Another hard fought game for the Browns. But the Falcons and their speed were too much for the wounded warriors on offense. Like the games before, this game was also a tale of two halves. But unlike the previous games, this was not about adjustments or game planning. Injury trumped all other factors.
Here are some random thoughts about what I saw:
•Props to the defense. Yes, they gave up a big run. Yes they allowed a 100-yard rusher for the first time this year. Yes, they gave up a big pass play. But ultimately, the defense gave up only 13 points or perhaps 10 depending on how you count. If the offense had held up its end of the bargain as it did in the first half, the Browns would probably have won.
•To be fair, I have to give props to Eric Barton. I've criticized him consistently. He didn't get tons of playing time, but he had two impact plays. He came free on a blitz and picked up a sack. He also had a huge tackle on third down and one with the Browns trailing by 3 in the fourth quarter.
•Peyton Hillis is a gamer. He was definitely not 100%, but made a fantastic touchdown catch and ran hard. His leap on the first play of the game will be a highlight for sure. But his early fumble was also costly.
•With Hillis injured, Jerome Harrison blew his chance to get back to the top of the running back food chain. He just didn't look like he was really going after it like last year.
•On the subject of the running game, the offensive line was just not good. There weren't great holes in the running game, and the quarterbacks were harassed by the speed rush of the Falcons. I really did not think anyone played great, and I was especially surprised at the poor play of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack in particular. With Hillis injured and with a gimpy quarterback in the second half, these guys needed to step it up. They did not. To see Seneca Wallace injured because of a missed block by Thomas is stunning.
•The Falcons used their formations and motion to create mismatches and confuse the defense. It led to players being uncovered at times. Despite tough opposition from the Browns, I thought Atlanta improvised well when plays broke down.
•Josh Cribbs finally made some noise in the return game. Too bad penalties twice wiped out solid returns. Bad field position has hampered the Browns throughout the early part of the season.
•Great job by the defense to not be fooled by the fake fourth down attempt in the fourth quarter. Too bad our offensive players can't say the same. Ben Watson marred a solid game with yet another dumb penalty by jumping offside on third and two.
•Abe Elam looked bad. He was schooled on the 50-plus yard run. But it was not a red-letter day for the rest of the secondary. Give the Falcons credit for going after Sheldon Brown the play after he returned from an apparent injury, toasting him for a long touchdown for the second straight week. Eric Wright made some good plays, but he missed a big tackle and got turned around on pass coverage again. Joe Haden was also up and down as you might expect from a rookie.
•For the first time this year, I have to call out the defense for bad tackling. Pathetic might be a better word.
•It was good to see the wide receivers back in the game plan. Five catches for Mohammed Massaquoi, five for Chansi Stuckey, and there was even a rare reception for Brian Robiske.
•I assume Evan Moore must not be 100% when I see Robert Royal split out wide numerous times. Royal even caught a pass out of that formation. Why? Why are we also running Jerome Harrison on plays that might be successful for Hillis, but don't fit his style?
•Speaking of the tight ends, more than once, the Browns lined the three of them up in a triangle then threw, usually away from them. Interesting.
•On passing downs, the Browns consistently played a 0-4-7 look with David Bowens lined up over the nose. Jason Trusnick ended up in some battles with the left tackle! This led to some of the sacks because everyone was covered and the linebackers were free to chase down the quarterback.
•Great special teams play again. The kick coverage was great, you got a blocked field goal, and Joe Haden's play to start the Falcons at the one was excellent. Phil Dawson tied Lou Groza's mark for career field goals, which is quite an accomplishment. Meanwhile, Reggie Hodges was inconsistent again.
•Once again, no wildcat to speak of until late. Despite the fact that the Falcons shited their defense every time and were ready for it, it worked. By the time the Browns decided to use it, it was too late to make much of an impact. Again, why?
•Aggressive penalties I can accept. Dumb ones, no. The coaching staff needs to get a handle on this.
The Quarterback Conundrum
Seneca Wallace was having a very nice game before his injury. He was spreading the ball around and moving the team. I felt like he was finally comfortable with the offense and playing his game. Then the bottom fell out.
It was obvious that Jake Delhomme was not ready to play from when he was throwing warm up passes as they were tending to Wallace. The Browns then proceeded to blow any chance they had to get points before halftime. Delhomme was so bad they didn't even attempt a last ditch pass on the final play. Why not let Cribbs throw it in that scenario?
I will give Delhomme credit for trying to go. But his body language spoke defeat from the moment he took the field. He gave off a vibe like, "I am just too injured to be out here, but I'll at least try". And, if I'm Atlanta, I know Delhomme isn't the most mobile guy when healthy. They came after him. Give Delhomme credit, he made some plays. But so did Atlanta. And they missed at least three passes that could have been intercepted.
But the physical failures are not what caught me. It was the mental ones. Throwing repeatedly into multiple coverage is what got Delhomme in trouble in Carolina. Either he is too injured or he just doesn't have the physical tools to make those kinds of plays anymore. He may see more in terms of coverages and mismatches and such, but it doesn't help if he can't make the play.
Perhaps this isn't fair given the injuries and limited playing time, but I think the Browns have to consider the Delhomme experiment a failure and conclude that all things being equal, Wallace gives the team a better chance to win. Wallace isn't going to remind anyone of Unitas, Marino, or Montana, but for now, the Browns have a better chance with Seneca running the offense. Wallace makes less mistakes and that is what the Browns need right now.
Of course, given the injury scenario playing out this week, this discussion may all be moot for several weeks.
The Browns are 1-4. They have some key injuries and not a lot of depth in those areas. They play four tough teams coming up and won't be home again until November. Even if they split these games, that would leave the Browns 3-6. A 1-8 start is quite possible.
Then you look at the stands. The seat next to me went empty again this week. That seat has a lot of company. Despite the announced attendance of 65,000 or so, there were a lot of empty seats. It the northwest corner, a whole section was empty. If things do not go well in Pittsburgh and New Orleans, which seems likely considering the injury situation, it's not hard to imagine a lot more empty seats. Fan anger is on the rise.
I will be the first to say that the Browns are much improved over 2009. I had said that their record may not show it. They have played close, competitive games.
But I think all of that leads us to one primary question: as close as this team has been in four games they lost, is this coaching staff getting everything out of the players that they can? Are they putting our players in the best position to succeed?
On defense, the Browns made some changes this week and did better in the secondary. Despite a lack of talent, the defense is playing well enough to win in most cases. There are lapses, to be sure, but the coaching staff is trying to scheme to cover weaknesses.
On offense, I question if the game plan is putting the players we have in the best position to succeed. I think I made a case for several was in which the approach to this game was puzzling.
On special teams, I am wondering if we can improve the personnel or blocking on kick returns to help Cribbs. We can certainly cut down on penalties.
As the losses pile up, these questions will become more strident.
Then again, an undrafted quarterback just beat the defending world champions behind some opportunistic plays. The Cardinals won in the first game ever where three touchdowns were scored, but none were rushing or passing! The Browns won't get to the playoffs that way, but perhaps a healthy Colt McCoy can surprise us. At least the Browns might see if he fits in their future plans. If the defense and special teams step it up a little, who knows?
The Browns travel to Pittsburgh where Ben returns from suspension after a bye week. A tall order, but we will see if this team really has character.
The season is short. Bark hard!