browns-story

Browns Preview: The Chud, Norv and Ray Show

New coach and new coordinators on both sides of the ball promise better energy, if not immediate results

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

From a football standpoint, it will be a real shame if the ongoing legal issues surrounding Jimmy Haslam’s Pilot Flying J business wind up hurting the Browns on the field. Haslam’s team, which he purchased last October, has amassed a very intriguing collection of leaders for a long-term plan.

Former Eagles president Joe Banner is running the business side of things. Bill Belichick disciple Mike Lombardi is the general manager. Former Chiefs executive Ray Farmer is the football operations’ second-in-command. And rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski is regarded as one of the brightest young offensive minds in the game. He’ll install some of the schemes he ran as Carolina’s offensive coordinator, but mostly he’ll let top assistant (and former boss) Norv Turner, one of the shrewdest designers of offense the league has seen, run that side of the ball.

The defense will be handled by another newcomer Ray Horton, who spent the past two seasons as the Cardinals’ coordinator and is widely regarded as a potential head coach. Horton inherits a unit that quietly ranked 10th in yards allowed and recently added $40 million free agent Paul Kruger and No. 6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo.

Intriguing as this new regime may seem, its members are tempering expectations for 2013. Several question marks remain, mainly on offense. At the owners meetings in Arizona over the offseason, Haslam said, “We’ve won 23 games in the last five years, won 14 games in the last three, so we’re not going to go 13-3 next year. I expect us to be better, but this is a process, and it’s going to take a little bit of time.”

Of course, successful teams have had similar reservations before. Perhaps the most fascinating snippet of the late David Halberstram’s book, The Education of a Coach, was how, after the 2001 Patriots’ Super Bowl win, Bill Belichick said to his longtime football confidante Ernie Adams, “Can you believe we won the Super Bowl against the Rams with this team?”

This isn’t to suggest the 2013 Browns are Super Bowl contenders. But by venturing just a few steps outside the box, one could see them as dark horse playoff contenders. (Sorry Jimmy, didn’t mean to raise the hopes of the perpetually scorned Northern Ohio fan base.)

OFFENSE

Contrary to what you might hear, there won’t be a quarterback competition in Cleveland. If Browns coaches haven’t figured it out already, they soon will: Brandon Weeden is simply better than Jason Campbell. It’s not close, really. Yes, 2012 first-rounder Weeden—who can’t legally be written about without a reference to his age (he’ll be 30 in October!)—is disconcertingly methodical in his play. He’s maybe even sluggish. But Campbell has always played like a robot programmed to slow motion. He cannot offset his stiff play with sterling arm strength or an ability to make stick throws from a muddied pocket. Weeden can.

It’s Norv Turner’s mission to get this out of the second-year pro. Seemingly every quarterback who has played for Turner has come away eternally grateful to him. Turner will try to accelerate Weeden’s mechanics and mental processes to make him more of an anticipation passer.

Turner runs a time-tested Air Coryell–style offense that’s predicated on deeper drops and longer routes. A typical pass play that’s designed to go, say, 10 yards in a normal offense might go 13 or 14 yards in Turner’s. Everything is stretched vertically. The objective is to get receivers in one-on-one scenarios downfield.

It remains to be seen whether any of Cleveland’s wide receivers can be long-term solutions. They all have their flaws. Greg Little drops far too many balls. So does Josh Gordon, who is also inconsistent in the finer points of route running. Slot man Davone Bess lacks the speed and size to operate anywhere other than underneath. David Nelson’s numbers never matched his raw talent in Buffalo. Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper are both raw.

It’s also possible that any or all of these wideouts can blossom in Cleveland. Every scheme has room for speed, which bodes well for Benjamin. Turner always wanted a pure slot weapon in San Diego; he has one here in Bess. The scheme demands size on the outside. Nelson is 6-5. Little and Gordon are both at least 6-2, 220—and both can run. Stylewise, a person might even see faint similarities to Vincent Jackson or Malcom Floyd.

The real worrying should be saved for tight end. There doesn’t appear to be an Antonio Gates on this roster. There is a Gronkowski—but it’s Dan, who is no better than a third-stringer. The projected starter is former fourth-round pick Jordan Cameron. While a decent-looking athlete, he didn’t see the field much in his first two seasons, which is alarming given that the man ahead of him was Ben Watson, who hindered Cleveland’s offense with his lack of quickness off the line before departing for New Orleans as a free agent. Also in the backup picture are mistake-prone ex-Bear Kellen Davis and former Panthers role player Gary Barnidge.

At least all of the tight ends are adept blockers. The system’s longer-developing routes require deeper dropbacks, which require sturdier pass protection and thus, extra help on the edge from time to time. The Browns, fortunately, have arguably the league’s soundest, if not best, left tackle in Joe Thomas.

Of course, on deeper drops, you’re only as good as your weakest pass protector, which makes it critical that right tackle Mitchell Schwartz continue the steady progress he showed as a second-round rookie last year. It’s also important that Cleveland’s guards develop chemistry. Neither Shawn Lauvao on the left side nor John Greco on the right side are great individual components, but they’re certainly capable of staying above water—especially considering they operate alongside one of the league’s steadiest and most mobile centers in Alex Mack. The depth on the line is adequate, as tackles Oniel Cousins and Rashad Butler both have some starting experience, as does guard Jason Pinkston, who actually may push to regain the first-string job that he lost last season after doctors discovered a life-threatening blood clot in his lung. Though he is currently battling a high-ankle sprain Pinkston is now healthy all in all.

Trent Richardson needs to justify his lofty draft pick, and soon.
Trent Richardson needs to justify his lofty draft pick, and soon. (Mark Duncan/AP)

Thomas and Mack are both extremely dexterous blockers out in front. And by the end of last season Greco had shown marked improvement on short-area pulls. All this bodes well for a ground game that is built to play with power.

Even though the Browns didn’t pose much of a threat through the air last season, it’s disheartening that their rushing attack wasn’t able to carry the offense more. Trent Richardson rarely looked like the type of player an organization gives up three picks just to move up one spot to draft third overall. He showed little burst, finishing the season with 950 yards on just 3.6 yards per carry. In fact, Cleveland’s rushing attack at times looked noticeably livelier when the underrated Montario Hardesty toted the rock.

True, Richardson struggled with a painful rib injury during the middle of last season, but given a running back’s short shelf life—and given the expectations that come with being drafted third overall—this is something of a make-or-break year for the 230-pounder. He’ll get enough help; Turner is one of the few offensive coordinators who likes to use a fullback in his run game, and the Browns have one in 2011 fourth-rounder Owen Marecic.

DEFENSE

In his first days as defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2011, Ray Horton told the rest of the coaching staff that he was going to challenge his players right off the bat. He would hit them with voluminous (not to mention complex) sub-package concepts that would initially leave many overwhelmed (particularly given that the lockout had slashed most of their prep time). But, Horton asserted, the results would be worth it in the end. Sure enough, the Cardinals gave up 24.5 points and 389.6 yards per game in the first eight weeks of the season and just 19.0 points and 320.5 yards over the final eight weeks.

Expect Horton to once again throw the gauntlet at his new players. And expect a smoother transition this time. Not only have these Browns had an entire offseason to start learning the system, they also have talent—newcomers Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger, plus unheralded stud Jabaal Sheard—at the all-important outside linebacker spot, which Horton never had in Arizona.

But before the Dawg Pound starts salivating, keep in mind that none of those three outside ‘backers are certain to succeed. Mingo is a rookie, which means, even having been picked sixth overall, the prognosis on him is T.B.D. (If you don’t understand why, google “Aaron Curry,” “Vernon Gholston” or “Aaron Maybin.”) Kruger is the definition of a risky free-agent signing. The admittedly once-immature former Raven, a second-round pick in 2009, was an underachiever until his 2012 contract year. As for Sheard, he plays with outstanding leverage when attacking inside and has the athleticism to operate in space. Still, he’s transitioning from defensive end to standup outside linebacker. That isn’t a big change in most modern 3-4 schemes because the gap concepts are largely the same. But Horton’s is one of the few 3-4s that still has a lot of strict traditional two-gap foundational concepts. There could—could—be a learning curve for Sheard.

Most likely, the outside linebacker rotation, which also includes ex-Cardinal Quentin Groves, will be fine. The inside linebacker position is a different story. The book on D’Qwell Jackson is written in very bold print: great pursuit defender in space, iffy pugilist in traffic. Presumably, the same will prove true for Craig Robertson, who was superb at times as a nickel pass defender last season but is questionable as a first- and second-down run defender.

The Browns will have to rely on the undersized Jackson and finesse-oriented Robertson; their other potential inside ‘backers are James-Michael Johnson, who struggles against the run playside (particularly versus zone-blocking teams), L.J. Fort, who played just 98 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season and ex-Bill Tank Carder.

Barkevious Mingo brings a strong pedigree and impressive training camp, but that doesn't guarantee success by any means.
Barkevious Mingo brings a strong pedigree and impressive training camp, but that doesn’t guarantee success by any means. (Tony Dejak/AP)

The hope is that the three-man front line can be formidable enough to protect the inside linebackers. There’s enough size and talent here to meet Horton’s two-gap demands. The deciding factor will be nose tackle Phil Taylor. Can he stay healthy after missing half of last season with a pectoral injury? Can he react strongly off the snap for all four quarters if he’s constantly fighting double teams? The Browns would probably love for some of Taylor’s load to be shared by either young ex-Raven Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (who has a perfect surname for a 332-pounder) or undrafted Nick Jean-Baptiste (a teammate of Taylor’s at Baylor).

There is a lot more certainty about the depth at defensive end. Veterans Ahtyba Rubin and free-agent pickup Desmond Bryant (who got $15 million guaranteed, a rather shocking amount for a career 4–3 role player) are the projected starters. Behind them is a pair of encouraging second-year pros, Billy Winn and John Hughes. Winn was taken three rounds after the third-rounder Hughes but was the more dynamic of the two last season. He has a tremendous sense for using his hands. It wouldn’t be surprising, in fact, if Winn ultimately split snaps with Rubin. A lot of people like the 27-year-old Rubin because he’s a prolific tackler. But many of his tackles come several yards downfield, after he’s been driven off the ball.

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Horton’s forte is calling uber-aggressive attacks in critical situations. His inside linebackers must have good timing and chemistry in fire-X blitzes, and his corners must be willing to chase the quarterback not just from the slot, but also from the boundary. But more important is that the corners be able to survive solo man-to-man situations, as their new coordinator loves to call Cover 0 in the red zone.

In Arizona, Horton had a budding superstar in cover corner Patrick Peterson. Here he has Joe Haden. Like Peterson, Haden is an outstanding trail-man defender. He has the quickness to jump routes and the recovery speed to get back over the top when the ball’s in the air. Given that he’s adept in the slot, expect the fourth-year star to regularly shadow opposing No. 1 receivers in 2013.

Unfortunately, also just like in Arizona, Horton may have to hide a feeble No. 2 corner. Third-round rookie Leon McFadden will get a good crack at the starting spot. Even if he struggles—which mid-round rookie corners tend to do—he might still get the job, as ex-Falcon Christopher Owens is most comfortable as a slot No. 3 and incumbent second-year cornerback Buster Skrine can’t justifiably be given heavy reps after the way offenses devoured him on the outside last year.

At safety, T.J. Ward has shown a newfound talent for guarding tight ends man-to-man. He also remains a fervid hitter. But who will start alongside Ward? There’s an unappealing three-way competition between undrafted second-year pros Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi (or is it Bademosi Johnson?) and sixth-round rookie Jamoris Slaughter, who is coming back from Achilles surgery.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Phil Dawson, the Browns’ kicker since their reincarnation in 1999, was allowed to depart for San Francisco in the offseason. In his place is a cheaper veteran, Shayne Graham, who is on his seventh team in seven years. Graham has completed more than 93% of his field goal tries inside 40 yards, but leg strength is not one of his assets, which is why the Browns may also keep Brandon Bogotay around.

There will be a new punter, too, either be Spencer Lanning, who has been trying unsuccessfully since 2011 to make an NFL roster, or T.J. Conley, who was out of the league last season. The return game has also been revamped. Two-time Pro Bowler Joshua Cribbs is out. His replacement is being determined in training camp.

BOTTOM LINE

While another 5-11 season certainly seems possible for this club, an unexpected run at .500 or even a wild card is not out of the question. If the defense can stop the run, it will be good enough to carry a heavier load. And it may not have to if Cleveland’s receivers can somehow flourish in Turner’s scheme.

Read More: Andy Benoit’s team-by-team analyses, at the Deep Dive.

22 comments
OttoGee
OttoGee

Apparently, Andy Benoit went to the same editorial proof-checking school as Peter King...

Sports Illustrated has an opportunity to provide a quality voice within the vacuum of ESPN's market saturation.  The voice represented so far by this article and by others under Peter King's watch is that of a thrown-together 3rd grade book report by someone who never opened the cover of the book, but wrote about what he heard.  What grade do you think that work deserves?

Sorry Peter, you need to retake the 3rd Grade.  Your behavior publicly as well as the lack of accuracy with which you have opined indicate you should stick to beer and coffee articles.

Leave the football commentary to the informed.

#MMQB;epicFail

BrownieDog
BrownieDog

"Dive Deep" -- If you dive deep without O2 (or expertise) you may suffer brain damage. Maybe that explains it.

hybdbnz
hybdbnz

Andy Benoit knows a hell of a lot about football. As a Cleveland native, I appreciate the optimistic support of our new coaches and systems, despite some questions about final roster choices or lack of info about the pre-season, which most smart fans should consider as meaningless.

The Glue
The Glue

Waste of time.  Clearly this was either written three weeks ago or the person who wrote it just doesn't pay attention to the teams about which he's writing.  Either way, this was my first time reading an SI article online in three years.  Now I remember why.

Meggypeggs
Meggypeggs

What a terrible article. This article has no reflection on the two pre-season games played so far and is based on the 2012 season and instinct.

Mike N
Mike N

Mareici won't make the 53 man.

And Richardson's problems were more poor play calling by Pat Shurmur then his hurt ribs.  The few times Shurmur called for him to run outside (most of Hardesty's runs were outside the tackles) Richardson would gain chunks of yards when he was in space against a CB or LB.

I'd be surprised if he doesn't run for 1200 ytds under Turner's RB favorable offense!

Mike N
Mike N

Bill Belichick said to his longtime football confidante Ernie Adams, “Can you believe we won the Super Bowl against the Rams with this team?”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The exact quote was, "Can you believe we won a Super Bowl with this f***ing team?"

nik.mak
nik.mak

Man, you Browns fans are never happy...

ohiojim44
ohiojim44 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Pretty good summary, although a lot of the info is about two weeks old. No mention of Weeden's two outstanding pre-season games. No mention of Jordon Cameron's emergence as a quality TE. No mention of the injuries to Luavo and Pinkston. No mention of Gordon's very good stats in pre-season so far (or that Greg Little's "drops problem" is last year's news, and hasn't been a problem this year.). No mention of Benjamin's phenomenal punt return work in pre-season (two 80+ yard TD's, one called back). No mention of Robertson covering highly-regarded and speedy rookie WR Travon Austin step-for-step in pre-season game one. The young Browns are gelling as the season progresses, and that fact isn't covered in the article.

jj3down
jj3down

@ohiojim44   I have counted at least 3 drops from Little in the 2 preseason games.  The 2 in the first game were somewhat excusable because they were really tough catches.  He dropped I think the first pass of the 2nd game but it was called for illegal contact.  Still he should have caught it though.  We would've received more yards than the penalty.


Still he works hard and am confident Little will have a good year.

jj3down
jj3down like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Dylon561He meant newcomer to the Browns.


What the hell Sports Illustrated?????

Was this article written 3 weeks ago and published last night?  As many have pointed out, almost all the player specific information is outdated and many of the evaluations are simply incorrect.  Blocking is one of the biggest concerns for our tight ends, Josh Gordon doesn't drop a lot of passes.  Also you fail to mention that Obbanaya is in the first full back spot and that Marecic is all but been cut from the roster.


This article is so poorly concocted, it's almost unbelievable

Dylon561
Dylon561 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Sometimes it’s baffling how a national writer becomes a national writer. Is the requirement that said writer become less informed the larger their audience?

The defense will be handled by another newcomer Ray Horton, who spent the past two seasons as the Cardinals’ coordinator“ He’s been a coach since 1994 and was the D coordinator for the past two years with AZ. At what point does he stop being labelled a newcomer?

“Greg Little drops far too many balls.” A simple comparison of the first 8 weeks of 2012 versus the final 8 would belie this comment. A cursory review of the countless articles reviewing his off-season efforts to correct this coupled with his camp performance would be far more insightful.

“So does Josh Gordon (drop balls),...”  What?!?

“...which is alarming given that the man ahead of him was Ben Watson, who hindered Cleveland’s offense...: How did he hinder the offense? He was consistently open and caught nearly everything thrown his way. He was a mentor to Cameron who was progressing as an incredible athletic specimen out of the oft successful basketball to football player transition at TE. Cameron seems to be showing signs of coming into his own at the start of his third year in the NFL. Was it alarming that a savvy vet earned the starting role while a converted player learned the ropes of what it takes to succeed at the highest level. When did it become the norm that every player must succeed out of the gate or be questioned as a possible bust? 

“At least all of the tight ends are adept blockers.” In fact, this is exactly the opposite of the current situation in Cleveland and a significant part of the conversation about Cameron and Barnidge. 

The article was published yesterday yet you reference Lavaou as the starter with barely an acknowledgement that he is lost for at least the first few games of the season as well as Pinkston who is also lost for probably the first quarter (“Though he is currently battling a high-ankle sprain Pinkston is now healthy all in all.”  (You know, because high ankle sprains are the cornerstone of ‘healthy all in all.‘). A rookie appears to be the starter at RG; kind of a big thing to gloss over...

“Third-round rookie Leon McFadden will get a good crack at the starting spot.” Considering how much camp he’s missed and how well he performed, or didn’t, during the time he was in camp this is almost 100% guaranteed not to be the case. Again, how can you write an insight article and not be aware of this relatively common knowledge?

“...as ex-Falcon Christopher Owens is most comfortable as a slot No. 3...” Again, numerous pieces have been produced describing how Cleveland sees him as a number 2 rather than the slot and Atlanta misused him in the slot. All the tape on this guy shows his strength on the outside while Skrine excels in the slot.

“At safety, T.J. Ward has shown a newfound talent for guarding tight ends man-to-man.” You mean in camp? There is no game tape showing this. 

“But who will start alongside Ward? There’s an unappealing three-way competition between...” It’s just unappealing?!? No reason or further extrapolation of why you’ve reached this conclusion?


DD
DD like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Browns would have to go 6-4 versus non division opponents to get to 8-8 assuming they'd win 2 of 6 versus Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati.......not happening with Green Bay, New England and Kansas City on the slate. Six or seven wins is doable and would show long awaited improvement.

BrownieDog
BrownieDog

@DDI agree with you. Will be hard to get through this tough schedule breaking even, with few soft opponents.

Gladly we see the franchise being built and an identity finally emerging. Many of us in Browns Backers (Columbia SC) are also excited about a much more credible and exciting team this year. 

The tone of this article is mostly upbeat. At least the W-L record shouldn't be as bad as another national know-it-all is predicting. ((PETE PRISCO, Senior NFL Columnist for CBS Sportsline predicts 4-12.))

mystafugee
mystafugee like.author.displayName 1 Like

Boy these NFL previews sure sound a lot like NFL Films documentaries (overly optimistic).  Just say it: the Browns suck, have sucked, and will continue to suck.  The only thing they seem to excel in (besides losing) is giving players staph infections.  

RipsNordic
RipsNordic

@mystafugee Yes, and all the Cleveland sports teams trade all they're good players away. I've always said that Cleveland is an undercover farming city for other teams.

BrownieDog
BrownieDog

Nice effort Andy, and glad for the nominally positive and more-or-less favorable national media attention focus again in this your second Browns substantive article. And I do like the new website.

As a Cleveland fan, tho, I believe it is clear that you have some holes in your grasp of our team. Maybe that is the nature of the game when you have all the other teams to write about. (Your headliner Peter King got rather boldly set straight by a local guy Terry Pluto who is a real class act.) 

You have written what I consider inaccurate and downright mystifying comments about last year. It appears you are missing the depth chart and status on some current players too (who have had some real growth since last season, like Buster Skrine).

Before I write more I see that I am agreeing with DaveKolonich who posted ahead of me. Good - "stole some of my thunder!"

rajib
rajib

Houston Texans vs. Miami Dolphins Preseason Game 2: Watch 2013 NFL Live Online Here>>>>>.


http://sportsnewsontv.blogspot.com/2013/08/nfl-preseason-2013-live-streaming.html

Anyway, Owen Marecic hasn't played much for the Browns during the preseason.  Even though he's not listed as a fullback on the official team-issued depth chart the writer probably referenced for this article, Chris Ogbannaya is the team's likely starter at this position.

And yes, one of the Browns' safeties is named Johnson Bademosi.  Although that was a pretty cute joke.  

Finally, in case the writer hasn't at least watched some 25 second NFL.com highlights, "raw" Travis Benjamin replaced Josh Cribbs as the Browns' top returner.

DaveKolonich
DaveKolonich like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I'm wondering how Ben Watson "hindered the Browns' offense" last season.  The Browns' offense was hindered by Pat Shurmur's archaic offensive system.  It's amazing that any player achieved even a modest amount of success.  Granted, Watson was "no Antonio Gates", but to assign blame on him is just a weirdly misplaced and baffling statement.  I'm guessing the writer knows that Norv Turner's offense wasn't the preferred system for the 2012 Browns.

Anyway, Owen Marecic hasn't played much for the Browns during the preseason.  Even though he's not listed as a fullback on the official team-issued depth chart the writer probably referenced for this article, Chris Ogbannaya is the team's likely starter at this position.

And yes, one of the Browns' safeties is named Johnson Bademosi.  Although that was a pretty cute joke.  

Finally, in case the writer hasn't at least watched some 25 second NFL.com highlights, "raw" Travis Benjamin replaced Josh Cribbs as the Browns' top returner.

Nice research job, Andy.


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