AFC North: Cleveland Browns

Gaffes lead to Browns' difficult loss

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns had 305 yards of offense the first three quarters of Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

In the fourth quarter they had 70 -- and 70 came on one pass from Brian Hoyer to rookie Taylor Gabriel. The other 13 plays in the fourth quarter netted zero yards. The final quarter for the Browns was a textbook example of how not to win a game when it matters most, as the Browns stumbled over and over. They missed a field goal and had another blocked, were 0-for-4 on third downs and went three-and-out on their last two drives.

Even the one positive play the Browns had was fraught with what could have been, because Gabriel was so wide open on the play he could have easily scored. The Browns had that pass in their back pocket, Hoyer said, for the coverage Baltimore used. Gabriel called it "a perfect play."

"I saw he was wide open," Hoyer said, "just threw it and let him run underneath it."

Except Gabriel stutter-stepped as the ball was in the air, which forced him to lunge for the ball, which took him to the ground. He was able to get up and scamper to the nine, but had he caught the ball in stride he would have scored easily.

"I'm a little upset,” Gabriel said of not scoring. "But at the same time it just felt good getting my hands on the ball."

It was emblematic of the Browns' fourth quarter, which was filled with mistakes. Billy Cundiff doinked a 50-yard field goal off the left upright, then had one blocked from 36, leaving six points off the scoreboard.

Of the 50-yarder, Cundiff said: "The timing didn’t feel like we were on.”

Of the second, he said: "I thought I hit a really good ball. Then it’s the double-thump. As a kicker and punter, that’s definitely what you don’t want to hear."

Asa Jackson blocked the field goal from the outside left of the defense, racing past Billy Winn. Either Jackson was too fast or Winn was too slow to get out of his stance to impede Jackson. Browns coach Mike Pettine said some of the snaps on the kicks might have been low.

"All I can tell you is that it was blocked, and if we do everything correctly it shouldn’t have been," said holder Spencer Lanning. "At the end of the day it’s just not good enough."

The Browns helped the Ravens with other miscues. A missed handoff and then a penalty on Hoyer for throwing a (touchdown) pass when he was past the line pushed the second field goal to the 36. A brutal pass interference penalty on rookie Justin Gilbert gave the Ravens the ball at the Browns' 5. There, the Browns were called for 12 men on the field for the second time in the game. Pettine lamented those miscues, saying he and the coaching staff cost the players the game.

"It’s one of the things I’m talking about," Pettine said. "We need to be better with our procedures."

Especially since two plays after the second 12-man penalty, the defense had to call timeout to avoid a third.

There was more. Travis Benjamin did not field a late punt, which rolled to the Browns' 9 and effectively flipped field position toward the Ravens. Baltimore started its game-winning drive at midfield.

"I got up under the ball correctly, and at the last minute a gust of wind blew it and it went past my hand," Benjamin said. "I didn’t want to go back and reach for the ball, so I just let it pass by."

The Browns also had two chances to put the game away late, but two drives took just 55 seconds off the clock with consecutive three-and-outs. On the second, Hoyer threw behind Andrew Hawkins on third-and-7 from the 10.

"I have got to put it in front of him," Hoyer said.

"If we get that, they don’t have any timeouts and the game is over," Joe Thomas said.

If, if, if.

Players lamented the inability of the team to come up with a needed play when it mattered most the way they did against New Orleans. But they also lamented the mistakes they made that led to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco being 12-1 against the Browns.

"We have no one to blame but ourselves," Hoyer said, "and that’s what hurts the most."
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 23-21 loss to Baltimore:

Coach's angst: Mike Pettine put himself in the crosshairs by saying the last-second loss to Baltimore was on him. He said the players played well enough to win but the coaches didn't do a good job of putting them in the best positions. He said there was a "long list" of miscues by the staff.

When it matters: Against New Orleans, the Browns converted a fourth down and a winning drive. Against Baltimore, they failed twice with their hands on the ball. "We got to do it when it counts," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "That's what it comes down to."

Gaffes galore: The Browns missed a field goal and had another blocked, three times had 12 men on the field on defense, did not catch a vital punt and did not get a point in the fourth quarter despite having the ball at the Ravens' 30- and 9-yard lines. Players lamented the mistakes that they said led to the Browns beating themselves.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 23-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.

What it means: Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery worked for the Ravens prior to coming to Cleveland. Montgomery said during training camp that the Ravens always looked on the Browns as a team that would play Baltimore tough, then make mistakes at key points of the game to give the Ravens a victory. The Browns did that again with a new coach and new quarterback, bungling the last three or four minutes en route to a last-play 23-21 loss. Not getting a key first down, throwing poor passes and failing to catch well-thrown ones, wasting timeouts, having 12 men on the field, giving up a big catch on the Ravens' game-winning drive -- the Browns wasted a good effort in a winnable game due to late mistakes. They are an improved team, but until they win in crunch time, they won't win overall.

Stock watch: The Browns have to shore up their run defense. Baltimore was without Bernard Pierce and turned to rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, a fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina. Yet the Ravens still ran the ball well against the Browns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and totaling 160 yards for the day. Baltimore had run well in its previous two games, so it wasn't a shock. What was a concern was the Browns' inability to stop the run even though they knew it was coming. No doubt this will be an area of focus for the coaching staff during the bye week.

Manziel package: Johnny Manziel was involved in a trick play that could have gained 39 yards had Terrance West not been penalized for an illegal shift. Manziel's trick play involved hiding on the sideline and catching a pass from Brian Hoyer after Manziel had run the read-option the play before. He scampered up the sideline, but the play was negated by the penalty on West. The reason the Browns ran Manziel for those three plays against New Orleans? To set up the trick play for Baltimore.

Game ball: With the game in the balance, the Browns' offense had two drives that used up less than a minute and went nowhere. But prior to that, Brian Hoyer had the team in position for a win. Hoyer completed 16 of his first 17, and the one incompletion came because Jordan Cameron fell after getting tangled up with a Ravens defender. Hoyer finished 19-of-25 for 290 yards and a 127.1 passer rating. He did not come through in the final two drives, but to that point, he had overcome numerous Browns mistakes to put them in position to win.

What’s next: The Browns have an early bye week before returning for a trip to Tennessee to play the Titans on Oct. 5 in Nashville.
Now we know why the Browns ran the Johnny Manziel series of plays in the win over New Orleans.

They were designed to set up a trick play that turned Johnny Football into a receiver against Baltimore -- though the play was illegal according to the former head of NFL officiating.

On first-and-10 from the Browns 39-yard line with Baltimore leading 10-7, Manziel trotted on the field and ran the same read-option handoff he ran last week. Isaiah Crowell lost 1 yard on the carry.

On second down, Brian Hoyer signaled to come back in the game and Manziel gestured toward offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to show he didn’t want to come out.

Manziel carried out the charade further as he stood on the field, just off the sideline, and talked with Shanahan as the Browns lined up for the next play.

At the snap, he turned upfield and caught a 39-yard pass from Hoyer for what looked like a big gain -- and could have been more had officials penalized Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith for a late hit on Manziel out of bounds.

But the play was negated by a penalty on the Browns' Terrance West for an illegal shift. West looked to be late getting to his spot, and wasn’t set in time for the Browns to run the play.

But former NFL Director of Officiating Mike Pereira, who now works for Fox, tweeted that the Browns should have been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Pereira said on a Fox video posted on Twitter that the play was “an illegal hideout play.”

“You cannot line up and set within five yards of your sideline when you are in front of your bench area,” Pereira said.

The bench area is defined as between one 32-yard line and the other 32. Lining up within five yards of your sideline between those yard-lines is a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, Pereira said.

Had the Browns run the play from their 28, it would not have been a penalty, Pereira said.

That infraction was not flagged by Bill Leavy’s crew.

Bernard Pierce out, Jordan Cameron in

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
The Cleveland Browns got a break before Sunday's game against Baltimore when the Ravens announced that running back Bernard Pierce would not play.

Pierce ranks second on the team with 113 rushing yards and a 4.0-yard average. At 230 pounds, he's a powerful back whose style contrasts with starter Justin Forsett. Pierce hurt his hamstring in Wednesday's practice and did not recover in time to play.

Baltimore will be helped, though, by the return of cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is active for the first time this season. He had missed preseason and the first two games with a lower-back injury.

Webb will start opposite Jimmy Smith, giving Baltimore a potent pair of corners. Baltimore is 28-13 (.683) when Webb starts, 9-1 when he intercepts a pass.

The Browns will have tight end Jordan Cameron, who missed the win over the Saints with a shoulder injury. Cameron's presence is vital given the talent the Ravens have at corner.
BEREA, Ohio -- Josh Gordon will be on the field for the Cleveland Browns for the stretch run -- that as a result of the new drug testing and punishment policy agreed to and announced Friday by the NFL and NFL Players Association.

Now it’s up to the Browns to make sure the final six games of the season mean something.

Gordon's suspension for marijuana use officially was reduced from the entire 2014 season to 10 games, the NFL and NFLPA announced.

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
DavidDermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesWith his suspension reduced, Cleveland's Josh Gordon will be eligible to play Nov. 23 in Atlanta.
Gordon’s penalty is the new penalty for a fifth positive test. Because one new stage has been added to the league’s policy, Gordon evidently has four failed tests since he joined the NFL.

His next failed test for marijuana would result in a one-year ban.

The level for a positive test, though, has been raised from 15 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter) to 35.

Penalties for a positive marijuana test will have five steps leading to the ban: entrance into the program, a two-game fine, a four-game fine, a four-game suspension, a 10-game suspension and then a one-year ban.

Gordon’s situation is complicated slightly by his guilty plea this week in his DWI case Tuesday in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The new penalty for a first DWI conviction is a two-game suspension. But Gordon’s arrest came under the previous policy. Gordon pled guilty before the agreement in order to avoid the two-game suspension, sources told ESPN the day he pled guilty.

The 10-game suspension means Gordon will miss both games against Pittsburgh.

He’ll miss opportunities against Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Houston.

His first game would be Nov. 23 in Atlanta. He would then face Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Carolina and Baltimore.

Whether it matters obviously depends on the way the Browns play leading up to those games. But the latter part of the schedule is very tough, with games against three playoff teams from a year ago and two other very, very good teams in the Falcons and Ravens.

Of course, none of this is fair to Browns fans.

Gordon was disciplined under a policy that was being changed. He took a chance after three previous positive tests (not all of which have been made public) and was penalized for testing positive for a drug that is legal in some states. Gordon said in a video interview on the website that he does not believe he has a substance abuse problem, and he said in his appeal that the 16 nanogram test result was caused by secondhand smoke.

But the test registered positive, and the rules were the rules and were agreed to by the players and the league. They have been updated, but Gordon somehow put himself in a position to test positive -- and did.

Gordon said in the videos that he more or less felt he was a carrot being used to bring the two sides together to agree on HGH testing. But part of the delay in Gordon's hearing and then in the final ruling was the effort by arbitrator Harold Henderson to get the sides to work out a compromise.

That didn’t happen, and the league went to the letter of the law, which had been negotiated and agreed to with the union.

Ten games are fewer than 16, and if the Browns are even close to .500 at that time, his return for the final six could be a boost.

In the first two games, the Browns have shown the offense can be productive without him. With him, it should -- in theory, at least -- be better.

Browns hope to take away Ravens run

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
BEREA, Ohio -- Quarterback Joe Flacco is the face of the Baltimore Ravens.

But their bread-and-butter is running the ball.

Flacoo’s inflated contract notwithstanding, the Ravens under John Harbaugh are a physical team that likes to attack the line of scrimmage. In the Harbaugh era since 2008, Baltimore ranks ninth in rushing yards per game (121.3) and eighth in rushing touchdowns (93). For years it was with Ray Rice running the ball, now it’s Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce.

The Ravens rank 13th in the league in rushing offense, the Browns 25th in stopping the run. Baltimore averages 4.5 yards per carry, the Browns are giving up 5.4.

While the Ravens are pleased with their run game, the Browns have a "yeah, but" thinking on their run defense. When it comes to the run game, the Browns giveth -- now they hope to take away.

Coach Mike Pettine said the team was willing to give something against the Saints to defend Drew Brees.

"We went into the game with the mentality that if they’re running the ball, Drew’s not throwing it," defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said.

That meant smaller linemen were in the game for pass-rush purposes. Out went a Phil Taylor, in came an Armonty Bryant.

"Sometimes when you go against those elite quarterbacks, you have to have that mentality a little bit that you understand you’re going to concede some rushing yards," Pettine said, "but in the long term, the clock’s moving, you’re shortening the game. I think they ended up with 10 possessions for the game, which is below the NFL average."

Any time Brees does not have the ball, the defense gains. The Saints finished with 174 yards after the Steelers had 127. But the Browns missed 14 tackles against the Steelers, too, the main issue according to Pettine.

This week the offensive similarities of the teams are striking. Kyle Shanahan learned the Browns' offense when he coached under Gary Kubiak, who worked for Shanahan’s father in Denver. Kubiak is now with Baltimore.

The offenses are very similar, with stretch zone-blocking schemes in the running game. Flacco is not exactly made for play-action, though, so the Browns will probably have that element more available than Baltimore.

Pettine, though, expects that this will be a "typical AFC North, old-school kind of game." Meaning physical and run-game dependent. The defensive approach will not be the same as it was with New Orleans.

"We want to run the ball, so do they," Pettine said. "I think it’s important for us to take that mentality that we’re going to stop the run."

Pettine even channeled his inner Dick Goddard (the longtime Cleveland-area weather forecaster) and said the early forecast Sunday calls for a lot of rain.

"It’s something that we have to take into account," Pettine said. "I think it could turn into one of those games where we have to stop the run."

For many reasons.

Ravens vs. Browns preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18

The Cleveland Browns ended an 11-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens in November. That was the first time Joe Flacco had lost to the Browns.

The Browns are coming off an emotional and exciting last-second 26-24 win against New Orleans in Week 2. Baltimore is coming off a dominant 26-6 win against the Steelers on Thursday night, giving them three extra days off for this game.

The Browns have a chance to make a statement that they belong in the AFC North, and the Ravens have a chance to show that this division belongs to them or the Bengals.

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Browns reporter Pat McManamon discuss a few key elements of Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game.

McManamon: It's an obvious but important question: What is the state of Baltimore's running game at this point of the season?

Hensley: It's not as bad as you would think for a team that just cut the second-leading rusher in franchise history. The combination of Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett is more than serviceable.

These running backs also complement each other. Pierce's strength is power running and getting yards between the tackles. Forsett is more explosive and is at his best when he reaches the edge. They have combined for 239 yards against the Bengals and Steelers. No one is suggesting the Ravens have a top-10 rushing attack. It was only a season ago that Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry and Forsett ran the ball six times. But the Ravens are going to rely on them against the Browns because they have historically grinded out yards in Cleveland. In six games there, the Ravens have averaged 160 yards rushing.

Pat, the Browns' track record with handling success is not very strong. Is this team more equipped -- from the head coach to the locker room -- to deal with a big win against the Saints and put together another strong performance against the Ravens?

McManamon: On paper, the Browns should have the elements to prove they are more equipped to handle a big win, but it remains an unknown until they actually do it. The message Monday morning during the team meeting from coach Mike Pettine was blunt: Don't screw this up. Pettine said a mature team does not get caught up in one win; it turns quickly to the next game. Pettine reminded the team that though they could be 2-0, they also could easily be 0-2. Players seem to like Pettine's straightforward approach. He doesn't dance around topics, merely says it like it is. That should help.

What also should help is the Browns have leadership from guys such as Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner. Joe Thomas can help, as can Brian Hoyer, but both are a little softer spoken. The Browns have had leaders before, but never people like Whitner -- a guy who will challenge teammates and get in their face a la Ray Lewis if need be.

The bottom line is the Browns almost beat Pittsburgh on the road and did beat New Orleans at home. They are good enough to win right now because they are getting good quarterback play the last six quarters. But they have to play. The last thing they need to do is get caught up in the success of one win -- not when wins have been so few and far between.

Do the Ravens expect any kind of hostile reaction this weekend? Not only is it Cleveland -- and we both learned this offseason that the anger remains from the Art Modell era -- but it's the first road game since the team (mis)handled the Ray Rice situation.

Hensley: Like you said, Pat, it wouldn't be a trip to Cleveland without some hostility. To a large portion of the Browns fan base, the Ravens still represent the team that was stolen away. The Rice saga provides the Dawg Pound with another reason to vent anger at the Ravens. But if last week's game against the Steelers is any indication, this will be a nonfactor. The Ravens had every excuse to lose to Pittsburgh, from the players' emotional fatigue in losing Rice to the distraction from the national media onslaught. This situation has forced the Ravens to take a bunker mentality.

Playing on the road will be a different test, but it was going to be a difficult challenge anyway. The Ravens lost six of eight games on the road in 2013, including their first loss in Cleveland since 2007.

Many in Baltimore know about running back Terrance West. He played high school football in the city and went to college at nearby Towson. What has stood out the most about West in the season's first two weeks?

McManamon: His lack of fear. The Browns threw him in the fray as a rookie behind Ben Tate, and when Tate hurt his knee, they made West the starter with no hesitation. West responded with 168 yards in two games, a 4.8-yard average, one touchdown and a nifty end zone shimmy shake on top of it. West is finding that the opposition is not like he saw at Towson, but he has played well. Most important, he has done a more than adequate job in blitz protection, an area of the offense many rookies find tough to learn. West and Isaiah Crowell are two rookie backs who are not playing like rookies.

Baltimore stuffed Pittsburgh pretty well last Thursday and always seems to be stronger and more physical than the Browns. Is this Ravens defense as physical and effective as they all have been?

Hensley: The talk throughout training camp was about how this Ravens defense was going to be the fastest in memory. Instead, the Ravens have pounded offenses in the first two games with physical play. Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams have stuffed the run inside. Elvis Dumervil has bulled his way past blockers. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has turned into a shutdown corner with his ability to jam receivers. And safety Matt Elam has made an impact by hitting running backs and receivers alike.

These are the reasons why the Ravens have allowed one touchdown in the first two games. And that one touchdown was the result of backup cornerback Chykie Brown getting beat on a 77-yard pass to A.J. Green. The Ravens' defense will get better if cornerback Lardarius Webb can return Sunday after missing the first two games with a back injury. Everyone expected this Ravens defense to be younger and more athletic than recent ones. What has really stood out has been the defense's intensity, especially when backed inside its own red zone.

The Browns have certainly invested in their defense in recent years, and it's showing early this season. What changed from the dismal first half in Pittsburgh to the strong past six quarters?

McManamon: The easy answer is attitude. At halftime in Pittsburgh, the Browns got sick and tired of being sick and tired. They have given up 27 points in the last six quarters after giving up 27 the first two.

A combination of factors come into play. The defense has talent. But in the first half in Pittsburgh, instead of trusting the talent, they were flying out of position and trying too hard. Since then, they have followed the mantra of doing your job and trusting your teammate. It's helped.

Second, Pettine sold the players on the chance of success with this Rex Ryan system. It's worked in Baltimore, New York and Buffalo, and the players see it can work in Cleveland.

Finally, the addition of Dansby and Whitner has played out well. Dansby is active all over the field, and Whitner is a steadying but challenging force. The combination of factors has combined for positive results through two games.

Dansby's preparation leads to success

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
BEREA, Ohio -- Small actions matter in games, and can sometimes make the difference between winning and losing.

Karlos Dansby said after the win over the Saints that he was able to come up with a key sack late in the game because he recognized Drew Brees' protection call and he knew he'd have an open lane to Brees.

"That's just from watching film," Dansby said Wednesday as the Browns prepared for their next game against the Baltimore Ravens.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardKarlos Dansby said he was able to get a late sack on Drew Brees because he recognized Brees' protection call from watching film.
He then went through the play, against Brees, explaining that once he knew he'd get the sack his next focus was to make sure Brees did not throw the ball before he was tackled.

"Make sure he don't throw the ball in the dirt," Dansby said. "Because he threw the ball in the dirt when a couple other guys had him wrapped up. He just got rid of it at the last second."

He didn't against Dansby, because Dansby didn't let him.

"Grab his arm," Dansby said. "That's what I tried to do. I tried to get the ball out period, but he tucked it at the last second where I couldn't get it. I just got him down. I was kind of mad about that situation. I wanted the ball.

"The whole mindset was getting the ball. I knew he wasn't going to get away from me."

Getting the ball out would have given the Browns the ball with excellent field position. Making the sack forced a punt. Knowing Brees wouldn't get away from him was the result of film study that showed Dansby in that particular formation when Brees slid the protection to the offense's right, there would be nobody in the backfield helping with protection.

"Once he slid the front, it was just me and him," Dansby said.

What would Dansby do if he faced a more mobile quarterback?

"Watch the film," he said. "You'll see when guys come free on (a quarterback) what he likes to do."

That knowledge might be the difference between winning a play and losing it, and sometimes one play can have a huge effect on winning a game or losing it -- like Dansby's sack.

"Like Ben (Roethlisberger)," Dansby said. "Ben would have tried to spin out and I would have been right there waiting on him. He'd have taken one step to the right and he'd have tried to spin out. That's his thing. That's what he likes to do."

He pointed out in the opener that rookie Chris Kirksey almost had Roethlisberger for a sack, but he stepped right and spun away from Kirksey for a completion.

His words were reminiscent of a couple years ago, when Joe Thomas said he always tries before a game to find a pass-rusher's signature move because in a key situation the player will depend on that move. His approach and Dansby's is the kind that separates the better players from the ordinary ones.

"I watch film, man," Dansby said. "I'm not just physical and playing a game. I have to watch these things because these situations are going to come about and you have to envision yourself in these situations and know how you're going to attack them."
HoyerRon Schwane/USA TODAY SportsBrian Hoyer has tightened his grip on the starting quarterback job.
BEREA, Ohio -- It’s clear that Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine will always do what he can to keep his next opponent guessing.

So he may never admit he’s junking the occasional use of Johnny Manziel in games.

Which is fine; gamesmanship is part of the NFL and even Terrell Suggs admitted on a conference call with the Cleveland media that the Baltimore Ravens were preparing for Manziel. That’s just the way Pettine wants it.

But even if he doesn’t admit it publicly, it might be time to admit it privately: The Browns don’t need the Manziel presence during games.

It’s time to put the Manziel package of plays on the shelf.

Brian Hoyer is handling things, and handling them well.

It’s time to treat Manziel as the backup and Hoyer the starter. If Hoyer falters or struggles, Manziel can be ready. If Hoyer plays well and wins the Browns have the best of everything. They’d have a starter with experience playing well while Manziel learns, observes and grows behind him.

It would lead to an interesting offseason situation with Hoyer’s contract up, but that’s for the offseason. For now, the Browns can do what Pettine said he wanted all along -- not force the rookie quarterback on the field immediately.

This is no knock on Manziel, who since he’s been with the Browns has handled things well and adeptly. He makes no secret he has a lot on his plate adjusting from a quick-play, one-side-of-the-field offense in college to Kyle Shanahan’s tome. He makes no secret he did not expect to walk in and understand everything right away. He’s been spot on in the way he’s acted, with the team and media.

But he’s not ready.

And he was not a read-option quarterback in college. He ran it a little bit at Texas A&M -- enough that he can run it -- but his forte was not the read-option.

The Browns had him run three read-option plays against New Orleans. The results: Two handoffs for zero yards and one incomplete pass.

This isn’t like putting Josh Cribbs in the game. As Shanahan said, Manziel is a quarterback getting some plays.

The incompletion got fans excited because it came on a Manziel scramble left when he didn’t see his first two reads and spun around to run left.

What’s far more exciting in the NFL, though, is a guy who can drop back, read and throw -- what Tom Brady does -- because that’s what an offense needs.

Hoyer produced a lot more excitement when he guided the game-winning drive.

Yet he was twice yo-yoed in and out of the game. At this point, the risk of disruption seems far greater than the potential gain.

Hoyer’s track record in four starts is this: He’s led two last-minute game-winning drives, he led a game-securing drive with the game in balance and he came back from 24 down at halftime to lose on the last play of the game in Pittsburgh. His only loss came when he erased a 24-point deficit.

The sample size remains small. He has to sustain this for an entire season. But he’s earned that right to do so.

"He's played great for them," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I know their history at quarterback. Put it that way."

The pressure on the incumbent quarterback trying to fend off the phenom -- the Tim Tebow factor -- can be immense. Hoyer showed he felt it in training camp when he struggled. But Manziel never did enough to take the job.

Pettine did the right thing naming Hoyer the starter when he did. Hoyer settled down, got the practice time and now is approaching the level he played at in his brief time in 2013.

He’s not perfect. He threw two early floaters against the Saints that could have been intercepted.

But he’s shirked any pressure and beat the Saints. If ever he was going to cave, it would have been in Pittsburgh at halftime, with Manziel ready and eager to step in. Instead, Hoyer scored 24 points in less than 20 minutes to tie the game.

The Browns have been so lacking at the quarterback position for so long that they seem to be constantly searching. At this point, the search can be called off.

The guy who deserves the shot -- the guy they may need -- is right in front of them.

It’s time to let Hoyer be the starter and ride with it as far as it will go.
The Cleveland Browns are taking a wait-and-see approach to the availability of tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) for Sunday's game against Baltimore. However, coach Mike Pettine said he does not expect Ben Tate (knee) to be ready to play.

Tate will probably rest his injured knee this weekend and then take the bye week before coming back to play in Tennessee in Week 5.

Cameron and Mingo are iffy at best. Both were listed as limited for Wednesday's practice after both missed Sunday's win over New Orleans.

Cameron's absence would be felt significantly against the Ravens, whose aggressive corners will do all they can to play press-man on the Browns receivers.

Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray have played well in Cameron's absence, but having the Pro Bowl tight end on the field against Baltimore would help counter the Ravens' strategy.
A weekly by-the-numbers look at the Cleveland Browns' next game, at home against the Baltimore Ravens:
  • 83.2 -- Joe Flacco's passer rating
  • 87.4 -- Brian Hoyer's passer rating
  • $51 million -- The guaranteed portion of Flacco’s contract
  • $1.965 million -- The complete value of Hoyer’s contract
  • 4.5 -- The Ravens' average yards per carry in the run game
  • 5.1 -- The Browns' average yards per carry in the run game
  • 89 -- Rushing yards allowed per game by Baltimore
  • 152.5 -- Rushing yards per game by the Browns' offense
  • 78.2 -- Opposing quarterbacks’ passer rating vs. Baltimore
  • 33 -- Total first downs Baltimore’s defense has allowed
  • 32.4 -- Average number of yards the Ravens have given up per drive
  • 27 -- Total points allowed by Baltimore in two games
  • 5 -- Said total points rank in the NFL by Baltimore's defense
  • 26.5 -- Points scored per game by the Browns' offense
  • 5 -- Browns' rank in total points in the NFL
  • 6.2 -- Yards per play when Baltimore faces a no-huddle offense
  • 8 -- Yards given up rushing in the red zone
  • 6 -- Yards given up passing in the red zone
  • 0 -- Opposing quarterback rating in the red zone
  • 2.33 -- Average yards given up on red-zone plays
  • 1 -- Baltimore’s rank in the NFL in red-zone efficiency
  • 1 -- The number of touchdowns the Ravens have given up in two games

Clearly the Ravens present a more serious test defensively to the Browns than Pittsburgh or New Orleans. The Ravens are a physical, aggressive group that has been very stingy giving up points. The only touchdown they allowed was a 77-yard deep throw by Andy Dalton to A.J. Green. Teams have yet to sustain any drives against them.

Offensively, both teams have had effective running games, but Baltimore has been stingy giving yards up as well. Baltimore’s struggles against the no-huddle has to have caught Mike Pettine’s eye.

If Hoyer and the offense can get something done on this Baltimore defense, it will be the first time it happens. But Baltimore has yet to play away from home and the Browns' crowd provided a huge lift in the win over New Orleans.

The numbers say this will be a tough game, but it will also be a very interesting one -- and can reveal much about where the Browns stand with the big boys of the NFL as they head to the bye week.
BEREA, Ohio -- One of Brian Hoyer's most important throws in the win over New Orleans on Sunday was to his third read, and to a receiver he had never thrown to on that particular play call.

That came on the fourth-and-6 throw that kept the Cleveland Browns' game-winning drive alive, a throw that Hoyer either makes or the game ends in a loss.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
AP Photo/David RichardBrian Hoyer gave Browns fans reason to cheer on Sunday with his clutch play during the final drive.
Hoyer broke down the play, saying it was similar to a third-down play call against Pittsburgh when he forced a throw to Gary Barnidge when Barnidge was well covered. Hoyer admitted in Pittsburgh he thought pre-snap of getting five yards to try a field goal. Because he forced it, the Browns had to punt.

As he lined up against the Saints, he saw a coverage he didn’t like and reminded himself to let the play develop and go through his reads.

His first was outside to Taylor Gabriel, but he was double-covered.

His second was to Andrew Hawkins over the middle, but he was short of the first-down marker and well covered.

His third took him to Barnidge, who had safety Jairus Byrd at his feet as he made the catch.

“I’ve probably never thrown that ball to Gary in my life [on that play],” Hoyer said “That read on that fourth-down play, I don’t think I’ve had on that play with him.”

But he explained the way the play developed.

“You know exactly what you need to get and when they take No. 1 away, [No.] 2 is in front of the sticks, you gotta get to No. 3 and that's what we were able to do," Hoyer said.

The pass was on the money, and Barnidge made the catch with Byrd spinning him to the ground immediately.

“That was a heck of a throw and an even better catch,” coach Mike Pettine said. “He had Byrd just hanging on his back. That was clutch.”

Barnidge has 36 career receptions, and he was playing at the time because starting tight end Jordan Cameron was sidelined with a shoulder injury. In the Browns' system, Barnidge is the receiving tight end, Jim Dray the blocker. Trusting the backup tight end in that situation might take some gumption, but Hoyer didn’t hesitate to throw the ball where it should go, saying he trusts all the backup receivers “with all my heart.”

“He’s a solid player,” Pettine said of Barnidge. “He’s not going to be on anybody’s Pro Bowl ballot, but I believe in the guys that we have. You have to because they feel it if you don’t.”

Hoyer understands any and all skepticism because he’s been released three times and is coming off major knee surgery.

But in four starts for the Browns when he finished the game, Hoyer has led the team back from 24 points down against Pittsburgh, led a late game-securing drive against Cincinnati and led late game-winning drives against Minnesota and New Orleans. Against the Saints, he converted two third downs and the fourth-down throw to Barnidge.

“We talk about, ‘If you’re going to be a great player, you need to make great plays when your best is needed,’” Pettine said. “He certainly did that for us. That’s when you gain respect. Respect can’t be manufactured that way. It can’t be artificial. It just has to be earned, and it has to be earned through his play, through his actions. I thought he handled himself real well [Sunday].”

Breaking down Cundiff's winning kick

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
BEREA, Ohio -- Billy Cundiff's 29-yard field goal to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday was not his first game winner for the Cleveland Browns.

Cundiff joked that his first winner came in a game when the Browns and Buffalo Bills "set fooball back 40 years."

He was only partially joking, because that game did feel like it set football back decades. It was in Eric Mangini's first season, after the Browns had lost four in a row to start the season. The Browns scored on two field goals and won 6-3. Quarterback Derek Anderson was 2-for-17 and the Browns won because a Bills punt returner fumbled a return.

Cundiff was with the Browns only because Phil Dawson was hurt.

"I was kind or re-establishing myself back in the NFL, letting people know I still had the ability to play at this level," Cundiff said. "That's exactly what it did. It was able to get me another job in Baltimore."

Where he kicked for two-plus seasons (and went to the Pro Bowl in 2010) before going to Washington for one season. He then joined the Browns late in training camp a year ago. Sunday was his first game winner in his second go-round. His only chance last season was from 58 yards in New England, which fell short (his career long is 56 in 2005).

"It's still early in the season," Cundiff said. "Obviously we don't want to put too much stock into one kick. But as the season goes on you want to be able to win close games, especially at home."

Cundiff is learning about the winds off Lake Erie and how they can affect the game. But he's also learned that offseason stadium renovations make the winds swirl more. He referred to something called "the Dawson flag," which is a flag former kicker Phil Dawson had installed to the right of the Browns bench.

"That was the flag that would tell you which way the wind was coming," Cundiff said. "Now it's not working."

Because the renovations added seating that enclosed the end zones.

Cundiff also knew the Saints would aggressively go after the kick, and they did.

"That was our fastest get-off time all game," Cundiff said. "I think it was clocked at 1.21 (seconds) and they almost got it. So it shows that we were really humming."

Which was good also because until that kick, the kicking trio of Cundiff, snapper Christian Yount and holder Spencer Lanning were responsible for the one-point differential. Yount's snap on the extra point after Tashaun Gipson's interception return for a touchdown was high and slipped through Lanning's fingers.

"As a specialist you guys know when we fail," Cundiff said, adding: "It's a tough feeling for the whole week knowing that your mistake led to a team losing."

Of course, the opposite is just as true when a kick wins a game.

Said Cundiff: "It's the feeling you live for."