After their best performance of the season, the Browns laid an egg at Minnesota. Players executed poorly, coaches made questionable decisions, and not much went right. All in all, given how many things went wrong, the Browns were lucky that the score was not more lopsided. Let's delve into the gory details of this game.
Very little went right on offense all day. Let's run through the things that were positives:
- Reuben Droughns. Where would the Browns be this season without Droughns?
By far, his performance was the biggest positive on offense. Unfortunately,
once the Browns got behind, it took away the opportunity to run. Droughns
also made some big yards off screen passes.
- Steve Heiden. For the second straight week, Heiden made five tough
catches in traffic, and took some shots while doing it. On the other hand,
Heiden's problems blocking led directly to one of the sacks of quarterback
- Frisman Jackson. After eight catches in the opener, Jackson has fallen off the face of the earth. He dropped several passes in subsequent games that led to him being inactive for the last few games. Jackson had five catches, but these were largely at garbage time. I'll be a believer when he makes tough catches to convert third downs like he did in the 2003 finale at Cincinnati.
Beyond the above, it's hard to find much more to say that's good about how the offense performed. As I always say, the offensive line sets the tone for the offense and that was true in this one. The offensive line had a terrible game. Whether that was due to game planning, matchups, nagging injuries, or some combination of these is hard to say.
Regardless, I can't single out even one offensive linemen who had a good game. Jeff Faine was largely eaten alive by Pat Williams. L. J. Shelton failed to keep outside containment on several plays. Cosey Coleman was pushed around pretty good. Mike Pucillo struggled and drew a penalty. Even the normally reliable Ryan Tucker got beat. Let's hope this was just a bad game. This line is not one of the best in the NFL, but it is better than it showed Sunday.
The problems on the line left the immobile Trent Dilfer running (well, moving faster than walking) for his life. He was sacked five times, and two of those included fumbles that set the Vikings up on a short field. Dilfer said after the game that he prides himself on taking care of the ball. His pride must be wounded because he now has seven fumbles on the season. Dilfer also chipped in two interceptions, but one went off Braylon Edwards' hands. I'll give Dilfer credit for toughness, though, as he stayed in the game after his knee was fallen on by two linemen.
The receivers certainly did not help. Besides deflecting balls to the opponent, there were drops, especially from Antonio Bryant, bad route running, and jumping offside in the red zone. I'll give Bryant and Edwards that they were largely double covered. But even so, you have to make something of the opportunities given to you. Braynt and Edwards jumping offside killed the chance for the Browns to get within 10-7 at halftime. I will give Dennis Northcutt credit for tough running on the lone touchdown play for the Browns.
Charlie Frye got in the game for one play. There was a miscommunication and the ball did not get near a receiver, creating an easy interception for the Vikings.
The defense also had its problems. Once again, let's look at the few bright spots:
- Orpheus Roye. This guy plays hard regardless of the situation. If a
runner was being stuffed or there was any pressure on Brad Johnson, it was
usually because of Roye.
- Chaun Thompson. He made multiple plays in this game. That's a good sign
and an improvement over the disappearing act we've seen in the past.
- Chris Crocker. He had a nice interception. It's hard to say much more that's positive, as he struggled in most of the rest of the game.
The Browns failed to get any kind of pressure on the quarterback on a consistent basis, despite two sacks. One came at garbage time. Despite the stats that say the Browns held down the Vikings to a paltry running average, the Vikings, and in particular Mwelde Moore, often ran for more than five yards. That combined with a return to soft coverage in the secondary spelled doom for the Browns. The defense overall played down to the way we have seen in some games this season. It's hard to look at this performance and not feel that some of the adjustment to the 3-4 we've seen recently was gone.
On top of that, players who have made some plays recently like Leigh Bodden and Daylon McCutcheon had their problems. Michael Lehan has shown flashes in the past despite numerous injuries, but he was toasted in this game. Other than a few plays by Thompson, Andra Davis, and Kenard Lang, the linebackers didn't do much. When I read last week that Jermaine Wiggins was the leading receiver for the Vikings at tight end, I knew the Browns would have problems covering him. Crocker got a good hit on him once.
Josh Cribbs had a great day on kickoff returns. Beyond that, not much happened. Even inside, Phil Dawson managed to get just one kickoff into the end zone. I also thought Kyle Richardson didn't have a fantastic day punting, but it was not as bad as the klunker in Houston. The kick coverage teams weren't great, but not as bad as we've seen at times.
The Browns have an inexperienced coaching staff, and it showed. The coaches did not set the team up to succeed, and in fact, I'd argue that they set them up to fail.
Let's start at the top with Romeo Crennel. His handling of the Charlie Frye situation last week was unorthodox, but this week, it was just plain bizarre. Granted, Frye threw an ugly pass, but if Dilfer was really an injured as he looked, didn't it make sense to let Frye play the rest of the game? I can only guess that the fierce pass rush of the Vikings combined with the collapse of the offensive line caused some concern on the part of the head coach, but Frye is going to have to play at some point.
The clock management at the end of the first half was awful. The Browns wasted valuable time in the huddle while the clock ticked down from around 40 seconds to go to just 12. Then, Bryant and Edwards couldn't watch the ball to see when it was snapped, which would have resulted in a ten-second runoff except that the Browns had to use their final timeout. Then, with 8 seconds left, the Browns kicked a field goal rather than risking running a play.
Then, there was the play calling of Maurice Carthon. While he has mixed things up a lot this season, this was a very poor showing. Even the announcers noted that the Browns had fallen into a pattern of running on first down, a screen or draw on second, and a pass on third. Actually, the first screen came well into the game. With an aggressive pass rush by the Vikings, it is puzzling why it took that long to call a screen. The, the Browns ran too many screens and by late in the game, the Vikings had them sniffed out.
I'm not opposed to the occasional empty backfield play, but there are two examples on Sunday which were real head scratchers. The first was in a second and two situation. Why tip off the fact that the play is going to be a pass on short yardage? The threat of the run should open things up on that kind of down. Worse, Frye's one play was an empty backfield look and he was nearly sacked. Beyond that, the Browns ran way too many slow-developing plays like fake reverses against an aggressive defense.
While I won't pick too much on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the Browns tried several blitzes, but rarely did they get near the quarterback. These allowed Johnson to find the holes in the soft coverage being employed by the Browns.
Overall, I'd call this the worst coaching performance of the season.
The Browns will have to right the ship against two upcoming opponents with winning records and playoff aspirations: the Jaguars and Bengals. Before you get too excited about playing the Jags without Byron Leftwich, remember that David Garrard is no slouch and he makes plays with his feet, too. The Browns will have to play a lot better than in the Minnesota game to have a chance. If the Bengals knock off Pittsburgh, there's always a chance that they will be caught looking past the Browns. But since division record will be critical to their playoff hopes, I wouldn't suggest that the team count on that.
With five games to go, several players need to show that they are worth retaining. Guys will play themselves onto or off of the team over the final stretch. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.