There were plenty of both positive and negative notes to take from the Browns loss to the Miami Dolphins. The game was ugly for both offenses but as much as the offenses struggled, much of it was due to the strength of the defenses. The key with the offense, first and foremost, is they missed a number of opportunities. The defense did as well. So while there will be plenty of fans calling up their friends or local radio stations or posting on the internet how the season is already over, here are some of the trends that showed up on both sides of the ball.
One of the positives ended up being a player the Browns really needed to be; Jordan Cameron was effective and ended up being the most dangerous weapon the Browns had in this game. In the end, he caught 9 passes for 108 yards on 13 targets along with the Browns only touchdown. There was one deflected pass off of Cameron that ended up intercepted, which was a theme throughout the game, but that pass was badly placed by Brandon Weeden and really an awkward location for Cameron to catch the ball. In addition to being behind him, it was high so that when Cameron hit it, it bounced up and was easily intercepted by the defense.
The biggest negative of the game was easily the play of Oniel Cousins, the Browns third string right guard, who was moved from tackle, in a desperate attempt to see if he could do anything. He was mediocre in the preseason. Today, he was an abomination. It started out with a pull where Cousins did not block anyone causing Trent Richardson to stop and try to make a play out of nothing. It only got worse from there. Paul Solai, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks all took turns treating Cousins like a blocking sled; both in how well he held up and how well he moved. On numerous occasions, Cousins was driven backward into Weeden that resulted into two tipped passes (not Weeden’s fault) and numerous blown up plays and sacks. When Cousins was not getting the play blown up, he was getting flagged for penalties. The Browns had a chance to get the game 23-17 late in the fourth quarter on a nice pass from Weeden to Gary Barnidge in the end zone, but was called back for holding. It was a disaster from start to finish and it reinforces a simple point: Oniel Cousins cannot be on the roster of an NFL team who has any intention of winning football games. It cannot happen; it is that simple.
The Browns coaching staff deserves some criticism for not putting someone, anyone else in the game. As raw as Garrett Gilkey has looked in preseason, could he have done any worse than Cousins did? Hard to imagine. That does not say much for where the Browns are in their confidence in Gilkey. It was reasonable they did not want to force Gilkey into action because he was not ready. They are right. He is not, but they cannot put Cousins out there either. If they did not want to put Gilkey out there, they had to find a better stopgap in there rather than Cousins until Shawn Lauvao can get back. When Lauvao is looked at as messianic for the guard spot, that is an ugly, ugly, situation.
Another positive from the Browns perspective was the play of the front seven. Every single one of the free agents the Browns signed in the offseason was able to get a sack. Desmond Bryant had two while Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves got one. Still, they had opportunities for more and Tannehill was shifty in the pocket and made some players miss. It is a little disappointing that Jabaal Sheard was not able to take more advantage of his matchup against Jonathan Martin, but he made some plays as well. They wore down as the game wore on and Tannehill was able to find a way to make plays, but they were able to really set the tone early in the game.
Even better, the Browns front seven was absolutely stifling the Dolphins running game. In the end, the Dolphins totaled 20 yards on 23 carries; an average of .9 yards per carry. Lamar Miller had 10 carries for 3 yards. Daniel Thomas was their leading rusher with 14 yards on 8 carries and a touchdown. Everything the Browns wanted to have happen in terms of stopping the run did. The only thing that could have been better was causing a fumble and getting a recovery.
The secondary was a mixed bag. Joe Haden was dominant and shut down Mike Wallace. So much so in the first half he did not even get targeted. Haden had a chance to make sure he never saw the ball the rest of the game right out of the gate in the second half when Tannehill tried to go deep and Haden dropped a ball right in his breadbasket. Haden had a dominant day in coverage, but those are the plays he has to make to be an elite corner.
T.J. Ward was effective as a run defender before he went out with a shoulder injury. Then he came back in the game and he dropped a deep throw from Tannehill right in his hands. This one proved far more costly as two plays later, Tannehill was able to hit Brian Hartline on a double move for a touchdown against Buster Skrine. While Skrine will be skewered, he was really not that bad up to that point. Getting beat on a double move is not a crime and in that situation, more an indictment of the pass rush not being able to get there in time. Obviously, it made the missed opportunitiy by Ward look worse. Skrine did look bad later in the game when Tannehill got going including a pass interference call in the end zone, but the corner who struggled the most today was Chris Owens. Especially to start the game, Tannehill threw the ball to whoever Owens was responsible for and really got comfortable throwing at him. He mixed it up with Skrine later but kept taking advantage and Hartline had a great day in the end.
The Browns made it clear they could not fix everything this year and opted for the front seven, enabling the corner position to try to evolve and develop. When the front seven was operating, the coverage was great. When they were not able to get pressure, the secondary was exposed. That is this defense in a nutshell. It is not going to change this season and the hope is that Skrine, Owens, and eventually Leon McFadden will improve, but will always be a problem. When bringing the house on the blitz, corners are left in one on one coverage on the back end and opportunities are there for a quarterback who can make the throws. Tannehill did as the game progressed.
Trent Richardson tried like hell to make plays. And even though the Dolphins defense was dominant and made it really hard on him, Richardson was still able to get 13 carries for 47 yards. Most of those were on the first drive, which made Weeden’s interception that much more costly, but Richardson was making multiple defenders miss to gain a few yards. When he had space early, he was really picking up yardage including a 10 yard run. Richardon also caught two passes for 30 yards.
This is where the coaching staff deserves some criticism. Richardson struggled to run the football, but he was a great option as a receiver. He was targeted 6 times, but only one screen which Cameron Wake largely blew up but they never went back to it. Richardson is a huge threat with the ball in his hands and in this game, he was a big time threat as a receiver and was simply nut utilized enough.
Greg Little dropped passes. This is nothing new, but incredibly frustrating because he has worked so hard and really cut down the last half of last season. He had a few catches where he was productive but the focus will be on the costly drop that went into the hands of the Dolphins and set up one of their three field goals. It will certainly help to get Josh Gordon back, but it is put up or shut up time this season for Little. It is only one game but he really needs to bounce back and be more reliable from here.
Overall, Weeden was disappointing but he did show a few positives that will hopefully carry forward this season. He showed some pretty decent poise in the pocket with pressure coming at him, something that has not been there in the past. There was one example where he made a bad throw on a bail out move, but overall, he really was willing to stay in and make throws. Despite taking a severe beating, the worst he has ever taken in his career, he kept going and kept trying to lead the Browns offense down the field. And if not for a holding call on Cousins, he did have the Browns in position to get to 23-17 with a chance for an onside kick. Weeden made a few good throws including the pass called back on the throw to Barnidge and the touchdown pass to Cameron, but he also missed a few and forced a couple of bad throws, one that resulted in an interception on the first drive of the game. It would have been easy for Weeden to go into a shell after the three interceptions but he tried to persevere, so while he certainly did not look like the long term answer at the position today, he did show some attributes worth noting as the season progresses. There may be a game where the Browns are able to win because he does not give up and keeps fighting like that.
The red zone play calling was far too cute. Yes, the Dolphins defense was stifling but they did not even try to run the ball with Richardson when they were inside the 5. They called plays like they were scared and while they ultimately were able to get the touchdown, it was anything but a smooth drive. That has to evaluated and improved upon this week and going forward.
The overall issue offensively is pretty simple. Trent Richardson drives the bus. Until Weeden can prove to beat teams with his arm, which will require Gordon back, teams are going to stack the box and clamp down on the run. Now, the Dolphins have one of the best defenses in football and it will be tougher for a lot of teams to accomplish it, but that is the blue print as it was last year. The difference for the Browns is the defense is better, so they have more chances to get the offense going as they did today. That said, losing the turnover battle as the Browns did today, makes that challenge even greater. Still, as bleak as things look for most and people may be lining up on the 480 bridge, there were some positives to take away; there just need to be more.