After one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of the team, the coaches and players put aside front office intrigue, shook off a terrible start, and overcame a 13-0 deficit to defeat the Ravens. More than that, some individual and coaching performances in this game provide definite hope for the future.
Rather than a position-oriented look, I want to discuss why the Browns were getting trounced, what changed, and how some individuals contributed.
This game largely started out exactly where the team left off the previous week: the Browns had trouble with their offensive line, and even more so in this game with Dave Yovanovits replacing Cosey Coleman at guard. Between he and Pucillo, it was like a revolving door. Charlie Frye had no time to throw, and the running game was going nowhere. Of course, the early running woes once again could be attributed to a stubborn insistence to run up the middle against the strength of the defensive line, much like the Browns did against Jacksonville and Oakland. It makes me wonder if Maurice Carthon creates a game plan that takes into account the opponent's strengths and weaknesses. On top of all of this, the Browns tend to run some very slow developing plays, and those were getting them killed.
Once again this week, the Browns went three-and-out on several consecutive series to open the game. Once this began to unfold, Frye began to press. He held the ball way too long on some plays, particularly the fumble the Ravens returned for their only touchdown. Frye should have eaten that ball. Even after the game began to turn, in particular the second interception was a ball that should never have been thrown, with three Ravens in the area.
Meanwhile, the defense was playing inspired football. They gave up a couple of longer running plays, but many of the Ravens running plays went for little or no gain. When Orpheus Roye was in, the Browns did better against the run. But the Browns also used a four-man line at times, bringing Nick Eason in to go along with Roye, Fisk, and McKinley. The only time I had seen this previously was when the Browns would use Kenard Lang as more of a rushing linebacker, but this was the first true 4-3 look I saw this season. In addition, the Browns moved Roye to the nose on passing downs, lining up some combination of McKinley, Lang, and Fraser at end. This gave the Browns a better push up front. The net result of all this was to do what the 3-4 is intended to do: to allow the linebackers to make plays.
For the first time in four games, the linebackers were keys to the success on defense. Andra Davis and Chaun Thompson were able to disrupt plays in the backfield. Boller was consistently harassed. Even players like Kenard Lang and Ben Taylor, who have struggled much of the season, made plays. In my view, both had their best games of the year. Taylor actually made some plays. Lang was used in a combo linebacker-end role reminiscent of Jamir Miller in 2001. It worked.
The Tide Turns
The Browns has allowed Baltimore two field goals in three attempts. The last attempt, after the first Frye interception, had a botched snap and the Browns got the ball. One came after Kyle Richardson had his latest shanked punt. The defense had done well to hold the Ravens to a field goal after a 30-plus yard pass play from Boller to Mason on third down gave the Ravens a first and goal at the five. After moving backwards 11 yards, the Ravens had to settle for the field goal. Frye's fumble deep in his own end put the Browns in a 13-0 hole.
Then, the Browns adjusted.
You read that right – adjusted.
The next series, midway through the second quarter, the Browns came out with a quick, three-step drop passing game. Frye hit three consecutive passes on slant and out patterns. Dennis Northcutt turned in nicely on a quick pass to him, slipped two defenders and got seven yards. Bryant made some nice catches. The passing success began to loosen up the run defense a little. The Browns moved the ball but could not punch it in. They settled for a 13-3 deficit with about 4:00 to go until halftime.
After stopping the Ravens, the Browns got the ball back on a nice interception return by the much-maligned Brian Russell. The Browns had just one timeout and were able to drive the ball, again using a quick passing game, with no timeouts, the Browns had to line up quickly and spike the ball to get a half-ending field goal. You could feel the momentum change it gave the Browns to go in at halftime down just 13-6.
We Have Ourselves A Ballgame
The Ravens got the ball first after halftime. The went three and out. The Browns moved the ball, but Frye's 2nd interception killed the drive. After a series of laterals, the Ravens had returned the ball around 50 yards. A final lateral was recovered by the Browns, but the officials awarded the ball to the Ravens when the ruled that the whistle had blown. The sparse but raucous crowd booed throughout the series as the defense once again held the Ravens to a field goal. They would not score again.
Once again, though, the Browns had adjusted. Rather than try to run inside, the Browns began to run toss plays to the outside. Behind blocks by tackles Ryan Tucker, L. J. Shelton, and even the young Nat Dorsey, the Browns were able to get a few yards on the ground. The Browns began to have Frye rolling out, allowing him to make plays on the run, something that was his specialty at Akron.
Following the Ravens' final score, Josh Cribbs had another good kickoff return, 54 yards across midfield. Cribbs fumbled at the end of the play, but Sean Jones picked up the ball and advanced it another 11 yards, putting Frye and the offense on a short field. The Browns began moving the ball again.
Charlie Frye really used his intangibles to beat the pass rush of the Ravens. He scrambled and threw on the run. He got away from what looked like sure sacks on several plays. One of the best was the lone touchdown pass of the day. Frye looked like he was going to be sacked practically at the snap. Frye scrambled to his left. There were probably 12 yards between Frye and the end zone, and the way was clear, though whether Frye could make it all the way in before a defender would arrive was a toss up. Frye took two steps to run, then pulled up as he saw Antonio Bryant standing alone in the back of the end zone. Frye flipped the ball to him for a touchdown.
After another stalled drive by the Ravens, Dennis Northcutt was forced to retreat by a high deep punt. He looked to be tackled, but spun out of it. As Northcutt began to cut across the field, you could see the far side of the field wide open. Northcutt got great blocks from Mason Unck, Less Suggs, and Frisman Jackson to take it the distance. Shockingly, there was not a yellow flag to be seen on the field. The Browns took a 20-16 lead.
The Browns were able to do enough at the end to both run some time off the clock and force the Ravens off the field. Consistent pressure on Boller thwarted their attempts to come back in the game. Needing a touchdown to take the lead, Brian Russell again intercepted Kyle Boller on fourth down, allowing the Browns to run out the clock.
After a week where the Browns tanked against their arch rivals and the Browns front office embarrassed the fans of the team with an ill-timed management soap opera, this win over the hated Ravens was a sweet way to end the season. A 6-10 record matches my preseason prediction.
Given what was going on in Berea, this game confirmed my opinion that Romeo Crennel is the steady hand the Browns need at the helm. To have this team totally focused on business, to keep them from laying down at the end of a losing season down 13-0 is a credit to his leadership. He and Todd Grantham crafted an excellent defensive game plan. Despite a poor game plan to start, Maurice Carthon finally showed the ability to make meaningful adjustments. For a change, it was the opponent who was not able to adjust back. I am very impressed with what the staff did in this game.
You also have to compliment Charlie Frye. It would have been easy for the rookie to get down after some of the early problems, especially on the heels of the Steeler game. Instead, he used his abilities to make plays and thwart a pretty good defense. Frye gained a lot of valuable experience in the final five games. Studying his performance throughout the offseason will pay dividends in 2006.
Watch this space for an evaluation of the successes and failures of the 2005 season. Some good things happened, as did some bad ones. In the end, I think the team ended up about where you would expect.
As of this writing, much of the front office intrigue has worked itself out. The right man was retained and the right one left. This should be an interesting offseason in Cleveland, and I think it has the potential to be a successful one.
As the playoffs unfold, the Browns begin to look at what needs to be done to build on the foundation that has been laid in 2005. A lot of big decisions will have to be made on players. It will be fun to watch.
The season is short, bark hard!