That Old Jelling Magic

Before yesterday, the Browns defense had not looked like world-beaters. In the opener, the defense got gashed by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs–which has happened to a lot of teams over the past few years, of course–but it also gave up a lot of yards to second- and third-string quarterbacks in a second-game win against the Houston Texans.

After the Texans game, some Browns Backers wondered whether the defense was going to be a persistent weak spot for a team that has very high hopes. Other, more patient fans noted that the defense included a lot of new players and argued that everyone needed to take a deep breath and give the D some time to “jell.”

(If, like me, you are a word geek and wonder whether the correct word is “gel” or “jell,” wonder no longer: The Grammarist website says that “gel,” used as a verb, means to form something into a gel, whereas “jell” can be used to describe something becoming firmer or the process of a group of people coming together to work in harmony. “Jell” therefore is the more apt choice in this context, although neither word seems like a great choice to describe a stout NFL defense that would prefer to be seen as a stone wall, as opposed to gelatin or jelly.)

Yesterday the Browns D took a big step forward in the jelling department in a 26-6 win over the Chicago Bears. The Browns had nine sacks, with Myles Garrett alone getting a franchise-record 4 1/2, never let the Bears’ rookie quarterback Justin Fields catch his breath, and held Chicago to 68 yards passing (1 total yard, if you subtract the sack yards) and 46 yards rushing. Chicago scored only because the Browns gave them the ball in great field position and due to a sketchy pass interference call, but in both instances the defense stiffened and held the Bears to two field goals. In the meantime, the Browns offense wore down the tough Chicago defense and put up enough points to get a very nice win.

I’m not ready to say that the Browns are an elite defensive unit; the Bears offensive line isn’t very good, and the Browns were facing a rookie QB starting his first game. Nevertheless, the indicators yesterday were very positive. Garrett is always a handful, but Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the defensive line was in the Bears offensive backfield all day long, too. In the NFL, getting pressure on the quarterback is an essential element of defensive success. Another positive sign was the play of two rookies, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Greg Newsome II. O-K, who was drafted to bring speed to the defense, was all over the field and had four tackles, a half sack, and two pass break-ups, and Newsome, who was the Browns’ top pick, had three tackles and a nice play on a pass. When your rookies appear to be getting the scheme and making contributions, that’s a big step in the jelling department.

Jell on, Browns! And let’s see where the jelling process takes us.

Baby Steps

Through the first seven games of the season, Ohio State has established that it’s not the most dominating team in college football history.  It sounds silly, but the expectations before the season started were so high that’s how the team was being measured.

Still, the Buckeyes now stand at 7-0, and last night they hung a pretty convincing win on Penn State, beating the Nittany Lions 38-10.  And if you are an Ohio State fan, you can be forgiven for looking for little signs that the team is improving.  I think the signs are there.

Offensively, the Buckeyes seem to be moving toward making J.T. Barrett the starting quarterback.  The more he plays, the better the offense performs.  Cardale Jones is a fine player with a terrific arm, but with Barrett at the helm the Buckeyes simply seem more fluid, more confident, and more multi-dimensional — and Barrett has an uncanny knack for finding the first-down marker and keeping drives alive.  With Barrett playing increasing minutes, the Buckeyes have now gone two games without drive-killing turnovers and are turning red zone appearances into touchdowns.  And last night, they did it all against a pretty good Penn State defense that features lots of talent.

But we are talking baby steps here, and there are still steps to be made on offense.  Last night, the Buckeyes racked up more than 300 yards on the ground, with both Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott posting more than 100 yards gained, but the passing game suffered.  If Ohio State hopes to compete with the elite, it can’t play with one hand tied behind its back.

On defense, the situation is more difficult to assess.  Joey Bosa and the defensive line did a good job of rushing the passer and physically dominating Christian Hackenberg, when the game was on the line they held Penn State short on a key fourth down, and they forced a turnover that put the game away — but there were lots of negatives.  The D was gashed on the ground and made Saquon Barkley look like the second coming of Jim Brown, showed some really poor tackling and pass defense techniques, and seemed to have scheme failures where Penn State runners were 10 yards downfield before a tackler appeared.  All of this should be concerning, even after a convincing win.  Penn State couldn’t capitalize on these weaknesses, but there are teams from The State Up North who will unless Ohio State gets those problems fixed.

With the “Black Out” and uniform dust-up behind us, let’s focus on some football and continuing improvement and see what this team can really do.

When The Offense Struggles . . . .

Sometimes, having an engagement that keeps you from watching a football game is a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve learned in connection with the Browns, and yesterday it applied to the Buckeyes.

So, I didn’t get to watch Ohio State’s offense sputter for the second straight game, with missed assignments and turnovers and struggling quarterbacks making bad decisions.  From the box score, It looks like the Buckeyes could run the the ball, but when you are throwing interceptions and bungling handoffs and getting hit with drive-killing penalties it’s hard to establish much offensive rhythm.  The offensive line — which was easily the most improved unit from start to finish — also has to strap it up and get better.

Some Ohio State fans are panicking, but for the most part they are the same people who were saying before the season that the Buckeyes were going to win every game this year 72-0.  The fact is that we are talking about college students here, and working new players into the lineup, and new coaches, and a truckload of hype that might cause a young person to think they can win just by showing up.  I think we can safely trust Urban Meyer and his staff — and offensive line coach Ed Warinner is one of the best in the business — to put the pieces together and push the right motivational buttons.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on the Buckeyes defense.  Yesterday, the held a high-powered Northern Illinois offense under 200 yards and stood tall every time the offense failed.  Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Joshua Perry were relentless, and the defensive backfield covered like a wet blanket.  And when the offense couldn’t score, the defense picked up the slack with Darron Lee’s clutch pick six that finally gave Buckeye Nation some breathing room.  Ohio State’s offense got the preseason props, but it is the defense that has been the most impressive unit so far.

Offense is fun to watch, but my old-school view is that defense wins championships. The season is young, but this D could be something special.