Have you recovered from the game Sunday enough to take a look back? I know I haven't, but we'll take a look at the dreary events of Sunday afternoon anyway. I might remind you that if you regularly read this space, a week ago amid the euphoria of "a win that saved the season", I was saying that there were serious problems with the Browns. Those problems were evident again Sunday.
I'm going to take a little different approach to evaluating this game, so bear with me and I think you will see where I am going here.
In The Trenches
I am a strong believer that you win or lose a game on both lines. There are exceptions to this in individual games, but for the most part, your team will go the way your lines go. Further, I believe that the offensive line is truly the key to your team. It dictates whether you can control the clock and protect your quarterback. The defensive line is also important, but I give an edge to the offensive line as far as dictating the course of a game.
That being said, Sunday's game was one of contrasts. We all know that the Browns as an organization have not put great emphasis on the offensive line, especially in the draft. The team was burned by expensive free agent linemen that did not work out very well in 1999 and some of them went on to success elsewhere. Other teams have had success at times with undrafted free agents and low draft picks, but those cases generally involve good coaching to cover up the possible deficits in talent. The Browns don't have that right now. Meanwhile, the Bengals have placed a great deal of emphasis on their line. They have kept the underrated Willie Anderson, and drafted players like Levi Jones and Steinbach. They have consistently shown a belief that this is a critical factor in the success of their team back to the days of Munoz, Montoya, and company.
The Browns have invested high draft picks and millions of dollars in its defensive line. I would say that Butch Davis would say the defensive line is the primary key to the success of a team based on statements he has made and his actions to date. Meanwhile, the Bengals have drafted some players with less pedigree than the Browns, but it appears that Marvin Lewis has them moving in a positive direction up front.
All that being said, the Browns lost this game in the trenches on both sides of the ball. On the offensive line, the Browns at least protected the quarterback when the Bengals employed a standard four-man rush in the first half. There were few holes and little push for the running game. But in the second half, the offensive line and tight ends looked completely confused by the Bengals who adjusted and started using blitzes. Consistently through the first four games of 2003, the Browns have had horrible problems with blitzes, and if the opposing team can get a defensive end matches up with one of our tight ends, look out. Whether the three-way swap of Shaun O'Hara, Melvin Fowler, and Paul Zukauskas is an overall improvement is difficult to say, because the confusion factor negated any improvement that might have been realized by making the change.
On the defensive line, the high-priced, underachieving group the Browns fielded had their poorest outing of the season. The Browns were unable to generate any pressure on Jon Kitna, even with blitzes, and without pressure, even a journeyman will look like a Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, with nemesis Corey Dillon out of the game, the Browns did at best a decent job against the running game. Several plays that should have been stopped for a minimal game or even a loss were foiled by missed tackles. Again.
Top all of this off with the inability to know the snap count or stay on your own side of the ball, and you have the makings of a long afternoon. The sad part of it is, the Browns have enough talent at the skill positions on offense and the Bengals have enough problems that they were able to hang in the game until the end. By all rights, with line play this bad, the Bengals should have won going away.
I often criticize the Browns coaching staff when players are not prepared or when they are not put in a position to win. However, repeated lapses with penalties, missed tackles, blown coverages, and dropped passes killed numerous chances to win this game. Like the game with the Bruises earlier, it is hard to say particular players did well. Each of the players that I felt had a positive impact on this game made at least one costly mistake that contributed to the loss. The Browns have to be one of the poorest teams in terms of discipline and game day execution in the NFL right now. I am once again reminded of the 2000 edition of the team and I see so many similarities between this team and that one.
Let's talk some about the individual player performances.
I am surprised that Sunday has re-ignited the quarterback controversy. I did feel that Couch had an overall solid game. He looked very good in the first half, perhaps as good as we have seen a Browns quarterback this season. But in the second half, Couch was mercilessly harassed. I don't think I can remember seeing him be so careless with the ball. He was lucky he did not have four interceptions instead of the one. And that one interception was bad enough. It was a ball Couch readily admits he threw into no man's land because he was changing his mind about throwing it as the ball was released. I suspect once the Browns were behind at the end, Couch was trying to take some chances to make something happen. This is classic Tim Couch and these are not generally his best moments. But Couch stood in tough with little protection, and often delivered the ball where it needed to be. I do not lay this loss at Couch's feet.
The running game is hard to evaluate. My take is that Green got most of the yards he managed without many holes. I thought he did a good job of making something out of nothing. He also was tough enough to come back after getting a helmet to helmet blow that knocked him woozy. I thought James Jackson did a nice job on the plays where he filled in. He even looked quick to the line on one play. Jamel White looked the best he has this season in his third down role, but four catches for 20 yards isn't setting the world on fire. He did a nice job dragging his foot on his touchdown catch. He also dropped a pass that was low but catchable.
Kevin Johnson had another nice game, even though his best play was cut short by a hold. I was surprised to see KJ wide open more than once. His five catches for 89 yards follow on the heels of a great game in San Francisco. But KJ also killed a good play with yet another bad block. I give him credit for making an attempt to block, but he has to clean that up. Frankly, I'm surprised at people gushing over Morgan. His touchdown play was made by the blocking around him. Other than that one play, Morgan had two other catches for 21 yards, held on a play that took a touchdown off the board, fumbled in a situation that forced the Browns to accept a penalty and take a loss, and worst of all, Morgan dropped a pass that could have converted a third and 17 late in the game. Yes, it was a shade behind him, but Morgan has to run a better route on that play, too. Folks, it's time for Morgan to hit the bench. A receiver who can't catch is not of much use to anyone. Dennis Northcutt and Andre Davis combined for six receptions, and both had important third down catches, but overall, they simply did not get a chance for the big play.
The Browns tight ends contributed one catch for three yards, and no appreciable blocking or push. I'm not surprised by this, but when the line isn't doing a great job, either, it hurts. We can all point to the fantastic job Jeff Faine did on Morgan's touchdown, but beyond that, the line was a shambles. Ryan Tucker is the best of the bunch, but I thought he had a tough day. Barry Stokes is playing through his bad ankle, but that limits him. The guard play is just sad.
Other than Orpheus Roye, nobody on the line had any real impact on the game. I thought Roye did well moving down the line on plays to the outside, but even his effectiveness was limited. It is hard to believe that this line did not even touch Kitna. While Andra Davis and Ben Taylor made plays at linebacker, they missed plenty of tackles as well. Brant Boyer had a nice play.
I had said to someone last week that with all of the criticism of the secondary in the preseason, nobody had really been burned through the first three games. Well, Daylon McCutcheon and Robert Griffith both joined the Toast Club this week. Both plays led to Bengal touchdowns. Griffith just got toasted. At least McCutcheon had the savvy to tackle the guy to prevent the touchdown. They got it two plays later anyway, while I was yelling, "Watch for play action!". They didn't watch for play action. Surprisingly, Anthony Henry has actually done pretty well, and it was McCutcheon who really had problems.
At least this was not a rushing record performance by the defense, but they let Bengal receivers get wide open, and let no-name backup running backs make plays. They let the Bengal offense convert 60% of their third downs. It would have been worse if wide open Bengal receivers had not dropped at least three passes. Browns fans can sympathize.
What last year was a strength for this team has become a liability. Phil Dawson missed a 35-yard field goal, thanks in part to a bad snap from drafted long snapper Ryan Pointbriand. Andre Davis doesn't show the same ability on kickoff returns as a year ago, but as Butch Davis points out, this is due at least in part to an inability to block. Dennis Northcutt had an excellent punt return when the Browns really needed it late in the game wiped out by a holding call. That call in essence cost 37 yards of field position.
If you look at the big three for the Browns, you really have to question what is going on. On the offensive side, Bruce Arians looked like he was calling the game on Madden or something. The Browns had reasonable success in the first half. In the second, the Bengals began to blitz constantly. Did Arians adjust his play calling strategy? No. I saw one screen pass in the second half that was reasonably successful (seven yards). With all the blitzing, I'd have run screens, draws, reverses, or other quick hitting plays to burn them. Where was the wide receiver screen after it resulted in a touchdown on the second play? Maybe you might want to go back there?
Worse, I thought Arians set the running game up to fail. It seemed like the Browns wanted to run on second and nine or downs like that. If you follow the Browns, the pattern is becoming very predictable, even if it is, shall we say, unconventional. Too bad it isn't successful. If the line could open a hole, that might make a difference.
Dave Campo has to get guys to shed blocks and make tackles. These too fundamentals are sorely lacking. The only case I noticed Sunday of someone getting off a block to make a play was Orpheus Roye. I see most of our defensive linemen getting into a blocker and being stuck there like they were covered with glue. I'll overlook some of these problems with Andra Davis and Ben Taylor because at least they hustle. And the secondary had a rough day. It wasn't just getting burned twice deep, it was all of those 5 to 15 yard passes that went for first downs that were killers. The Browns got burned once against the Colts but lucked out when Manning's pass was too long. The Bengals had three possessions that went 10 plays or better, while the Browns had one.
Butch Davis at least sounded Sunday like he had finally had enough with the stupid mistakes that are killing this team. Davis never wants to say bad things about players, but I finally heard a little fire there. Maybe that is a positive sign. But overall, once again, the Browns did not make adjustments when the Bengals did, and I have to say that Davis was completely outcoached by Lewis. The Browns looked as if they expected the Bengals to roll over. This Bengal team played toe-to-toe with the Raiders in Oakland and lost at the end. They have talent and maybe they finally have leadership. I'm afraid I find myself wishing I could say the Browns have leadership. Instead, I see what talent they have languishing as off the field decisions continue to drag down this team.
The Road Ahead
Two weeks ago, I wrote that the Browns looked like they were headed to a 5-11 season. People told me I was "panicking" and that after the Browns beat "a good 49er team" that it was too early to give up on the season. The 49ers don't look so good now, and I don't see the problems on the offensive line going away anytime soon. I'll concede that the defensive line might well show some improvement, but we've been waiting a long time for that and it hasn't happened up to now. I can only say that while Butch Davis continually brings up that the Browns were 2-4 a year ago and made the playoffs, that is the same mentality that has us having to claw back at the end of every game. As I look at the rest of the schedule before the bye week, you have to wonder if even 3-5 is possible now.
The Browns head to Pittsburgh this week, a place that has traditionally been a tough one at which to win. They are going to be putting their patchwork offensive line up against the Steelers 3-4. If the Browns do not do a much better job picking up blitzes than the have thus far this season, this will look like opening night 1999. It is hard to imagine the offense as it has played thus far having much success Sunday night.
Let's assume for a moment the Browns can pull off an upset. They would be 2-3 and still in the race because the other teams in the division have also struggled. They would head into two consecutive home games with a chance to maybe reach 4-4 by the bye week.
If the Browns lose, they are going to have to face the fact that this young team is 1-4, 0-3 in the division, facing the defending AFC champs the next week and another tough running game the next.
While I don't see the 2003 Browns as a playoff team, I suppose they have to continue along a certain path because they are not "out of it" yet. But I think it is reaching the time to make some serious changes. I'll hold off on my suggestions for the weeks to come.
The season is short. Bark hard!