Joe's Mega-Season Preview

Joe Brownlee unleashes his Browns season preview this evening, looking at the team's offense, defense, special team, coaching, and intangibles. Yeah, that's right. The whole enchilada. Joe's writing is marked by some great analysis, but what sets it apart is just the right amount of respect for that team, um, that one called... That one team that's in the divison that we play... er... whatever their name is...

Good day, Browns Fans!

I'm filing this late after being out of town following Friday's game, and I did not get a tape of the game, either. Rather than break down the final preseason game, especially since the cuts have already been made, I'd like to offer a preview of the 2002 season instead.

Offense

The preseason showed some things about the Browns. First, the offense looks to be improved. They won't make anyone forget past offensive juggernauts like the 49ers, but the days of even one penalty killing a drive or going 0 for 10 on third down should be over for the most part. The thing I liked most about the Browns during the preseason was that the offense not only moved the ball, but they controlled the clock. It was common to have drives over 10 plays or more that ate half a quarter. This bodes well. Against both Green Bay and Carolina, the Browns were able to sustain long drives. This allowed the defense to come out and hold the opposition, keeping them fresh.

My biggest concern, probably like most of you reading this, is the offensive line. Football games are won or lost at the line. The good news is that the offensive line generally looked very good in pass blocking. However, the run blocking was suspect. The Browns were consistently getting very little push off the ball on straight ahead runs.

Where the Browns might see success is with off-tackle plays where the line can attempt to bottle up the defenders in the middle, allowing the running back to bounce to the outside. Jamel White does this very well and William Green looks like he could do likewise, as he showed on a 17-yard play against the Panthers. One play I really like for the Browns is the screen pass. Jamel White does very well on the screen, and the linemen look much better on this play than in past years. The Browns killed the Packers with screens that went for good yardage. Hopefully, the running game will be a work in progress and will improve.

I am very optimistic about the passing game. Both Couch and Holcomb threw for high completion percentages, and both showed good command of the Bruce Arians offense. I think the emergence of Quincy Morgan as a reliable receiver will open a lot of things for the offense. I was very encouraged to see Morgan, Andre Davis, Dennis Northcutt, and Frisman Jackson all make tough catches with defenders draped over them. If the receivers catch the ball, the Browns will be improved.

You also have to like the way the receivers have been able to either get open or to get into a position to make the play even if the coverage is tight. I also liked the way the quarterbacks and wide receivers seemed to be on the same page when the defense blew a coverage, as in Northcutt's TD against Detroit and Morgan's against Green Bay.

Given the Arians system, one must be concerned with the tight end/H-back situation. First, there is the injury factor. Aaron Shea may not be a Pro Bowl player, but he plays hard and can do some good things. He played a key role in keeping some drives alive on third and fourth down. But Shea is once again injured. I personally like Mark Campbell better than most people. He has improved his blocking and catches well. He was the only tight end to be a consistent part of the passing game in the preseason. Darnell Sanders showed some flashes in the preseason, but he is a work in progress. He is an excellent blocker, but made a lot of mental mistakes. Steve Heiden is an unknown, but on paper looks to be more like a guard than a pass catcher. It will be interesting to see how he fits in.

Finally, I like the trick play ability Frisman Jackson brings to the offense. I am waiting for his first option pass.

Overall, the offense looks better, but it will likely take a while to start rolling like it could. I also think that the offense will not suffer all that much if Holcomb is forced to play due to Couch's mysterious arm problem. Without a running game, it will still be difficult, but if the Browns use the pass to set up the run, some things might start to break loose until the offensive line can come together.

Defense

The offense did so well in the preseason that we got to see very little of the starting defense. The there were the linebacker auditions in the wake of the Jamir Miller injury, and the fact that Earl Holmes played very little. It is much harder to get a read on the defense than the offense. However, the offense holding the ball allowed the defense to stay at home more. They did a great job of forcing the opposing team off the field in three plays or sometimes five or six.

The big question of defense is if the Browns can stop the run. Based on limited data from the two final preseason games, it appears the Browns will be much improved in that area. Orpheus Roye looks much better at tackle, Gerard Warren is picking up where he left off at the end of last year, and Courtney Brown looked good against the run in the final two games. Kenard Lang could be the joker in the deck, and if he is forced to miss playing time, Tyrone Rogers and Mark Word are definitely weaker against the run. Look for opposing teams to test the understudies.

I am concerned about the lack of pass rush, but that might improve when the real games start. In particular, the Browns will use blitzes more, but I'd like to see a stronger rush from the front four alone. This lack of rush is one reason why we did not see the turnovers in the preseason we saw all last year. However, I think the Browns are far stronger top to bottom on the line than a year ago, and all eight players might reasonably expect to see some playing time.

Losing Jamir Miller is a huge blow, but I am still optimistic about the linebacker situation. Dwayne Rudd had a good preseason, and might get a breather from Kevin Bentley from time to time to keep him fresh. Earl Holmes looked better than I expected when he played, but if his kness don't hold up, that could be trouble. But I must say that I am very impressed with Darren Hambrick. He shows a real nose for the ball, and if he continues at the level he showed since being signed, he has to be a part of the future. Brant Boyer is a decent swing man, but were Holmes to go down, I shudder to think of him as the every down middle linebacker. Of the rookie trio, I think the only one who looks ready to play is Bentley. Injuries hampered Ben Taylor, and Andra Davis had his best game of the preseason against the Panthers, but I think he is still struggling with the mental aspects of the pro game. Look for these two to contribute most on special teams.

A year ago at this time, the secondary was considered the weakest part of the team. The Browns snagged 33 interceptions, and players like Anthony Henry changed all that. Going into this season, the corners have to be considered a strength. The Browns have four corners in Corey Fuller, Daylon McCutcheon, Henry, and Lewis Sanders who might be considered starter quality. Kalvin Pearson is a young player who showed some real grit in the preseason. I was disappointed with Henry's preseason overall, but I think he will continue to shine in the nickel package. Sanders is a hard hitter and made some good tackles, but got caught out of position at times.

At safety, I have more concerns. I thought Devin Bush had a weak preseason, and Robert Griffith didn't seem to be in many plays. Some of that may be due to the fact that the plays were being made by the front seven, a welcome change from the past. Earl Little did not play much because of injuries, so it was hard to get a read on him. Chris Akins is more of a special teams player, even though he played defense in Green Bay. If the safeties don't step up, it could be a problem, especially in shoring up the run defense.

The consistent ability for quarterbacks not known for their mobility to pick up big yardage, especially on third down, is a tremendous concern. This was a serious problem in all of the preseason games, and is something the Browns must defend against.

I'd like to think the Browns will generate a lot of turnovers, something they did last year. However, I expect that if the pass rush is weaker, as it appears it might be, then it might be harder for the secondary to gamble on interceptions by jumping routes. In the preseason, the Browns forced some fumbles, but like last season, didn't come up with a recovery. Maybe that's just bad luck, but I am starting to wonder. The turnovers kept the Browns in a lot of games, and allowed them to get some early leads or put a game away. If the Browns don't get turnovers, they will have to play stronger on defense. In particular, the inability to stop the opposing team on third down must be addressed. This seemed to get better as the preseason went on.

Special Teams

When we last saw the Browns, they were riding a fumbled second half kickoff to a loss at Pittsburgh. They special teams generated almost no yards on punt returns, and the kick coverage was horrible, other than Anthony Henry downing punts. There was a litany of failures that contributed directly to losses. Start with the late kickoff return that allowed Seattle to kick the winning field goal in the opener. Or how about the fumble of the opening kickoff against Tennessee that set the tone for probably the worst game of the 2001 season? I could go on. On the other hand, good special teams plays, such as the excellent kickoff returns in both games against the Barneys, contributed to those wins.

This preseason, the punt return game looked to be vastly improved, both from the perspective of the returner and the blocking. This led to numerous good returns, capped by the Andre Davis return for a TD against the Packers. But in addition, the kick coverage was much improved. Add to this the excellent punting of Chris Gardocki, good kicking by Phil Dawson (with some misadventures against the Packers), and consistent long snapping by Ryan Keuhl, and things look much better than last season. Yes, there was a blocked field goal, but hopefully that has been corrected.

It is hard to look at 2001 and see many games truly won by special teams, but it was easy to see games lost. Hopefully, special teams will make a more positive contribution to the overall team this year.

Coaching

Butch Davis overall made good in game decisions in 2001. I thought playing too close to the vest against Seattle in the opener cost the game. After that, I don't remember a similar situation. Contrast that situation with the "go for the throat" approach of throwing deep after a fumble against the Raisins. To me, this was the best play of the entire season, and showed the difference between the winning attitude installed by Davis and the hangdog attitude displayed by former coach Chris Palmer while on his "runaway train". The Browns gambled on fourth down a few times and made some excellent plays. In general, the Browns seemed to be well prepared for what the opponent would bring, even if they did not execute or were overmatched at times. I think the staff on balance did a good job in 2001, and I expect that to even improve with more familiarity with the players this season.

On offense, I'd like to see the Browns throw more on first down. The tendency to run on first down was something opponents had to notice, and probably had some bearing on the problems in the running game. This forced the Browns in the second and third and long situations far too often. A better mix on first down, something the Browns showed during the preseason, should help the offense sustain drives by putting them in more favorable situations for the later downs. Also, the offense showed better ability to overcome second and long situations in the preseason.

On defense, the Browns need to continue their aggressive play from a year ago. But the key will be to keep the opposition from consistently coming up with long drives. Last year, the Browns too often played with a "bend but do not break" mentality. Less bending will allow the offense to be in more favorable situations. Third down is the key. Too many times last year, and even in the preseason, the Browns stopped the opponent on first and second down, only to allow them to pick up the third down. This must stop for the Browns to win. When it happened (like against Carolina in the 4th quarter), the Browns too often let the game slip away.

Another concern in the preseason were penalties. There were too many, and they were largely stupid mental mistakes. For example, lining up offside on a play where the Browns stopped the Panthers on third down contributed directly to a loss. A foolish personal foul by Brant Boyer and an illegal block that wiped out a 54-yard punt return hurt tremendously against the Packers. Granted, some of the players making these mistakes are no longer on the team. This is still an area that bears watching.

Schedule

With realignment, the NFL has gone to a much more balanced schedule. Gone are the fifth place schedules that often allowed teams to artificially inflate their record by beating up on poor teams. Instead, all of the teams in the AFC North will play 14 games against the same opponents. The schedule has four components:

  • Division games. The Browns will play the Steelers, Bengals, and that other team twice each. 
  • Intraconference games. The Browns will rotate through each of the other divisions in the AFC, playing all of the teams in that division once every three years. This year, the Browns face the teams of the newly created AFC South, including former division rivals Tennessee and Jacksonville. 
  • Interconference games. The Browns will rotate through each of the other divisions in the NFC, playing all of the teams in that division once every four years. This year, the Browns will face the newly created NFC South. 
  • Common finish games. The Browns will play teams from the two AFC divisions they are not playing this year that finished in the same place. This year, the Browns play the third place teams from the AFC East and West, the Jets and Chiefs.

As I look at the schedule, I think the Browns look like they are in a good position on paper. The AFC North will be tough, and division games are now at a premium. The Steelers should be at a level similar to last year, and the Bengals are improved. The AFC South should be weaker than some people think going into the season, particularly with the problems the Colts are having in their running game. The NFC South is also weak, with Tampa Bay being the only team expecting big things in 2002, although the Saints and Falcons might surprise. The Browns draw two teams who are on the rise in the Chiefs and Jets, though they catch the Chiefs early while they are having injury and holdout problems.

All this being said, I think it is critical for the Browns to take care of business against the Bengals and Bruises. I think the Browns will be hard-pressed to split with the Steelers, but those two games are the most important of the season. Also, the season is weighted with the most difficult games toward the start. It is quite possible for the Browns to reach the midpoint at 4-4 and still finish with 10 wins. That is the key – for the Browns to make it to the playoffs, they need to win early, and perhaps upset someone. Don't get down on the Browns if they lose some games early, particularly at Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and New York.


Intangibles

Cleveland is a football town. You could sense the excitement over the Browns from the opening of camp. Browns fans have waited since 1994 to cheer a winner again. Getting some wins early will help the fans get behind the team. If the Browns play well early in the season, it could help give Cleveland the home field advantage the Browns enjoyed during the Kosar years. With the Browns home games weighted toward the end of the season, weather could also be a factor. I like the potential of this team to put a string of wins together late. If so, watch out.

Injuries are always a concern, and the Browns have had miserable luck in this area. The team is healthier going into the season than a year ago, and I also think the Browns are far more able to absorb the loss of Tim Couch than they were two years ago. Kelly Holcomb could be the difference in the season.

It is unlikely the Browns can unseat the Steelers as champs of the AFC North. The Steelers have a schedule almost as easy as the Browns, and it will not surprise me if they win 13 or even 14 games. That leaves the Browns fighting for one of two wild card spots, and they are guaranteed to play any potential wild card playoff game on the road. Thus, I say again, the games with the Steelers are truly the most important of the year, with the games against the Bengals a close second. Tie breakers could be the key to making a playoff run. Thus, the Browns need to beat any potential wild card competition they play, such as the Chiefs, Jets, and Colts.


Summary

The Browns are a better team than a year ago. How much better is the question that will make the difference between just respectable and a shot at the postseason. I like the Browns' chances to get there. It all starts with taking care of business in each game, something the team did not always do last year. The Browns need to score points, hold the opposition, and most important, close out the game. If they can do so, this will be the most enjoyable season in many years on the shores of Lake Erie.

The season is short. Bark hard!


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