The Cleveland Browns home opener this past Sunday was a success, as they defeated the Tennessee Titans by a score of 28-14. While far from a perfect game, the Browns definitely improved on a few things from their Week 1 loss to the Jets. Here is a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the Browns first win of the 2015 NFL season.
The running game got on track on Sunday. While the Titans defense was never known for stopping the run, it was still encouraging to see Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson have success carrying the ball. It was equally good to see the offensive line doing a better job creating holes and sustaining blocks for Crowell and Johnson as well. Combined, the running duo carried the ball 27 times for 115 yards (4.2 yards per carry average) and one touchdown (Crowell).
Travis Benjamin exploded on Sunday and an argument could be made that he’s the reason the Browns won. The speedy receiver, who was consider by many (including myself) to be on the bubble, was responsible for three of Cleveland’s four touchdowns. He notched three receptions on four targets for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Benjamin also returned six punts for 154 yards, including a 78-yard return for a touchdown. In total Benjamin gave the Browns 269 all purpose yards to go along with his three scores. It’s becoming evident that Benjamin is able to fill the void of playmaker on offense and there seems to be some chemistry between him and Johnny Manziel.
Through two weeks Benjamin is 4th in the league in receiving yards (204), tied for 2nd in receiving touchdowns (3), and leads the league in average yards per reception (34). He’s also tied for the league lead in total touchdowns with New England TE Rob Gronkowski with four.
After being nonexistent during the entire preseason and all of last week, the Browns defense was finally able to put pressure on the quarterback. In total, the Browns sacked Marcus Mariota seven times and notched an additional 19 pressures. According to Pro Football Focus his 43.5 pressure percentage was tied for 9th among passers whose dropbacks made up at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, and the effects were obvious on Mariota. On the day he was 5-of-13 (38.5 percent) for 91 yards while under pressure, although it should be noted that both of his passing touchdowns came while being pressured. The strong pass rush is an encouraging sign for the Browns defense moving forward.
It’s probably unfair to say Manziel had a great game. He completed only 53 percent of his passes (8-of-15), fumbled the ball two times (four total in two weeks) and, while he didn’t throw an interception, did have a few questionable passes. Despite this, Manziel showed some improvement from last week to this week (albeit against an easier defense). Statistically, there may not have been much improvement, but Manziel did a nice job keeping his eyes downfield, even while being pressured or rolling out of the pocket to escape pressure. This play in particular stands out to me as a testament to Manziel’s improvement (credit to Andrew Hawkins for getting open). While Manziel’s performance certainly didn’t rip the starting job away from Josh McCown, it was enough to warrant a serious conversation about it.
This past Sunday was the best game of Manziel’s professional career to date. That alone is both encouraging (he seems to be developing) and troublesome (he didn’t play as well as some may have you believe). After starting out 4-of-4, he went 3-of-10 (including two fumbles) until his final pass of the day, the 50-yard touchdown to Benjamin. Part of his struggles could be pinned on the offensive line (which was improved but still allowed pressure), his receivers (Dwayne Bowe ran an extremely lazy route on his only target of the game) or the conservative play calling.
Still, Manziel surly has to shoulder some of the blame here. As noted above, Manziel also fumbled the ball twice. Fortunately, the fumbles wound up in the hands of Browns players in both instances, but this is a trend that he needs to buck. Ball security, or lack thereof, can be the deciding factor in a game.
Some of his issues can probably be attributed to rust, but Alex Mack struggled as well. Titans nose tackle Al Woods notched five tackles and four stops (a stop, as defined by Pro Football Focus, constitutes a tackle resulting in an offensive failure) while routinely driving Mack into the backfield. This marks two poor performances from Mack in a row. While it may be a little early to show serious concern, the situation should definitely be watched.
While the Browns came out on top in the only category that really matters (score), they did lose to Tennessee in an important facet of the game, time of possession. The Titans held the ball for 35:11 compared to 24:49 for Cleveland. The concerning part of this is that Cleveland held a 21-0 lead going into halftime and had the ball to start the third quarter, meaning that they intended to try and hold the ball and run the clock. What resulted was Tennessee holding the ball for 18:17 in the second half compared to the 11:33 Cleveland had it. Winning the time of possession battle doesn’t guarantee a win (as displayed by the Browns week one loss), but with a 21-point lead to start the third quarter it sure would’ve been nice if the aforementioned time of possession totals were reversed.
Despite doing a nice job of minimizing Bishop Sankey’s effect on the game (12 carries, 42 yards, 3.5 YPC average), the Browns run defense allowed 166 total rushing yards on 30 carries (a 5.5 average yard per carry). Dexter McCluster was able to gain 98 yards on 10 carries, including a 44-yard run in which Donte Whitner failed to make a tackle. He also had a 10-yard run off the left edge. The run defense did a decent job up the middle, but it’s becoming clear that they are struggling to set the edge against the run. If this doesn’t improve, it will be very difficult for the Browns to sustain any sort of success.
For the second week in a row, the Browns second half offense was virtually nonexistent, with the lone bright spot being the 50-yard touchdown from Manziel to Benjamin late in the game. Up until that scoring drive, the Browns three second half drives resulted in eight total yards on 12 plays and three punts. Conservative play calling played a factor here, but the Browns needed to execute better as a team with a 21-point lead will, in all likelihood, become more conservative with the ball. It should be noted that both of Manziel’s fumbles occurred during this time and, while they weren’t lost, played a factor in these struggles.
The Browns overcame some second half struggles and managed to hold onto a win, making them 1-1 so far this year. While there are reasons for concern moving forward (struggles to stop the run and the offense disappearing for large chunks of time), it is encouraging that there seems to be a big play element that was previously thought to be nonexistent for the Browns offense. The burning question moving forward now becomes a familiar story for the Browns – a quarterback controversy. Who should start, Manziel or McCown?