Wow. Raise your hand if you expected this kind of game from the Cleveland Browns on the road in New Orleans. Somehow, I thought they had a chance going in. But I never expected a go-for-broke, leave-it-all-on-the-field effort like we saw in this game. For a change, it was the Saints failing to make plays, making critical mistakes and losing their cool. Meanwhile, the Browns played hard and played smart.
Here are some random thoughts about what I saw:
•Let's start with a nod to Rob Ryan. When you confuse one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL all day long, you've done something. The Browns mixed personnel and used some unorthodox personnel groupings. Many times everyone on the defense was standing. The Saints could not know who or how many would be rushing. At times, the Browns rushed three and played coverage. At times, they sent the house. With the loss of Robaire Smith, use of groupings with only one or no defensive linemen covered that loss. The Browns were all over Drew Brees all day and the four interceptions were a result of constant pressure. Brees had been sacked eight times in all of the previous games combined, but the Browns got him three times.
•Brad Seely is a special teams genius. With the way teams are shutting down Joshua Cribbs, the pass on the punt return was bound to work. Not only was it a great call, it was a very well-designed play. The Browns had set up a nice was on the opposite side and Cribbs sold it well. The fake punt was a gutsy call, and who knew that rather than just getting a first down that Reggie Hodges would ramble 68 yards, the longest run by an NFL punter in 40 years? Kick coverage was great again and Hodges had a couple of nice punts. Hodges has improved as the year has gone along.
•Colt McCoy had a very pedestrian game. But on a day when the defense and special teams dominated the game, all he had to do was not make a costly mistake and he did that. He looked confident and poised. He was not helped by his receivers. I liked his reaction when Lawrence Vickers dropped a pass deep in their own end that probably would have gone for a first down. Some nice fire from the rookie right there.
•David Bowens told the press he wasn't sure he would make the team back in August. He has played a minimal role so far this season. No question that the 14-year veteran is a step slow. But I love his heart and he came up big in this game. On a day when the Browns missed at least three other potential interceptions, Bowens hung on to both and scored two touchdowns. A nice day's work indeed.
•It was quite a game for the linebackers as a whole. What a homecoming for Scott Fujita! An interception and a sack and lots of nice defensive plays. It was also probably the best game Chris Gocong has turned in to date. Matt Roth was all over the field. Marcus Benard returned to his pass rushing ways. About the only negative is Eric Barton who got called for a blow to the head. It wasn't much of a blow, but you know they are calling that closely right now.
•Peyton Hillis had just 69 yards, but he was the workhorse on a drive that ate up half the fourth quarter and allowed the Browns to take a 23-10 lead. He did a very nice job on the pass to Colt McCoy that converted a critical third down. The Saints were keying on Hillis and he still made plays.
•T.J. Ward had a very good game. Now if he could just hold onto even one interception…
•Ahtyba Rubin is a star in the making. He was making plays all day. Go ahead, try to run it up the middle. It was also the best game of the season to date for Shaun Rogers, but that isn't saying a lot. It was good to see him more involved and more active.
•While the secondary had its problems here and there, there weren't the big plays we've seen the last three weeks in particular. They gave up too many third downs and receivers were wide open too often, but is you make the other team work down the field, especially via the pass, they will eventually make a mistake. This is why shutting down the run is so important, and the Browns did that.
•I was a bit surprised to see Billy Yates at right guard over Shawn Lauvao. Is Lauvao that badly injured? The offensive line had its moments, but the shuffling due to injuries had to be hurting the chemistry of this group. When the Browns needed a drive, though, the line delivered.
•Brian Robiske caught three passes, albeit for a paltry 25 yards. Cribbs drew a pass interference call and had another very nice catch. Chansi Stuckey made a couple of plays. But the Browns got the ball to the tight ends rarely. Once again, why was Evan Moore not on the field more? Does the coaching staff doubt his blocking, perhaps? Robert Royal was in the game a considerable amount of the time, but more in running situations. McCoy didn't have many options in the passing game a lot of the time.
•Yamon Figurs, backup kick returner. OK, fair enough. Yamon Figurs, offensive weapon. Not so much. Let's go back to Watson on the end around.
•Cribbs was in on the kickoff coverage unit. That was the first time I'd seen that this year.
•The argument was made that the Browns had to trade Jerome Harrison so they could get something for him. So far, Mike Bell has made it look like the Browns didn't get anything. This was a sad performance in this game.
•No wildcat at all, unless you count the play with Hillis throwing it. With Cribbs coming off the injury, it made sense.
This was a great win. I'd say it was in the top 10 since The Return. The Browns went on the road to face the defending Super Bowl champions. Nobody gave them a chance. For a change, the Browns did not play conservative, but with numerous injuries and a rookie quarterback in his second start, the Browns went to the very depths of the playbook. The trick plays were not just gambling in desperation, clearly film study had shown the Browns some things because every one of the trick plays not only worked, but the Saints didn't come close to stopping them. They were well designed and well executed.
With the Browns having completed game five of their tough seven-game stretch, Eric Mangini needed this win. The Browns have won two of those games. It showed what this team can do when what talent it has is maximized. On paper, the Saints are a much better team, but the Browns looked well-prepared and the Saints made numerous mistakes throughout the game. On the other hand, this makes me think what might have been had the Browns been able to close the deal in two of those early games where they held late leads. This team could easily be 4-3 right now and in the playoff hunt. A game like this points out what the coaching staff didn't do to seal the deal in those earlier games.
As much as I enjoyed this game, it left me with some nagging doubts. For one, I still thought the play calling was a bit strange. Brian Daboll has a tendency to get pass happy at times, and I think he did that in the middle part of the game. I like the fact that the Browns didn't just go conservative, but it seemed like the Browns had given up on the run until that pivotal drive early in the fourth quarter. I also wondered why the Browns gave up on the outside run when they had so much success with it early in the game. The Saints were clearly vulnerable on the outside and much tougher up the middle. Perhaps the Saints were taking away the tight ends, or perhaps it was because they were staying in to block, but they have been a staple of the offense all year. They just weren't a factor in this game. Credit where credit is due, though, the direct snap to Hillis was brilliant and unexpected.
And before people start getting too excited, let's remember that the defense got the Browns 14 of their points and special teams accounted for another six. The offense really only accounted for 10 points. Their one touchdown drive came on a short field after a good punt return. Granted, when you score on defense, the offense doesn't get a crack at the ball, but the offense did very little. It avoided the critical mistake, which is huge, but the offense needed to turn field goals into touchdowns and keep the ball moving more. The offense is a wounded bunch, I know, but it's easy to get enamored with the fact that the Browns scored 30 points. We need to keep that in perspective.
One thing this game showed was how much the Browns have missed the kind of contributions they consistently got from their special teams in the past. Those have been missing in 2010. Those plays really helped this team.
I also think the defense is still a work in progress and that Ryan is starting to get the kinds of plays out of some marginal talent that we saw at the end of last year. The new linebackers are starting to get the hang of things.
I hope that the entire staff will reflect on the difference between playing to win versus playing not to lose as we've seen all too often. There is little to lose now, and if the team can play with the kind of wide-open style they used in New Orleans, they may surprise another opponent or two along the way.
One of the biggest things the Browns have to sort out during the bye is their strategy for the remainder of 2010. If Seneca Wallace is healthy again in two weeks, who will be under center? I personally think the Browns have to see what they have in Colt McCoy now so they know what direction they want to go in the offseason. But Mangini has to be concerned about his job and winning a few games along the way.
Regardless, it's a much better feeling heading into the bye with a big win over a good opponent rather than getting trounced by a marginal team like last year. There has been progress. Will this team continue to grow through its final nine games? If so, what might be the results of that? It could make for some interesting games down the stretch.
The bye week. A chance to get healthy and prepare for two tough upcoming home games.
The season is short. Bark hard!