Good day, Browns fans!
After back-to-back performances that featured losses to poor teams, the Browns played a good game in tough weather conditions and knocked off the Titans. In many ways, the Titans are a mirror image of the Browns, and for a change, it was the opponent leaving plays on the field. That's not to say the Browns played a perfect game, but they did make the plays needed to win. Let's examine the details.
After three rough games, Trent Dilfer bounced back and played pretty well. I was both surprised and impressed that the Browns threw deep on the rookie cornerbacks of the Titans, and Dilfer made some of those plays against a pretty tough wind. Dilfer was solid and made some deeper throws, though he did get a good deal of "run after catch" similar to the game at Green Bay. Dilfer contributed to another fumble on a botched exchange with Reuben Droughns. The lone interception came on a harmless Hail Mary play at the end of the first half. Dilfer showed some of the veteran leadership we saw in the games before the bye week. While seeing Charlie Frye play sometime the season is probably a forgone conclusion at this point, Dilfer did enough to hang onto the job for now.
Reuben Droughns is a warrior. After a week dominated by talk of off the field problems, Droughns had a fantastic game. He racked up 116 yards on 20 carries despite fighting through leg cramps. In addition, Droughns also caught passes totaling over 70 yards. Once again, he fought for tough inside yards, but he was also able to cutback and pick up some big yards. My favorite had to be the 25-yard gain on third down and 16, something I thought only happened to the Browns. Jason Wright, the youngster from Northwestern, had a nice game, scoring his first NFL touchdown. I loved the way he bulled through a tackler on that play. Terrelle Smith played and had three touches, including a failed fourth down "first man through" play. But, Smith earned applause from the fans by bowling over a Titan defender on a swing pass.
The receivers have struggled the past three games, but in this one, they came up with some big plays. After newspaper stories where he questioned his usage, Dennis Northcutt had a good game. He had a 58-yard touchdown early, added two more catches, and also had a huge 31-yard run off a reverse. Antonio Bryant also got in the act and came up with three big catches. The Browns tried to get the ball to Braylon Edwards several times, but he only managed to catch one pass for two yards. Edwards lined up incorrectly more than once and is still making rookie mistakes. If he wants more playing time, he needs to cut down the mental mistakes.
This was a disappointing game for the tight ends. Aaron Shea didn't play much. Steve Heiden had a miserable game. He was called for illegal motion twice, and his holding penalty wiped out a field goal that would have put the Browns up 23-14 with 40 seconds to go. Instead, Dawson had to kick an extra 10 yards into the wind, and predictably, the kick was no good. That allowed the Titans new life, and it nearly cost the Browns the game. To top it off, Heiden dropped a pass.
I had said earlier in the year that the offensive line sets the tone for the entire offense, and that was true in this game. The line played its best game in several weeks, allowing no sacks and opening up great running lanes most of the time. I though Jeff Faine stood out as having a monster game, especially downfield, but the Browns in general were able to get blockers out in front of plays. Cosey Coleman left with a twisted knee, but for the second week in a row, backup Mike Pucillo came in and did a very solid job. The line has struggled the last few weeks, and thus, the offense has struggled. In this game, the line did a great job and set the tone for a win.
After getting 325 yards last week, the Browns managed over 400 yards of offense this week. Some things are getting better, but the Browns continue to struggle in the red zone and 20 points seems like far too few for a 400-yard performance.
The "bend but don't break" defense was at it again. Although they allowed more than a single touchdown for the first time in six games, the defense managed to come up with a stop when needed. I am encouraged that the 3-4 scheme is looks as if it is becoming more natural for some players
The defensive line probably had its strongest game of the year. Orpheus Roye and Alvin McKinley made plays. Nick Eason and Ethan Kelley contributed as well. Even Jason Fisk managed to eat up some blocks. In general, the lineman held the point of attack better than in previous games and even managed to make plays themselves. While McNair did not get tons of pressure, he was hurried at times. The Titans' run game hurt the Browns front at times, but the defense is showing some marginal improvement against the run and the Browns got four tackles for loss on running plays. He is nicked up, but the Browns still did a nice job of containing McNair and not allowing him to run.
Kenard Lang had his best game as a linebacker in this one. He harassed McNair often, forcing him to throw inaccurately. Chaun Thompson faded a bit after last week's game, but still made some impact. Andra Davis had some nice plays, but I felt overall, he was still struggling with knowing where to be in the 3-4 scheme and once again was not shedding blocks. Matt Stewart is not a Pro Bowl player, but his knowledge of the 3-4 scheme has been helpful. Ben Taylor, though praised by some, I thought had a minimal impact in this game.
The secondary played pretty well. The corners were matched up with inexperienced Titan receivers. All of the guys the Titans had active at WR were rookies. That put some stress on the safeties to cover the tight ends. While the Browns had to know this was going to be a big part of the game plan, I felt they could have done a better job containing the tight ends. In particular, the Titans touchdown to Erron Kinney right before halftime hurt. But, I felt the starting corners, Daylon McCutcheon and Leigh Bodden played very well. Chris Crocker and Brian Russell played better than in some recent games, though Crocker got turned around at least once. Brodney Pool seems to be coming on more and more each week. He had some nice coverage in this game.
While the defense is becoming more consistent, they are still struggling at times with the 3-4. The problem in this game was that the Titans offense, and in particular, their wide receivers, simply blew the game, and while I give the defense credit for a solid performance, many times the Titans stopped themselves, especially on third down.
After last week's debacle and many calling for his head, Kyle Richardson had a much better game this time. He boomed some punts, especially into the wind, and pinned the Titans inside the 20 three times. Richardson even made a saving special teams tackle. Josh Cribbs got into the act as both a punt and kickoff return man. Dennis Northcutt had a 30-yard punt return wiped out by yet another penalty. That probably ended up being nearly a 50-yard swing in field position.
The coverage teams had another tough week. A big kickoff return allowed the Titans to tie the game just before halftime. Kickoff coverage was also poor, allowing decent running lanes for the Titans nearly every time. The Titans tried not one but two fake punts in the game. First they ran the ball and picked up the first down, but a holding penalty saved the Browns. The second time, Hentrich tried a pass but threw low and the ball hit the ground. Had the Titans executed on those plays, both would have caught the Browns napping. Add to the mix the missed field goal thanks to Heiden's holding, and this unit put the Browns in bad situations all day. It has struggled all season.
Let's start with some play calling issues. On both of the first two possessions, the Browns ended up in a third and two. Both times the Browns went to an empty backfield look, and both plays failed. I can live with throwing on third and short, but the empty backfield screams "pass". Why tell the opponent what you are going to do in that situation? With no threat of a run, it really hurts the ability to convert. While I wanted the Browns to run in those situations, they did run on some short yardage plays including going on fourth down near midfield late in the third quarter. The struggles in those situations made me wonder if this is why we see so many passes in third and short situations – that although the teams seems to run well, it just isn't ready to get the tough yard. Part of the problem is using everyone but Reuben Droughns in that situation when Droughns has shown he can get the tough yard (remember the Colts game?). The Browns always seem to go to William Green, Terelle Smith, and now Jason Wright in these situations.
Despite this criticism, I like the creativity and unpredictability, even if Maurice Carthon is trying too hard to fool the opponent sometimes. If the Browns could execute in more of these situations, this offense might be looking pretty decent at this point.
I liked seeing Romeo fired up after some Browns mistakes. Crennell was very angry after the fumbled exchange, and he ran onto the field to call a timeout at the end of the first half. It was the most fire I'd seen from him this year, and I loved it!
While the win was sweet, and in my estimation, this was just the third decent game of the season by the Browns (the others: Green Bay and Indy), let's remember that the Titans are struggling. In many cases, dropped passes, bad blocking, and missed opportunities by the Titans did more to hand the game to the Browns than the Browns did to win it. A better team would capitalize on poor coverage or bad run defense by the Browns. In so many ways, the Titans are a mirror image of the Browns.
At 3-5, the Browns are probably about where they ought to be in terms of record. The Browns probably should have beaten the Lions and Titans, and considering both games were lost by just three points, two plays might be the difference between 3-5 and 5-3. But, the bottom line is, neither play got made. This team is still a work in progress and unfortunately, it will more often find ways to lose than ways to win. Remind yourself as the Browns continue to lose winnable games that these are classes in the School of Hard Knocks and that the mistakes made now will pay dividends later.
Depending on how things go in Pittsburgh, the Charlie Frye era will probably begin soon. While the Browns looked more loose than they have been in some time, it's hard to imagine them going into Heinz Field and knocking off the Steelers. However, as the 2003 game pointed out, the games aren't played on paper and who knows? Once again, Frye will not rescue the season, but playing him will allow the Browns to evaluate him under game conditions. It will also allow Frye to make some rookie mistakes in a season that isn't going anywhere otherwise. At least fans can feel good that the team is investing in its future.
Meanwhile, the defense is slowly coming around despite some serious talent deficits. There may be a few more players that can be part of the puzzle in 2006 than it may have appeared even a few weeks ago. Considering the personnel, Crennell and Todd Grantham are doing an amazing job with this group.
I really enjoyed watching this game with Steve Hodge and members of the Westerville Browns Backers.
A great friend and Browns fan, David Perry, had a sudden illness over the weekend and is currently hospitalized. Get well soon, David!
The season is short, bark hard!