By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
Why do woeful NFL teams always seem to snap out of funks just in time to face the Browns?
The Pittsburgh Steelers started this season 0-4 but won four of six games and two in a row heading into their 27-11 win over the Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. In the wake of the beating, the Steelers are in the thick of the chase for the AFC’s second and final wild-card spot and the Browns are on the outside looking in.
Now the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9) are preparing to visit the Browns (4-7) after winning two of their past three games, including a 13-6 triumph on the road Sunday against the Houston Texans. Of course, the Jaguars started this season 0-8 but suddenly have momentum.
Ryan O’Halloran covers the Jaguars for the Florida Times-Union. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: What are the top-three reasons the Jaguars have won a couple of games recently?
A: The first one is they’re stopping the run. They had no answer for anybody in the first half of the season that wanted to run the football. The last three games, they were very good against Tennessee, Arizona and Houston. Two, they’re creating a little bit more pressure on the passer, two sacks this week, three last week. The third reason is they’re showing a pulse on offense. They’re making some big plays, and they’re holding possession.
Q: How has Cecil Shorts, a University of Mount Union product, evolved into the team’s leading receiver?
A: He has a career-high 58 catches, but he only has one touchdown, so that’s been a disappointment. He’s been thrust into the No. 1 role because of Justin Blackmon’s suspension [for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy]. He’s been up and down at times because teams have concentrated on him with their coverage. After two catches against Arizona, he expressed his frustration publicly, but he came back and had eight catches against Houston.
Q: What have you seen from Gus Bradley in his first season as an NFL head coach?
A: It’s been remarkable how publicly positive he’s stayed. He said during the preseason, ‘This is going to be a massive building job, and I’m not going to change. I’m going to stay committed to my philosophy.’ And he did that through the 0-8 [skid], and it wasn’t just 0-8, it was eight games that they lost by double digits. … Now that they’ve had some success, [the players] really follow his lead.
Q: Is there a matchup you think the Browns should worry about?
A: They’re going to go to Cecil Shorts, so obviously Cleveland should concentrate their coverage toward him because after him, the next-leading receiver is rookie Ace Sanders. He has 28 catches this season. Arizona put Patrick Peterson on Cecil Shorts and had him follow him all over the field a couple weeks ago. The Jaguars’ defensive ends, Jason Babin and Andre Branch, on third down have rushed the passer a little better, so those are two guys to watch as well.
Q: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew had 14 carries for 84 yards (6.0 average) on Sunday, but he hasn’t been the star this season everyone is used to seeing. How do you characterize where he’s at in his career?
A: He missed the whole offseason with a broken foot surgery, then he had a decent camp, then sprained an ankle in the second game of the season. So that was a big step back. He played through that, but 3.2 yards a carry is not up to his standard. Up till last week, you figured it was subpar blocking or a running back that missed a step. But then he had a couple of good runs against Houston with good blocking. He’s obviously not the guy who won a rushing title two years ago ‘cause there’s a lot of tread on his tires so to speak. I don’t think he’s going to viewed as a franchise running back when he hits the open market this March.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.