After defeating a struggling Kansas City team, the Browns took a crack at the Detroit Lions, one of only two teams that finished 2006 with a worse record than the Browns. While there were positives, it is hard to look at the team as it played in this game and imagine that it will be significantly improved over last season despite personnel upgrades in many areas.
I'm going to tackle this review a little differently than usual because of the unique circumstances of this game. I'll discuss the offense and defense, leaving quarterback for its own discussion at the end.
If you've read my game reviews over the years, you know I'm a strong believer that games are won and lost in the trenches. While the Browns have made strides in improving the offensive line, we need to keep in mind that both Eric Steinbach and Ryan Tucker did not play. These are both players the Browns were counting upon to play important roles on the line.
When you consider the terrible line play the Browns endured last year alone, this line is improved. The athleticism is obvious in screens and other plays that require the linemen to pull and get into space. That being said, the mental mistakes and missed assignments were beyond a little preseason rust. Kevin Shaffer's blown block on the very first play set the tone for a disastrous evening. While I agree with starting Joe Thomas from day one, he is going to have to work on the holding penalties. Seth McKinney and others need to learn the snap count, especially on critical short-yardage downs.
The one positive I'll say is that a lot of these problems can be corrected. The first unit did OK, and the backups exceeded my expectations, especially when I don't expect guys like Nat Dorsey or Andrew Hoffman to even make the team. But these miscues will kill the team in real games. The line needs to get its collective act together.
One nice thing is that the line occasionally was opening good holes, but even when they didn't, Jamal Lewis used his vision and cutback ability to make positive yards. He was not afraid to lower his shoulder and take on opposing defenders. Lewis looks ready to go. Jason Wright isn't ultra-talented, but he catches the ball well and he made some nice plays. I particularly liked him pushing through defenders into the end zone. Jerome Harrison made some plays, and its nice to see him get some touches, but he has to get the mental aspect of the game down. Chris Barclay is trying to play himself into the conversation as well. He doesn't have the prototypical size, but he is quick. At fullback, I really don't see anything from the challengers to make me think Lawrence Vickers isn't going to get that spot.
Other than Braylon Edwards, the receiver spot is still unsettled. Edwards was head and shoulders above the others. Jurevicius played some but didn't get any chances. A drop on a third down play overshadowed any late catches made by Travis Wilson. He needs to make plays every chance he gets. Josh Cribbs had one short catch, but he is not impressing me as a receiver. Among the bottom of the roster guys, several got a lot of touches in gabage time. Syndric Steptoe has some possibilities. I also like Steve Sanders. When I was at camp, he was always out after practice getting in extra work. None of the other guys really stood out to me in this game.
Our normally reliable starting duo at tight end had some issues. Winslow was involved in the Anderson interception play. Steve Heiden seemed to be having problems lining up, though he had a very nice catch on a third down. These guys are usually a lot better than this. Among the competitors for the last spot, Dinkins and Krause both got chances. Krause has nice hands. Buck Ortega didn't get any chances in this game.
While the offense did a lot of nice things here and there, the bottom line is mistakes killed every scoring chance the team had in the first half. It's hard to get overly excited because it seems like more of the same even though the players are better on paper.
If the big questions of this camp are if the Browns can stop the run, if they have a pass rush, and if they can cover, then you can't look at this game as a fantastic performance. The Lions did put up 500 yards of offense last week against the Bengals, and the Browns' offense handed the Lions multiple scoring opportunities, but still, I was looking for more than we saw in this game.
With respect to stopping the run, the first team did poorly and the backups did even worse. Granted, the backups were taking on veteran back T.J. Duckett, but he was just gashing the Browns. Worse, he was physically taking it to Browns defenders. The starters were allowing the backs to get into the secondary far too many times. This has to be a huge concern.
In the pass rush department, things looked better. Kamerion Wimbley is a monster. I saw at least three plays where he was held or blocked in the back that were not called, yet he still was a disruptive force. Likewise, Antwan Peek forced an errant throw (that was caught anyway) and made some nice plays in the running game, too. But the Browns sometimes sent five rushers and got very little pressure depending on who was in the game. Still, this area is improved and should be much better than in 2006.
Finally, the Browns have a find in Eric Wright. Leigh Bodden and Daven Holly should be OK. But last year, Jeremy Perry did a credible job in nickel and dime roles but he had a horrible game, missing tackles, blowing coverages, and just not making smart plays. With guys like Brandon McDonald looking to make the roster, Perry better have a much better showing in the final two games. Safety Mike Adams got toasted on the Lions first half touchdown.
Overall, I thought Leon Williams continued to make a case to start. Clifton Smith made a nice play late in the game, as did special teams ace Mason Unck. There was even a Chaun Thompson sighting! But I expect more out of this defense than to play OK. I overestimated the defense last preseason, so I am being more cautious this time around. I was not tremendously impressed.
Josh Cribbs continues to do very well on kickoff returns, and Chris Barclay did a nice job as well. Lennie Friedman I'd rather not see in that role again, though it is a rare time for an offensive lineman to run with a ball in any situation. Nobody did anything on punt returns. The coverage teams looked good all except for one kickoff return, but that was called back due to a penalty. Still, backup kicker Jesse Ainsworth made a nice stop on that play.
What a week it promises to be in Berea.
I'm not going to go over every nuance of the performances of each of the players, because it is, frankly, pointless. I will acknowledge before I make these comments that Ken Dorsey and Brady Quinn playing against the scrubs is hard to compare with Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson playing against starters. But that isn't really the issue.
I'm in the minority here, but I do see some improvement in Frye. He seems to have improved in his ability to read what is happening. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be able to either physically make throws, such as the one that was intended for Heiden but was intercepted, or he makes The Big Mistake, such as allowing the clock to run out last week or snapping a fourth down play when everyone was not set. In either case, any improvement in his reads is irrelevant because of these problems. Meanwhile, while I freely admit that Anderson got crappy protection on his fumble play, and clearly there was at least one blown route on his interception, Anderson ends up making too many mistakes as well. The sequence before the interception where nobody could get lined up, we had a false start, two timeouts being burned, was just a mess. While it appeared to me Anderson knew what was going on and it was the others who didn't, it is interesting that the other quarterbacks did not have these problems.
Meanwhile, Ken Dorsey, whom I expected to do nothing, ran a bland but effective drive that resulted in a touchdown, the first by the offense in the preseason. He may not have all the physical tools to be an NFL starter, but he had the mental part of the game down and there were not the mental mistakes we saw with the guys who are supposed to be competing for the big chair.
Brady Quinn was poised and looked in total command. Yes, the Lions had bottom of the roster players in, and on his second series, they were playing a very loose prevent. Still, Quinn did what he was supposed to do – he took what the defense gave and methodically moved the ball down the field. More importantly, he got the Browns two touchdowns in two chances. He made a lot of soft tosses, but he also made a couple of big-time throws. Quinn has to be a part of the conversation going forward.
When you see the leadership exhibited by Dorsey and Quinn, but the circus presided over by Frye and Anderson, it's time to turn to players who know how to command the offense and who somehow seem to have the players avoiding the mental mistakes the others seem to be bring out in them.
Romeo Crennel is going to coach himself out of town. First, you can't continue to have the widespread mental breakdowns we see on this team and not believe it isn't because of coaching. Yes, there is a new offense, but Chud's offense isn't the only one in the NFL with a snap count. One thing I liked at camp was the accountability Wes Chandler was trying to build with the receivers. I'd like to see it paying more dividends on the field, but nevertheless, it is an attempt to create a climate where mistakes are not tolerated. The Brows are a team characterized by mental mistakes. As a musician, I find playing with talented people is not nearly as important as playing with folks who mentally understand where the music is going. Likewise, this aspect of the team will not only kill chances to win games, but it will send the coach to the unemployment line.
If nothing else, Brady Quinn just heated up Crennel's seat even more than it was before. If he does not find a way to get Quinn meaningful snaps against starting-caliber players, he is sinking himself. It has become obvious that Frye and Anderson are not going to be credible NFL starters. It looked that way at the end of last season, but the staff was no doubt hoping one or both would dramatically improve. That hasn't happened. Quinn is the future, and if he is at all ready, the Browns might as well take their lumps with him rather than continue with Frye and Anderson. The only way to know is to get Quinn more playing time that allows him to be evaluated against decent competition.
This team will only go as far as the quarterback play will take it despite improvement in many areas. I would like to believe that Crennel understands that. We'll see in the next two weeks.
The Browns have a lot of work to do before the season begins, and they will have to do it at Denver and at Chicago. These teams are contenders. The Browns will get a good measure of where they really stand. It may not be a pretty picture.
The traditional regular season tune up game at Denver.
The season is short. Bark hard!