With injuries to Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme, the assignment for rookie quarterback Colt McCoy (should be choose to accept it) would be to take his first NFL start against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's a mission that has put more than one quarterback in a very bad place. You may remember Charlie Frye's 2007 opener, when he had to be pulled early in the game for his own safety. That led to the Pro Bowl version of Derek Anderson (no, really), but as it turned out, Colt had better survival skills than Mr. Frye. He completed 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards, a touchdown and two picks against a defense that might be even better than the 2007 version that turned Mr. Frye into a pumpkin.
Since he'll probably be in the big chair against the Saints this Sunday, let's see what we can tackle away from the touchdown he created, and those two unfortunate completions to the guys in the wrong jerseys.
The score came with 4:09 left in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers already up, 21-3. The Browns had the ball at the Pittsburgh 12-yard line on a drive in which McCoy had already made plays with his arm and his legs. In this play, Pittsburgh lined up in a nickel zone against Cleveland's three-wide, and the right-side route combination helped dictate the opening. While the two vertical routes on the strong side kept the nickel corner and the bracketed safety in check, the halfback cross forced the linebackers to stay in the middle of the field, and the weakside post took the left cornerback inside.
Now, this play normally wouldn't work, because by the time tight end Ben Watson had crossed the field and made it to the end zone as he did, the Steelers would have had time to sack McCoy about five different times. But McCoy used his mobility to step up in the pocket and move to the right, allowing Watson to make it to the right-side back of the end zone, where he was wide open for the score.
The first pick came with 11:24 left in the first quarter, and it ended McCoy's first NFL drive. One play after he was sacked by LaMarr Woodley, McCoy was picking up protections in a three-wide set against Pittsburgh's hybrid-nickel defense (Woodley was dropping as the nickel defender). Watson came off the right-side line, and was guided to the seam by inside linebacker James Farrior, and Woodley was waiting downfield in a little zone cluster with safety Ryan Clark. McCoy made a read that I'm sure he instantly regretted, but it was a bit of a disguised coverage – one doesn't generally expect two linebackers to lead coverage 20 yards downfield. Unless the defense is coached by Dick LeBeau, in which case anything's possible.
Pick #2 came with 1:51 left in the game, and the Browns were just trying to make the game look close, down by 11 points. Not a lot of formation diversity in this game – the Browns had another three-wide, while the Steelers ran another nickel set. McCoy tried to hit Watson in the right seam, but safety Ryan Mundy jumped the route, deflected the ball to Lawrence Timmons, and that was your ballgame.
Given the challenges he faced in this game, I was very impressed with McCoy's ability to make plays even after he suffered setbacks. With Delhomme as a short-term fix (if that's even the case) and Wallace as the excellent backup, the Browns were going to need a young quarterback with the resilient demeanor common to all players who are trying to find their way on rebuilding teams. So far, he's on the right track.