When the Browns beat the Raiders, people disparaged the victory saying Oakland was the worst team in the NFL. When they beat the Jets, it was said that the Browns knocked off an overachieving team with a bad run defense. But this week, the Browns defeated a Falcon team that is a playoff contender. This victory came on the road and in a situation where the Browns played far from a perfect game. As always, let's break down what happened.
With the Falcons hurting in the secondary, very similar to the problems the Browns are having, a logical game plan would be to challenge their corners. Atlanta was down to starting special teamers and castoffs, and regular starter DeAngelo Hall was playing hurt. But unlike the Browns, the Falcons have had problems at safety as well. While the Browns did try to establish a running game, the game plan was clearly to throw. That put the ball in the hands of Charlie Frye who was roundly criticized all week for a poor performance against the Chargers. Frye bounced back to have perhaps his best game of the season.
Frye still had problems. His mental error on the final play of the first half, holding the ball and eventually fumbling, could have cost the Browns a cheap score. He could have avoided taking some of the five sacks he suffered by throwing the ball away, including one that nearly led to a safety. But Frye also was making a conscious effort to look off receivers, something he has not been doing that the Charger defense noticed on film last week. That's not to say he was perfect in this area, but he was better. He also missed two early deep throws when the receivers had gotten behind the defense. But Frye managed to go the entire game without an interception, something he has not done all season. He used his legs well on both scrambles and some designed run/pass option plays. He stepped up to avoid the rush several times. Overall, Frye learned from some of his mistakes, something I questioned last week. There is still a ways to go, but if there is progress, it is easier to live with some mistakes.
The offensive line continues to struggle, especially guard Joe Andruzzi. He was blown up more than once. On the other hand, it was behind him that the Browns were able to score on fourth and goal at the one along with fullback Terrelle Smith. Cosey Coleman was called for a false start. Ryan Tucker returned, and at least Frye was not running for his life despite the five sacks. I think the biggest concern with the line is in obvious run situations. With the Browns buried at their own one for the second week in a row, the line was not able to get enough of a push to even help the Browns get breathing room, let alone pick up the first down. The inability to protect nearly cost the Browns a safety, and did end up costing them Atlanta's only touchdown on the following possession. When the Browns needed to run out the clock, there was no running room at all. The line is playing better than earlier in the season, but it still cannot overcome any obvious running situation.
Reuben Droughns continues to give effort, but I am becoming concerned that he isn't doing more with what little he has. When there is a hole, he just doesn't seem to be hitting it with the same authority as in the past. When there isn't a hole, he rarely cuts back or bounces to the outside, something he did consistently in 2005. His fumble, something that is becoming an ongoing concern as well, cost the Browns a chance to take at least a 17-0 lead and instead allowed Atlanta to get a field goal at the end of the first half.
The Browns finally threw deep to Kellen Winslow – twice. While I've been calling for him to beat linebackers over the deep middle, the Browns used his size and speed to take on corners deep down the sidelines. With a 6-inch or more height disparity, this was a great matchup for the Browns. Five more catches, this time for 90 yards continue to place Winslow ahead of all other tight ends in receptions. If he would just stop making stupid penalties, all would be well. It was nice to see Braylon Edwards involved in the offense again. I also really liked the way the Browns used Steve Heiden. He did have a rare drop in this game, but the sure-handed Heiden is a great complement to Winslow and the Browns used that to their advantage all game long. The Browns tried to get the ball to Joe Jurevicius and Dennis Northcutt with little success. Josh Cribbs got one touch as well.
Last week the Browns had seven scores, though six of them were field goals. The Browns at least managed to cash in on two red zone possessions, and they lost a chance at a third because of the Droughns fumble. Despite the win, the Browns did not have the sustained drives we saw against the Jets and San Diego. When the Browns control the field position battle, though, the offense does well enough to win. Luckily, the special teams and defense have been able to help in that regard.
Week in and week out, this unit may not always shut down the opponent, but they play a physical game. Team after team has been physically punished by the Cleveland defense, win or lose. Many pundits are trying to figure out why the Bengals have tanked after a 3-0 start. The answer is easy: the Browns defense beat them up enough that they have never recovered from the injuries, especially on their offensive line. Once again, despite talent holes and injuries, the Browns played a very solid game in Atlanta.
I have to start with the upfront play. The Falcons are the best rushing attack in the NFL and the Browns are one of the worst against the run. On paper, this certainly looked like a mismatch. The game stats show Atlanta rushed for 148 yards. But never have 100-plus yards rushing been rendered as meaningless as they were in this game. The Browns controlled the running backs very well, and despite two big runs, they also controlled Michael Vick. The Browns used rookie linebacker Leon Williams to spy Vick and in doing so, they managed to contain him most of the game. If Vick got outside the pocket, the Browns defense punished him. One report had Vick spitting blood on the sideline.
The defensive line, and in particular Ted Washington, had a much better game than a week ago. The line did not make flashy plays, but mostly stayed at home and contained. If Vick stayed in the pocket, the Browns were able to get pressure up the middle from Orhpeus Roye, Nick Eason, and Simon Fraser. On one play, Vick dropped back. Seeing it was a pass, Eason crashed through a double team and forced Vick to throw the ball away. The Browns are using Fraser on obvious passing downs, playing to his strengths. When the Falcons had success in the run game, it was typically with Ethan Kelley in at the nose.
While the linebackers did not make spectacular plays, Andra Davis and D'Qwell Jackson had much more of an impact in this game than a week ago. They aren't making plays behind the line, but they were able to keep contain and keep running plays short for the most part. Willie McGinest returned. Several times he had the play diagnosed at the snap and charged into the backfield, but either age or injury are making him too slow to make the play. One time he leveled Vick. Kamerion Wimbley continues to impress, adding another sack. He forced Vick's fumble that sealed the game. And of course, Williams did a nice job spying Vick, especially coming off an injury to do so.
Finally, there is the secondary. Leigh Bodden did not play, and the Falcons obviously decided to avoid Daven Holly as the best of the corners. Holly made only one play in the game. Atlanta decided to challenge journeyman Ralph Brown and training camp cut Jeremy Perry. While both Perry and Brown were burned once each, especially Perry on a deep pass, overall, both of these guys played well above expectations. After people wanted to run Brown out of town early in the season, and he was really bad at times, Brown made several plays in this game. This is the third week in a row where Brown did a decent job. Then there is the safety play. Sean Jones continues to make his case for the Pro Bowl with another interception and one he just missed. He and Brodney Pool shut down the large and dangerous Algee Crumpler. Crumpler is Vick's favorite target and he was neutralized throughout the game. Pool had an interception he might have been better off dropping that led to the possession at the one. Brian Russell continues to be a headhunter, and he was flying around out there. All of the safeties had another great game.
I want to break down the Vick fumble play in particular to show how the defense played well and as a unit. The Falcons had run the same play out of the same formation earlier in the second half. The back motions to the opposite side, emptying the backfield, and then Vick runs to the other side. Vick burned the Browns for a big gain the first time. When they tried the same play again, Williams was spying over the middle, but Pool recognized the play and placed himself in the gap just off the line. Because of Pool, Vick could not go off tackle, he had to run wider. To the wide side, Wimbley was waiting and chased Vick. Vick dropped the ball trying to get away, and Perry was in the area to pick up the loose ball. This shows the defense is learning and is playing smart. On the other hand, I was very surprised Atlanta ran the same play from the same formation. When I saw the back motion, I immediately was saying it was a QB draw. Obviously, so was the defense. When you know what's coming, it's a lot easier to stop.
While the special teams helped the Browns win the field position battle in the first half, this was a relatively quiet game for this unit. The Browns got one good kick return from Josh Cribbs, but the Falcons managed to shut down Northcutt for the most part. Dawson's kickoffs were shorter than he has had most of this year, perhaps on purpose to try to contain the dangerous Alan Rossum. Dave Zastudil did a good job most of the day except for a 29-yard punt late in the game. The coverage teams allowed both a long kickoff and punt return, the latter that set up the only Atlanta touchdown of the game. Steve Heiden deflected a punt that gave the Browns great field position, but it was squandered when Droughns fumbled.
A key to this game was the decision to go on fourth and goal. After the red zone problems in San Diego, this was a much-needed boost for this team. By getting an early lead, it allowed the Browns to neutralize the Falcon running game, the strength of their attack. When Vick is forced to be a one-dimensional passing quarterback, he isn't the same player. This allowed the Browns to control the game early and get a lead.
Game three of the Jeff Davidson era was a win, even if the offense had its problems. When the Browns passed, they had success. When they got conservative, they allowed the Falcons to get back in the game. I wonder if this is Davidson's approach or if Romeo Crennel is reigning him in when the Browns have a lead. Still, the deep passes to Winslow attacked a defensive weakness, and I like rolling Frye out where he can either run or throw. One such play allowed Frye to run to dig the Browns out of bad field position. Overall, Davidson is playing to the strength of his players and providing game plans that adapt to the weakness of the opponent. It is far too early to judge, but so far so good.
Meanwhile, Todd Grantham had a masterful game plan. He is covering over the weaknesses of his unit while playing with an attacking, physical style that wears down the opponent. In particular, the job Grantham and Mel Tucker are doing with this secondary is flat out amazing. For contrast, look at how the Falcons have struggled since their secondary has gone down injured. If anything, the Browns are actually getting better as this group of misfits get experience and learn to play within the system.
I also have to credit Romeo Crennel for the discipline the team is showing in being one of the least penalized teams in the NFL, something that has really turned around over the last two years. The Browns did well in the penalty department again this week, and this despite a terrible roughing call on Roye that handed the Falcons their first field goal.
The Browns finally get the chance to avenge one of the most embarrassing losses in team history, a 41-0 home loss to the Steelers on Christmas Eve. We will begin to see if the coaching staff and players understand the significance of the rivalry.The season is short. Bark hard!