The Browns traveled to Cincinnati to face to division-leading Bengals. After leading for most of the game, the Browns gave up the lead in the fourth quarter, tied the game, then lost on a last-second field goal. The Browns did some good things, but once again, they made enough mistakes to cost them the game. Take away any one of these mistakes and perhaps the result is different. Let's examine what happened and then sort out what it all means.
Charlie Frye started his second game and first on the road. This was the kind of start you might expect from Frye. He made a lot of good plays, both throwing and with his feet. He threw the ball accurately for the most part, although he had a couple of low throws. In both cases, I wondered if he threw them low on purpose, but the end result was that both went incomplete. Frye made some particularly nice plays when rolling out, including a nice three-yard TD run. I like the fact that Frye looks to throw first, then runs when his options are exhausted or pressure comes. He also managed to draw the Bengals offside on a fourth and inches play.
On the other hand, Frye made two bad decisions, one that was intercepted, and another that should have been had Deltha O'Neal not dropped it. The second one would have probably sealed the game. Frye held the ball too long once or twice, but he did better than last week. He let the clock run down while trying to change a play. Bengals players said he locked on receivers, though I noticed him looking off, particularly on the touchdown play to Heiden. He missed the fact that Northcutt was completely uncovered on an empty backfield play. These are the kinds of rookie mistakes you will get with Frye. But, better he makes them in 2005 than in 2006.
Reuben Droughns had tough sledding. The Bengals were clearly choosing to shut down Droughns and force the Browns to throw. Despite this fact, Droughns had several good runs. But late in the game, the Bengals were holding Droughns to one or two yards per carry, which forced the Browns into third and long situations. I can't fault Droughns and I would have done the same if I were the Bengals. Droughns still fought to make positive plays despite limited running room. Lee Suggs got in the game and had problems. He got his first carry of the year and lost yards. His best play was a nifty screen pass where Suggs showed the elusiveness we've seen at times in the past. Unfortunately, a penalty wiped out the play. Terelle Smith had a nice swing pass out of the backfield, a play we've rarely seen. Smith had some nice blocks here and there.
With Braylon Edwards hurt, I wanted to see if the other receivers would step up. They did some. Dennis Northcutt had a solid game including a pass where he was upended but still held onto the ball. Antonio Bryant made some good catches, but he had one costly drop. I see why Parcells let him go. He had skills, but for whatever reason, he can't consistently make the play. Frisman Jackson saw some action, but didn't make much of an impact. Josh Cribbs saw some time at receiver.
Steve Heiden not only had the touchdown catch, but again he proved an effective target to keep the chains moving. I like the fact that Aaron Shea is once again involved in the passing game, but that is limited.
Iit was nice having the starting line back together, and though they are still not 100% healthy, hrtting back veteran Joe Andruzzi made a solid difference. The line did a nice job of releasing on that screen play, but Jeff Faine was called for holding. The line struggled to open holes for the running game at times.
Overall, the offense had several time-consuming drives and moved the ball. The problems came when needing to convert on third down, especially when the distance was longer, often due to some conservative play calling.
This game featured more "bend but don't break" defense, though it still broke a couple of times, especially lat in the game.
The defensive line has really suffered since Ethan Kelley was injured. Jason Fisk gets shoved all over the place at nose tackle, and it allows a good running team like the Bengals to gash the Browns. I was surprised the Bengals didn't run more than they did. The Browns did manage to get the running game under control in the second half, with the notable exception of the last drive, something that has been a common theme in several games. Orpheus Roye continues to be the underrated stalwart of the defense. Alvin McKinley made a few plays as well.
If there was a failing in this game, it was the linebackers. Ben Taylor supposedly led the team with nine tackles. My image of him from this one will be repeatedly getting bowled over by Rudi Johnson. Andra Davis did have the nice interception and return, setting up a short field for the Browns, but other than that, he did not have one of his better games. Chaun Thompson, after an excellent game last week, was invisible this week. He is still very inconsistent. I know Kenard Lang, Orlando Ruff, and Matt Stewart also played, but they didn't make a lot of impact plays. In the 3-4, as the linebackers go, so goes the defense.
The secondary played fairly well. Daylon McCutcheon had a couple of problems, but he played better than the previous week. Despite the two late penalties, both after taking a very hard hit that knocked him out, Leigh Bodden for the most part shut down Chad Johnson. The first of the two penalties, a defensive holding call, was pure fiction. Take away that call and the Bengals are facing fourth down from the 33 and a decision on whether to attempt a field goal or to punt. The second call was more legitimate. I thought Ray Mickens played his best game as a Brown. Chris Crocker made some good plays in the running game. Brian Russell saved a touchdown on a long run by Rudi Johnson, and the Bengals were forced to settle for a field goal. Unfortunately, Russell's best hit of the day was on Bodden. It was nice to see Brodney Poole back in the game, and he made a tackle and broke up a play.
The defense overall was effective, despite giving up way too many rushing yards, poor linebacker play, and costly mistakes. But the killer was the same one that has haunted the defense all year – the inability to get the opposition off the field when they need a critical stop at crunch time.
Despite some nice kickoff returns by Cribbs and one decent punt return by Northcutt, the special teams once again killed themselves. A great kickoff return was negated by a call on Frisman Jackson, moving the Browns back from around the 35 to the 16. Kyle Richardson had a 58-yard punt negated by a penalty. Instead of burying the Bengals at the 19, they started near midfield instead. A coverage breakdown gave the Bengals great field position to start their final drive. It seemed like there was a flag on the Browns on just about every kick. Many of the special teamers from this year may not be around in 2006.
After some very questionable game planning the last two weeks, the Browns had a good strategy this week, and it largely worked. The Browns wanted to play ball control and run the clock to give the high-powered Bengal offense less chances. Despite an ineffective running game at times, the Browns were able to effectively use the short pass to keep drives going, despite some pretty conservative play calling. Once again, the Browns fell into a run-run-pass pattern, especially in the second half, putting Frye in difficult situations. To his credit, he was able to make a play anyway several times.
I credit coach Crennel for getting Frye some real game experience against some good teams. It will be interesting to see how Frye handles a long road trip to play an opponent that is falling apart. The Raiders looked terrible on both sides of the ball in losing to the Jets. Despite the errors he is making, I would still argue that an inexperienced Frye is better now than Dilfer. I have a hard time believing the Browns would have been in a position to win the game had Dilfer played. One huge advantage for Frye is the ability to move around. Dilfer's knees must be shot, because he just can't run at all.
I'm tired of moral victories. But, since this in effect the 2006 preseason right now, take solace in the fact that the Browns are building for the future and they have not hurt their draft position in doing it. The Browns have won some games this year, and they've played some klunkers, but seeing the play of the team in this game provides hope that better times are ahead.
Charlie Frye will get the start again at Oakland, and barring injury, it looks like he will start the rest of the year. These games are providing valuable experience, not to mention game film that Frye can study all winter. The Raiders are a team that can be beaten, though the Browns have historically played poorly in west coast games. I believe that this one might be different.
It is quite possible that the Steelers will be eliminated from the AFC North race by the time they meet the Browns on Christmas Eve. They will likely be fighting for their playoff lives. I'd hate to facing the Browns in that situation, given that the Browns have nothing to lose. The Ravens look like they are melting down after a pretty pathetic loss in Denver.
I think all three remaining games will be entertaining.
The season is short, bark hard!