April 16, 2014

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Scott Petrak on the Browns: Problems? Yep. Cause for panic? Not just yet

Coach Pat Shurmur didn’t appreciate the line of questioning late Friday night following the Browns’ 27-10 loss to the Eagles in the third preseason game.

After a series of questions regarding specific trouble areas, the one that elicited the most direct response from Shurmur was a general one asking if he was more concerned with the poor performance because the Eagles are coming back in two weeks.

“I’m not worried or concerned about anything,” he said. “So the concerned and worried questions, hold those and think of other things to ask me.”

When a different reporter switched the phrasing to “disappointed,” Shurmur still wasn’t biting.

“I’m not worried, disappointed or concerned,” he said. “We’re going to get it fixed.”

I appreciate Shurmur’s defiance. I like that he wasn’t freaking out after a meaningless preseason game in which neither coach wanted to show too much because the Browns and Eagles will meet again Sept. 9 in the regular-season opener. I understand that the media and fans often overreact.

Shurmur needs to keep his confidence and make sure his players keep theirs. And there’s no room for panic in the preseason. Talk radio handles that for everyone.

But it would’ve been nice for Shurmur to more readily acknowledge the myriad mistakes the Browns made in an ugly performance that inspired more angst than confidence. They played a sloppy game in all three phases and didn’t look anywhere near ready for the regular season.

Shurmur said as much during a halftime television interview, but got defensive when pressed on particular problems in his postgame news conference.

He did hit on an important point that often gets overlooked when the preseason grows old and the real season can’t get here fast enough.

“I told the players I’m tired of people saying training camp is over. It’s not over,” Shurmur said. “Training camp is a steady climb to your first game and we have two more weeks left. We’ve got two weeks of work left to get this team to the place we need to be to play this season.”

Two weeks of practice and film study. Two weeks of game-planning and injury rehabbing. Two weeks to forget all about Friday night and refocus on a season with infinite possibilities.

“We are good enough to beat anybody, but if we don’t play good enough, we’re bad enough to get beat by anybody,” Shurmur said.

Line under fire

I agree with Shurmur in not putting all the blame on one position group. But I disagree  that the line wasn’t Friday night’s biggest problem.

Quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy were pressured throughout and sacked five times. The constant harassment didn’t allow the offense to get in the rhythm necessary, and the line put it in tough spots all night.

The penalties were first. Then came the missed assignments. The linemen were also simply beat physically in one-on-one matchups.

Left guard Jason Pinkston was the early culprit. He was flagged for a false start and a hold on the opening drive. The hold came on a run from the 2-yard line and was followed by Weeden’s first fumble.
Center Alex Mack was called for a false start for flinching. Right guard Shawn Lauvao tackled a lineman to draw a hold.

There were also multiple times when an Eagles rusher went unblocked. Weeden shares the blame for this. He works with the line to recognize the rush and call the proper protection. Everyone has to be on the same page, including the running backs, and they certainly weren’t Friday night.

The linemen also weren’t on top of their games. The Eagles’ front four, first and second teams, are quick. Left tackle Joe Thomas was beat on Weeden’s second fumble, and rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz struggled to stay in front of the end several times.

Hold on, tightly

Weeden’s preseason has been a success. He hasn’t been overwhelmed, looks in control in the huddle and at the line and continues to impress with his throwing ability.

But he must clean up the ball security. After three NFL preseason starts, he has three fumbles, two lost, and no touchdown passes.

After a fumble in the opener at Detroit, he said he learned how precious each possession was in the NFL. Then he fumbled twice more against the Eagles — one costing the Browns a scoring chance.

Weeden wasn’t at fault on that one. The Browns were trying to run a screen from the
12-yard line, but defensive tackle Derek Landri blew right through Pinkston. The offensive line is supposed to allow penetration, but with a play-action fake called, Weeden needed more time to turn around and throw before Landri was in his face.

On Weeden’s second fumble, Thomas was beat off the edge. Weeden sensed the pressure and tried to step up, but wasn’t careful enough with the ball, carrying it too low and loose.

“Last night wasn’t acceptable,” he tweeted Saturday. “We have to play better and we will. I know one thing tho it was fun to play in front of our fans! #dawgpound”

Besides that fumble, I liked what I saw from Weeden. He threw a nice deep ball down the sideline that went off Travis Benjamin’s hands, and it’s clear his arm will stretch the defense. He flashed the arm strength again on an out to Mohamed Massaquoi when Weeden was forced to step up in the pocket.

The issues Weeden had are common to rookies. He struggled to identify the right pressures and has inconsistent chemistry with the receivers.

If the Browns can protect him and he can adjust when the pocket is compromised, he will complete lots of passes this season.

Final thoughts

The season is long for all rookies, and receiver Josh Gordon is no exception. There will certainly be ups and downs this year, but it looks like he turned the first corner.

Gordon practiced harder last week, finishing routes and giving better effort. The commitment carried over to the game and was rewarded with production.

He made a nice back-shoulder catch on the first play, beating Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for 28 yards. He showed awareness and toughness by turning a 5-yard hook into a first down. He also beat man-to-man coverage on a slant. Three catches, 50 yards, three first downs.

• The Joe Haden flap is over, just like Shurmur announced Wednesday, hours after throwing the cornerback out of practice. Haden intercepted Nick Foles early in Friday’s first quarter.

“He’s had an outstanding training camp,” Shurmur said. “He’s doing the things he needs to do to be an impact player this year on our defense.”

Tensions were understandably high during the week. Haden may be suspended for the first four games after reportedly failing a drug test, but the league has yet to make an announcement. The uncertainty has cranked up the stress on Haden and Shurmur, who could be without his best defensive player.

• Despite solid performances in the first two preseason games, the special teams remain a concern under coordinator Chris Tabor. The Eagles’ second touchdown was set up by a blocked punt on the 3-yard line when a rusher came free and almost took the ball off Reggie Hodges’ foot.

The main triumvirate of kicker Phil Dawson, Hodges and long snapper Christian Yount are solid. But there have been lapses on field-goal block, punt block and kick coverage.

• Running back Montario Hardesty has to figure out his fumbling issues. He’s lost one in two straight games after telling reporters he hadn’t fumbled since high school.

The Browns will need him early in the season as Trent Richardson works himself back into playing shape, so Hardesty must be aggressive and protect  the ball.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him
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