Derry: Thinking Playoffs? Think More

The Browns approach to run defense requires the team to reduce mental mistakes to near-zero...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"

Those were the words made famous by Charles Dickens in 1775 when he started his book A Tale of Two Cities with that now-famous opening sentence.

Browns head coach Butch Davis borrowed those same words to open his next-day press conference which followed the team's disheartening 34-31 overtime loss to the powerful Philadelphia Eagles.

Davis recalled how a chapel speaker two weeks earlier had used that quotation during his service to describe how our world is in a period of hope and a period of despair.

In a much different way, the Browns find themselves in a similar position as they begin preparation for the final nine regular-season games of the '04 season.

Two straight 31-point offensive performances give the team plenty of hope that quarterback Jeff Garcia is finally beginning to feel comfortable in his new surroundings.

These might very well be the "best of times" for the Browns' offense since the team's return in 1999.

However, numerous big pass plays which have been completed against his defense gives Davis plenty of reason for concern as his team prepares to face four of the NFL's toughest teams over the next five weeks. 

Davis has placed ultra-heavy importance upon stopping the run this season after having one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last year. Unfortunately, that means the pass defense is susceptible to big plays if everyone involved in the pass coverage doesn't play near-perfect football both mentally and physically.

Make no mistake, the physical part has been there for he most part. Unfortunately, the mental part has not been quite so perfect, especially against the Eagles. Davis said the new coverages added for that game took "a tremendous amount of communication in the secondary along with the linebackers."

However, that communication did not take place the way it should have, resulting in more mental errors than the team had experienced in any game the past two years. If repeat performances take place over the next five weeks, it could spell the end of the Browns' playoff hopes for yet another year despite the improved play by the offense.

The Browns will probably need to win a minimum of three of their next five games. Even that might not be good enough for the Browns, who are currently 3-4, as they fight to try and overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North.

Mental mistakes have been the defense's downfall far too often this year, resulting in big pass plays similar in some ways to how teams broke off long runs against the Browns a year ago.

Heading into Week Eight, the Browns ranked a respectable eighth in the AFC against the run, one spot ahead of the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. The Browns had allowed 107.4 yards per game rushing. Last year, they finished 10th, allowing 132.1 yards per game.

But the run defense has been the "best of times" for the Browns' defense this season. The "worst of times" have come when opposing teams go to the air. After Week Seven, the Browns were ranked 14th out of 16 AFC teams, ahead only of San Diego and Indianapolis.

They were allowing 239.4 yards per game and had allowed seven touchdowns through the air. Last year, the pass defense for the year ranked eighth in the AFC, allowing just 177.9 yards per game. That means teams are averaging a whopping 62 yards per game more in the air this year than they did last. Opposing teams are averaging more than 11.6 yards per reception

Davis blames mental mistakes for the long touchdown passes allowed and the problems encountered by the pass defense in general. Unfortunately, when they happen in pass coverage, those mental mistakes often lead to long touchdowns.

Slip up either mentally or physically, and you have much bigger problems than when a defensive lineman happens to leave his lane on a running play. In the latter situations, you have a linebacker or a safety as a backup. When you make mental mistakes in the running game, normally opposing teams might turn a three yard run into a six-yarder. Anything longer is usually a combination of a mental and physical mistake,

But make a mental mistake in pass coverage and the result is often a touchdown of 30 yards or longer.

"A mental error that busts the coverage and you absolutely let a receiver run wide open compared to a three yard run that turns into a six yard run demonstrates the degree of severity in mental errors," Davis said.

The goal is to eliminate all mental errors. "You would like for everyone to have stone cold confidence that they know the game plan and the concepts of what we are trying to get accomplished," Davis said.   

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a few defensive changes are made during the bye week. The team has already announced that second-year man Chris Crocker will be in the starting lineup when the Browns return to action Sunday at Baltimore.

There also could be slight change in philosophy in terms of putting emphasis on stopping the run, although it might not be obvious against the Ravens. The Browns will need to continue to play solid run defense against Baltimore to try and limit Jamel Lewis, who will be returning to action after his two week suspension.

He'll be well rested and ready to make amends not only for the two weeks he sat out, but for his sub-par performance in the season-opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The Browns and every other NFL team are fortunate that Kyle Boller simply does not present much of a passing threat. He is weakest link on that team and does not possess enough of a passing threat to force the Browns to change their philosophy.

But that might not be the case when the Browns have their rematch with the Steelers and their rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who tore the Browns' defense apart the first time they met to the tune of 16-for-21 for 231 yards and one touchdown.

To let a rookie do that was a combination of mental mistakes made by the players, and a mental mistake made by the coaches in choosing not to put more pressure on Roethlisberger.

Hopefully, everyone involved from the coaches to the players learned a lesson from that game.

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