August 28, 2004 at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, MO
Good day, Browns fans!
The third preseason game is often the measuring stick for how a team is doing headed into the season. For the 2004 Cleveland Browns, this game did not have that kind of feel. The Browns played their starters only into the second quarter even though the Chiefs played theirs until halftime. Other circumstances make it hard to get a reading on exactly where the Browns stand at this time. There were a lot of bright spots in this game, but there were some ominous signs as well, many of them familiar themes for those who have followed the team since The Return.
As usual, we'll look at each unit. As of this writing, the Browns already had made several roster moves based I'm sure in part on how the player performed here. Some of them were mild surprises to me.
Like the first game, it is tough to get much of a read on how Jeff Garcia did in this game. He threw only eight passes, completing four, and once again, the offensive line struggled, especially in the passing game. Garcia is mobile and seems to be playing his heart out, yet he just doesn't seem to be in synch with the receivers. One alarming thing was that two passes were thrown right to defenders. The Browns were lucky that neither caught the ball. Post game comments revealed that the Browns were having ongoing problems with their radio communication system and that Garcia was expecting to play longer and was frustrated by the lack of repetitions. I hope the Browns work it out in practice, because it seems unlikely to be fixed in the final exhibition game.
In the first game, Kelley Holcomb had a nice outing. In the second, he was hampered by problems on the offensive line. In this game, the line probably provided Holcomb better protection than Garcia, but Holcomb had a pretty poor performance. Holcomb was missing receivers on both long and short throws. His 6 of 16 passing performance for a paltry 66 yards was indicative of the type of performance he had.
Luke McCown missed on his first five throws. But McCown hung in there and did not give up. He eventually led the Browns to two scores, one on an 80-yard drive starting with 1:39 left. I was skeptical about McCown from some of his college numbers, but I have to say, he has won me over. He has an excellent pocket presence for a rookie, throws a beautiful ball, moves around well, and throws well on the run. He had five great throws on the final drive alone:
- A deep strike to Richard Alston on the first play that was on the money, but Alston only got one foot in bounds.
- A bullet to Chad Mustard on fourth and eight to keep the drive alive.
- A beautiful deep throw to C. J. Jones for a 37-yard gain.
- A strike to Alston in the end zone on the next to last play, perfectly thrown but knocked away by a leaping defender.
- The game winner, thrown after scrambling halfway across the field, on the run, into double coverage. Hopefully, 2004 will be a great year of learning for McCown, but this guy looks like he has a lot of potential.
It's hard to find much bad to say about the performances of Lee Suggs and William Green. Both made important contributions to the game. Green had the longest run on the first touchdown drive, a 42-yard run around the left end. The same drive also included a 10-yard run by Green. Green had a game-high 53 yards on just three carries. Suggs didn't match those numbers, but he ran powerfully inside, and followed Green's long run with a 28-yard touchdown run of his own, this time through the middle on the left side. Suggs ended up with 31 yards on four carries.
James Jackson played at the end of the first half and the start of the second behind the backup offensive line. He ended up with 17 yards on four carries. Jackson ran hard again, but didn't break anything. While Dee Brown continues to shine on special teams, I have yet to see him do much on offense that compares with what Jackson has done. Brown had five carries for no gain, and his longest run of the night went for just one yard. Keep in mind that Brown's appearance was later in the game with players even further down the depth chart than when Jackson played.
I like the hard-running style of Nick Maddox. He once again ran well inside. He ended up with 41 yards on seven carries (a 5.9 yard average). Maddox also caught a short pass for two yards on the final drive. However, Maddox doesn't seem to show the speed or burst of the other backs and keep in mind that his plays came against the scrubs.
Terrelle Smith had another quiet game. He got one carry for two yards. The guy blocks hard, but on inside running plays, he often ended up caught up in the pile. Corey McIntyre saw a lot of playing time in the second half and he did not do much, either.
Perhaps one of the reasons Garcia is feeling out of synch with his receivers is that he isn't hooking up with them. Quincy Morgan had no catches, but he did have penalties for illegal formation and false start. In fairness, Morgan threw a key block downfield on the Suggs TD. Andre Davis finally caught a pass. He also had a key block on Green's long run.
The only "starter" who seems to be on the same page with Garcia is Dennis Northcutt. He ended up leading the team with four catches for 36 yards, but I believe one of those was from Holcomb. Northcutt had a nice third-down catch to move the chains wiped out by a penalty. The Browns then failed to convert on the following play.
The backups seemed to get more chances than the starters. Andre King just keeps hanging on by making plays. He had three receptions in the game. C.J. Jones had two catches, both on the closing drive. He also had an end around play that gained one yard, but Jones did well to avoid a loss. Richard Alston had the game winner. Frisman Jackson had a forgettable night with just one catch for eight yards. It's tough to say much about the backups because they were able to do so little, but I'm wondering if Alston might be ahead of Jones at this point, and if Jackson has done enough to live up to all of his offseason hype. The final game might sort some of that out.
This wasn't a banner night for the tight ends. Steve Heiden, still the starter, was injured when he was blocked back into Suggs. Heiden has a ligament tear in his knee and will miss at least the first two regular season games. Kellen Winslow was held without a catch, though both Garcia and Holcomb threw to him. He still seems lost at times about where to line up, and that was only made worse when he was pressed into playing in place of Heiden.
In the battle for the remaining spot, Darnell Sanders had a tough night. He lined up incorrectly, ignoring Andre King's warning to move off the line, and he missed a pass. He did finally make a nice catch on the second touchdown with around 4:00 left, a seven-yard reception. Aaron Shea had two catches for 17 yards, one a nice catch in traffic. Heiden's injury might have saved Shea's job. Though Mustard had the one big catch at crunch time, it's hard to imagine him making the team.
While the run blocking of the starting group improved some, there are still big problems up front. Let's start with my favorite target this preseason, Kelvin Garmon. Early in the game, he was pushed to the ground on two consecutive inside runs. He had a false start. On one series, he lost his man on back to back plays, once with some help from a double team. He had a poor block on a running play on that series as well. He later added another false start. He did have a superb run block on the series after the big runs.
The rest of the starters were OK. Ryan Tucker was called for cheating off the line (which wiped out the Northcutt third-down conversion play) and was also pushed to the ground on one of the same running plays as Garmon. On the other hand, Tucker had some very nice run blocks, as did Jeff Faine. Ross Verba was solid, but not spectacular.
At left guard, both Paul Zukauskas and Enoch DeMar played with the first and second units. Demar even played with the third. I watched both carefully, and from what I could see, DeMar looked like the better of the two in this game. Zukauskas seems to have a hard time pushing his man, something I think he did better last season. It is interesting that on the drive where the Browns scored their first touchdown, DeMar was in the game. Both of the big runs went to the left, and DeMar had key blocks on both. DeMar shines against the lesser competition of the backups.
The second line was improved over a week ago, but it was also a little different group. This week, it was Scot Osborne, Chad Beasley, Craig Osika, Zukauskas or DeMar, and Kirk Chambers. Of this group, I really saw some things from Chambers. He made mistakes such as losing his man and forcing Holcomb to hurry a throw or allowing an edge rusher to get in the backfield and stop Dee Brown for a loss, but he looks like he is playing smart. Chambers did more good than bad. Osborne had two false starts. Beasley allowed a sack and had a tripping and a holding penalty, though the holding was questionable. Osika had a false start on the final drive that forced a 10-second runoff with 0:32 left. But, as a group, this bunch held is own in both the passing and running games. They just made too many mental mistakes.
Jason Anderson got some time at center late. Osika saw some time at guard as well.
If you look at measurable statistics, the starting line did not do much. However, close inspection of the game tape reveals a different story. Especially early in the game, Gerard Warren was getting a nice push. Sure, I saw him not fight off a block and there is still room for improvement, but I admit that I still see a difference in him. Courtney Brown played some inside and some at end. He leaped to bat down a pass on second and goal and he had some good rushes. He also drew a holding call when a Chief was forced to take him down. Kenard Lang tipped a pass on an early third down and also had at least one very good pass rush. Orpheus Roye was double-teamed more than once, but the guy plays will a lot of heart.
The Browns simulated a real game more closely by mixing starters and backups starting late in the first quarter. At end, Ebenezer Ekuban had a sack, and in general was better than the previous two games. Mark Word had an active game, including a tackle for a big loss on a run, though he did need help to finish the guy off. NFL Europe star Corey Jackson was really struggling until he left with an injury. Felipe Claybrooks tripped up Damon Huard for a loss and sacked him late in the game, setting up the winning drive. Cedric Scott also played near the end of the game.
Top backup tackle Alvin McKinley did not make the trip. As a result, the Browns played John Nix and Amon Gordon a lot. Though Nix did some good things, Gordon seems to be ahead. As the night wore on, I was more and more impressed with Gordon. He had a tipped pass on the final series by the Chiefs offense. Michael Myers also continues to play well. With the way these guys are playing, the Browns may have think seriously about keeping five tackles.
With each game, I am becoming more concerned about the linebacker position. Going into 2003, this seemed to be an area of weakness, but in the end, the young trio of linebackers, Andra Davis, Kevin Bentley, and Ben Taylor, along with veteran Brant Boyer, had a solid year. But this year, Boyer is on IR and this group has struggled. In particular, I thought Andra Davis had a pretty weak game. He always seemed a step late, out of position, and even when he had nice coverage on Tony Gonzalez, he burned him with a big catch. He missed a tackle again. Ben Taylor had a very quiet game.
On the other hand, Kevin Bentley has been struggling since the end of 2002, but had his finest game of the preseason to date. Bentley had five tackles and was aggressive, just as he was in early 2002. Two of those tackles came when Bentley was in with the Browns second defense playing against the Chiefs starters. His one mistake was a big one, though. He missed a tackle that turned a short gain into a big play. Also, Warrick Holdman had three tackles and made his greatest impact on a preseason game to date.
Among the backups, Eric Westmoreland had the makings of a good game when he became the victim of a cheap shot and left with a concussion. Mason Unck did not do much on defense. Sherrod Coates was aggressive, and had a tackle for loss on a run blitz and another on a dump pass to a running back. He also broke up a two-point conversion attempt. On the other hand, he had a dumb roughing the passer penalty that was tacked onto a 50-yard pass play. Uyi Osunde got in the game late, as did Josh Buhl.
Anthony Henry had his best game of the preseason. He had two nice stops for losses in the running game and a pass defensed that forced a field goal. On the other hand, he got badly juked by Kennison on one play. Daylon McCutcheon had a very nice pass breakup and a couple of nice tackles early. He also missed a tackle, though. With several backups hurting, Leigh Bodden saw a lot of playing time and struggled. He drew an illegal contact penalty. Roosevelt Williams returned from injury and also had a shaky game, giving up the first Chiefs touchdown on what looked like a blown assignment.
At safety, Robert Griffith and Earl Little did little of note except that both missed tackling Priest Holmes on a single pass play. That doesn't bode well for the opener. I thought Michael Jameson followed up a good showing against Detroit with a decent performance here. David Young made a nice play, but was still released, as was Kentrell Curry. This position is in flux. It will be interesting to see how things shake out when Chris Crocker returns.
While there were a few problems, like a blocked field goal and far too many penalties, overall, the Browns did well on special teams. Let's start with some fine situational and directional punting by Derrick Frost, not to mention a tackle. The coverage team did a nice job downing those punts, too. Overall, the kick coverage did a nice job on Dante Hall. They had one problematic return. Sherrod Coates may have offset all the positives he had on defense with special teams penalties. Mason Unck did a nice job as the up man on punts, including a nice tackle after charging all the way down the middle of the field.
The Browns return game is looking sharp. Dennis Northcutt had to great punt returns, one for 37 yards and the other for 17. C. J. Jones had a good return for 16 yards, and Richard Alston had a tough one for eight near the end of the game. Dee Brown continues to shine on kickoff returns. Officially, he had three for 78 yards. His best, a 58-yarder where he broke out of the pile, was called back thanks to holding penalties on both Mason Unck and Sherrod Coates.
I'm not thrilled with Jeff Garcia taking his concerns over the handling of playing time in the game to the press. I realize he was just answering the questions put to him honestly, but perhaps it would have been better to air that with Butch Davis and Terry Robiskie first. I see Garcia's side of the issue, but you can't help but think that Davis is paranoid about injuries after the last three seasons, and he can't exactly come out and say that the offensive line is so bad he's concerned about Garcia's health.
I know that some people think this whole issue is a smoke screen designed to throw off the Ravens and that the Browns intend to throw a lot on opening day. I considered that myself, except that the Browns look so far off and the offensive line is having so many problems that I just don't see this as likely. I see the right guard position as the source of most of these problems, more so than the unsettled left guard position. The other three starters should be fine.
The defense did a lot of "bend but don't break", but the starters held the Chiefs to two field goals, and even the second unit against the Chiefs starters allowed just a field goal attempt that was missed. Overall, the defense looked a lot better, and I attribute a lot of that to Dave Campo having a game plan this time. Clearly, he is making more out of the talent the Browns have than their collective abilities alone.
There are far too many penalties, and most are mental mistakes. I know the officials are calling certain things very closely right now, but it doesn't excuse this. This has to get under control before the season starts. It is killing the offense and special teams in particular.
This game was intended as a measuring stick. The Chiefs offense, which rolled over the Rams the previous Monday, did not roll over the Browns. The Browns continue to have success running the ball despite problems with the offensive line and a weak passing attack, including running inside and to the left. All that being said, it is still hard to gauge where the Browns are right now, and we likely won't know for sure until September 12.
The Browns return home to close the preseason against the Bears.
The season is short. Bark hard!