A Browns sampler for Saturday

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
BEREA, Ohio -- A Saturday sampling from the Cleveland Browns as Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens approaches:
  • Johnny Manziel summed up what he takes away from his three plays against the New Orleans Saints quite succintly. "I got on the field," Manziel said during his Friday media gaggle.
  • This was not Manziel being dismissive, mind you. He was honest, open, upfront and candid in his comments (he definitely gets it). He said there was no set plan for when he would play, but he appreciated being on the field. "It was good to get the nerves off, shake a little rust off and just get out and run around for a sec," he said. "It was great."
  • The plays netted little, and the Browns asked him to run read-option plays, which Manziel admitted he rarely ran in college. "The zone read is something we ran a little bit at A&M, but it's almost something you do naturally as you're just messing around in the yard, or if you're just messing around at practice or something," Manziel said.
  • Coach Mike Pettine talked about the possibility of rain Sunday. Friday after practice, quarterback coach Dowell Loggains had the three quarterbacks throwing footballs that had been dunked in a bucket of water.
  • Pettine gave the team a brief lesson on the history between Cleveland and Baltimore and was not surprised to see a lot of blank looks from players who did not know the Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore. "I would have been surprised if most of the guys in the room did know the history," Pettine said.
  • Then he added: "I get a lot of quizzical looks during team meetings anyway, but it was more so than usual."
  • Joe Thomas said the Ravens do one thing with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil on the outside: Have them rush the passer. Add Haloti Ngata in the middle and it's next to impossible to give the tackles help against two good pass rushers.
  • Through the first two weeks of the season, quarterbacks are completing 63.5 percent of their passes. That's the best in the first two weeks in NFL history, according to Elias.
  • ESPN Stats & Info reports that teams are using the passing game as extended handoffs. The league yards per attempt (7.97) is the lowest for the first two weeks of the season since it began tracking data in 2006.
  • Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this: "The most important thing probably in this league is to have a quarterback who can win for you. That entails a lot." Of the Browns and Brian Hoyer, he said: "I know their history at quarterback. Put it that way."
  • After saying he wouldn't talk about injuries for his players, Harbaugh asked the Cleveland media during his call if Jordan Cameron had practiced. Told him the Cleveland media had a policy it would not discuss injuries. He laughed, appropriately so.

Browns, Gordon release statements

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
A statement from Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer on Josh Gordon's season-long suspension being reduced to 10 games:
"We are aware of the new NFL policy related to the reduction of Josh Gordon's suspension to 10 games. We will continue to support and work with him under the NFL guidelines throughout this process. Our team's focus right now remains on preparing for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens."

Gordon released this statement through the NFL Players Association, pointing toward his return for the stretch run and making clear he's permitted to be back with the team during this suspension:
""I''m happy that the NFLPA and NFL worked hard to agree on a new Substances of Abuse policy. I''m very thankful to my union for fighting for a significant reduction in my suspension. I''m glad I can go to the facility during my suspension. I look forward to going to meetings, working out individually, and learning from my coaches and teammates. I can''t wait until game 11 to get back on the field!""
BEREA, Ohio -- Josh Gordon will be on the field for the Cleveland Browns for the stretch run -- that as a result of the new drug testing and punishment policy agreed to and announced Friday by the NFL and NFL Players Association.

Now it’s up to the Browns to make sure the final six games of the season mean something.

Gordon's suspension for marijuana use officially was reduced from the entire 2014 season to 10 games, the NFL and NFLPA announced.

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
DavidDermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesWith his suspension reduced, Cleveland's Josh Gordon will be eligible to play Nov. 23 in Atlanta.
Gordon’s penalty is the new penalty for a fifth positive test. Because one new stage has been added to the league’s policy, Gordon evidently has four failed tests since he joined the NFL.

His next failed test for marijuana would result in a one-year ban.

The level for a positive test, though, has been raised from 15 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter) to 35.

Penalties for a positive marijuana test will have five steps leading to the ban: entrance into the program, a two-game fine, a four-game fine, a four-game suspension, a 10-game suspension and then a one-year ban.

Gordon’s situation is complicated slightly by his guilty plea this week in his DWI case Tuesday in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The new penalty for a first DWI conviction is a two-game suspension. But Gordon’s arrest came under the previous policy. Gordon pled guilty before the agreement in order to avoid the two-game suspension, sources told ESPN the day he pled guilty.

The 10-game suspension means Gordon will miss both games against Pittsburgh.

He’ll miss opportunities against Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Houston.

His first game would be Nov. 23 in Atlanta. He would then face Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Carolina and Baltimore.

Whether it matters obviously depends on the way the Browns play leading up to those games. But the latter part of the schedule is very tough, with games against three playoff teams from a year ago and two other very, very good teams in the Falcons and Ravens.

Of course, none of this is fair to Browns fans.

Gordon was disciplined under a policy that was being changed. He took a chance after three previous positive tests (not all of which have been made public) and was penalized for testing positive for a drug that is legal in some states. Gordon said in a video interview on the website ondecker.com that he does not believe he has a substance abuse problem, and he said in his appeal that the 16 nanogram test result was caused by secondhand smoke.

But the test registered positive, and the rules were the rules and were agreed to by the players and the league. They have been updated, but Gordon somehow put himself in a position to test positive -- and did.

Gordon said in the videos that he more or less felt he was a carrot being used to bring the two sides together to agree on HGH testing. But part of the delay in Gordon's hearing and then in the final ruling was the effort by arbitrator Harold Henderson to get the sides to work out a compromise.

That didn’t happen, and the league went to the letter of the law, which had been negotiated and agreed to with the union.

Ten games are fewer than 16, and if the Browns are even close to .500 at that time, his return for the final six could be a boost.

In the first two games, the Browns have shown the offense can be productive without him. With him, it should -- in theory, at least -- be better.

A single point to ponder

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
The Cleveland Browns have had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. Brian Hoyer is the only one with a winning record.

Hoyer is 4-1 as a starter with the Browns (including the game he left after hurting his knee against Buffalo in 2013). Derek Anderson ranks second at 16-18 (.471).

Cameron, Mingo awaiting word

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns will decide on Sunday if tight end Jordan Cameron and linebacker Barkevious Mingo will play against the Baltimore Ravens.

Both are listed as questionable on the injury report with shoulder injuries. Both missed Sunday's win over the New Orleans Saints after being listed as questionable as well, and both were limited in practice all week.

Cameron's progress during the week has been interesting.

On Wednesday, coach Mike Pettine said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the tight end could play. The next day, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan described Cameron as "extremely limited" in practice.

On Friday, Pettine said of Cameron and Mingo: "They got some work done today."

The Browns' tight ends played well in Cameron's absence, with Gary Barnidge earning a game ball after making a key fourth-down reception on the game-winning drive, but Cameron's absence might be felt more strongly against the Ravens.

Baltimore's corners play aggressively, and Cameron's presence could help open up the passing game.

Running back Ben Tate will miss his second game with a knee injury. Tate hopes to return after the team's bye week, when the Browns play at Tennessee on Oct. 5.

(Read full post)

The Browns got a big Raven off their back a year ago when they ended an 11-game losing streak to Baltimore. They have played well in the past six quarters, with Brian Hoyer proving himself a little more every time he plays and with an impressive running game buoyed by an unheralded group of receivers who have been very productive.

But Cleveland will have its hands full -- even at home. Baltimore’s defense has allowed one touchdown in two games -- against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Ravens are stingy in the red zone, allowing one completion in five attempts and giving up just 1.6 yards per carry in the red zone. Joe Flacco has been sacked only three times. And the two running backs replacing Ray Rice are averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

This is a very good Baltimore team, and the Browns are just not quite there yet.

My prediction: Ravens 23, Browns 20.

Cousin Sal's NFL Week 3 Picks

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19


Cousin Sal makes his picks for week 3 in the NFL.

Browns hope to take away Ravens run

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
BEREA, Ohio -- Quarterback Joe Flacco is the face of the Baltimore Ravens.

But their bread-and-butter is running the ball.

Flacoo’s inflated contract notwithstanding, the Ravens under John Harbaugh are a physical team that likes to attack the line of scrimmage. In the Harbaugh era since 2008, Baltimore ranks ninth in rushing yards per game (121.3) and eighth in rushing touchdowns (93). For years it was with Ray Rice running the ball, now it’s Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce.

The Ravens rank 13th in the league in rushing offense, the Browns 25th in stopping the run. Baltimore averages 4.5 yards per carry, the Browns are giving up 5.4.

While the Ravens are pleased with their run game, the Browns have a "yeah, but" thinking on their run defense. When it comes to the run game, the Browns giveth -- now they hope to take away.

Coach Mike Pettine said the team was willing to give something against the Saints to defend Drew Brees.

"We went into the game with the mentality that if they’re running the ball, Drew’s not throwing it," defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said.

That meant smaller linemen were in the game for pass-rush purposes. Out went a Phil Taylor, in came an Armonty Bryant.

"Sometimes when you go against those elite quarterbacks, you have to have that mentality a little bit that you understand you’re going to concede some rushing yards," Pettine said, "but in the long term, the clock’s moving, you’re shortening the game. I think they ended up with 10 possessions for the game, which is below the NFL average."

Any time Brees does not have the ball, the defense gains. The Saints finished with 174 yards after the Steelers had 127. But the Browns missed 14 tackles against the Steelers, too, the main issue according to Pettine.

This week the offensive similarities of the teams are striking. Kyle Shanahan learned the Browns' offense when he coached under Gary Kubiak, who worked for Shanahan’s father in Denver. Kubiak is now with Baltimore.

The offenses are very similar, with stretch zone-blocking schemes in the running game. Flacco is not exactly made for play-action, though, so the Browns will probably have that element more available than Baltimore.

Pettine, though, expects that this will be a "typical AFC North, old-school kind of game." Meaning physical and run-game dependent. The defensive approach will not be the same as it was with New Orleans.

"We want to run the ball, so do they," Pettine said. "I think it’s important for us to take that mentality that we’re going to stop the run."

Pettine even channeled his inner Dick Goddard (the longtime Cleveland-area weather forecaster) and said the early forecast Sunday calls for a lot of rain.

"It’s something that we have to take into account," Pettine said. "I think it could turn into one of those games where we have to stop the run."

For many reasons.

Coach: Manziel 'always an option'

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns always will have a set of plays ready for Johnny Manziel to run, but whether they play him is decided during the game itself.

That's the word from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who said of using Manziel for a few plays in a game the way the Browns did in Sunday's win over New Orleans: "It's something that's always an option."

The Browns talked about playing Manziel before the Pittsburgh game, then did not use him.

They talked about him not playing before the New Orleans game, then played him.

He took three snaps against the Saints, running the read-option and twice handing off to Isaiah Crowell, who gained 3 yards, then lost 3 yards. Manziel then ran play-action, scrambled and threw to fullback Ray Agnew. The completion was broken up with a big hit by Jairus Byrd.

"It was the right read," Shanahan said. "He hesitated a little bit. You'd like to get it there a little bit quicker so the guy didn't have a chance to break it up, but that was where the ball needed to go."

Shanahan and coach Mike Pettine both sounded pleased that they have now given opposing defensive coordinators another element to ponder as they prepare to face the Browns.

(Read full post)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Joe Flacco's record against the Cleveland Browns is nearly flawless. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback is 11-1 with a 91.5 passer rating.

But Flacco is not just playing the Browns on Sunday. He is going against coach Mike Pettine, who has caused Flacco problems in the past as a defensive coordinator.

In three games against Pettine (two with the Jets and one with the Bills), Flacco has completed 46.2 percent of his throws for an average of 252 yards per game. He has thrown two touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 47.8 passer rating.

Flacco's worst game in the NFL came against Pettine last year, when he was intercepted a career-high five times by the Bills. Even though none of Flacco's picks came against the blitz, the pass rush affected Flacco's play. He was hit six times and hurried 13 times.

Pettine said that 23-20 win by the Bills is "not applicable" to Sunday's game because he's planning against a different offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak.

"The system is completely different," Pettine said. "You still have your write-ups on the personnel, but that only gets you so far. To me, this is a new group -- it’s totally different.”

Flacco has a completely different perspective. He's spending some time this week looking at film of Bills games from last season to see if he can pick up some tendencies.

"You look at where he's been because you only have a handful of games to go from with the Browns," Flacco said. "You have to look at some Bills just to find out what he likes to do in certain cases down in the red zone and on third downs. It definitely helps to look at stuff like that."

Flacco has to be careful where he throws the ball against the Browns secondary. Three of Cleveland's starters there -- cornerbacks Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert as well as safety Donte Whitner -- are all former top-8 picks in the draft.

Inside Edge: Ravens-Browns

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18


ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando delivers stats to help you make a pick for Baltimore at Cleveland.

Some numbers on Brian Hoyer

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
Inside some numbers for Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, personal research and ProFootballReference.com:
  • Five quarterbacks have zero turnovers in two starts this season. Hoyer is one of them. The others: Denver’s Peyton Manning, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick.
  • Since 2000, teams with zero turnovers have won 78 percent of the time and have gone 19-3 this season.
  • Hoyer has gone four starts and 131 consecutive passes without throwing an interception.
  • In the first half of the first two games, Hoyer has completed 13-of-30 (43.3 percent) and averaged 4.1 yards per attempt. His Total Quarterback Rating in the first half is 21.0. In the second half he has completed 29-of-40 (72.5) percent with a Total QBR of 81.4.
  • Despite not having Ben Tate, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron in the win over New Orleans and the second half against Pittsburgh, the Browns scored 50 points the last six quarters and rank fifth in the NFL in scoring.

And a random note on Joe Flacco, whose reputation is the ability to throw deep with his powerful arm:
  • Since winning the Super Bowl, Flacco has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, which ties him with Mike Glennon for the worst mark in the NFL since the start of the 2013 season (38 qualifiers). In ’13 and ’14, Flacco ranks 29th in completion percentage and last in YPA.

Ravens vs. Browns preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
The Cleveland Browns ended an 11-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens in November. That was the first time Joe Flacco had lost to the Browns.

The Browns are coming off an emotional and exciting last-second 26-24 win against New Orleans in Week 2. Baltimore is coming off a dominant 26-6 win against the Steelers on Thursday night, giving them three extra days off for this game.

The Browns have a chance to make a statement that they belong in the AFC North, and the Ravens have a chance to show that this division belongs to them or the Bengals.

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Browns reporter Pat McManamon discuss a few key elements of Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game.

McManamon: It's an obvious but important question: What is the state of Baltimore's running game at this point of the season?

Hensley: It's not as bad as you would think for a team that just cut the second-leading rusher in franchise history. The combination of Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett is more than serviceable.

These running backs also complement each other. Pierce's strength is power running and getting yards between the tackles. Forsett is more explosive and is at his best when he reaches the edge. They have combined for 239 yards against the Bengals and Steelers. No one is suggesting the Ravens have a top-10 rushing attack. It was only a season ago that Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry and Forsett ran the ball six times. But the Ravens are going to rely on them against the Browns because they have historically grinded out yards in Cleveland. In six games there, the Ravens have averaged 160 yards rushing.

Pat, the Browns' track record with handling success is not very strong. Is this team more equipped -- from the head coach to the locker room -- to deal with a big win against the Saints and put together another strong performance against the Ravens?

McManamon: On paper, the Browns should have the elements to prove they are more equipped to handle a big win, but it remains an unknown until they actually do it. The message Monday morning during the team meeting from coach Mike Pettine was blunt: Don't screw this up. Pettine said a mature team does not get caught up in one win; it turns quickly to the next game. Pettine reminded the team that though they could be 2-0, they also could easily be 0-2. Players seem to like Pettine's straightforward approach. He doesn't dance around topics, merely says it like it is. That should help.

What also should help is the Browns have leadership from guys such as Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner. Joe Thomas can help, as can Brian Hoyer, but both are a little softer spoken. The Browns have had leaders before, but never people like Whitner -- a guy who will challenge teammates and get in their face a la Ray Lewis if need be.

The bottom line is the Browns almost beat Pittsburgh on the road and did beat New Orleans at home. They are good enough to win right now because they are getting good quarterback play the last six quarters. But they have to play. The last thing they need to do is get caught up in the success of one win -- not when wins have been so few and far between.

Do the Ravens expect any kind of hostile reaction this weekend? Not only is it Cleveland -- and we both learned this offseason that the anger remains from the Art Modell era -- but it's the first road game since the team (mis)handled the Ray Rice situation.

Hensley: Like you said, Pat, it wouldn't be a trip to Cleveland without some hostility. To a large portion of the Browns fan base, the Ravens still represent the team that was stolen away. The Rice saga provides the Dawg Pound with another reason to vent anger at the Ravens. But if last week's game against the Steelers is any indication, this will be a nonfactor. The Ravens had every excuse to lose to Pittsburgh, from the players' emotional fatigue in losing Rice to the distraction from the national media onslaught. This situation has forced the Ravens to take a bunker mentality.

Playing on the road will be a different test, but it was going to be a difficult challenge anyway. The Ravens lost six of eight games on the road in 2013, including their first loss in Cleveland since 2007.

Many in Baltimore know about running back Terrance West. He played high school football in the city and went to college at nearby Towson. What has stood out the most about West in the season's first two weeks?

McManamon: His lack of fear. The Browns threw him in the fray as a rookie behind Ben Tate, and when Tate hurt his knee, they made West the starter with no hesitation. West responded with 168 yards in two games, a 4.8-yard average, one touchdown and a nifty end zone shimmy shake on top of it. West is finding that the opposition is not like he saw at Towson, but he has played well. Most important, he has done a more than adequate job in blitz protection, an area of the offense many rookies find tough to learn. West and Isaiah Crowell are two rookie backs who are not playing like rookies.

Baltimore stuffed Pittsburgh pretty well last Thursday and always seems to be stronger and more physical than the Browns. Is this Ravens defense as physical and effective as they all have been?

Hensley: The talk throughout training camp was about how this Ravens defense was going to be the fastest in memory. Instead, the Ravens have pounded offenses in the first two games with physical play. Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams have stuffed the run inside. Elvis Dumervil has bulled his way past blockers. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has turned into a shutdown corner with his ability to jam receivers. And safety Matt Elam has made an impact by hitting running backs and receivers alike.

These are the reasons why the Ravens have allowed one touchdown in the first two games. And that one touchdown was the result of backup cornerback Chykie Brown getting beat on a 77-yard pass to A.J. Green. The Ravens' defense will get better if cornerback Lardarius Webb can return Sunday after missing the first two games with a back injury. Everyone expected this Ravens defense to be younger and more athletic than recent ones. What has really stood out has been the defense's intensity, especially when backed inside its own red zone.

The Browns have certainly invested in their defense in recent years, and it's showing early this season. What changed from the dismal first half in Pittsburgh to the strong past six quarters?

McManamon: The easy answer is attitude. At halftime in Pittsburgh, the Browns got sick and tired of being sick and tired. They have given up 27 points in the last six quarters after giving up 27 the first two.

A combination of factors come into play. The defense has talent. But in the first half in Pittsburgh, instead of trusting the talent, they were flying out of position and trying too hard. Since then, they have followed the mantra of doing your job and trusting your teammate. It's helped.

Second, Pettine sold the players on the chance of success with this Rex Ryan system. It's worked in Baltimore, New York and Buffalo, and the players see it can work in Cleveland.

Finally, the addition of Dansby and Whitner has played out well. Dansby is active all over the field, and Whitner is a steadying but challenging force. The combination of factors has combined for positive results through two games.


Dansby's preparation leads to success

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
BEREA, Ohio -- Small actions matter in games, and can sometimes make the difference between winning and losing.

Karlos Dansby said after the win over the Saints that he was able to come up with a key sack late in the game because he recognized Drew Brees' protection call and he knew he'd have an open lane to Brees.

"That's just from watching film," Dansby said Wednesday as the Browns prepared for their next game against the Baltimore Ravens.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardKarlos Dansby said he was able to get a late sack on Drew Brees because he recognized Brees' protection call from watching film.
He then went through the play, against Brees, explaining that once he knew he'd get the sack his next focus was to make sure Brees did not throw the ball before he was tackled.

"Make sure he don't throw the ball in the dirt," Dansby said. "Because he threw the ball in the dirt when a couple other guys had him wrapped up. He just got rid of it at the last second."

He didn't against Dansby, because Dansby didn't let him.

"Grab his arm," Dansby said. "That's what I tried to do. I tried to get the ball out period, but he tucked it at the last second where I couldn't get it. I just got him down. I was kind of mad about that situation. I wanted the ball.

"The whole mindset was getting the ball. I knew he wasn't going to get away from me."

Getting the ball out would have given the Browns the ball with excellent field position. Making the sack forced a punt. Knowing Brees wouldn't get away from him was the result of film study that showed Dansby in that particular formation when Brees slid the protection to the offense's right, there would be nobody in the backfield helping with protection.

"Once he slid the front, it was just me and him," Dansby said.

What would Dansby do if he faced a more mobile quarterback?

"Watch the film," he said. "You'll see when guys come free on (a quarterback) what he likes to do."

That knowledge might be the difference between winning a play and losing it, and sometimes one play can have a huge effect on winning a game or losing it -- like Dansby's sack.

"Like Ben (Roethlisberger)," Dansby said. "Ben would have tried to spin out and I would have been right there waiting on him. He'd have taken one step to the right and he'd have tried to spin out. That's his thing. That's what he likes to do."

He pointed out in the opener that rookie Chris Kirksey almost had Roethlisberger for a sack, but he stepped right and spun away from Kirksey for a completion.

His words were reminiscent of a couple years ago, when Joe Thomas said he always tries before a game to find a pass-rusher's signature move because in a key situation the player will depend on that move. His approach and Dansby's is the kind that separates the better players from the ordinary ones.

"I watch film, man," Dansby said. "I'm not just physical and playing a game. I have to watch these things because these situations are going to come about and you have to envision yourself in these situations and know how you're going to attack them."