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Four Downs: The importance of the Browns' final four games


1. The importance of the Browns' final four games

As he stood in front of his locker Monday answering a barrage of understandably tough questions under some obviously tough circumstances, Brian Hartline looked ahead to 2016 as he discussed the importance of the rest of 2015.

The veteran wide receiver has been through some tough seasons before. At 2-10, this has been one of the toughest on the Canton native, who referred to it as both "shocking" and "frustrating."

Hartline's experience through this kind of adversity keeps his focus centered. He understands what kind of lasting effect a strong finish -- even in a year that ends with the team nowhere near the playoffs -- can have on a personal and organizational level.

"We've got to go find some wins to finish out the season right," Hartline said. "Believe it or not, come spring, everyone in here is going to be asked, 'You guys won the last two games, can that build momentum for next year?' If we can focus on something like that and find a silver lining and get a couple wins to finish the year out and launch us into next year, that'd be advantageous."

Rookie defensive lineman Danny Shelton, who never had a season end with a losing record while he was at the University of Washington, summed up the team's mindset best when he said, "all anyone can think about is trying to win a game."

As Mike Pettine described at his Monday press conference, a win, no matter when it occurs, can soothe a lot of the negative that comes from an extended period of losing. It can lock in your focus on the changes that need to be addressed rather than the changes desired simply for the sake of change.

"When you have the record that we have, if there is not tension in the building, there is a problem. That is what losing does to you," Pettine said. "When you are paid to be successful, when you are paid to win in a bottom line business and we are not, of course, there is going to be tension. When you have passionate, competitive people that want to get it done right and it is not, there's going to be, and it is part of it."

The task won't be easy. Even though the 49ers, who come to FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, are mired in a similarly frustrating season, they've played some good football of late and scored a big overtime victory last week at Chicago. The final three games are against three potentially playoff-bound teams: Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

In his end-of-year press conference last season, Pettine described the Browns' five-game losing streak to end a 7-9 season as "difficult" and "disappointing." Similar words have already been tossed around during Cleveland's seven-game losing streak, but an opportunity still exists to create the "silver lining" Hartline described.

"We have a lot of expectations for each other and this season," Shelton said. "We haven't been able to produce the way we wanted to. You have to continue to work and finish the season off."

2. Gray zone an area of frustration for Browns offense

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Sunday's frustrating loss to the Bengals were the missed opportunities on offense during the first half.

Cleveland entered Cincinnati territory on five of its first six possessions. The end result was three points on a drive that saw the Browns experience a time crunch near the end of the first half. Two of the drives ended when the Browns couldn't convert first downs from no-man's land parts of the field -- too close to punt, too far to attempt a field goal.

One week earlier, after withstanding an early offensive surge from the Ravens, the Browns drove deep into Ravens territory on three consecutive drives to end the first half and only came away with one touchdown.

"We moved the ball up and down the field, but we shot ourselves in the foot probably four or five times once we crossed the 50, go into the 40-, 30-yard line," Hartline said. "Obviously, we're playing at a point right now with kind of no reason to hold anything back. Some fourth-and-shorts that we didn't convert and kind of laying it all on the line. When you do that, you turn the ball over in that part of the field, that's not good, but overall, we're just not turning two-thirds of the drive into any points and that's not good football."

To pick up some of these fourth-and-shorts, the Browns simply have to be better running the football in these types of situations. Of the Browns' 221 first downs this season, only 47 have come on the ground.

3. Snap counts of note

Some interesting nuggets from Sunday's snap count totals…

-- Despite a thigh bruise that left him in some obvious pain, Hartline played 61 of 63 snaps Sunday, the most of of any non-quarterback and lineman.

-- With rookie FB Malcolm Johnson sidelined by a groin injury, rookie TE E.J. Bibbs saw his highest snap total of the season with 10.

-- Rookie DB Charles Gaines, who made his first career start, led all defensive players with 53 snaps.

-- Cleveland deployed its nickel defense as little as it has all season. DB K'Waun Williams played just 18 snaps.

4. Stat to watch

The 49ers defense, led by former Browns coach Eric Mangini, has been Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to home and road performance.

In their six home games, the 49ers have allowed an average of 15.8 points. They've not surrendered more than 20 points in any of those games. On the road, that average has been 32.6. The smallest amount they've surrendered on the road is the 20 they allowed in last week's win at Chicago.

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