This is the stretch that was supposed to have vaulted the Cleveland Browns to the top of the AFC North. Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay: three consecutive games against three downtrodden teams with a then-combined record of 1-16.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
The Browns flopped in Jacksonville two weeks ago before bouncing back with a 23-13 win over Oakland at home where they’re 3-1 entering Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay. Whether the dud in EverBank Stadium refocused Cleveland or not, quarterback Brian Hoyer said Wednesday that there will be no looking past Tampa Bay despite the Bucs’ 1-6 record.
“Jacksonville was just a situation where we went down there and got beat and there wasn’t much else we could say about it,” Hoyer said during his conference call with the Tampa Bay media. “They out-physicaled us and they just beat us. I think even with Oakland our defense did a great job and as an offense we kept battling, battling, battling and finally hit a few big plays and really turned the game around.
“This is the NFL and this isn’t my first year as a starter. I don’t underestimate anyone and I don’t think our team has done that. Regardless of record, when you have a team come in who has players like Gerald McCoy, like [Lavonte] David, like [Dashon] Goldson, [Alterraun] Verner, whoever it might be, I don’t underestimate anyone in any way. Everybody’s good, coaches are good, and sometimes it’s just a few bad breaks here and there and your record might not be so good [even though] you have good players and a good scheme.”
Cleveland hasn’t finished a season with a winning record since going 10-6 in 2007, hasn’t reached the postseason since 2002, and has finished with double-digit losses in nine out of the past 10 years. Browns first-year head coach Mike Pettine said during his conference call that the franchise is nowhere the position where it can afford to even slightly overlook an opponent and expect to win.
“We try not to get wrapped up in the opponent,” Pettine said. “We just assume we’re going to get their best and if you look at the rosters there are some real good football players in all three phases on the Bucs roster, just as there was with Oakland and as there was with Jacksonville. We’re not at the point where we can just show up for a game and expect good results.
“We’re still learning a new system and I really like to challenge our guys. Yeah, it’s about the opponent, but it’s also about you versus your grade sheet. We’re trying to get a plus on every play and things will work out when you do that. That’s pretty much our mentality.”
Tampa Bay’s defense still finds itself at or near the bottom of most NFL stat categories, but Hoyer said one of the main reasons the unit can’t be slept on is No. 93.
“He jumps out immediately when you watch film,” Hoyer said of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “His get-off and his motor [and] obviously he makes disruptive plays in the backfield. In general with this defense, you can tell they’re a well-coached defense. You don’t see a lot of guys out of place and you see them zone-drop into the right areas. We have a lot of respect for these guys just from watching film and stuff like that.
“Gerald McCoy definitely jumps off the film, but there are a lot of guys that do, too.”
The Bucs and the Browns have played three common opponents already – Baltimore, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay is 1-2 with its lone bright spot being a 27-24 victory against the Steelers. The Bucs were outscored in those three games by a combined 34 points, 75-109. Cleveland is 2-2 against similar foes, splitting its season series with Pittsburgh, beating New Orleans and falling to Baltimore. The combined score of those four contests was 105-87 in favor of the Browns.