The Cleveland Browns ventured into the Motor City Saturday afternoon and turned in a spirited performance at Ford Field that hopefully will serve as a prelude of even better things to come.
Coach Romeo Crennel's team improved upon the two negatives most evident in the first preseason game, namely a porous run defense and an over-abundance of penalties.
After allowing the New York Giants to run roughshod for 150 yards in the opener, the Browns' new 3-4 defense limited the Lions to just 117 this time in the 21-13 come-from-behind victory over the Lions.
Asked if he thought the defense improved, Crennel said, "It looked like we did. Guys seemed to fit better. They had a couple runs of double digits, so now we will have to go and work on those. But if we can improve a little bit more next week, then we'll be getting to where hopefully we will need to be."
Crennel knows the defense is and will remain a work in progress. "I'm not going to put them in the Hall of Fame o anything like that, but they did better," he said. "They listened to what we were saying. We will continue to work on that and try to improve a little bit."
There were a couple of plays in the first half when defenders clearly abandoned their lanes, thus allowing big runs. It is very obvious that in order for Crennel's defense to be effective, every defensive player on the field must carry through his particular assignment and not try to do too much.
When a player does become overly aggressive and fails to make the play, bad things happen. Fortunately, the number of blown defensive assignments, at least at first blush, was markedly down from the opener and, quite frankly, that is what this time of year is all about.
"It's a new defense and a new scheme," Crennel said. "It's all about understanding where they need to be; when they need to get off the block and when they need to stay on the block."
Penalty-wise, the Browns were hit with an even dozen, compared to a baker's dozen (for all of you non-chefs, that's 13). The fact the number didn't significantly drop had Crennel riled after the game.
The importance he places on eliminating penalties was clear after starting left tackle L.J. Shelton moved on the Browns' final possession of the first half. It was his second first-half miscue and immediately landed him a seat on the bench. He was replaced by backup Kirk Chambers.
Crennel's quick benching of Shelton should serve as a wake-up call for the remaining players. Penalties, which often kill drives, will not be tolerated by Crennel and his staff.
Crennel said, "I thought we made a little improvement, but we still did a lot of things that good teams don't do. We were in the scoring zone two or three times in the first half and we came away with nothing. Things like that we have to get a lot better at."
One thing Crennel certainly had to like was the performance of at least three of his wide receivers.
Antonio Bryant, who rejoined the team just hours before game-time after attending the funeral of a relative, was outstanding. He put on a clinic in catching three first-half passes for 78 yards, including a 51-yarder that was thrown perfectly by quarterback Trent Dilfer. Bryant also had an incredible one-handed catch that was nullified by a penalty.
And you known Crennel was beaming when first-round draft pick Braylan Edwards made a dazzling last-minute catch of an all-oop pass from rookie quarterback Charlie Frye, which set up the go-ahead extra-point as the Browns took the lead, 14-13
"We just got lucky in that final minute, but that's the way it goes sometimes in this game of football," said Crennel, who obviously will have the alley-oop pass to the 6-3 Edwards as a big part of his game plan all season.
"Those were some of the things we saw when we were watching tape on him," Crennel said. "When he was at Michigan, he went up to get balls and he made plays when the game was on the line. In the big games, he made plays."
"This was a big game for him because it was his first game and it was his home town. He definitely wanted to make that play. He went up and he got it."
Michael Jameson's sprint to the end zone after he picked off a desperation lateral on the game's final play accounted for the misleading final score, the Browns' second straight preseason win.
Crennel also had to be very pleased with the kickoff returns turned in by former Kent State quarterback Josh Cribbs, who had returns of 30, 37 and 39 yards. Cribbs, who is being converted to wide receiver, has taken the return duties away from veteran Andre Davis, who more than likely will be traded before the and of camp.
The team has given Davis the right to pursue trade opportunities, probably signaling the end of his career in Cleveland. If indeed he is traded, it will mark the third straight year a wide receiver that had been chosen in the second round will be gone. Kevin Johnson (second round 1999) was released in 2003, while Quincy Morgan (second round in 2001) was traded to Dallas last year.
The Morgan deal could turn out to be one of former coach Butch Davis's best as the player received in return was Bryant, who clearly is far better and more consistent than Morgan even on his best day.
The arrival of Edwards, the surprising performance of Cribbs and the surfacing of Bryant, not to mention the presence of veteran Dennis Northcutt, clearly has left Davis as the odd man out.
Don't be too surprised if this is the last year for Northcutt (second-rounder in 2000) as a Cleveland Brown. He will be Edwards' backup with no chance short of Edwards being injured of getting into the starting lineup
When Edwards writes the book on his NFL career, the last-minute catch he made against the Lions will likely be overshadowed by many, many more significant grabs.
But coming when it did, back home in Michigan and at a time when the Browns are looking for the added confidence that comes with winning any game, it was definitely a bi shot in the arm.
Crennel knows the importance of developing a winning attitude. "Any time you can win in the NFL, that's a plus," he said.
If the Browns were coming off a winning season, or had been an annual post-season participant on at least a semi-regular basis over the past 10 years, winning meaningless preseason games would not be at all important.
But when you are a team that has made a habit of losing, a win of any kind is significant.