I was disappointed last weekend after one of the Bengals biggest ever wins in their come-from-behind win against the Packers. So imagine how I felt this weekend while spending a nice Sunday afternoon watching a really marginal effort. Bottom line is that they were beaten up and flat after the GB shoot out. Throw in there that Cleveland is a decent and improving team, and you had the recipe for disaster.
Going into Cleveland we knew that their run D was very good and that Joe Haden is a top end CB. On O this one would be coming down to our ability to throw to our WR2, TE, and RB. On the other side of the ball we knew that we had Geathers, Hall, and Nelson down and that the key would be keeping their replacement QB Brian Hoyer from getting too much confidence against our replacement DBs Pacman Jones, Brandon Ghee, and Taylor Mays. Throw in, however, that we'd now need to make a second adjustment in our middle pass defense zone with Mays now being back at Safety instead of playing the nickel WILL spot, and you could guess that we might be having problems with the Browns emerging TE star Jordan Cameron. In the end they did it all right, and we did it all wrong. Simple as that.
Remember that the Browns beat us silly in Cincy last year about this time sending us into an early season rut that didn't look like it would end well. We somehow recovered and made the playoffs. That's the hope side. Also remember that we went into this season noting that our fate ultimately lays in the hands of Andy Dalton, the QB on whom we've put all of our offensive chips. So far that one doesn't look so good.
Who did well today? I thought that the TEs looked pretty good with Gresham making some big time catches and Eifert making a few nice plays. Gio Bernard again made some nice plays and really could be something if he could get some help. Mohammad Sanu also made some nice plays. On D I thought that Maualuga and Burfict were both steady; Newman played a solid game; Iloka continued to assert himself well; and Geno Atkins appeared to be getting untracked. Oh, and Kevin Huber continued to really be impressive.
On the down side I'd have to say that we continue to get very little on pass rush from our DEs; our DTs wore down towards the end and couldn't stop the run in the late 4th; the Law Firm continues to look ready for retirement; Marvin Jones was essentially absent; the OL struggled; A.J. Green lost focus; and Andy Dalton.... well, we'll get to him.
Last week's major five themes revolved around:
1. Dalton / Gruden: Execution and play calling seem to be inconsistent on O, and these are the two most responsible guys.
2. Emerging: We hoped that the GB game made a lasting statement and that the city could get behind the team in a critical mass sort of way.
3. Defense / Pass Rush: Great game vs. GB but pass rush still not quite there.
4. Special Teams: Coverage and return teams are neutral at best.
5. Quality of 2013 Squad: Can we live up to the billing?
In many ways this week was one in which we could bust loose, assert that we're for real, and illustrate that we can sustain inertia through depth despite some injuries. It just didn't go that way, however. We left the game with these big issues:
1. Andy Dalton: I have been critical of a guy that I wanted here when it came to the 2011 draft. Dalton has helped bring two winning seasons and two playoff appearances in his two NFL years. That's impressive. Dalton has improved on passing yardage, passing efficiency, TD/INT ratio, and regular season wins over his first two years. That's impressive. Dalton has improved his yards per game, passing efficiency and QB rating this season over last. Again, that's impressive. There's always a BUT, and here it is. But Dalton is showing us over the past 10 or so regular season games and the 2012-13 playoff loss that he is not able to make the adjustments at the highest level that will allow his team to be a serious Super Bowl contender. Some say that he's only in his third year, that people are too impatient, and that he needs more of a chance. This is the emotional appeal that some use as fans who hold onto the fantasy that everything will work out. This, however, is not the critical approach in which one looks at the film, considers a player's strengths and weaknesses, looks at how things are changing over time, and determines whether the guy is likely to find a way to succeed given the variables. If you look at the film on Dalton, you see a guy who is below average speed, who moves slightly below average in the pocket, who has below average arm strength, who has intermittent issues with accuracy, and who is prone to extreme conservatism whereby he refrains from putting the ball where his athletic teammates can "make a play' in traffic. What this has boiled down to after a quarter of his third season is opposing defenses playing one safety deep on the side of A.J. Green and the other shallow to play the run and the middle passing zones, advising their CBs to play inside on the slant patterns, and run blitzing their LBs more often. The middle of the field for Dalton is now so compressed that it has become difficult for him to hit 8-10 yard passes thus forcing Gruden to rely on 2-6 yard throws with hopes that receivers can pick up YAC and results that bring a ton of 3rd downs during drives. In other words, we are not getting "chunks of yardage." What many Dalton proponents fail to realize is that these defensive changes have come slowly over his 2+ seasons as opponents have slowly learned what they can and can't get away with in defending Dalton. Dalton has metaphorically walked the plank into the corner in which he can only be marginally successful moving into the future. Now teams know how to stop Dalton - they know his Kryptonite, and I think it's game over for him. The only way this can be overcome is for Gruden to change Dalton's style and to start asking him to take more chances. This will result in a lower completion percentage and higher INT percentage but may allow for more chunks of yardage. If we stick with this ultra conservative approach, however, opposing teams will focus on minimizing Green and shutting down the run game. The results thus far tell us that we can't be successful with the approach that we're using. If Dalton can't adjust quickly, this season will be lost and we'll be talking soon after about getting another QB and/or losing a frustrated Green to UFA. My gut feeling here is that Dalton is not going to make it long term. He is a simple country guy who doesn't quite have the elements needed to make it at this level. For those who are talking about dumping him, that's crazy talk right now. He's our guy for 2013 and may have to be our guy for 2014 if we only work through the draft to look at potential successors. Bottom line from my standpoint is that things do not look good is you espouse the viewpoint that Dalton is going to make or break our season.
2. Jay Gruden: As Dalton goes, so goes Gruden. They screwed up big time in putting all their chips on Dalton and not finding a backup to develop for the future. Even Marv Lewis repeatedly admitted in Hard Knocks that Josh Johnson's accuracy was terrible. So our plan was to pray that Dalton didn't get hurt the whole season. When we had a chance to pick one of the QBs in the 4th Round of the 2013 draft, we held back (instead of trading up) and picked LB Sean Porter instead of grabbing a reasonable backup plan. We have drafted well over 4-5 years, but that was simply stupid for a team that wasn't going to pay big money for a veteran backup. Gruden now has to figure out a way to better use the Law Firm, to make the running game more effective, to get the WR2 more involved, to get more out of the TEs, and to keep A.J. Green's head in the game. Add these tasks behind giving Andy Dalton a winning makeover. I'm not sure whether Mike Brown will give Gruden 10 years to screw up this team as he did with Bratkowski, but I hope not. Gruden wanted Dalton for his O, and now he had better figure it out quick.
3. Defensive Ends: We spent a ton of money on DE investment with the thought that QB pressure would bring success. The DEs simply have not gotten to the QB as well this year. There are a lot of reasons. Some feel that QBs have been using the quick drops more often. Some think that the pass coverage has not been as good. Maybe our guys just aren't into the "flow" yet? However, we have 5 sacks to date from our DEs (Dunlap 3, MJ 1.5, Gilberry 0.5), and 1.25 per game is not going to get it done when you've shelled out about $23 million in cap for your DE roster - for those counting at home, that's a little more than $1 mil in cap money per sack. The DEs have played the run well, but that has been negated somewhat by poor run play by Peko, Thompson, and Still. Maybe we're expected too much though. In the end the D has played well enough to win every game, while it is our O that has failed us.
4. Where are we now?: Many of us are deflated after this one because we view the Browns as a crappy franchise, and we just got our asses handed to us by them. Again, I'll remind everyone that we were beaten soundly at home by Cleveland last year and recovered to make the playoffs. The big question again, however, is whether we can find a different way to solve our Offensive problems and, to a lesser degree, find a winning edge on Special Teams.
5. Back Seven on D: I didn't want to ignore this. Burfict's neck injury late in the game reminded us that we're dead meat if we lost Maualuga or him on D. Isn't it a bad feeling to know that you're dead meat if you lose Rey Maualuga from your D? That's pretty pathetic. So we need another vet LB pronto. Whatever it takes, but we need to get a guy here this week to fortify our LBs. Meanwhile, we gotta hope that we get Leon Hall back ASAP. If you didn't realize how much he means to this D, you probably do now. We missed Nelson a lot too. I'm not sure that he could have made the goal line play on Cameron, but he would have given us a better shot at holding a young QB down.
The final word
Some things in life offer hope, and others do not. The game today was a perfect storm that included an away game against an in-state rival, an emerging young team in the Browns, our squad coming off an emotional win with a lot of significant injuries, and a worsening QB problem. I think that Marv's unwillingness to directly answer questions today about the QB play says a lot about the staff's concerns. If you're one who still thinks that Dalton is all that, you ought to read around the web from various authors on the local and national level. I personally don't think that we can contend for a Super Bowl with Dalton at QB. When we move up to the big games, teams will find a way to take us out of games by limiting our offensive weapons and wearing us down. Our defense is really good and holds opponents to 20 points a game. But that's what our O is averaging a game, so does that make it really bad? If that's true, how can that be? Break it down into components, and rate them. WR, TE/FB, OL, RB, QB. What you might conclude is that we could use a better WR2, a healthy slot WR, and a better power RB. I think that Sanu and Jones have been OK so far combining for 23 catches and 223 yards (compared to Green with 25-300). Eifert and Gresham have been used in lieu of a slot in many occasions, and they have combined for 30 catches and 340 yards. Green-Ellis has 20 more carries than Bernard with only 5 more yards, and that's definitely a problem. Maybe we need to look at Peerman and/or Burkhead? But these are small fries compared to the QB's performance. Dalton is good enough to be 0.500, and that's what we are.