This game was more what I expected to see from the 2006 Browns – a stingy defense and an inexperienced offense showing flashes of talent. The team finally put together an inspired game and it was nearly enough to win. Despite the loss, there is reason for optimism. Let's take a closer look at how it all played out.
It only took three games for the decision to let go of veterans William Green and Lee Suggs to become important in a game. With Reuben Droughns out, the Browns had to go with a running back by committee approach with a trio of inexperienced backs. Knowing this, the Ravens countered by playing man-to-man on the receivers and sending the house most of the game. Jason Wright ran with effort, but with meager results. The Browns emphasized the passing game, but did not abandon the run, even though it didn't do much. It kept the defense honest.
For the first time in 2006, including the preseason, the Browns went away from a horizontal attack. They had success in the vertical game with intermediate passes over the linebackers and with some deep throws. Even so, it was not enough to keep the heat off Charlie Frye. This may have been a "coming of age" game for the young quarterback. He stood in despite seven sacks and being pressured much of the game. Still, Charlie was often able to step up to avoid the rush. He did not scramble much, and in this game, when he tried to run, the Ravens did a good job of containing him. Perhaps his best play was a play where he ran to the outside, went right up to the line, then threw back across the field to Kellen Winslow for a first down. Nobody can criticize his arm after the deep throw to Braylon Edwards that was right on the money.
Frye is taking a lot of heat for the interception that cost the Browns the game, but Frye was hit as he threw on that pass. These are the kinds of mistakes I expected from Frye this season. He will grow from them. My biggest criticism is in Charlie knowing when to take the sack and when to throw the ball away. Frye has improved in this area so far this season, but he still has a ways to go.
After his remarks regarding the offense, Winslow did seem to be on the field on third downs, and boy was it effective. We saw glimpses in this game of what Winslow and Edwards can be when they are on the field together. Winslow just keeps making plays, always catching the ball and dragging defenders along. Edwards has to get past the dropsies. He was much better than a week ago in that regard, but there is work yet to be done. If Edwards can elevate his game to the level of Winslow, the Browns will be hard to stop.
Let me also throw out kudos to Steve Heiden as a second option at tight end. He continues to make catches that move the chains. Lawrence Vickers has a tremendous run on a screen pass on the last possession, though it looked like he might have gotten even more yards had he cut it back.
Despite the sacks, the constant pressure, and the inability to get the running game going, this was the best performance yet by the offensive line. I don't like seeing Hank Fraley lose his man or Cosey Coleman standing nearby as Frye gets sacked, but the line is improving. The Ravens did not even bother to defend the run, putting a lot of pressure on the line to get everyone picked up. For the most part, they did OK. The one gaffe was costly, as the linebacker came untouched to hit Charlie on second and goal as he threw, contributing to the lone turnover of the game.
Much as the backups did a credible job trying to fill in, if Reuben Drougns is healthy and plays, the Browns win this game handily. The fact that they managed to lead most of the way with a one-dimensional passing attack says that the talent we all thought was there just needs to be utilized.
Daylon McCutcheon to IR. Orpeheus Roye out. Gary Baxter out. These are not the makings of a great performance. Yet, the defense turned in its best outing of the season. The Browns shut down the running game, and despite only two sacks of wily veteran Steve McNair, the Browns were able to harass and hurry him all day long. Ted Washington was the force in the middle we all expected him to be. Alvin McKinley had a very solid game. Kamerion Wimbley was flying around. Leigh Bodden continues to be very solid. Brodney Pool and Sean Jones continue to play well. However, I think this performance was keyed by the emergence of two players:
- Willie McGinest. Seeing his first appreciable playing time, the combination of
Wimbley and McGinest on third downs was the key to the best pass rush we've seen
out of this team. Stung by criticism of his lack of playing time so far,
McGinest turned in a monster effort, and I believe he is the spark the defense
has been missing.
- Simon Fraser. A year ago, it was a pleasant surprise when he made the team. Fraser is exactly the kind of player Romeo Crenell loves, and blue collar, high effort guy. In 2005, he largely played special teams. So far this year, he has seen spot duty as a rotation player. This was Fraser's chance to show what he could do, and he did a very solid job. I liked his hustle and he made some things happen. If Fraser can continue to grow, it will be a huge help with the aging Roye hurting.
The defensive line across the board had a great game, and it allowed defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to bring pressure from all over the place, something the Steelers have been masters of in the 3-4 alignment. The Browns were able to stuff short yardage plays including a huge fourth down.
The corner play continues to be a problem, though Ralph Brown had a decent game at nickel. While Daven Holly was burned several times, I see why the staff likes this kid. He generally covers well, but has trouble closing out the play. Several times he was right with the receiver then got turned around at the end of the play. That can be coached, though, and Holly is young and has upside. If the Browns could groom Holly into a even good nickel man, that could be huge for the future.
It should be said, though, that the Browns had at least three chances to intercept the ball, any of which would have probably been enough to wing the outcome. This is an area that must improve. First, though, the defense has to be fundamentally sound as it was in this game.
This is the kind of performance the Browns must get from the defense to have any chance to win games in 2006. They must set the tone and allow the young offense to overcome mistakes, inexperience, and the lack of cohesion on the offensive line.
There isn't much to say here. Phil Dawson continues to bury kickoffs in the end zone. Dave Zastudil had a solid day and the coverage teams were pretty good. There wasn't much of a chance to see the return team in action. All but the opening and final kickoffs were touchbacks, and the Ravens were doing a good job of forcing fair catches on punts by getting to the ball quickly. Josh Cribbs missed a chance to down a punt at the one, something he is usually does very well.
Be it due to Winslow's remarks or for whatever reason, the offense came out against a tough defense and went vertical, and it paid off. In essence, Winslow was right. Getting the ball into the hands of playmakers makes a big difference. Maurice Carthon lives another day. Even some of the play calls that didn't work were good ones. Carthon got a lot of praise for the screen pass to Vickers on the final drive, and it was a great call. Twice earlier, Carthon called a screen on third and long, a good call, there, too, but the plays were not executed and did not succeed. The Browns must continue to throw intermediate length passes and I'd have liked to see another deep ball or two to keep the defense honest.
While I like the fact that the team showed up ready to play, it left me wondering why it took until week 3? Granted, the Bengals are one of the best teams in the NFL, and it is beginning to look like the Saints defense is much better than the pundits expected it to be, but a decent effort in the opener and the Browns win easily. I think in many ways, this performance validates the criticism of the coaching staff, and in particular, Crennel. The team does have talent and can play with heart, despite missing several key starters.
Charlie Frye is tough, but he will end up like Chris Simms if the Browns don't do a better job of protecting him. An improved running game with Rueben Droughns back would help. The line has to open more holes, and the backs having to be willing to cut back more, something at which Droughns excels.
I'm not thrilled with the moral victory thing, but given the youth of this team, some of the issues in this game are to be expected. Playing with heart will help the fans hang with this team. Given the disappointments of the post-Kosar era, the fans have to have hope that things are getting better. Despite the loss, this game gave reason for hope. That being said, I see Browns in a must win situation against an Oakland team that itself is struggling with injuries and is trying to find itself. If the Browns return to a lackluster attitude and a conservative offensive scheme, the buzzards will begin to circle again. We'll learn a great deal about the character of this team on Sunday.
The Browns travel to Oakland to face the struggling Raiders. The Raiders are coming off a bye.
The season is short. Bark hard!