AFC North: Cleveland Browns

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."

The Film Don't Lie: Browns

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
A weekly look at what the Cleveland Browns must fix:

The Browns' secondary has given up 599 yards passing, three touchdowns and 8 yards per attempt through two games. The last number is especially troubling as the team prepares for Sunday’s game against Baltimore, because it is the best indicator of a passing game’s success. Heading into Monday night’s game, only one team -- Atlanta -- had given up more yards per attempt.

The Browns started the season by facing two of the league’s best quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees. Brees is the same guy who helped make Atlanta’s figure so high. Still, the Browns have to address their secondary. The two quarterbacks have a 94.3 rating against the Browns, 14th in the league. It’s tough to address this situation with personnel at this point of the season, so the Browns will have to do it with coaching and scheme. Joe Flacco is capable of putting up big numbers.

Hoyer prepared for Manziel playing

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
Brian Hoyer used the words “mad” and "irk me" when discussing the fact that Johnny Manziel ran three plays during Sunday’s Cleveland Browns win over New Orleans.

It’s important, though, to put those words in perspective.

In his postgame news conference, Hoyer was asked if he was at all annoyed that he came out for a few plays.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David RichardJohnny Manziel took three underwhelming snaps on Sunday, but Brian Hoyer maintained his focus.
"No. I think [offensive coordinator] Kyle [Shanahan] ... we talked," Hoyer said, "and he said, ‘Look, there might be a few looks with Rob Ryan’s defense and the situation that we’re in I think we can use Johnny in there.'

"Like I told you guys before, as much as it might irk me to go off the field, if it’s going to help us win, then I’m all for it. As a competitor and a quarterback, when there’s only one of you on the field, it’s hard for you get taken off.

"But I think for me, I was mentally able to stay in it. I think a lot of guys might not be able to handle that. But I think because they were up front with me, Kyle was up front with me, and said, ‘Look, we may do it, we may not. If we need to use it, we might.’ I think that helped me. As mad as I was when he told me, I think it mentally helped me prepare for it.”

Players always say they want honesty from their coaches. Because Shanahan was honest, it seemed to temper the negative feelings. Had Shanahan not told Hoyer and just gone ahead with the move, it might have caused problems.

But it’s also important to remember that back in August, before anyone was named the starter, Hoyer was asked how he would feel if he was the starter and Manziel had a group of plays he would run in a game.

His answer then is the same as it is now: “If it helps us win, I’m all for it."

Against New Orleans, Hoyer found himself watching as Manziel ran three plays. The first happened with the Browns leading 16-10, the second with the Browns down 17-16.

Manziel ran all his plays out of the pistol, and he ran read-option on all -- with the third play-action off read-option. The first he handed off to Isaiah Crowell for a 3-yard gain, the second Crowell lost 3 yards, and the third Manziel scrambled and threw a floater to the sideline that Ray Agnew had but then had dislodged on a hit by Jairus Byrd.

Hoyer followed Manziel’s first appearance by completing a 22-yard pass on third-and-7 that was negated by a penalty. He followed Manziel’s second appearance by converting a third-and-13 and a third-and-4 to guide the Browns to a go-ahead touchdown.

"Obviously as a competitor, as a quarterback, you want to be out on the field," Hoyer said. "It was something that was discussed all week. We weren’t sure if we were going to need it or run it. I just told myself, because I knew at some point it might happen, just be ready to go back in and a lot of them were on third downs.

"And I think we completed both of them, so for me it was more I come off the field and I’m thinking, 'All right, if we get to third down, what coverage are they going to play? What play are we going to run?’ Just really try to focus on what I had to do and go back out and move the ball. Luckily it worked out."

Coach Mike Pettine said Hoyer should have been unhappy to go to the sideline.

"Knowing the competitor he is, he probably wasn’t real thrilled to have to come off the field," Pettine said. "That’s the nature of who he is, as he should be."

Hoyer is starting to show the same things he showed last season: preparation, the ability to complete an important drive when needed, the ability to read a defense and make a throw. He’s doing it without Josh Gordon and for the last six quarters without Jordan Cameron. Hoyer can play better, but clearly he can win.

On Sunday he showed two other sides of himself -- the human side and the professional side.

Hoyer's story gets better and better

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14

CLEVELAND -- What should be one of the NFL's best stories is back to life.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer now has started five games, finished four, won three and led the Browns twice on game-winning drives in the final minute.

In one of his other starts he hurt his knee five minutes into the game, in another he secured a win with a long drive, and in another he led the team back from a 24-point deficit to nearly steal an improbable win in Pittsburgh.

That kind of production has all the earmarks of a winning quarterback, a guy who does his job when it matters most. That it's a guy who grew up in Cleveland and was released by three teams makes the tale even better.

On Sunday, Hoyer guided the Browns on a winning drive by beating the New Orleans Saints 26-24. Cleveland started from its 4-yard line with 2:40 left and ended at the Saints' 11 -- setting up Billy Cundiff's winning field goal with three seconds left.

On the drive, Hoyer completed two third-down throws to Miles Austin, a fourth-down throw to Gary Barnidge and a 28-yard throw to a wide-open Andrew Hawkins to set up the field goal.

Hoyer completed four of his last five passes and won a game when the Browns did not have Ben Tate and Jordan Cameron because of injury and Josh Gordon because of suspension.

"I think a lot of people would have told us that we shouldn't show up in this game," Hoyer said.

He can thank a lot of players for the win: Karlos Dansby, whose sack of Drew Brees on New Orleans' last offensive play took the Saints out of field goal range and kept the deficit at one. Tashaun Gipson, who intercepted a Brees pass in the first half and returned it for a touchdown. Austin, who shrugged off a third-down drop to catch a touchdown pass in the first half.

"So [often] in this business you get caught up in results," Hoyer said. "And if you can just focus on the process and on each play one at a time and figure what you have to do to win that play ... "

The winning play started with Hoyer throwing on third-and-1 to Austin, whose snag at the two-minute mark got things going. Three plays later, Austin converted another third down. Hoyer's next big throw was fourth-and-6 with 38 seconds left, a pass over the middle to Barnidge for 10 yards and a first down that gave the team life.

"Probably his best throw of the day," coach Mike Pettine said.

"It just opened up," Barnidge said. "I was one-on-one with the safety. I just broke in, and Hoyer made a great throw."

Hoyer said he didn't like the coverage as he lined up, so he reminded himself to read the play to the finish. He did, and waited for Barnidge.

"It was actually the same play last week that I tried to force it," he said of a play he decided where to throw before the snap against Pittsburgh.

A pass on the sideline to a sliding Austin put the ball a the Saints' 39 -- and the officials stumbled their way to the right ruling, with Austin out of bounds and 15 seconds left.

The Saints blitzed everyone, and Hoyer's quick slant to Austin was knocked down. Hoyer called that fortunate, because on the next play New Orleans again went with an all-out blitz and left the secondary in man coverage.

Corey White and Keenan Lewis both went to Austin. Nobody covered Hawkins, who was wide-open at the 15.

"I think it was a dropped coverage," Hawkins said.

Hoyer said he almost threw a punt just to make sure the ball got there.

"We were surprised they all-out blitzed us two plays in a row," Hoyer said.

That's defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, though. The blitz and blown coverage wound up costing the Saints, as Hoyer's calm was too much for the frenzy Ryan tried to create.

Hoyer has now lived through the frenzy of the drafting of Johnny Manziel and the preseason frenzy of who would play. Once named the starter, Hoyer shrugged off the pressure of the celebrated draftee lurking behind him, settled in, came within a whisper of winning in Pittsburgh and then beat New Orleans.

Not too bad for the hometown guy who graduated from high school the same year the Browns last won a home opener.

Hoyer's moxie helps Browns win

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Browns’ 26-24 victory over New Orleans:

Cover zero: Brian Hoyer said he was surprised to see the Saints run an all-out blitz and go cover zero (no safeties, all man) on the Browns' final two offensive plays. The first throw was batted down and the second was a completion to a wide-open Andrew Hawkins. With the game on the line, the Saints gambled, the Browns read their move and won the game.

Opening win: Many players were eager to get out of the locker room as fast they could to celebrate the first win in a home opener since 2004. Coach Mike Pettine joked there was a big cigar waiting for him after his first NFL win, and Hawkins wanted to get to his family. Karlos Dansby talked about the stadium being deafening, and Hoyer talked about how the fans deserved it. This was not just a win, but an emotional win that could provide momentum going forward.

Hoyer moxie: In five starts for the Browns, Hoyer has four wins and two last-minute, game-winning drives. In one of the wins, he played only five minutes against Buffalo, but his only loss as a starter for the Browns came when he helped wipe out a 24-point halftime deficit in Pittsburgh. Against New Orleans, Hoyer was without Josh Gordon (suspended), Jordan Cameron (injured) and Ben Tate (injured), yet he still guided the team on a game-winning drive. Emphatic point made.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 26-24 win over the New Orleans Saints at FirstEnergy Stadium.

What it means: The second half against Pittsburgh meant more than originally thought. That second half gave the Browns confidence, and they started strong and finished with a game-winning drive against New Orleans. The Browns opened against two of the NFL's better teams, losing on a game-ending kick and winning on the second-to-last play of the game. This win should give the team and coaching staff faith, which the fans can share. After two dismal quarters against Pittsburgh, the Browns have played well enough to come back from 24 down in Pittsburgh and beat New Orleans. They haven't been perfect, but the second game follow-up confirmed that what happened in the second half of the first game was not a mirage.

Stock watch: The secondary has shown it may be a concern. The Browns appeared to have addressed the issue by drafting Justin Gilbert and signing Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but Trufant was lost for the season with a knee injury and Gilbert has struggled. First the Steelers took advantage of Gilbert in the opener, then the Saints used Jimmy Graham's superior size and strength to beat whoever covered him -- and more than once it was Pro Bowler Joe Haden. Drew Brees does that to a lot of teams, but the Browns secondary has not shown signs of being able to cover well enough to win.

Manziel package: Johnny Manziel got his first NFL playing time, and it wasn’t exactly a glittering debut. Manziel had three plays in the third quarter, when he scampered on the field for a particular play at a particular time. On the first, he ran the read-option off the pistol formation and handed off to Isaiah Crowell for a 3-yard gain. On the second, Manziel handed off and Crowell went nowhere. On the third, a second-and-13 play, Manziel ran play-action, hesitated, looked right, spun and ran left, and threw off balance to fullback Ray Agnew at the sideline. The ball hung up, which allowed Jairus Byrd to hit Agnew and knock it loose. The three plays were inconsequential and seemed to disrupt the offensive flow as much as help anything.

Game ball: Brian Hoyer did it against Minnesota a year ago with a game-winning drive. He led a big drive against Cincinnati last season to secure a win. And he did it against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. An improbable chance turned real when Hoyer completed a fourth-down throw to Gary Barnidge to keep the drive alive then found Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins for completions to set up the game-winning field goal from Billy Cundiff. Hoyer went 8-for-11 for 77 yards on the final drive, and because of it he gets this game ball. He dealt with the Manziel-mania for an offseason and a training camp and responded the best way possible: on the field.

What’s next: The Baltimore Ravens visit Cleveland for a 1 p.m. ET game at FirstEnergy Stadium.