Derry: Rough Game, Good Signs

Among the positives, perhaps, is the best Browns running back in the last twenty years...

Reality sucks.

And the reality of the matter on Sunday night for the Browns at Heinz Field was that they played one of their better first halves of the season against the Steelers and still trailed 17-7 at intermission en route to a 34-21 setback.

The Browns, who were feeling good about themselves after knocking off the Tennessee Titans the previous Sunday and coming very close to winning games against the Texans and Lions, got a dose of reality when they faced a legitimate Super Bowl caliber team for the first time since their Sept. 25 match-up with the Colts in Indianapolis.

Both the Browns and Steelers brought a boatload of enthusiasm and determination into the game, which at times in the first two quarters brought back memories of years gone by with some of the hardest hits of the season.

But the problem is, enthusiasm and determination cannot make up for the current difference in talent on the two teams.

The Steelers, plain and simple, are equal or superior at virtually every position.

This, despite the fact the Steelers were without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They then lost backup Charlie Batch at the end of the first half. In addition, the Steelers were without their most productive running back, Willie Parker.

Despite the lopsided loss, I came away from this game with a good feeling in regards to at least one aspect of the Browns game. Over the past 20 years, I have not seen a Browns running back play as hard or as well as Reuben Droughns.

There were several times when Droughns simply refused to go down. Rarely could one person knock him off his feet. His performance reminded me of how Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner used to perform.

If the Browns had 11 Reuben Droughns on the offensive side of the ball, they would be a scoring machine.

Ever since he was picked up and charged with driving under the influence on Halloween, Droguhns has displayed a tenacity not seen out of a Browns running back since Byner.

I think what impressed me most about that situation was that the next time the players were available in the locker room, Droughns made himself available to a horde of reporters who had gathered around his locker. He took full blame for the situation while apologizing to the organization, his teammates and the fans.

Head coach Romeo Crennel indicated a couple of weeks ago that the Browns would use the first half of the season to decide which players they would try to sign to multi-year contracts.

Well, folks, they had better be talking to Droughns and his agent in the very near future. This guy has the potential to be the heart and soul, ala Byner, of the offense for many years to come. They cannot afford to let him get away.

Droughns' enthusiasm seems to be infectious, or at least it should be.

He is the sparkplug of the offense much the same way inside linebacker Andra Davis is the leader of the defense.

You build around players like Droughns and Davis, who also is due a new contract at the end of this season. Right now, neither guy has a strong supporting cast, although Crennel insists he sees some light at the end of the tunnel.

"There are several guys who have improved," he said. "It's not always dramatic improvement. You take a guy like Brodney Pool. He now understands where he needs to be and what technique he needs to use. He's beginning to fit more into his role. Several guys fit better in the special teams category.

"From week to week, you start to see different guys show up. You have to say that Andra Davis' production defensively is good. Brian Russell has been solid in the secondary.

"Offensively, Reuben has been a positive with the way he rushes the ball. Braylon is continuing to improve. All these guys are making improvements."

At this stage, the 2005 Browns are, according to Crennel, similar to the 2000 New England Patriots.

The Patriots played, and lost, a lot of close games that season. But even though they more often than not came out on the short end, they convinced themselves they were only a play or two away from winning many of those games.

"The next year, after a slow start, we were able to start winning some games," said Crennel, who was an assistant on Bill Belicheck's New England staff starting in 2000.

One area where Crennel definitely will have to look for improvement if his offense is to make big plays is at wide receiver. Neither Dennis Northcutt nor Antonio Bryant has proven the least bit reliable. Both contributed in a negative way to Sunday's loss to the Steelers.

I'll be stunned if rookie Braylon Edwards doesn't replace Northcutt, who dropped at least two passes against the Steelers, as the starter, rather than remain in the current three-for-two situation which now exists.

Defensively, the Browns will be forced to play younger players at cornerback with veteran Gary Baxter out for the season and fellow veteran Daylon McCutcheon out for an unknown amount of time with an abdominal injury suffered in the first half against the Steelers.

You'd like to have Baxter and McCutcheon in there, but now Ray Mickens and Leigh Bodden are getting an opportunity that they otherwise would not have gotten.

Right now, the best thing about the Browns is that they have not quit despite their 3-6 record. Time will tell if that holds true for the rest of the year, but if the effort against the Steelers is any indication, the Browns are not going to pull a disappearing act ala the Baltimore Ravens.

Crennel, his coaches and players like Droughns and Davis won't allow it.

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