EDITORS NOTE: David's analysis was written prior to the Browns revealing that Ross Verba was lost for the year
It's always the most vanilla of the exhibition games, but Thursday night's preseason finale offered some reason for optimism in the Cleveland Browns first-team defense.
In just over one quarter of action, the Browns starters held the Falcons scoreless, but their up-and-down play still left some very real worries heading into the regular season. Their effort was better, but the Browns defensive line was still inconsistent and likely would have been exploited by a better offense.
Defensive tackle Gerard Warren continues to be an enigma, playing with heart and instinct on one play, then simply giving up on the next. Working mostly against Falcons guards Kynan Forney, Warren was at his best in pass defense. He struggled, however, against the run.
On the first play of the game, Forney made Warren look like he was on skates, pushing him back several yards on Warrick Dunn's 13-yard run. Warren was consistently too high off the ball, as he showed in allowing Travis Claridge to get in to the body and control him on another first-quarter run by Dunn.
Warren did play with some aggression in defending the pass, driving Claridge backwards on a roll by Doug Johnson, then tipping a screen as the quarterback tried to come back to his left with a pass to Justin Griffith in the flat. Warren later forced Claridge to grab him, drawing the holding penalty, as he tried a swim move to get to the inside on another rush. Possibly Warren's best play was his recognition of a screen to T.J. Duckett, never mind the fact that he slightly held Duckett as he tried to break into the open for the pass.
As good as he looked on those plays, there were times when Warren simply took plays off, as he did on a third-down pass rush early in the second quarter. Forney stood Warren straight up off the snap, and Warren never attempted to recover. The Falcons center wanted to double-team Warren on the play, but just stood next to Forney, watching and waiting to see if he would be needed.
In his second game back from microfracture surgery, Courtney Brown offered a few hints that he could be a factor in the pass rush. His higlight was a power rush easy in the second quarter, setting up Todd Weiner to the outside, then using his speed and his hands to shed the block and take an inside route to Johnson. Brown missed the third-down sack, but forced Johnson to scramble, coming up well short of the first.
When he lined up at left defensive end, as he did most of the evening, Brown had his most success. On the few occasions Brown lined up at right defensive end, he was rendered ineffective by veteran left tackle Bob Whitfield.
There were some encouraging moments up front on the other side of the ball as well.
Barry Stokes put a lock on the starting job at left guard with a very strong performance in his quarter of work. Stokes simply manhandled every Falcon who lined up opposite him, both in the run and the pass game. Stokes dominated Falcons lineman Brady Smith on consecutive plays on the Browns first-quarter touchdown drive. He locked up Smith and gave Kelly Holcomb time to hit Quincy Morgan for a 34-yard pass, then pushed Smith backwards two yards in clearing the way for a nice gain by William Green.
On the same drive, Stokes threw Smith to the ground while protecting Holcomb on a third-down throw to tight end Steve Heiden. Poor footwork by left tackle Ross Verba on that same play allowed Flacons linebacker Sam Rogers to cut back inside and hit Holcomb as he released.
Center Jeff Faine had the type of up-and-down night you might expect from a rookie. His blown protection allowed Ellis Johnson to go untouched through the middle for an easy sack of Holcomb. Faine redeemed himself, however, on the gutsy 4th-and-3 run call at the Falcons' 3 to open the second quarter. A dominating seal block on veteran linebacker Keith Brooking cleared the way for Green's 3-yard touchdown.
Kevin McLeod appears to have locked up a job as the Browns' lead blocker. McLeod started and was at fullback for most of the first quarter, delivering a key block in tandem with Heiden to clear the way for a drive-continuing 4-yard run on 3rd-and-1 by Green. McLeod also helped his cause with an open-field tackle on kickoff coverage inside the Falcons' 20.