Good day, Browns fans!
The Browns opened the season with a statement game, dominating their heavily favored opponent in two phases of the game, and outplaying them in the third. The Browns have had some big games since The Return, particularly in the 2002 playoff season, but I feel that this game was even bigger for reasons we'll look at below. This was a statement game, and the statement was heard enough to have some of the pundits reconsider their take on the team.
As usual, let's take a position-by-position look at what happened.
A mentor of mine who recently passed away used to say that in everything you are involved in, its success will depend on leadership. Leadership has been a quality that has been lacking since The Return. We saw the effects of leadership in this game, and it made all the difference. Jeff Garcia had a less than perfect game, but he played smart, made the plays necessary to win, and showed leadership we have not seen from a quarterback in the expansion era.
Garcia did not have great protection, especially in the first half, but he hung in and made things happen. The first deep pass to Morgan was set up by leadership before the game. Quincy Morgan said that Garcia had told him that if he had to scramble, to find an open spot where he could see Morgan. He did so, Garcia used his eyes and a pump fake to fool the defense (pinch me!), and 46 yards later, the Browns took a 10-3 lead. Garcia silenced critics of his arm with that pass, and another deep throw to Andre Davis covering 51 yards. The deep throws loosened up the defense and allowed the running game to get going. I loved the call of a bootleg on third and goal, a great option Garcia opens up because of his mobility. I also liked that Garcia was willing to get in the face of Ross Verba, a veteran, after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Some will say that the penalty was a statement after the game was decided. Perhaps. But Garcia's willingness to take charge will have positive effects throughout the season.
Garcia made some bad throws here and there. He also had some drops that
didn't help him. I liked his decision to bail out on a busted screen play. Like
I said, he played smart.
While much was made of the absence of Jonathan Ogden in this game, the Browns really missed their one-two punch of Lee Suggs and William Green. I think Suggs would have helped jumpstart the running game early. That being said, William Green had a great game. The stat sheet won't agree, but perhaps his finest game as a Brown. Green ran hard. On one play in the first half, Green dragged Adelius Thomas three or four yards for a first down. He made a similar play on a pass in the second half. Especially early, there weren't always a lot of holes. Green and the Browns coaching staff did a nice job of not giving up on the run until things opened up. On a hot, humid afternoon, the Ravens, who don't rotate defensive players, wore down. Having a passing game helped. Green caught some passes, but he also missed some. Both Green and Suggs have some work to do on receiving.
James Jackson got a few token plays to spell Green or as a passing option on third down. I can't fault his effort, but he was largely ineffective.
Forget the X's and O's. My favorite Terrelle Smith moment was the first play,
seeing him on the ground helmet to helmet with Ray Lewis. I was mildly surprised
how much the Browns went to a double tight end set with Shea rather than Smith
against a tough defensive opponent when Smith is a far superior option from a
blocking perspective. One negative on Smith was failing to look for the ball on
a third down play that turned a potential touchdown into a field goal.
This wasn't exactly the highlight reel for the wide receivers. Dennis Northcutt has three catches, but they were all short. Quincy Morgan had the 46-yard catch, but its best attribute was the improvisational aspect of it. Come on, admit it, how many of you were dreading him dropping that ball when he was wide open? Andre Davis also had a long reception of 51 yards, but it should have gone for 93. He stumbled enough having to slightly reach out for the ball that he fell when he had the defender beat.
All that being said, the most encouraging thing was that the predictions
about how Kellen Winslow would draw coverage and open up the receivers proved
true on more than one play. This bodes well for the future. Teams have to
respect the deep speed of Morgan and Davis, and the ability to get open
underneath of Northcutt. With Winslow also in the mix, it will put a lot of
pressure on the back seven of many defenses, and most teams don't have the
corners and safeties to match up with all of these guys.
Kellen Winslow wasn't terrible in his debut. Everyone will remember the pass he dropped that would have gone for a long gain, maybe even a touchdown. But, he did make four catches, the biggest of which was a leaping 21-yarder on third down after two low throws by Garcia. Given the defensive strength of the opponent, Winslow did OK blocking. Some plays were better than others. He will improve.
Aaron Shea saw a surprising amount of playing time. Probably the best thing I
can say about him is that he didn't make any obvious mistakes. He didn't really
figure into touching the ball in this game.
You can look at the problems, and there were plenty. But, when you boil it down, the line did well enough. Zukauskas jumping offside on the first series was particularly annoying, as were two holding calls on Verba, not to mention the unnecessary roughness penalty. The Ravens are tough, and I expected worse problems than the line had. Probably everyone had a problem at some point, yet these guys also made enough solid blocks not only to win, but to wear down the defense. Between the passing game picking up and fatigue, the line was able to take control in the fourth quarter.
This group is going to have to do better than Sunday on a consistent basis to
get the critics off their backs. Garcia was sacked and harassed some, more early
than late, but more than you would like to see. On the other hand, against one
of the more difficult defenses they will face, holding their own for the most
part is an encouraging sign. Give them time.
I don't even know where to start. The underachieving line finally lived up to its potential, even if just for a game. My biggest disappointment is not getting to see how Gerard Warren figured into that, because he left the game with a muscle strain on the second defensive series. Lucky for him, Orpheus Roye had perhaps the finest game of his career. As usual, he was all over the place, but this time, he was very effective in getting into the play. I really like Alvin McKinley. His one potential sack was missed only because someone else got there first. But in this game, it was Michael Myers who had a monster game filling in for Warren. The guy was always clogging things up.
At end, Kenard Lang got all of the attention for his big plays. Why not? He has a career-high three sacks going against the backup left tackle, forced a fumble that sealed the game, and added two passes defensed. He had a great game. Less visible, but equally impressive, Courtney Brown was in on numerous plays as the Browns swarmed to the ball. My favorite was one where Brown single-handedly strung out a Jamal Lewis run by pushing both Todd Heap and a defensive end (Thomas, I believe) all the way to the sideline, forcing Lewis out of bounds. Wow. Ebenezer Ekuban had a quieter game, but the front four were getting pressure, both run and pass, fairly consistently throughout the game.
Lang promised that Jamal Lewis would not get past the first line of defense. With only 57 yards on 20 carries and a long run of just nine yards, Lang and company walked the walk.
There were very encouraging signs from the defense in the final two preseason
games. A lot of this started with good play from every player in this group,
starter or not. If this level of play carries over to other games this season,
the defensive line will set the tone for the Browns becoming a top-five defense.
I hate to single him out, but perhaps the one player on defense who I thought could have done better was Andra Davis. He missed a few tackles, and on a day when few tackles were being missed by the Browns defense, those stood out to me. On the other hand, Davis had a nice interception late in the game, though it came when the game was already in hand. If you've read this column, you know I love Andra Davis, but I think he can do better.
I thought Warrick Holdman had a solid game. He was often around the ball. Kevin Bentley did a lot of good things, but his one mistake was a whopper: he held Todd Heap on a third down play when the Browns had stopped the Ravens inside their own 20. The automatic first down allowed the Ravens to eventually drive the ball out beyond midfield. In this game, that mistake ultimately did not cost the Browns, but they were lucky. Ben Taylor did not do very much, though he played a fair amount. Chaun Thompson saw action as well, and he is finally showing some of the promise that made him a second-round pick. He is aggressive and athletic, and I'm anxious to see how he is playing by the middle of the season.
I'm being a bit picky, perhaps. When you hold Jamal Lewis to 57 yards, the
linebackers are doing something right. On the other hand, when the defensive
line plays the way they did in this game, the linebackers don't have to play
like LT to succeed.
Let's start with Robert Griffith. I've certainly picked on him many times, and he has been a favorite whipping boy of Browns fans online. So, give the man his due, he played this game the way the Browns envisioned him playing when they signed him. Griffith made tackles, didn't bail out when Lewis had a head of steam, and beyond that, he even played well in coverage. His one "lapse" was really a result of the height disadvantage between Griffith and Todd Heap. Earl Little had a quieter game, but he had an important tackle in the first half of the game. Chris Crocker also made a big hit at garbage time.
Anthony Henry made the play that tilted the game in the Browns' favor. Ahead
10-3, the Ravens were driving when Kyle Boller threw a deep sideline pass to
former Brown Kevin Johnson. Henry was with him step for step and had inside
position. He made a fine interception at the five yard-line. The Browns were
able to drive the ball out and get a field goal to take a 13-3 lead. On top of
that, Henry played consistently good coverage and also continued the improvement
in the running game that we saw in the preseason. Daylon McCutcheon held his
own, but he was in and out due to cramps. Leigh Bodden saw time in his place,
and he was much better in this game than he showed in the preseason.
Where do you start? This was a fabulous performance by all units of the special teams. Let's start with some fine punting by rookie Derrick Frost. He kicked for long average and dropped punts inside the 20. The Ravens average starting field position in the first half was their own 12 yard-line. That is just amazing. The Ravens had to be kicking themselves. They had both Zastudil and Frost last year in the preseason and kept Zastudil. There was no contest in this one, Frost was by far the better punter.
The coverage teams were flat out amazing. Leigh Bodden and Lewis Sanders were consistently getting down the field and blowing up any chance at returns. Other players making great plays included Kevin Bentley and Warrick Holdman. Then you have Kevin Winslow, who came close to blocking three punts. Come on, anytime you can say that you held the opponent to six punt returns for five yards, you are doing a fantastic job. Other than one decent return, kickoff returns were also played well.
The Browns didn't pop anything in the return game. Dee Brown was solid on kickoffs, and Northcutt's fine 19-yard return was wiped out by a penalty. The Browns still did far better in the return game than the Ravens did.
Then there is kicking. Dawson had two field goals and two PATs, but his best
work included some of his best kickoffs of his career. He had a touchback (!)
and kicked the ball inside the five more than once.
I've got to start with a brilliant game plan by Dave Campo. Using a 4-4-3 alignment on running downs threw the Ravens and allowed the Browns to swarm to the ball. Rare was a play when Jamal Lewis carried that there weren't at least three Browns in on the tackle. Beyond that, it put some pressure on players like Griffith that have been suspect in the past, but came up big here. If Campo can get this kind of performance out of the defensive line on a consistent basis, it will be enough to make the entire team better, by covering up defensive lapses in the back seven, and by getting the ball back to the offense even when it is struggling. I have to believe that this will be the book on how to shut down the Ravens until they show that they can solve it. Most teams would use the passing game to do it, but the Ravens will be hard-pressed to do that. Suddenly, the AFC North race became a lot more interesting.
Let me once again applaud Butch Davis and Terry Robiske for not giving up on the run, even when it wasn't working early. The offense was patient, and as the field position and defensive battle played out, it eventually allowed the Browns to hit on a couple of big plays to tilt the game in their favor. The Ravens were never able to do that.
I don't know what the difference is on special teams. There are a few new faces, but many of the players are holdovers from last season. Whether it is coaching, experience, or scheme changes, the special teams were vastly improved and it made all the difference in this game.
When you think about where the Browns have come since getting shut out in the
Buffalo scrimmage and embarrassed by the Titans, it is amazing to watch the
steady improvement in the team. Much of this I credit to coaching. When the
Browns played vanilla schemes, they struggled. As the level of game planning has
increased, the Browns have looked better and better. I don't know how else to
account for that but coaching.
It's hard to put into words what this game meant. While it is only the opener and one of 16 games, I believed that this game was the key to the entire season. Had the Browns lost decisively, especially if Lewis ran wild again, I fully expected it to put Davis on the hot seat and start a potential slide as the players perhaps lost faith in the program.
Instead, Davis and his staff showed that they had a winning game plan. The players executed it much better than before, with several of them saying that they finally realized how much one player not taking care of his assignment on any given play can make all the difference. I think the success the Browns had here can be a stepping stone to more and bigger things.
The big question is whether the players can sustain this performance. A road game at Dallas, a 2003 playoff team, is a great test. The Browns have some advantage in that Dallas has some injuries. Can the secondary stand up to the Dallas offense? Can the Browns stop another old nemesis, Eddie George? If the Browns play well in this game, we'll have a lot better idea about exactly where this team stands.
You also cannot underestimate the power and emotion of the connection to the past owner Randy Lerner has been working to reestablish. Having the 1964 team in to honor them and to be at the game was an intangible that is hard to measure. While Butch Davis has said many times that he felt this was important, it was clear that Carmen Policy wanted to distance the organization from its past. Football is a game of emotion, and the emotion of the entire weekend cannot be ignored. It was a positive influence on the players, and I believe it carried over to the field on Sunday. The eerie similarity between the 1964 team, a team nobody gave a chance to win against a team from Baltimore, and the 2004 team, down to the way the game played out on the field, was a great storyline and another tie to the storied past of the Cleveland Browns.
One last thing: since The Move, I've never referred to the team from the east by name before in this space. With a certain carpet-bagging owner out of the picture, other than as a cartoonish figurehead, the Ravens now become just another NFL team, despite their dubious origins. There are plenty of other reasons to dislike them, but they have to do with football, not the betrayal of bad NFL owners.
The Browns travel to Dallas for a homecoming of sorts for Davis and Campo.
A side note: the Browns last played Dallas in 1994, a game the Browns won with a solid play-not-to-lose performance by Vinny Testaverde, good running by Leroy Hoard, and a last-second goal-line hit on Jay Novacheck by the late Eric Turner. This time Testaverde will be on the other side of the field. The irony continues.
The season is short. Bark hard!