Browns’ running game faces big test vs. Titans

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 29, 2011 – 9:14 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The Browns faced their largest offensive hurdle of the season when they took on the Dolphins without Peyton Hillis in their backfield.

They still managed to put together a solid rushing attack, thanks to a nice performance by Montario Hardesty in relief, and that went a long way toward them improving their record to 2-1.

But the Browns also were helped by the fact they were facing the struggling defense of a winless opponent.

Things will change dramatically Sunday when the Tennessee Titans come to town with the NFL’s top-ranked defense and eighth-ranked unit against the run.

In building a 2-1 record, the Titans have done an excellent job of stopping the run. In their three games, they have allowed only 267 rushing yards, and an average of only 3.1 yards per carry.

The Titans’ ability to make opponents one-dimensional is a major factor in also being able to shut down opponents’ passing attacks.

That brings us to the Browns’ offense, which showed excellent balance in the Week 2 victory against the Colts but then became pass-happy seven days later in the win against Miami.

Some of the Browns’ problems in the running game did stem from the fact that they didn’t have their best runner, Hillis, who was out with strep throat. Despite Hardesty’s impressive work against the Dolphins, the Browns’ ground attack clearly functions at a higher level with Hillis carrying the ball. Ideally, the Browns can utilize Hillis’ power inside and up the middle and Hardesty’s speed outside, which should be the case with Hillis returning back to good health.

What is not so ideal is a ratio of 39 passes to 19 runs, 17 by backs, as was the case in the Miami game. The Browns’ offense was often sloppy, and Colt McCoy had too many passes batted down, missed the mark on other throws, and often found himself on the run.

McCoy did come up with a couple of remarkable touchdown throws, to Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, and that – along with a sterling defensive performance and a break or two – allowed the Browns to escape with a victory.

But they can’t count on being that fortunate each week. They must be able to establish a physical presence, and that begins with an offensive line being able to consistently get enough push and create enough holes for Hillis and Hardesty to have success running the ball.

More than anything, the Browns need to stay persistent with the run, need to do everything possible to control the game’s tempo and keep McCoy out of unfavorable down-and-distance situations.

It is clear that the Browns, like almost any team, have a much lower chance for success when their quarterback is trying to force throws rather than moving the offense with good timing and rhythm.

 A strong rushing attack will help prevent that.

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci


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Hasselbeck presents strongest QB challenge yet for Browns

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 29, 2011 – 9:09 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The first name from the Titans that stands out is not Chris Johnson, who once arguably established himself as the best running back in the NFL and one of the all-time popular fantasy league choices.

No, this player has only been a part of the Titans for three regular-season games.

He is Matt Hasselbeck. And the name stands out because of his long and highly accomplished NFL career. It also stands out because when he was having some of his best days, with the Seattle Seahawks, his coach was none other than Browns president Mike Holmgren.

In the past couple of weeks, Hasselbeck has performed to the level of the passer that helped Holmgren’s Seahawks reach the Super Bowl.

It is fair to say that he likely will give the Browns’ defense the greatest challenge they have faced at the position so far this season.

“He is a very capable player,” said Holmgren, who as coach of the Packers made Hasselbeck a sixth-round draft pick from Boston College in 1998. “Having said that, I hope he doesn’t have a great game on Sunday. But I saw him develop as a player. We were kind of joined at the hip and we had our moments together because he’s a little head-strong and I’m a little head-strong, and it developed into quite a trusting, good relationship between coach and quarterback.”

In the Titans’ victory against the Broncos Sunday, Hasselbeck threw for three 311 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to Daniel Graham. A week earlier, in Tennessee’s surprising triumph against the Baltimore Ravens, Hasselbeck threw for 358 yards and a touchdown. He also had a pair of scoring throws in the Titans’ season-opening loss at Jacksonville.

Not bad for a 36-year-old player in his 13th NFL season.

“Crazy things happen,” Holmgren said. “A quarterback gets up in age and a team doesn’t think he has anything left in the tank, and now he’s proving them wrong, clearly. He’s a really good player.”

But Hasselbeck is going to be without his best receiver Sunday, thanks to the knee injury that Kenny Britt suffered against the Broncos.

It will be up to the Browns’ defense to continue to get excellent pressure from its front four and try and force mistakes that Hasselbeck doesn’t routinely make.

As for Johnson, he remains mostly a non-factor in Tennessee’s offense with only 98 yards and a 2.1-yards-per-carry average through three games. His 31 yards on 13 carries and 1.6-yards-per-carry average against Denver were his worst numbers of the season.

Cleveland’s defense, which hasn’t exactly slammed the door on opponents’ ground attacks, must make the most of its youth and ability to swarm to the football to prevent Johnson from having his long-overdue breakout game.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s defense has been fairly stout. The Titans sacked Kyle Orton twice, and they made a huge stop early in the fourth quarter when they stuffed Willis McGahee on a fourth-and-goal.

Like the Browns, the Titans have a first-year head coach in Hall-of-Famer Mike Munchak. Like the Browns, they are looking to find their identity.

Pat Shurmur’s two career victories so far have come on the road and at home.

Although Munchak is still seeking that first road win, he is no doubt feeling a sense of comfort from the fact that the Titans will have an experienced quarterback on their side Sunday in Hasselbeck.

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci


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Hardesty shows Browns he was worth the wait

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 27, 2011 – 9:48 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

 The question hovered over the Browns throughout training camp and the preseason: When will Montario Hardesty show that he has fully recovered from the devastating knee injury that ended his rookie season before it ever began?

After all, Hardesty spent camp practices doing more watching than practicing. And he wasn’t inserted into preseason games so much as he was eased into them.

As far as so many of us were concerned, the Browns’ rushing attack was exactly the same as it had been for most of last season: Big Peyton Hillis pounding between the tackles and tearing through defenders for long gains on the way to the cover of “Madden NFL 12.”

That was still the case through the first two weeks of this season. And that was why there was a clear sense of panic when it was learned, just before kickoff of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, that Hillis had been sent home with strep throat.

The only one who wasn’t panicking? Hardesty. Although he began the day with only eight NFL carries, he was fully prepared to meet the challenge of filling the enormous hole that had suddenly been created in the Browns’ offense.

It would be a stretch to say that Hardesty made anyone forget about Hillis. But the more he touched the ball, the more comfortable he seemed handling the No. 1 role.

In the first half, Hardesty had only six attempts, but averaged an impressive 4.2 yards per carry. By the end of the game, he had more than doubled his total carries. And his yards-per-carry average grew to 4.8. Hardesty’s total yards were a modest 67, but they were good enough to allow the Browns to capitalize on numerous opportunities that their defense provided their offense to recover from a series of miscues.

At times, such as on a game-long, 19-yard run, Hardesty showed off the explosiveness and open-field speed that the Browns were looking to add when they drafted him last year. Before Hillis had the chance to grab the starting spot by the throat, Hardesty was supposed to be the dynamic playmaker that would eventually own the position. And once he had fully recovered from the knee injury, he was supposed to be the faster alternative to the outside, complementing Hillis’ powerful inside running.

But there were other occasions on Sunday when Hardesty displayed some of the power that defines Hillis’ game – times when he used second and third effort to get through traffic.

Hillis might not have anything to worry about when it comes to having a serious threat to his starting job. But when Hardesty was called upon to pick up some serious slack in the backfield, he responded quite well.

Well enough to provide a resoundingly positive answer to a question that has hovered over the Browns since the start of training camp.

 

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci

 


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Browns’ focus on defensive improvement paying off

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 26, 2011 – 9:29 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

For the past two offseasons, the Browns have concentrated on improving their defense.

For the past two weeks, we’ve seen the clearest signs yet of the results of that effort.

In their Sept. 18 win at Indianapolis, the Browns’ front four overwhelmed Kerry Collins and his blockers. And in Sunday’s 17-16 victory against the Dolphins, that same group — along with the rest of Cleveland’s defenders — continually rose to the challenge of overcoming hurdles that the offense created with health issues, mistakes, and generally flat play to keep the Browns in a game they seemed destined to lose.

Once again, the Browns’ defensive spark began with the front four. Rookie linemen Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor simply refuse to play like rookies. And Ahtyba Rubin and Jayme Mitchell simply refuse to give in to whatever the opponent is trying to dish out.

It’s the sort of play the Browns had in mind when they invested those high picks in Taylor and Sheard, in the money that allowed them to re-sign Mitchell and extend Rubin’s contract, in those high picks in Joe Haden and T.J. Ward last year. It’s the sort of output they were expecting when Dick Jauron was hired as defensive coordinator after last season.

Consequently, the Dolphins, while managing to generate a whole lot of yards, fell short when it came to cashing all of that production in for points.

The Browns applied steady pressure on Chad Henne, forcing him into errors, and had the Dolphins settling for field goals when they needed touchdowns.

Even more impressive was the fact the defense was able to do all of this without the team’s running back/hammer, Peyton Hillis, who went home sick before the game. It was able to do all of this with Josh Cribbs being taken out of the return game by a groin injury that had caused him to miss a week of practice … and with Mohamed Massaquoi also spending the practice week as a spectator, with ankle trouble … and with Colt McCoy playing like, to use his word, “garbage” for the better part of the game.

Ultimately, McCoy turned himself around and did just enough to give the Browns the win – with the decisive points coming on his second scoring throw of the day.

But it was the defense that kept giving the offense the chance to make something happen after all of those times when virtually nothing was happening on that side of the ball.

It also was the defense that didn’t fold even after the Browns seemingly did their best to give the Dolphins every opportunity to try and win the game in the final seconds with that excessive-celebration penalty following Mohamed Massaquoi’s score and the horse-collar tackle on the subsequent kickoff return.

But then came Mike Adams’ game-ending interception to put the cap on a performance largely resulting from two offseasons of defensive focus.

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci


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McCoy, Browns grow up with dramatic winning drive

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 26, 2011 – 12:40 am

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

Here are some final thoughts from the Browns’ 17-16 victory against the Dolphins Sunday:

–The Browns grew up Sunday. A young team, led by a young quarterback, found a way to overcome the crushing pre-game news that Peyton Hillis would be scratched by illness and a series of blunders (some coming right near the very end of the game), and score a huge win at home. You establish your place of prominence in this game with scoring drives such as the 80-yard touchdown march that Colt McCoy engineered in the final minute for the winning points. You establish your place of prominence in this game with a defense not allowing the opponent to get into range for what likely would have been the winning field goal.

–McCoy came of age. When the game began, he seemed caught up in a general funk that plagued the whole team. It would be pure speculation to cite the cause, but a good guess would be the news, shortly before kickoff, that Hillis was being sent home with strep throat. It just seemed that the rest of the players went through a prolonged stretch of feeling sorry for themselves and questioning their ability to pick up the slack. But they had no choice. Montario Hardesty was the next man up, and he was solid, especially in the second half.

–Still, the difference in this game ultimately was going to be McCoy. It ultimately was going to be the quarterback performing like the difference-maker he has to be. For much of the game, McCoy performed as if the only difference he was going to make was a critical mistake or two. His passes were being knocked down. He was struggling to find targets. He was missing others. He also was getting a little too much pressure.

–Put it all together, and you had plenty of reason to think that the outcome would be different. That is, unless your name was Pat Shurmur. As the coach said after the game, “Colt knows how to win games.”

–For the second week in a row, the Browns’ defense did precisely what it needed to do to save the day. As the offense struggled, the defense repeatedly made plays to get the Dolphins off the field or hold them to a field goal rather than a touchdown. It was the Week 2 game at Indianapolis all over again. The Browns’ pass rush was busting into the backfield so often and with such authority, there were times when it seemed Chad Henne was almost ready to sack himself.

–The Browns had some health issues beyond Hillis’. In various ways, they responded nicely to overcome them. Hardesty ran hard and was extremely explosive. All in all, it was a remarkable effort for a guy who had all of eight career carries before the game.

–Neither Josh Cribbs (groin) nor Mohamed Massaquoi (ankle) practiced all week. Cribbs was out of the mix in the return game, but still managed to catch a touchdown pass. And an incredible catch it was, as he turned to face McCoy while leaping and stretching his hands high in the air. Massaquoi only caught two passes, but the second was for the game-winning touchdown, as he did a masterful job of keeping his feet in bounds.

–Buster Skrine replaced injured Sheldon Brown at cornerback, and was solid. The defense also did not collapse after dynamic rookie tackle Phil Taylor left the game briefly with an injured leg.

–The win doesn’t hide the fact that the Browns were sloppy. Just as in their season-opening loss against Cincinnati, they had far too many penalties (eight). And two of the most galling were the flag drawn for excessive celebration after Massaquoi’s score and the horse-collar tackle on the Dolphins’ subsequent kickoff return. Those infractions gave Miami far better field position than it should have had in its desperate attempt to pull out the win. No, the Browns do not have a “boat load” of fixes to make. “This is a freighter load of stuff to correct,” Shurmur said. “And it’s always better to correct stuff after victories.”

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci


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Browns 17, Dolphins 16

Posted by Matt Florjancic on September 25, 2011 – 8:09 pm

CLEVELAND — Mike Adams sealed the Browns’ 17-16 come-from-behind victory over the Miami Dolphins with his first interception of the season. Adams intercepted a fourth-and-10 attempt from Miami quarterback Chad Henne.

Mohamed Massaquoi’s 14-yard touchdown reception and Phil Dawson’s extra point have given the Browns a 17-16 lead  over the Miami Dolphins with 43 seconds remaining in regulation.

Massaquoi caught the ball along the right sideline and was able to get both feet down in bounds while maintaining possession of the football. The play capped off a 13-play, 80-yard drive that took 2:40 off the clock.

Despite a personal foul penalty on rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor for hitting Miami quarterback Chad Henne after sliding following a scramble to the right of the formation, the Browns defense held the Dolphins on third-and-long and forced Dan Carpenter to kick a 38-yard field goal.

Miami now leads the Browns 16-10 with 3:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Carpenter made a 41-yard field goal and gave the Miami Dolphins a 13-10 lead over the Browns with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter of play.

Carpenter’s kick capped a 14-play, 70-yard drive and came one play after the Browns’ Phil Taylor registered a sack of Henne. Taylor’s sack was followed up by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Brandon Marshall for a hit on Adams after Henne had been sacked.

Phil Dawson kicked a 30-yard field goal to tie the score at 10 between the Browns and Miami Dolphins with 10:37 remaining in the third quarter of play.

Dawson — whose kick capped off a nine-play, 68-yard drive — moved passed Don Cockroft for second place on the Browns’ all-time scoring list. He has scored 1,081 points in a Browns uniform.

After missing from 51 yards out earlier in the first half, Carpenter connected on a 23-yard field goal attempt with 27 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Carpenter’s kick capped off an 11-play, 75-yard drive that took 3:38 off the clock.

Colt McCoy’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Cribbs has drawn the Browns even with the Dolphins at 7-7 with 7:16 remaining in the first half.

At the start of the play, McCoy faked a handoff to running back Montario Hardesty and rolled out to his right. Just as Miami’s defense was closing in on McCoy, he threw the ball deep to Cribbs, who had gotten past the coverage. Cribbs out-jumped left cornerback Sean Smith before securing the ball and the score.

The Browns needed just six plays to go 59 yards for the game-tying score and again, a special teams play served as the catalyst for the team’s first scoring drive of the game.

In the first two weeks, it was a kickoff return of more than 50 yards by Cribbs. In today’s game, it was Carpenter’s 51-yard missed field goal attempt.

Chad Henne’s 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Daniel Thomas gave the Miami Dolphins a 7-0 lead over the Browns with 8:09 remaining in the first quarter from Cleveland Browns Stadium and they took that advantage into the second quarter.

Henne was able to extend a play two snaps earlier after being flushed out of the pocket by Browns rookie Jabaal Sheard. He stepped up and appeared to have running room, but instead delivered a pass to tight end Anthony Fasano for a first down.

The Henne-to-Thomas connection capped off a four-play drive that was set up by Jimmy Wilson’s interception of McCoy. McCoy rolled out to his right on second-and-four and threw a pass across his body toward Mohamed Massaquoi, but Wilson was able to corral the interception.

Later in the first quarter, the Dolphins were looking to add to their lead, but Browns defensive end Jayme Mitchell registered his first career forced fumble in the waning moments of the period.

On second-and-eight from the Browns’ 22-yard line, Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush gained three yards running to the left side of the formation. Mitchell and safety T.J. Ward combined on the tackle and Mitchell knocked the ball loose at the end of the play. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson recovered the ball for the Browns.


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Massaquoi catches touchdown

Posted by Matt Florjancic on September 25, 2011 – 7:57 pm

CLEVELAND — Mohamed Massaquoi’s 14-yard touchdown reception and Phil Dawson’s extra point have given the Browns a 17-16 lead  over the Miami Dolphins with 43 seconds remaining in regulation from Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Massaquoi caught the ball along the right sideline and was able to get both feet down in bounds while maintaining possession of the football. The play capped off a 13-play, 80-yard drive that took 2:40 off the clock.


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Defense holds, Miami kicks FG

Posted by Matt Florjancic on September 25, 2011 – 7:40 pm

CLEVELAND — Despite a personal foul penalty on rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor for hitting Miami quarterback Chad Henne after sliding following a scramble to the right of the formation, the Browns defense held the Dolphins on third-and-long and forced Dan Carpenter to kick a 38-yard field goal.

Miami now leads the Browns 16-10 with 3:23 remaining in the fourth quarter at Cleveland Browns Stadium.


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Browns trail after three

Posted by Matt Florjancic on September 25, 2011 – 7:10 pm

CLEVELAND — The Browns trail the Miami Dolphins 13-10 at the end of three quarters at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Dan Carpenter’s 41-yard field goal with 2:29 remaining in the third stands as the difference between the two teams.

The Browns face a third-and-nine from their 47-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter.


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Carpenter hits from 41

Posted by Matt Florjancic on September 25, 2011 – 7:01 pm

CLEVELAND — Dan Carpenter made a 41-yard field goal and gave the Miami Dolphins a 13-10 lead over the Browns with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter of play from Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Carpenter’s kick capped a 14-play, 70-yard drive and came one play after the Browns’ Phil Taylor registered a sack of Chad Henne. Taylor’s sack was followed up by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Brandon Marshall for a hit on Mike Adams after Henne had been sacked.


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