The Browns turned in their most complete performance of the season in shutting out the Dolphins. Before you object that the Dolphins played a pitiful game, especially on offense, let's not discount the many things the Browns did well. Of course, it was not a perfect effort, and the Browns have a lot of room for improvement. There were still many encouraging signs in this game. Let's examine the details of this victory.
Trent Dilfer played a solid game. This was the type of game I expected out of Dilfer when he was signed. He generally did OK and avoided the big mistake. Similar to the Steelers game, Dilfer's inaccurate throws hurt the Browns at times. In one case, Antonio Bryant was wide open in the end zone. Dilfer threw to him, but the ball went out of bounds. Dilfer also struggles with getting the right touch on the ball at times. On the other hand, he did get the ball into the hands of Braylon Edwards and threw the ball in spots where the receiver could make a play, even if they weren't tremendously open. Dilfer tried to make a couple of plays by scrambling, but he makes Bernie Kosar look mobile. Despite all the criticisms above, this was a decent performance, and good enough to win.
Charlie Frye got in the game for three series, though one ended after just one play when the ball went off Edwards and was intercepted. This was an unorthodox way to get Frye's first regular season experience, but given the Browns current situation, it made sense. Frye led the Browns to a last second field goal on his first possession that closed out the first half. It's hard to evaluate Frye on just a few plays, but it was pretty much what you might expect. He threw a ball that Sam Madison should have intercepted. On the other hand, when he came under a rush, he scrambled around to avoid it and threw a ball that Edwards leaped and caught for a first down. It was a microcosm of playing Frye all in one play. He made something happen, but he took a huge hit and threw a ball into traffic that could have just as easily been intercepted. As I've said before, Frye will not save this season by playing. He will, however, gain valuable experience and it allows the Browns to evaluate him.
All I can say about the performance of Rueben Droughns is, well, "Wow!" His 75-yard touchdown on the Browns first offensive play will be on NFL highlight reels for the 2005 season. Twice Droughns looked like he was stopped. When he met the initial wall of tacklers, he bulled through them. After cutting across the field, he stopped and allowed a would-be tackler to run past him. Also credit the receivers and in particular Steve Heiden with some great blocking to make the play work. That play set the tone and put Miami in a hole from which they never recovered. But Droughns still managed another 91 yards the rest of the day, which is excellent considering Miami took away the run for the most part in the second quarter. How about watching Miami defenders drop like flies as Droughns knocked them around. It brings back memories of Kevin Mack.
Jason Wright got three carries for eight yards in spot duty. The Browns tried using him on third down several times. It would be interesting to see them throw to him. Terrelle Smith had an outstanding one-handed touchdown reception and got one carry.
This was finally the coming out party for Braylon Edwards. In addition to the six balls he caught, the Browns threw to him at least three more times, one being Frye's pass that was deflected and intercepted. Edwards showed the ability to catch balls that were not exactly thrown right to him. His catch on a slant from Dilfer was taken off his hip. It went for a long gain. That is becoming his signature play. Antonio Bryant had a decent day on the stat sheet, but he had some balls that he should have caught. The final six games will determine if Bryant returns next season, and he needs to step up. Dennis Northcutt had one short catch. Hopefully, as Edwards draws more attention from opponents, it will open up Northcutt to make the kinds of plays we have seen in the past. Northcutt also had a short run on a reverse.
Steve Heiden caught several short passes, most of them while taking a hit. Many of those kept drives going. He also got called for a very borderline push off. Aaron Shea didn't see tons of action and failed to catch the one pass that came his way.
Given that Cosey Coleman was hurting and Joe Andruzzi was out, this was a very solid performance by the offensive line. Let's not forget that Miami has a good defense, and despite the fact that Zach Thomas left with an injury just before halftime, Jason Taylor and company are not easy to block. L. J. Shelton had a few problems with the Miami pass rush, but the Browns schemed to allow a tight end to help out in many cases. The line protected well and did some nice run blocking. I have been impressed with the solid performance of Mike Pucillo filling in at both guard spots over the last several games. And, there was only one penalty on the line, a "hands to the face" call on Coleman.
Yes, the defense was once again gashed by the run up the middle, but beyond that, there were plenty of things to be encouraged about. This performance was the best by the defense all year. While many are saying that the Dolphin offense was pitiful (they were), I think when you examine some of the performances on defense, it was not all gaffes by the Dolphins that allowed the defense to play as well as it did.
While there were some decent performances by individuals on the line, perhaps the best thing you can say is that they were largely invisible. Orpheus Roye made a few plays, enough to be a solid game while not as many as we have seen from him at times. Alvin McKinley had a sack. While the interior of the line was being pushed around all too often, one of the best things you can say in the 3-4 was that the linebackers were able to make some plays. This part of the defense is still soft, but I think Ethan Kelley is an upgrade over Jason Fisk. Nick Eason lined up offsides and it was obvious he had done so.
Andra Davis is being praised because he had a lot of tackles. He did have an active game, and some of those tackles were too far down field, but his best plays came on blitzes and when he was able to get into the backfield and disrupt the plays. I've not been a huge fan of Ben Taylor this season, but I have to give him credit for his best game of the season. He had a nice tackle on a run to the outside and made a few plays. Kenard Lang looked good in the pass rush a couple of times. Matt Stewart did a nice job to track down a Sage Rosenfels pass that was a wounded duck because of a hit as he threw. Chaun Thompson has had games where he made more plays, but there were a couple of times he flew past an offensive tackle to blow up a play. Orlando Ruff saw some action as well.
This secondary is often maligned. People are always talking about getting a shutdown corner or better safeties. The group is missing Gary Baxter and Brodney Pool was also out for this game. The Dolphins have some good receivers. Yet, the secondary played a great game. I've consistently praised Leigh Bodden this year. Other than one bad play in Houston, Bodden has done a nice job all season. This game featured an excellent performance. Bodden stayed with his man and slapped several balls away, particularly some late in the game. Bodden will be pushing for a starting job next summer with this kind of play. Daylon McCutcheon may be too short by NFL standards, but other than a missed tackle, a rarity for him, he also stuck to receivers like glue. I'm guessing the missed tackle might be because he was not 100% from what looked to be a serious injury last week in Pittsburgh. Chris Crocker did some nice work on blitzes. Brian Russell was the odd man out. The other backs did such a good job, about all he managed to do was come over to support on plays where the corner already had it defensed. Ray Mickens even slapped away a ball at the end of the game. I thought the secondary set the tone for the game of defense.
It was nice to see Michael Lehan back as the gunner. He did a great job leaping to slap a punt out of the end zone. The Browns downed it at the two. Dennis Northcutt had a nice long return and shockingly, there were no flags! Phil Dawson missed an extra point, but he made three field goals and even had a touchback. Too bad that got wiped out by yet another offside penalty. Kyle Richardson did a solid job punting, though at the end when the Browns wanted to bury the Dolphins, he had a weak kick. The kick coverage teams actually did a decent job in this game, something that has been a problem most of the season.
The Browns started strong then laid an egg at Pittsburgh. They could have gotten more points early, and making some plays that were missed might well have kept the game from tilting the other way. The Browns have some injuries as well. These factors could have contributed to poor play in this game. Instead, the players held a team meeting and challenged each other. The coaching staff in turn came up with a solid game plan and put the Browns in a position to win. Instead of the soft zone we have seen all too often this year, Todd Grantham used an aggressive man-to-man scheme in this game. The players delivered and it allowed the front seven to make some plays as well.
Lots of people hate the way Charlie Frye got in the game. Others say it was a great way to get the kid in, yet not commit to Frye as a starter. I'm glad to see Frye playing and, for that matter, getting Braylon Edwards the ball. I'm not sure switching quarterbacks is a great strategy, but Crennell has been saying that Frye would see some playing time, not that he would start. Putting him to hand off at the end of a blowout doesn't show what he can do in a "real" game situation without making him the full-time starter probably makes sense. Expect Frye to start a game at least once the rest of the year.
If nothing else, doesn't it feel nice to get some positive comments about the Browns and the direction they are headed from the national media? Doesn't it feel good to win a game convincingly while still investing time in some young players? It feels like the players are turning a corner in attitude and that the defense in particular is beginning to grasp the 3-4 scheme. I think the staff deserves a lot of credit for getting the level of performance they have out of a team that has some serious talent gaps.
The Browns head to Minnesota to take on the suddenly resurgent Vikings. Despite their three-game winning streak, the Browns are catching the Vikes on a short week, and they are a team that still has problems. Beyond that, after a December visit from Jacksonville, the Browns face each of the AFC North teams along with a trip to Oakland. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the Browns will upset one of the three teams remaining on their schedule with a winning record. Pair that with a win or maybe two against the other three teams and a six- or seven-win season would be a solid accomplishment for this team. Another draft and a rumored $30 million to spend on free agents and the Browns are looking like the future is bright.
Let me also slip in congratulations to the Massillon Tigers for defeating Canton McKinley 21-3 to reach the state semifinals this weekend. With two opponents left, the road will be a difficult one as far as they can go from here.
The season is short. Bark hard!