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Browns looking to close gap

December 5, 2011
Ed Puskas , Tribune Chronicle |

The ugly truth about the Browns may have been largely hidden to this point by their schedule.

The Browns didn't have to play AFC North rival Baltimore until Sunday and their first game against Pittsburgh, the other power in the division, is Thursday night.

The Browns' 4-7 record going into the game against the Ravens was evidence enough that this team is a work in progress or even a project, but in the wake of a 24-10 loss to Baltimore, it is clear there is still a distinct gap -- or perhaps even a chasm -- between the Browns and the best teams in their division.

And remember, the Browns already lost twice to Cincinnati this season, although both games against the Bengals were close (27-17 and 23-20).

But the Ravens exposed a short-handed Browns defense that was missing starting linebacker Scott Fujita (broken hand) and starting safety T.J. Ward (foot, finger). Baltimore ran at will, finishing with 290 rushing yards, and controlled the game almost fromm start to finish. The Browns' offense converted just three of 14 third-down situations and didn't get into the end zone until quarterback Colt McCoy directed a 10-play, 73-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.

But even when the Ravens' lead was just 7-0 late in the first half, it felt like the deficit was larger. Baltimore just has more playmakers - on offense, defense and special teams -than the Browns. One of the few players Cleveland does have is Joshua Cribbs, but the Kent State product wasn't much of a factor. He had no carries, and no passes were thrown to him.

Cribbs got most of his action on special teams, with four kickoff returns for a 23.8-yard average. The longest went for 28 yards. He also had a 9-yard punt return. Cribbs was credited with one assisted tackle as part of the Browns' kick coverage unit.

Cribbs said he recognizes the difference in the level of play between the Browns and their two biggest rivals in the AFC North. But seeing it and eliminating it are two very different things. The Browns have been working on closing the gap ever since their 1999 return to the NFL. Aside from the odd upset over the years and one playoff appearance as a wild card in 2002, there has been little progress.

"I don't know what it is going to take," Cribbs said. "I am not the coach or the general manager. All I can do is play."

Tight end Evan Moore sees progress being made. As strange as it sounds, he doesn't think the Browns are far away from breaking through within their division.

"We lost two games to Cincinnati and we got beat soundly by Baltimore, so I can't sit here and make an argument to you that there's no gap," Moore said. "Do we believe there is no gap? Absolutely. But we don't ecpect people on the outside to believe that. We just need to come and prove it. In our division, we have three more opportunities to prove that."

The first of those three chances comes Thursday night against the Steelers at Heinz Field.

It won't be easy and it could be ugly.



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