After a 31-13 loss to the Titans Sunday, it's clear the Browns have some issues to fix during their bye. However, there are also some positives that 2-2 Cleveland — just a game out of first place in the AFC North — can appreciate, and perhaps even build upon.
It's time now to take a closer look at the Browns after their toughest loss of the season, with an eye on positives and negatives:
The PFW Spin
QB Colt McCoy played a solid game save for one big mistake — a third-quarter interception returned for a touchdown. McCoy was accurate, completing 40-of-61 passes for 350 yards. He targeted 12 players, completing at least one pass to 11 different Browns — six of whom had five or more catches.
The defense surrendered an 80-yard TD pass to TE Jared Cook when a missed tackle turned a poor play into a major and costly mistake. It also allowed a 57-yard completion to WR Nate Washington when Tennessee appeared to get away with a pick. Take those plays off the board, and Cleveland allowed 195 yards on 48 offensive snaps by Tennessee. Overall, the Browns' defense has been a strength this season.
Now, let's consider what went wrong for Cleveland:
The big issue, to me, is that the Browns' lack of speed on both sides of the ball really showed up on Sunday. There's no way a tight end should sprint close to 65 yards for a touchdown like Cook did after securing the catch. Yes, Cook is fast, but no, that's not acceptable for an NFL defense. What's more, the defense also got into trouble when DE Jayme Mitchell and OLB Chris Gocong overran a hand-off to RB Chris Johnson, who broke free for 25 yards — his longest rush of the season.
The lack of playmaking ability on offense manifests itself in Cleveland's yards per play average (4.8 ypp). I suppose you can credit the Browns for racking up 418 yards, but that took 87 plays! Note that Cleveland's longest play of the day went for only 27 yards.
Another concern from Sunday: the Browns have to figure out how to use RBs Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty in a way that allows both to utilize their strengths. Hillis received only 10 carries on Sunday; he can wear down a defense, and he needs more work after the bye. Head coach Pat Shurmur reportedly said Monday that Hillis, who missed Week Three with an illness, will get more work going forward.
Hardesty also needs carries, too. However, he really struggled in the passing game on Sunday. Can he develop into a consistent option in the passing game? It's something to watch after the bye.
The Browns can compete on offense and defense if they are sound on both sides of the ball and control the lines of scrimmage. The offense is the bigger concern, in my view. The Browns' passing game has limitations. McCoy doesn't have a strong arm, and the Browns don't have a go-to receiver. However, the physicality of some of their receivers (Greg Little and Joshua Cribbs particiularly) is an asset. So, too, is the size, speed and physicality of TEs Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore. It's up to Shurmur to find a way to keep putting these players in a position to succeed.
One way to do so might be emphasizing the ground game a little more. If the Browns can establish the run, that can open up opportunities in play-action. Moore, Cribbs and WR Mohamed Massaquoi have proven they can make contested catches one-on-one, and McCoy generally gives his receivers good shots at making plays.
This is an offense that must stay in good down-and-distance situations to consistently succeed. It can stretch the field, but the conditions must be right.
As for the running game: I believe that issue will sort itself out in time. The Browns didn't have to worry about getting carries for two backs last season. Now they do, but it's hardly a problem for them. It's a blessing.
It's clear the Browns have to add more speed to the offense in the offseason. They also might need to add a third-down back if neither Hardesty nor Hillis proves to be a standout on third downs. In any event, a quick back who can provide a change of pace in the running game, consistently catch the ball in the passing game (and pass protect, too) would be helpful. Perhaps rookie Armond Smith will be able to provide some of these skills; that's his ticket to a role now and in the future.
On defense, adding safety help figures to be something Cleveland considers if teams continue to have success throwing to tight ends vs. Cleveland. CB Sheldon Brown also has looked shaky early this season.