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Punchless offense, special-teams problems concern Browns

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Posted Oct. 17, 2011 @ 6:29 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

With Sunday's 24-17 loss at Oakland, the Browns fell two games off the pace in the AFC North. With the Ravens looking dominant, the Steelers again looking strong and the Bengals getting surprisingly good play from rookie QB Andy Dalton and their defense en route to a 4-2 start, the Browns are in danger of their division competition running away from them if they cannot get back on track.

In defeat Sunday, the Browns gained just 3.9 yards per play, surrendered two special-teams touchdowns and again leaned heavily on their passing game with little success. QB Colt McCoy, who completed just 21-of-45 passes for 215 yards with a pair of TDs, has attempted 217 passes in five games this season. That's just five fewer passes than McCoy attempted in eight starts in 2010. In his last two games, McCoy has thrown 106 passes, both in Cleveland defeats.

The Browns' sputtering and overactive passing game is only one of several concerns Cleveland faces as it tries to rebound in Week Seven vs. Seattle.

The PFW Spin

Here's a closer look at some of Cleveland's issues:

The Browns' special-teams unsoundness at Oakland was alarming. The Browns allowed a 101-yard kickoff-return TD to the Raiders' Jacoby Ford and a 35-yard TD pass from P Shane Lechler to TE Kevin Boss on a fake field goal. Ford is a very good returner, but the Browns' coverage units are usually a strength. What's more, the fake field goal, according to CBS analyst Rich Gannon, was the product of the Raiders believing that "there is a look or two that we think we really take advantage of," Gannon said, recounting a conversation he had with Lechler and PK Sebastian Janikowski before the game. Gannon made his remarks on the telecast after the Raiders sprung their field-goal surprise.

Once again, game situation worked against establishing the run in Week Six. The Browns had 17 pass plays (16 attempts, one sack) and 14 rushes in the first half. They finished with 47 pass plays and just 21 rushes after leaning on the pass once they fell behind 24-7 after the fake field goal.

McCoy's accuracy continues to leave something to be desired. It would be one thing if the Browns passed this much and completed a higher percentage of their throws. But McCoy is completing just 55.8 percent of his attempts, 27th among qualifying passers.

In addition to being inefficient, the passing game is plodding. McCoy is gaining a mere 5.53 yards per completion. Only Indianapolis' Kerry Collins is gaining fewer yards per completed pass.

The Browns' running game has hardly impressed itself. Cleveland is averaging 81.6 yards on the ground, third-worst in the NFL. The Browns are gaining just 3.34 yards per carry. Montario Hardesty paced the Browns with 35 yards on 11 carries on Sunday.

The Browns' defense struggled to get off the field at times on Sunday. Oakland converted 8-of-16 third-down attempts and had three drives lasting 5:45 or longer. Though it is hard to have many qualms about the play of the Browns' defense when more than half of Oakland's points came on special-teams touchdowns, the Raiders did outgain the Browns 329-268.

To compete in the AFC North, the Browns cannot play the way they did Sunday. The special-teams issues were especially glaring and must be fixed. Getting more offensive balance is a must, too, though the Browns have been forced into some obvious passing situations this season.

In five 2011 starts, McCoy has completed less than 50 percent of his passes three times. In a West Coast scheme that doesn't stretch the field all that well, that is a recipe for, at best, tight games, assuming the defense holds up.

With the status of RB Peyton Hillis (hamstring) uncertain for Sunday's game vs. Seattle, it is all the more important that McCoy regain his sharpness. Hardesty, who fared well in his lone start this season, also needs to pick up his play. He has struggled catching the ball in the past two games.

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