In 2009, the Browns started horrendously, but ended strong. This season, the Browns continue to slide toward a disappointing end to a promising season.
The Browns played better in several respects than they had in the previous two games. But against a better foe, you cannot hope to make the mistakes the Browns made in this one and win. Considering turnovers and coaching decisions handed the Ravens 17 points, the Browns had plenty of chances to win this one, but let is slip away.
Some random observations:
•Everyone knew Colt McCoy would eventually have a rookie-like game. Here it was. While McCoy extended some plays and used his mobility, his three interceptions were bad plays. I wanted to see McCoy in a bad weather situation, and this performance did not leave me warm and fuzzy that McCoy can be the man in December in Cleveland. It was one game against a good defense, so I'm not sure you can make a judgment from this game alone.
•The defense was better than the last two weeks, but it was inconsistent. The Browns did better against the run at times, but there were still too many plays where first contact with the back was several yards down field. By running, the Ravens were able to get into third down and short fairly consistently.
•Travis Ivey was immediately inserted into the defensive line after being signed this week. While he did a solid job and improved throughout the game, it does not speak well for the existing players on the defensive line who have really worn down.
•The best pass of the day was thrown by Mohammed Massaquoi. But otherwise, he did not have a good game. Granted, McCoy made some dangerous throws, but Massaquoi did not run good routes or try to break up the interceptions. All three interceptions were thrown his way. Beyond that, he had a fumble that really hurt when the Browns were moving the ball.
•With the Ravens keying on Peyton Hillis and with him being dinged early, Mike Bell got some extended playing time and had by far his best outing of the season. His fresh legs showed and he showed some speed.
•The defense went back to some of the unorthodox looks we've seen from time to time this year, but not so much of late. On some passing downs, the Browns used no defensive linemen and lined up nobody over the offensive line. It allowed the Browns to play coverage and rush either two or three from the edges. It was interesting seeing the Ravens offensive line standing there with nobody to block.
•The offensive line was much better than the last two weeks. While John St. Clair is still the weak link, he was better than we've seen in recent weeks. Joe Thomas had a nice game.
•Despite the increased production, I'm still not sold on Brian Robiske. I think it is still a stretch to think he will evolve into a productive player, but since receivers usually take a while to develop, I'd at least give him one more training camp before making that decision.
•When Benjamin Watson was dinged and left the game, my reaction to it tells me a lot about what a key acquisition he has been this season. The Browns have gotten tons of production from Watson. He has been a great all around tight end. Meanwhile, the Browns miss Evan Moore. Alex Smith saw his first playing time this year and did OK.
•It was nice seeing Josh Cribbs being effective in the return game. The kick coverage was good again after a lapse last week. Reggie Hodges did well again. Phil Dawson's lack of execution on the onside kick attempt really hurt.
•Wow, the wildcat is not dead in Cleveland. While being used sparingly, it was effective when it was used. It's nice to see Seneca Wallace actually get in the game, though in a very limited role.
•One sees why the Ravens discarded Demetrius Williams. If you can't make an impact on a team that has the problems the Browns have at wide receiver, then you probably don't have a future in the NFL.
•Interesting design on the option pass by Massaquoi. The Browns lined up in a conventional two tight end set, then motioned out of it. Both tight ends lined up in the backfield, not tight to the line on the side away from the play, making the fake to Hillis more effective. With Wallace at quarterback, if Robiske was not open, Massaquoi had an option to dump it to Wallace trailing the play.
The Coaching Conundrum
Games like this don't argue well for this coaching staff. While I think Eric Mangini has gotten a lot out of a roster that has a lot of holes, it's the in-game decision making that will be his undoing.
Let's start with one of the biggest plays of the game: the onside kick to start the third quarter. While I will be the first to say that the play was there for the taking if Dawson makes a better kick, this was a huge gamble. The game was probably lost when the play failed. An onside kick is a very low percentage play. In a game where you had turned the ball over three times and are still only down by three, I don't see how you can call this play in this situation. This decision speaks of desperation, trying to trick your way to victory, and to me, it says you have little confidence in your defense. Granted, the defense had given little reason for confidence in the previous weeks, but it had done a solid job in this game.
People are saying the offense is too conservative. That wasn't the problem in this game. A game plan that includes a lot of deep passes on a cold, windy day is anything but conservative. And before we jump all over Colt McCoy, when Joe Flacco threw deep, he had similar problems. The Browns moved the ball very effectively on their first possession with short passes.
The one place where the Browns played too conservatively was in clock management at the end of the half. The staff was so paranoid that they cheated themselves out of at least one more shot at the end zone. But had they not wasted so much of the clock, they could have tried to run the ball or get closer to the end zone. With three timeouts, the Browns could have gotten another first down and gotten the ball even closer, opening up some other play calling options.
Once again, Colt McCoy was effective in the no-huddle offense, but it took until well into the second half before running it. Three games in a row now, it appears that after the Browns finish their scripted plays, the offense stalls until the staff is forced to be more aggressive. Granted, the game plan did not call for three interceptions or a fumble. The ability of Mike Bell to run effectively was a pleasant surprise, but not something the staff could have been counting upon.
On defense, the Browns played more aggressively, and they had more success. I was left wondering where some of the alignments and tactics we saw were the last two weeks.
I think I can conclude that this staff plays conservatively in games they think they can win, such as Carolina, Buffalo, and Cincinnati. They won just one of those, and that only because of a missed field goal. But in games like this one where they feel overmatched, they come out and empty the play book and play aggressively. Despite the fact that some of the decisions didn't work out, I'd at least rather go all out to win.
While this loss cannot be entirely laid at the feet of the coaching staff, they certainly made some questionable decisions that contributed. There was plenty of lack of execution from the players, but the bad clock management, the onside kick, and the insistence on throwing deep despite conditions have to be questioned.
Let's go back to my two questions Mike Holmgren is asking himself:
1. Is this staff getting the most out of the players?
2. Is this staff ultimately going to get the Browns to the Super Bowl?
I felt better about question No. 1 in this game than the last two weeks.
On question No. 2, this game does not give me any more confidence that this staff will take this team where it needs to go. Better players would help, but would this staff put them in a position to win?
I'm trying to keep an open mind, but things are not looking good. The vultures are circling now. We've reached the point where the doings off the field are more important than what is happening on it. That's never a good thing.
One last chance to salvage something going into the offseason by defeating the hated Steelers.
The season is short. Bark hard!