And just like that, September is on its last legs.
We're speeding toward an important October for the Cleveland Browns, who draw two AFC West teams and play their first divisional game of the season. Here's what's on the fans' minds heading into the first of two cross-country trips.
Why aren't the Browns running screens anymore? With what they have at WR (size-wise) it seems to me that screens would be a big part of their game. Scott R., Columbus
Through three games, Cleveland's running backs and fullback have combined for 10 catches and 59 yards. Six of those receptions happened Sunday against the Raiders, and they all came from rookie running back Duke Johnson Jr. The problem, though, was one of Johnson's receptions went for 18 yards and the other five combined for 14. The Browns did not complete a pass to a running back or fullback against the Titans.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has said he wants to get the running backs more involved in the passing game, and Sunday's game was a step in that direction. Now, it's about getting them in the position to make significant gains after the catch.
Any news on the status of Dwayne Bowe's hamstring? I think it would be great if he's 100% and can go this week since with all his years in KC, he played a ton against San Diego and that would seem to be a large plus. - Charlie C., Sheridan, Wyoming
Bowe wasn't listed on the injury report last week, so it can be assumed he's completely healed from a physical standpoint. What's been holding Bowe back, though, is all of the time he missed during an integral portion of training camp because of the injury.
Browns coach Mike Pettine said Monday the injuries on defense forced the team to bring up more bodies on that side of the ball and make all three of their healthy inactives offensive players. Bowe, of course, was among them and was inactive for the second time this season. In Cleveland's home opener against Tennessee, Bowe played eight snaps and was targeted once.
"Dwayne will help us, but he's just not there yet," Pettine said. "The setback that he suffered during training camp, it's just hard to make those reps up, especially now that we're in a practice week. We're hopeful that we'll get him out there and he'll contribute as we expect him to."
For what it's worth, there's no team Bowe has been better against than the Chargers. In 14 games against them, Bowe has 65 catches, 843 yards and six touchdowns.
There was a lot of talk in the offseason about "graduate level" concepts being introduced to the defense. Have they just taken their eye off the ball in terms of the basics? Thanks - Martin B., Sheffield
In a word, yes.
That's what a performance like Sunday's came down to in the eyes of Pettine. One week after sacking Marcus Mariota seven times and forcing three turnovers in the kind of game fans expected from this unit, the Browns defense didn't hit Derek Carr once and forced just one turnover, a fourth-quarter fumble. Cleveland might have been able to overcome that if it were sound against the run and better at tackling in space, but neither were up to standard in a loss that served as one of the defense's worst since Pettine was hired.
When the fundamentals are on point, the "graduate-level" concepts take on more importance. Look at the Titans game, as the Browns repeatedly flustered Mariota one week after he faced a basic, Cover-2 defense. When the fundamentals slack as much as they did against the Raiders, no scheme in the world can overcome it.
I'm starting to grow very impatient with Justin Gilbert. 2014 was a stacked draft class and how is our pick still sitting on the bench? Should we ever expect him to be a starter? - Jay M., Rossford
For the first time this season, Gilbert was active Sunday against the Raiders but he didn't see the field on defense. He saw two snaps on special teams. Like Bowe, Gilbert missed a valuable chunk of the preseason, especially when you consider how much playing time he would have received while Joe Haden and others dealt with injuries. On top of that, the Browns have gotten everything they expected and more out of veteran Tramon Williams and Pierre Desir performed well in a major role Sunday against veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree. When the Browns played with six defensive backs on the field Sunday, it was typically a mix of three safeties -- Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson and Jordan Poyer -- to go along with three cornerbacks.
Shortly before he experienced an injury setback at practice last week, Gilbert received some praise from Pettine about the progress he made since returning from a hip flexor injury.
"He's stacking together some good practices … what he's done here on the practice field and in the meeting rooms has been encouraging," Pettine said.
Travis Benjamin has seemed to break out and become a valuable playmaker for us at the start of the season. What are your thoughts on him being considered a starter, creating more chances for our offense? Johnny R., Thousand Palms, California
After what we've seen through the first three weeks, there's no question Benjamin is a legitimate NFL starting receiver. Even without a deep catch against the Raiders, he had an impact on the game, catching four passes for 45 yards and his career-high fourth receiving touchdown of the season. Perhaps what was most encouraging was the toughness he showed on the touchdown catch, as he hauled in the ball at the 2-yard line and dragged his defender enough to lunge into the end zone for the score.
The more help Benjamin gets around him -- like Brian Hartline's strong performance Sunday -- the better he'll be.