the competition.
"This is becoming his team and he's taken ownership of it," Loggains said.
Keep in mind that Loggains thinks so highly of Manziel that he said on Arkansas radio shortly after the draft that Manziel could immediately be one of the most exciting players in the league.
But Hoyer has thrown 95 passes without an interception, and he has a 95.7 rating. He struggled at the end of the Baltimore game, but also completed 16 in a row at one point. He's also guiding a Browns offense that has scored at least 21 points in each of the first three games for the first time since 1969.
The one thing he hasn't done is win every game, though the Browns were in every game. The lingering question is what happens with the quarterbacks if Hoyer keeps playing well without winning? That, though, is conjecture. Because Hoyer has done his part to silence the post-bye-week-change chatter.
An interesting reality is that when Manziel was drafted, almost every one of the team's holdovers stood up for Hoyer, saying they did not expect him to lose the job.
He raised questions at parts of training camp, but in the end he earned the starter's job and now has "run" with it. And he did it knowing full well that Manziel was waiting to take over.
"He's the leader of this team, he's been driving this team," running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. "You have to be proud for Hoyer himself."
Running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery talked about being on the other side (he used to coach in Baltimore).
Joe Haden said he’s not playing up to the level he expects.
“I’m very angry,” Whitner said Wednesday. “Because we don’t know how good we are or how good we can be yet, and we had opportunities to close out these football games. No matter what the outside world thinks or the way they feel, we understand now that we can play with any team in the National Football League.
“If you beat yourself, if you make small minor mistakes, they tend to be big things on the football field. Once we clean that up, we should be right where we want to be. But until then, we’re not going to take that step forward.”
Frustration that it’s been oh-so-close for oh-so-long is simmering, with players saying they’ve been oh-so-close for two years and it’s time for that to end.
“You can’t keep shooting yourself in the foot,” Montgomery said. “At some point you just have to come out ... you look for someone to step up and make a play.”
He added: “It starts with the coaching staff and then it works down through the players.”
Whitner knows the Browns' reputation, and he accepts it. He pointed out his thinking behind the Browns being given a Week 4 bye.
“The NFL sets it up,” he said. “If they don’t have any expectations for you, they give you a bye week early. If they expect you to go to the Super Bowl, they give you a bye week late.”
The fact that Denver and Seattle have the same bye week as the Browns might blow Whitner’s theory up.
But he still feels not many expect much from the Browns.
“This is where we fall since the Browns haven’t won in a number of years,” he said. “That’s the way it goes.”
He then looked ahead to the Tennessee game coming off the bye and said it’s “almost a must-have game.” Falling to 1-3 would be tough, but not winning after coming so close against two very good teams would let negative feelings take deeper root.
“I don’t think it’s any time to panic,” he said. “We lost two football games by a total of, what, four points? When nobody really gave us a chance to win any of these games. ... We had numerous opportunities to close this last football game out, whether it be the defensive side of the ball or the offensive side or special teams catching a punt and not allowing it to bounce inside the 10-, 5-yard line.
“There’s no need to panic. We just have to clean up the small mistakes.”
The frustration flowed after Pettine watched his team live up to the reputation that running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said was there when he worked in the same job in Baltimore. To Montgomery and the Ravens, the Browns were a team that would play tough but then make enough mistakes in the end to lose.
Mental toughness is more important than physical toughness. Be at your best when your best is needed. Finish.
Against Pittsburgh, the Browns came back but finished poorly.
Against New Orleans, they finished strong.
Against Baltimore, they made enough fourth-quarter mistakes for four games.
Some were mistakes or bad plays. Some were the byproduct of a new coach installing new systems that take time for the players to learn. Not getting the right personnel on the field seems partly a result of a new coach adjusting to a new staff.
Tis ever thus for the Browns, who treat stability as if it is the Plague. Pettine is the latest with the chance to bring stability and continuity, and much of what he says is logical.
But until the Browns actually finish the games well and win them, the same questions will linger, and Pettine will struggle to explain them.
“We found a way to do it against New Orleans and took a step backwards [Sunday] and that’s one of the reasons that we’re so disappointed because that’s been a point of emphasis m-- the ability to finish,” Pettine said. “We don’t like it. We don’t like where we are. ... Last place in the division is last place. There’s no asterisk next to what we are.”
“We feel that we can compete with anybody in this league -- and not compete with, beat anybody in this league,” he said, “and that’s important that our guys have that confidence coming out of the bye. For us, we can only worry about the next one and make sure and take steps that [the same thing] doesn’t happen.”
As he continued to speak, he spoke quietly but started to wander a bit off the question -- and perhaps show the frustration and position he and the team are in.
“We’re a mix of veteran guys and young guys and we’ve got to get those young guys veteran experience in a hurry,” he said. “And you want to play your young guys to get them experience, but it’s a catch 22.
“We don’t want to be, ‘Hey, we’re looking to next year. We’re just going to play our young guys.’ We feel that we can win now, we want to win now and that is one of the reasons we’re so disappointed about [Sunday] is that we felt that we let them off the hook.”
The Browns have been trying to turn their 10-loss freighter for years. A losing culture needs to be unloaded.
Doing so takes effort, commitment and time.
Pettine is the latest to lead the effort.
He’s clearly committed and willing to give the effort.
How much time it will take is the great unanswered question.