Browns Get Blown Out; Not a Surprise

January 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

(and neither was Cleveland beating of the Pats)

It is always frustrating, year after year, to watch the Browns get whooped on by the Steelers. Now it appears Eric Mangini’s fate may have been sealed by the black and gold routing of the Browns. The fact is that there are very good reasons for why this happens, but no one has yet to explain it. The fact is, journalists would not know where to begin (post on them coming shortly), and the theories are beyond the average fan’s knowledge, or at least their willingness/time to put it together.

General football theory:

1. No team is great in every phase of the game, the key is aligning  strengths to perpetuate themselves, and to scheme to where the deficiencies are made for by strengths.

2. In the ideal for a coach for favorable match ups you want your defensive strengths to be the same areas as your opponents offensive strengths, and your offensive strengths to be in areas other than the defense.

The Steelers Offense:

The Steelers have one of the more well-rounded offenses in the game. They do not get one dimensional too often, and when they do it can get ugly for them. Ultimately, there offense primarily features power running, mixed up with efficient passing, and a steady amount of deep throws. They are built to take what the defense gives, and are pretty much always ready capitalize on any mistakes from the opposing D.

For all intents and purposes, they are an interesting match up for any team. They are able to run against most teams in the league, then they throw it deep when the defense devotes additional personnel to stopping the run for the quick score. All and all, they are pretty good allover and their success is about not making mistakes and deferring to the defense. Now if they were decimated with injuries at the running back position, they would be hard pressed to do anything significant, like the Colts or Pats can, but nonetheless “good” enough for significant passing influence.

The Steelers Defense:

This is the best part of the Steelers and the bane of the Browns existence. The Steelers defense is centered around their front 7, and especially the linebackers. They are the best consistent unit in the NFL. Then they also have the hands down best Strong Safety in the league in Troy Polamalu. As such, they beyond hard to run upon. Further, the secondary, the weakness of the team, is aided by the front 7 particularly in the way they have schemed to cover that up; Namely the zone blitz or Cover 2.

This section can go on for days with Dick LeBeau as the DC, but I realize that I have a tendency to ramble on even the most inane details, so… They do a lot of different things to alter the specifics of what is trying to be accomplished, but the general idea is the same.

Blitz- shooting gaps to help the run defense, which turns into pressure on the QB if it is a pass, which then helps cover up lacking secondary play by shortening the time in coverage.

Situational Play Calls(albeit obvious)- Down and distance, field position, weather, score to clock ratio, et cetera all apply.

Zone Coverage- Everyone watches the ball, not a specific man, that helps in recognizing run plays. It limits the ground that the players have to cover, they do not need to give a cushion because they will hand off coverage if they try to run deep. As they do not have to worry about getting in a foot race, by playing closer they are in better position on shorter routes and stopping patterns, i.e. what the Browns do well.

Pass Rush (End Game)- When the Steelers have the lead and time is winding down, they can send a ton of pressure at the QB. Enough to close out games, and not allow the last minute losses. This also translates into Third Down scenarios, it is pass rush, and they have it.

The Browns Offense Vs The Steelers Defense

Woody Hayes mentality need not apply as Browns HC

As stated earlier, you do not want your offensive strengths to match up directly with the defensive strengths. The Steelers are the best in the league at stopping the run, therefore “three yards and a cloud of dust” attitude, usually will turn into a three outs. You just do not run down the throat of the perennial best run defense in the league.

Quarterbacks Don’t Grow on Trees…

The key to beating the Steelers, is great QB play. The Steelers do many things on defense with the intent to confuse QBs, and to force an all encompassing game plan. The QB has to be remarkably accurate. There is just not enough room for a normal margin of error, pressing close to receivers. Further he has to have a stronger arm than most. “The Honey Hole,” the area in the seems of the zones between the corners and safeties, has to be exploited if they are in a Cover 2. The arm strength comes into play on getting the ball in the “honey hole” quickly, that means the stronger the arm the less chance the defenders have on closing the gap between the defender and receiver.  The problem for the Browns is that I just described Tom Brady, and guys like that are hard to find. It all comes down to the quarterback, if it is a quarterback driven league, then the Browns are a quarterback stalled team. Until they find “the guy” to have behind center, Pittsburgh will have their number.

Colt May Not Cut It… (I hope he can, just being honest)

He has the accuracy, the attitude, and the most important aspects of being an NFL caliber talent, but there are looming doubts about hitting that honey hole. The issue with that is giving that recovery time, means taking away more on the shorter routes. The cornerbacks move up and press the receivers, while not respecting the arm to hurt them deeper. He can make most of the throws, but to win this division he has to make all the throws.
As For the Browns Defense Against Big Ben and Company

The Steelers strengths are power running, and the deep ball. The Browns lack the defensive line depth, particularly with the injuries, to stop Mendenhall in the B and C gaps, Rubin holds down the middle pretty well. Then the Browns man coverage, leaves the deep ball liability, as witnessed by Mike Wallace in a footrace with anyone and no safety help. The Browns are pretty good all-around, except in pass rushing. Those third and long and final drives when the Browns have the lead, become the most nerve-racking and often the most infuriating displays in all of sports. To this end, the Browns defense is constructed as almost the complete opposite of the Steelers, Steelers have their best players at linebacker.

Why Polamalu is So Damn Good…

Guys like Troy Polamalu are just fun to watch. It is the innate sense of the game, where plays seem to be made by intuitive “feel” of what is going on, or seemingly by clairvoyant anticipation. Forgive me, I am unable to describe that inherent gift better. What I am trying to describe should leave the reader with an appreciation for his abilities, as if he protected a villagers from a mauling bear, unarmed, and without hurting the bear or sustaining injury himself. It should be a feeling of something vaguely supernatural is implied, but the astounding physical ability is taken as a given.

The other thing, and the reason that in his absence he is so gravely missed, he is one of only a few players in the league that are legitimate superstars. By my definition, at least, there are only a few players who have this title, no need to go to toes if your counting…



1. A person, who is recognized and is esteemed for exceptional talent in every facet of their position.

i.e. Running back A is a 2,000 yard rusher, but is a blocking liability with terrible hands out of the backfield, would not be considered a superstar. However a 1,200 yard rusher who can pick up blitzers, catch, et cetera, would be considered a superstar.

2. A football player whose vast skill set allows their respective play caller no limitation of options what can be done.

Securing his superstar status, is the combination of run stopping ability, block shedding, blitzing ability, speed, toughness, man coverage, zone coverage, ball skills, tackling, play recognition, and general awareness. Over the broad spectrum of skills that could be applied to a strong safety, Polamalu is at least in the top 10 in every category. Therefore, his versatility does not take away from what Dick LeBeau can do. He will play close to the line against teams without a quarterback that they respect, like the Browns, and play in coverage against teams that have respected QBs, and do either at an elite level.

Rock, Paper, Scissors…

The match up of systems and team strengths on paper, can give the football a feeling of paper, scissors, rock, sort of a what beats what. Having gone over some of the theories behind why the Browns cannot get the best of the Steelers, the same goes into why the Steelers match up poorly with the Patriots.

Unlike the QBs the Browns have had, Tom Brady can pick apart the Steelers defense better than anyone. Of the guys with the most elite accuracy, Brady, Manning, and Rivers, Brady has the strongest arm. He just gets the ball to the receivers slightly quicker, and those fractions of a second are huge. So the arm strength, combined with the small ball approach, short and intermediate receiver routes, allows Brady to get the ball in the seems of the zone coverage. The Steelers run defense is also depleted by the Patriots spread type personnel of additional wide receivers, forcing the Steelers to substitute defensive backs (Weakness) for linebackers (Strength).

The Patriots defense also causes issues. The Patriots run 2-Man, 2 safeties back with man coverage underneath, which is the probably the best scheme for turnovers (corners can be more aggressive in going after the ball knowing there are safeties to tackle) and tough against the deep ball that the Steelers are largely dependant on. Although they give up a bit in run defense by this approach, they are trying to force a shootout scenario, so they are trusting in a cohesive plan by allowing more little plays, but stopping big ones.

Interestingly enough, the Browns have a great match up with the Patriots. People like Tony Grossi, and others who do not have the vaguest understanding of the game, like to pretend that the win against the Patriot in 2010 was a fluke, but it was a systems clash. Mangini and Daboll’s small ball approach worked well against the Patriots. That defense is built to play with a lead, i.e. pass rush, and stop the long ball. They got to do neither of the two. The Browns running game smashed them, and the Pats secondary did not appear up to stopping the short stopping and crossing routes.

Defensively for the Browns, they knew the Patriots wanted to pass often, and force the shootout. Fortunately for the Browns, that never came to pass. The Browns are pretty excellent in the secondary against the small ball teams. Moreover, where the Steelers lose a lot defensively in “Nickel” and “Dime” packages, 5 DBs and 6 DBs respectively, by having to remove linebackers for defensive backs, the substitutions are not nearly as drastic for the Browns from general talent perspective.

This, of course, is not to say that the outcome of games can be predetermined by a simple logical formula, there is however much to be said for tendencies. Further, the “Any Given Sunday” principle applies. Much of the time it due to miscues, still it is often peoples lack of understanding that makes the winner seem to be an upset victory, when it actually was pretty straightforward.


The Browns need an elite QB to compete in the foreseeable future. Less than elite will win against a lot of defenses, not Pittsburgh.

The Browns need to either get to Big Ben quicker or maintain coverage deeper. No way but to upgrade pass rush.

This all may be moot in weeks. This was largely in reference to the Browns under Mangini, and that means there is a possibility of the roster getting swept for new system fits soon. Best advice is to try and distract oneself from the agony of contemplating the future.

PS I know that some of you can’t wait for the new coach to be announced. I only assume it is to get started on calling for his firing as soon as possible.


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§ 2 Responses to Browns Get Blown Out; Not a Surprise

  • doct says:

    Thanks for another great article. Indeed, the fans and media can’t wait to hoist up the sacrificial lamb coach for next season. I remember in the days of Romeo Crennel when the persistent media criticism was ” the offense has no identity”. Once the Mangini regime established an identity that point was never raised,except that it was “vanilla” as you’ve already detailed in another posting.
    Today the only good thing the Plain Dealer’s “beat writer” had to say about the Mangini regime was that “he cleaned out the locker room, but any good coach would have done that anyway”. I
    t was hard for him to hide his enthusiasm for the return of Holmgren to the sideline.
    Today was very depressing as a cleveland Browns fan, I hope I’m wrong but this looks like the start of mediocrity for the foreseeable future.

    • I am willing to give some benefit of the doubt. More to come on the Plain Dealer, too. Just a heads up on a future post, I am going to compare the PD to Rush Limbaugh, the first and only time that comparison will be made, lol. Thanks for the comments.

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