Browns’ pass protection faces another stern test from Steelers’ rush

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 30, 2011 – 9:29 pm

By: Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The lasting image from the Browns’ previous game against the Steelers was that of Colt McCoy taking a vicious hit to the facemask from the helmet of James Harrison.

McCoy suffered a concussion. Harrison was penalized and paid an additional price with a one-game suspension.

The play was an unpleasant reminder of the aggressive, hard-hitting nature of the Steelers’ defense, which ranks no. 1 in the NFL.

The Steelers have registered 33 sacks for 221 yards in losses. Harrison and fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley share the Steelers’ lead with nine sacks apiece for a combined 122.5 yards in losses, and each needs a sack to become the first players in the history of the storied franchise to have 10 or more sacks in four consecutive seasons.

The Steelers had a rare sack shutout two weeks ago at San Francisco, but that was largely because Harrison was serving his suspension and Woodley was slowed by a hamstring injury. All of that changed on Christmas Eve, when Pittsburgh had three sacks – one by Harrison — in a lopsided win against the St. Louis Rams.

The Steelers’ pass rush no doubt will be looking to turn up the heat once again on New Year’s Day at Cleveland Browns Stadium. This time, it will have its sights set on Seneca Wallace, who is expected to make his third start in place of McCoy.

Wallace has good mobility, but that doesn’t tend to matter against the Steelers’ pass rushers. As always, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can be expected to unleash blitzers from a wide variety of directions, constantly creating situations where there are more defenders coming after the quarterback than blockers to protect him.

As a nine-year veteran with a thorough understanding of the Browns’ West Coast offense, Wallace knows how to maximize his ability to avoid pressure and find receivers. He has good pocket awareness and is capable of feeling the rush and getting rid of the ball quickly.

But Wallace will need the full cooperation of his offensive line, tight ends, and running backs to give him the best protection possible. Left tackle Joe Thomas, who was recently selected to his fifth consecutive pro bowl, should be able to keep pass-rushers trying to get around him away from batch. But the Browns will have Artis Hicks starting at right tackle in place of Tony Pashos, who will be out with ankle injury and illness. Oniel Cousins and John Greco also will alternate at right tackle.

Entering his 16th and final game as a rookie starter, left guard Jason Pinkston has evolved into a better blocker than he was through the first half of the season or so. Second-year pro Shawn Lauvao has also made big strides as a starter at right guard.

This is a game where the Browns are in particular need of having the players taking up the slack within their injury-depleted tight end group – rookie Jordan Cameron and recently acquired Dan Gronkowski – to step up to the challenge of helping to fortify their pass protection.

>>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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Since Rice-induced nightmare, Browns have been focused on stopping the run

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 29, 2011 – 8:27 pm

By: Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

When the Browns last faced the Steelers, it would have made perfect sense if they were still reeling from one of their most humiliating defensive performances in a long time.

It would have made perfect sense if they were so preoccupied with the thought of having allowed Baltimore’s Ray Rice to rush for 204 yards four days earlier that they wouldn’t be totally focused on stopping Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall certainly had the ability to do a great deal of damage on the ground against a Browns defense that had consistently struggled in that area since the start of the season.

But the Browns didn’t allow him to dominate. They held him to a reasonable 76 yards, with a long carry of 15. And that was on a night when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent half the game barely able to walk, let alone run, with a severe high ankle sprain suffered late in the first half.

The Steelers still ended up winning, 14-3, but the Browns’ defense was able to gain at least a small sense of retribution.

The performance became even more impressive in the two weeks that followed, because Mendenhall’s yards-per-carry average increased from just under four yards to an even four. He ran for 116 yards — including a 52-yarder that helped set up the first touchdown of the game — and averaged a whopping 6.4 yards per carry in a 27-0 victory against the Rams last Saturday. That was Mendenhall’s first 100-yard game since the sixth week of the season.

The Browns’ run defense remained stout the two weeks following the Pittsburgh game, keeping Beanie Wells in check at Arizona and doing the same against Rice in the rematch at Baltimore. The Browns are going to try and make it four solid run-stopping efforts in a row when they face the Steelers in the season-finale on New Year’s Day at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

“You have to play good team defense to stop the run,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “And I think our coaches have emphasized it.”

There’s reason to believe the Browns just might receive a lift from their second encounter with rice. Cleveland’s defense is likely to be asked to come up big against the run Sunday, because the Steelers aren’t expected to be their typically aggressive selves through the air. Even with Roethlisberger, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers back away from a pass-oriented game plan. Exposing a quarterback who is recovering from a serious injury and whose mobility, which has never been great, could be compromised to more excessive punishment isn’t the best idea.

Look for the Steelers to give the Browns a heavy dose of Mendenhall. Look for them to use the same basic game plan that they utilized against St. Louis, when Charlie Batch started at quarterback. The Steelers kept the ball on the ground, rushing 28 times for 169 yards and three touchdowns.

The idea back then, as it is likely to be on Sunday, is to have Roethlisberger and/or Batch mostly manage the game and avoid mistakes. It’ll be up to the Browns’ defense to change that plan.

>>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 could see dramatically different Steelers team

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 28, 2011 – 8:17 pm

By: Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

This could very well be a dramatically different Steelers team that plays at Cleveland Browns Stadium on New Year’s Day than the one the Browns faced on Dec. 8 at Heinz Field.

And the most dramatic difference could very well be that Charlie Batch, and not Ben Roethlisberger, is the Steelers’ starting quarterback.

The Browns briefly saw the impact of that change behind center after Roethlisberger limped to the dressing room late in the first half of the previous game between the teams with a high ankle sprain. Batch failed to complete the only two passes he attempted.

In the second half, Roethlisberger, despite being severely hobbled, returned to the game to help lead the Steelers to a 14-3 victory.

But after the Steelers lost their next game at San Francisco, with Roethlisberger trying to push his way through on one leg, the Steelers turned to Batch last Saturday to be their starter against St. Louis. And the results were far better than that cameo showing against the Browns.

In his first start since last season, Batch was solid, but far from spectacular. He did a nice job of managing a run-oriented game plan. He avoided pressure and, except for one interception, did a good job of avoiding mistakes. He threw for 208 yards, 46 of which came on a completion to the Steelers’ most dangerous target, Mike Wallace.

With Batch at quarterback, the Steelers aren’t their usual quick-striking selves. They are content to pound the ball on the ground. That formula worked well against the Rams, who have the NFL’s worst rush defense. Reshard Mendenhall ran for 116 yards and a touchdown, and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. The Browns’ run defense isn’t ranked a whole lot higher than the Rams’, although it has had some of its better performances the past three games, beginning with the first encounter with Pittsburgh. That night, Mendenhall gained only 76 yards.

The Browns’ cause might be helped by the fact the interior of the Steelers’ offensive line has been weakened by injuries. First, they lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey. Then, early in the St. Louis game, they lost his replacement, Doug Legursky, who had moved from left guard to replace him. Trai Essex ended up at center, while Chris Kemoeatu took Essex’s place at left guard.

The Steelers survived the shuffling, but it might be harder to do at Cleveland against the likes of tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, and middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.

The Browns just might be able to continue the success they’ve had on the ground with Peyton Hillis, who has rushed for 99 and 112 yards in his last two games. The Steelers’ defensive line didn’t do much to contain Rams standout running back Steven Jackson, whose 103-yard outing made him the third back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Steelers this season.

>>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’ run defense gets some semi-sweet redemption

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 27, 2011 – 9:20 pm

By: Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The embarrassment will never disappear. Over time, it might fade a little, but not in the foreseeable future.

There’s just no easy way for a defense to shake the stigma of allowing a back to rush for more than 200 yards, as the Browns’ did against Baltimore’s Ray Rice in Week 13 at home.

What a defense can do, however, is get a little bit of redemption the second time around. For the most part, that was what the Browns’ defense did on Saturday.

Rice finished with 87 yards on 23 carries. He averaged 3.8 yards rush, which was solid but not spectacular.

The fact the Browns mostly contained Rice in a losing effort made it a little less satisfying. Rice’s 42-yard pass reception for a touchdown did, too.

Nevertheless, it was significant that the Browns’ defense held its own against one of the more explosive runners league. It was impressive that the unit kept Rice in check in his own stadium.

That now makes three consecutive games, all on the road, that the Browns did not allow a quality running back to get the better of them.

In Week 14, only four days after the disastrous first encounter with Rice, they held Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall to 76 yards. In Week 15, they limited Arizona’s Beanie Wells to 51 yards.

Those accomplishments also were tempered by the fact the Browns emerged from each game with a loss.

However, it’s clear that they have been utilizing the 204-yard, Rice nightmare as a source of motivation. They have been far more focused within the front seven to avoid creating the gaping holes for a running back to exploit.

The biggest difference since that 24-10 loss to the Ravens is that the Browns have been dramatically better with gap integrity. Cleveland’s defensive linemen and linebackers are no longer as quick to forget their responsibilities and try and make plays on their own rather than worrying about staying where they belong and letting plays come to them.

That’s different than simply being consistently overpowered, as was the case in some other games this season. With behemoth tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, the Browns aren’t going to be blown off the ball very often. But Taylor, a rookie, has had his occasions when his youth has gotten the better of him and has tried to do too much. In the last few games, though, Taylor has been more disciplined with his play — his offside penalty when the Ravens were intentionally trying to draw the infraction on fourth down late in Saturday’s game notwithstanding.

Chris Gocong’s move from weakside to strongside linebacker, in place of injured Scott Fujita, has been another factor in the Browns’ improvement against the run. He has joined D’Qwell Jackson as a consistent run-stuffing force.

>>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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Hillis’ play is speaking the loudest for him

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 26, 2011 – 8:05 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

For Peyton Hillis, this has mostly been a season to forget.

Controversy, injury, and illness conspired to erase much of the good feeling that had resonated from his breakout performance of 2010.

But in the past two weeks, Hillis has managed to do his part to at least repair some of the damage caused by a still-unresolved contract dispute that left hard feelings in its wake.

Hillis isn’t talking about his contract anymore. He is allowing his play to do the bulk of the talking for him.

And in the past two weeks, Hillis has looked very much like the running back who ran for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He has looked every bit like the player whose local and national popularity for being a consistently tough, physical, and punishing runner landed him on the cover of Madden NFL 12.

The first indication that Hillis was finally recovered from a hamstring issue that heavily contributed to his missed six games was the 99-yard rushing effort he had against Arizona in Week 15.

Hillis’ 112-yard outing against the Ravens Saturday was important for reasons beyond the fact it was the first time this season that he hit the century mark.

For one thing, it came against what had been the NFL’s second-ranked defense against the run. It came against one of the bigger, stronger, and most physical defensive fronts in the league. And it came on the Ravens’ home field.

From the very start of the game, Hillis and the rest of the Browns’ offense imposed their will on a team that isn’t used to being pushed around. Finesse had almost no part in the Browns’ game plan. The Browns set out to use a sledgehammer on a Ravens defense that only a few games earlier had limited Hillis to a mere 35 yards while Ray Rice trampled the Browns for 204.

And Hillis was exactly that, repeatedly slamming his way through the middle of the Ravens’ defense. He and his blockers generally found little resistance from standout tackle Haloti Ngata and legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis finished the game with 10 tackles, but he and other raven defenders usually didn’t get Hillis to the ground until he was well past the line of scrimmage. In many cases, Hillis was carrying multiple defenders with him.

For the second week in a row, Hillis displayed the second, third, and even fourth effort that became his endearing trademark last season.

After the game, he said all of the right things. He talked about loving the Browns, about wanting to do great things for the team, about loving the game he has played since he was five, about not liking anyone doubting that.

But Hillis’ more powerful statement is being made through his play.

>>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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At least the Browns made it interesting…but no less frustrating

Posted by Vic Carucci on December 24, 2011 – 9:08 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

BALTIMORE – Here are some final thoughts of the Browns’ 20-14 loss against the Ravens:

–At least, the Browns made this one a little more interesting than their Week 13 loss to the Ravens. The reality is that that might be the best that they, or most any opponent, can do against a team that has won all of its home games this season.

–The Browns’ second-half surge only made their failure to get any points after driving deep into Baltimore territory at the end of the first half much more frustrating. Time management and communication were obvious problems in a sequence that ended with Peyton Hillis getting no gain on a run on second-and-goal from the 3 as time expired.

–Fittingly, this game ended when with two minutes left the Ravens, on fourth-and-two from the Cleveland 37, lined up their offense in an attempt to draw the Browns offside. The strategy was so obvious, it seemed unlikely to work. However, with only two seconds left on the play clock, rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor was called for a five-yard encroachment penalty. That allowed Joe Flacco to simply kneel off the remaining time.

–Hillis ran extremely hard for the second week in a row. And that played a significant role in the Browns’ competitiveness. The Ravens’ defense simply couldn’t handle being consistently hammered up the middle. That speaks to the decline in aging middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who also is still dealing with some rust in only his second game back from a foot injury.

–Cleveland’s defense played a fairly inspired game. Yes, Ray Rice had a 42-yard touchdown reception and he made some nice runs on the way to averaging an impressive 4.3 yards per carry. But he didn’t have the dominant performance he had when he ran for 204 yards in Week 13. The Browns’ defenders remained aggressive and persistent throughout, and eventually brought the Ravens’ offense to a halt in the second half.

–Nice to see Josh Cribbs get back some of that kick-return magic. It seemed as if it had disappeared for good. But Cribbs changed all of that with his 84-yarder for a touchdown in the third quarter. It was his first score on a punt since the Browns’ 2009 season-opener against Minnesota. That was a nice reversal of fortune from the Week 13 game when Lardarius Webb burned the Browns for a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown.

–Wallace wasn’t as effective as he was against Arizona last week, but still made some things happen as a passer. As usual, he was his most dangerous when moving out of the pocket to extend plays.

–Another loss doesn’t create much reason for Browns fans to feel festive, but let me take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

>>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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Ravens 20, Browns 14

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 24, 2011 – 9:02 pm

BALTIMORE: Despite a furious second half comeback, the Cleveland Browns fell to the Baltimore Ravens 20-14 Saturday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.

Quarterback Seneca Wallace’s six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore drew the Browns to within six points of the Ravens at 20-14 with 8:22 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Wallace engineered a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took 5:45 off of the game clock.

On third-and-goal, Wallace rolled out to his right and threw a pass near the sideline. Moore corralled the ball and was able to get both feet down in bounds for his team-leading fourth receiving touchdown this season.

The Browns cut into Baltimore’s lead and trailed 20-7 after three quarters of play.

Joshua Cribbs fielded Sam Koch’s third quarter punt at his own 16-yard line and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown. It was his first punt return touchdown since the 2009 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. His last special teams touchdown came on a kickoff in a win at Kansas City on December 20, 2009.

The 84-yard punt return touchdown was the longest of Cribbs’ career. He ranks fifth all-time in the NFL with 11 total return touchdowns.

Shayne Graham’s 43-yard field goal with 5:50 to play in the third quarter gave the Baltimore Ravens a 20-0 lead over the Browns.

The Ravens moved the ball 33 yards on seven plays and took 3:12 off the third quarter clock on the scoring drive.

The Ravens enjoyed a 17-0 halftime lead over the Browns.

Baltimore running back Ray Rice is known as a dual-threat player and proved that again when he gave the Ravens 17-0 lead over the Browns with 8:57 remaining in the second quarter of play.

On third-and-five from the Browns’ 42-yard line, Rice found open space along the right side of the field and caught a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco. Rice then motored the final 25 yards for his third receiving touchdown this season.

Flacco went five of six for 94 yards with two touchdowns on third down in the first half.

After one quarter of play, the Ravens held a 10-0 lead over the Browns.

Baltimore kicker Shayne Graham converted a 48-yard field goal and extended the Ravens’ lead to 10-0 over the Browns with 58 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Graham capped off an 11-play, 62-yard drive that took 5:09 off the first quarter clock.

Just 61 seconds after taking possession of the football, the Ravens took a 7-0 lead over the Browns with 9:12 remaining in the first quarter.

Flacco threw a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson and Graham added the extra point.

The biggest gain of the 64-yard drive was on a snap that did not count as an official play. On first-and-10 from their 36-yard line, the Ravens elected to test the Browns secondary with a deep pass to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Browns were penalized for pass interference and the 60-yard infraction gave the Ravens a first-and-goal inside the five.

Baltimore’s defense set up the offense’s opening score.

The Browns had driven from their 26-yard line to Baltimore’s 30 on the strength of 30 yards from running back Peyton Hillis. However, on third-and-one, Wallace’s pass to the right sideline intended for wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was intercepted by Lardarius Webb.


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Wallace tosses TD pass

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 24, 2011 – 8:41 pm

BALTIMORE — Quarterback Seneca Wallace’s six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore drew the Cleveland Browns to within six points of the Baltimore Ravens at 20-14 with 8:22 remaining in the fourth quarter of play from M&T Bank Stadium.

Wallace engineered a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took 5:45 off of the game clock.

On third-and-goal, Wallace rolled out to his right and threw a pass near the sideline. Moore corralled the ball and was able to get both feet down in bounds for his team-leading fourth receiving touchdown this season.


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Browns trail after three quarters

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 24, 2011 – 8:21 pm

BALTIMORE — The Cleveland Browns cut into Baltimore’s lead and trail 20-7 after three quarters of play from M&T Bank Stadium.

Joshua Cribbs fielded Sam Koch’s third quarter punt at his own 16-yard line and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown. It was his first punt return touchdown since the 2009 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. His last special teams touchdown came on a kickoff in a win at Kansas City on December 20, 2009.

The 84-yard punt return touchdown was the longest of Cribbs’ career. He ranks fifth all-time in the NFL with 11 total return touchdowns.

Shayne Graham’s 43-yard field goal with 5:50 to play in the third quarter gave the Baltimore Ravens a 20-0 lead over the Cleveland Browns.

The Ravens moved the ball 33 yards on seven plays and took 3:12 off the third quarter clock on the scoring drive.

The Ravens enjoyed a 17-0 halftime lead over the Browns.

Baltimore running back Ray Rice is known as a dual-threat player and proved that again when he gave the Ravens 17-0 lead over the Browns with 8:57 remaining in the second quarter of play.

On third-and-five from the Browns’ 42-yard line, Rice found open space along the right side of the field and caught a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco. Rice then motored the final 25 yards for his third receiving touchdown this season.

Flacco went five of six for 94 yards with two touchdowns on third down in the first half.

After one quarter of play, the Ravens held a 10-0 lead over the Browns.

Graham converted a 48-yard field goal and extended the Ravens’ lead to 10-0 over the Browns with 58 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Graham capped off an 11-play, 62-yard drive that took 5:09 off the first quarter clock.

Just 61 seconds after taking possession of the football, the Ravens took a 7-0 lead over the Browns with 9:12 remaining in the first quarter.

Flacco threw a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson and Graham added the extra point.

The biggest gain of the 64-yard drive was on a snap that did not count as an official play. On first-and-10 from their 36-yard line, the Ravens elected to test the Browns secondary with a deep pass to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Browns were penalized for pass interference and the 60-yard infraction gave the Ravens a first-and-goal inside the five.

Baltimore’s defense set up the offense’s opening score.

The Browns had driven from their 26-yard line to Baltimore’s 30 on the strength of 30 yards from running back Peyton Hillis. However, on third-and-one, Seneca Wallace’s pass to the right sideline intended for wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was intercepted by Lardarius Webb.


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Cribbs returns punt for TD

Posted by Matt Florjancic on December 24, 2011 – 8:17 pm

BALTIMORE — Joshua Cribbs’ long absence from the end zone on special teams has come to an end.

Cribbs fielded Sam Koch’s third quarter punt at his own 16-yard line and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown. It was his first punt return touchdown since the 2009 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. His last special teams touchdown came on a kickoff in a win at Kansas City on December 20, 2009.

The 84-yard punt return touchdown was the longest of Cribbs’ career. He ranks fifth all-time in the NFL with 11 total return touchdowns.


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