Wow. Just, wow!
Those of you who watch this space have been asking me about a review of the Pittsburgh game. I didn't bother because there was no point. Things looked so bleak. Fast forward a week. The Browns came out and showed what they can do when they play with heart. The result was one of the most memorable games in Browns history.
Lots went right in this game, but as the score would indicate, plenty went wrong as well. Let's look at what happened.
The Browns were being skewered all week, and not just by sports shows, for their abysmal showing against the Steelers, followed by the quickest jettison of an opening day starting quarterback in NFL history. The ridiculous "quarterback competition" was put to rest for god when Charlie Frye became a Seahawk. Derek Anderson played so-so in camp and the preseason and couldn't seem to lead the team to points. A little irony, there, eh?
Was Anderson perfect? Far from it. The one interception he threw, just after halftime, was a horrible decision. He had at least two other passes that should have been intercepted. He threw into coverage at times and left Braylon Edwards hanging out to dry on a play where he was flipped over by two defenders. There was the busted play where he dropped the ball, but if Anderson could just have thrown the ball in bounds in the end zone, it goes for a touchdown. He missed. But gone were the Charlie Frye "hang on to the ball all afternoon" moments. Anderson got the ball out of there quickly and helped out his line. While there were some very shaky throws, there were also some great ones. Anderson trusted his receivers and it paid off. There were problems, yes, but Anderson has plenty to build upon from this game.
The offensive line probably had its best collective game since The Return. Anderson was not sacked or really even pressured in the game. The line opened modest holes at first, but even then, you had the sense Jamal Lewis was a step away from breaking it. As the line played throughout the game, you could almost see them coming together. Soon, the line was opening big holes and Jamal Lewis was exploiting them. I'll single out Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas in particular for some great work, but the entire line deserves credit. It all starts there. I'll admit the Bengals didn't blitz that much or throw anything complex at the o-line, but regardless, they got the job done.
Finally, you have to be pleased with the skill players. Both Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow had career days. Edwards looked like a true #1 receiver in this game, stretching to make plays. Both of these guys helped the Browns move the chains throughout the game. Winslow not only made tough grabs, but he probably had his best game blocking as a Brown. Edwards also made plays as a blocker. Joe Jurevicius had just four catches, but two went for touchdowns. If Winslow and Edwards are making plays, it will open things up for Jurevicius. His salute of the Dawg Pound after his touchdown was a nice touch for the hometown hero. Steve Heiden had a big 27-yard catch that dug the Browns out of bad field position.
The Browns didn't spread the ball around as much as some teams, but they did work some other players in. Josh Cribbs started the game and faked the end around. The Browns later came back to that formation and Cribbs ran for 11 yards. Tim Carter got behind the defense and failed to catch a well-thrown ball by Anderson. After that, I think Carter got back in the game for just a handful of plays. Carter is terrible. The Browns tried to use Lawrence Vickers in the game, but his two biggest plays were negative. He failed to convert a fourth-and-short play on an odd-looking handoff. At crunch time, the Browns did not go conservative and threw a safe pass. Vickers was wide open and dropped it. Had the Bengals been successful at the end of the game, Vickers would likely have been the goat.
Then there was the running of Jamal Lewis. He broke a long run to spark a two-minute drill at the end of the first half. When the Browns scored a touchdown on that drive, they were never behind in the game again. Lewis gashed the Bengals for three long runs. The Bengals were forced to respect a Browns running attack that hasn't been respectable for much of the new era. While Jason Wright played, the Browns never handed the ball to him, and since the deeper pass routes were working, the Browns did not need to throw to him.
Finally, some people are saying the Browns threw too much. I personally liked how the Browns were using the pass to set up the run. Nobody expected the Browns to be effective playing in a shootout with the Bengals, but the Browns managed to make it work. Rob Chudzinski called a nice game.
Obviously, when you give up 45 points, it's hard to praise the defense too much. Despite the fact that the defense often bent and even broke, they were able to come up with a few key stops that made the difference in the game. One strategy employed by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was a key to how the day went, and I'm surprised to see nobody talking about it. The Browns largely played a 2-4-5 defense other than in the red zone and short yardage situations. This alignment used two defensive ends, two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers, three corners, and two safeties. It was almost a prevent defense sort of look. A lot of how the day went was because of this scheme.
Because the line was often comprised of just two men, the Browns weren't able to generate much of a pass rush. When they did get pressure, it usually came up the middle, though Robaire Smith had the lone sack for the Browns and it came from the backside. Orpheus Roye continues to play with a lot of effort, but he is looking slow at times. He missed a tackle that would have gone for a loss. Simon Fraser also saw a decent amount of playing time, but did not do much. When the Browns did use a nose tackle, they were able to stop the run more.
Because the line could not hold the point of attack, the linebackers were not able to make many plays. Kamerion Wimbley was surprisingly quiet, and Antwan Peek did not make many plays. They had trouble with a veteran Bengal offensive line. The inside linebackers had a little more luck, but Andra Davis missed a tackle for loss. D'Qwell Jackson made a play or two.
The Browns defensive backs had their hands full all game, especially considering Daven Holly did not play and Brodney Pool left the game with a concussion. While Leigh Bodden battled Chad Johnson all game, for the most part, Johnson was the winner this day. He had 208 yards receiving, and Bodden got manhandled at times. Bodden got the last laugh, though, by sealing the game with an interception. Eric Wright had a tough game, but he is a rookie. The one thing you can say is that he got better as the game went along. Kenny Wright saw plenty of action. He didn't make a lot of plays. Sean Jones had a key interception that helped the Browns turn around a shaky start, but he did not have a great game. Part of the issue might have been that the safeties had to worry about the run more in an alignment with no nose tackle. Mike Adams had an issue with his hand, but had to play most of the game after Pool went out.
While the defense was not effective most of the game, they came up with a play when they had to. There was the Jones interception. The fumble that was caused by the Browns stripping the ball. Holding the Bengals to a field goal after Anderson threw an interception deep in the Browns own end. Two stops of the Bengal offense late in the game. Giving up 45 points is bad, but the defense managed to make just enough plays to win.
I understand what Grantham was trying to accomplish. The Browns looked at the potent Bengal offense and tried to keep everything in front of them. I can't say that I agree with that kind of strategy and the results were certainly not good. On the other hand, the Browns are weak on the defensive line. The starters are all older and the rotation players aren't as effective. No question, you want to scheme to cover the weakness, but this doesn't seem like the answer.
Josh Cribbs is a huge spark plug for the Browns. He had a long 85-yard kickoff return. A 97-yard return was wiped out by a penalty. But even when the Bengals started to squib kick to avoid a long return, Cribbs was still able to pick up the ball and get the Browns into good field position. The Browns did not do anything of note on punt returns. On the other hand, the normally reliable kickoff coverage team was terrible. That needs some work. There were so few punts it's hard to say whether the punt coverage has issues or not.
Dave Zastudil only punted twice, interestingly enough, on the first and last possessions. The final one looked like a bad kick, but it got a great roll and was touched down deep. Phil Dawson had three field goals and 6 PATs, but his kickoffs were short. That was an area Dawson had really improved last year, but this game looked more like the pre-2006 Dawson.
I admit, I'm no fan of Romeo Crennel. He shows no passion and clearly doesn't hold the players accountable. That being said, nobody would have been surprised if the Browns ended up getting blown out in this game. Instead, the Browns came out early, allowed the Benglas to methodically drive for a 7-0 lead, then went three-and-out. Derek Anderson missed the first five passes. It would have been easy for the team to pack it in. Instead, the Browns began to make plays and believe in themselves. Clearly, the players-only meeting helped. But give the staff credit, because nobody expected the Browns to bounce back like this.
While Charlie Frye had the ability to improvise, I think this game shows just how ineffective Frye had become, at least in Cleveland. I wish Frye the best of luck and hope that he can jump start his career in Seattle. That being said, it's way too early to anoint Derek Anderson as the quarterback. This was a good performance, but Anderson still left a lot of plays on the field, and it was against a Bengal defense that had a short week to prepare and isn't among the top tier defensive units in the NFL. I am hoping Anderson will allow the skill players to make plays while not trying to do too much. Clearly, the Browns do have talent. It is looking like it might finally be ready to emerge.
I've been saying all year so far that this team will only go as far as the quarterback play will take it. I think this week showed that this is true.
One last thing – the atmosphere at the stadium was like it used to be. It's been a long time since the crowd was into a game like this one. The fans contributed directly to the Bengals inability to audible and using their timeouts in the first half. Continued competitive play at home will cure many ills.
Despite all the problems, the Browns got a desperately needed win. There were plenty of negatives, but the positives are something to build upon. This win will hopefully breathe confidence into a young team.
The Browns head west for the third consecutive year to play at Oakland.
The season is short. Bark hard!