Many in the media and Browns fanbase expected the Browns to be run over by the New England Patriots this past Sunday. Contrary to pre-game notions, the 34-17 loss to the Patriots was a tough, competitive contest between arguably the best team in the league and one of the more improved teams
While the Cleveland defense remains inefficient against the run and lacks the ability to put any pressure on the quarterback, the Patriots did not simply run over a game Cleveland team. Prepared from the onset, Cleveland battled adversity throughout to make this contest much closer than the final score would indicate
Quarterback Derek Anderson's three interceptions played a significant role in the defeat (the third was a result of a protection breakdown), with the first creating a missed opportunity as the Browns drove downfield following a New England field goal to open the game. From the one-yard line, Anderson rolled right and was late in attempting to squeeze a pass into the back of end-zone for tight-end Steve Heiden. The late read and Anderson's trust in his ability backfired as All-Pro Asante Samuel deflected the pass into the waiting arms of veteran linebacker Junior Seau.
The Cleveland offensive line battled and opened holes for Jason Wright, who replaced the injured Jamal Lewis after one carry, and matched up well against the strength of the New England defense. Defensive linemen Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Jarvis Green were effectively being managed by guard Eric Steinbach and company during the opening drive for the Browns. The Browns offensive line did not resort to any trickery to match the physical style of play and intensity of the Patriots across the line, rather the Browns bodied up well and resorted to quick openers in the running game and simple three and five step drops in the passing game
Although the Cleveland defense was unable to generate pressure on New England quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots moved the ball liberally and if not for big plays, this game could have had a much different tone
Playing in primarily the nickel, with a few added wrinkles, the Browns attempted to restrain the big-play ability of the Patriots. Outside linebacker Willie McGinest lined up as a down lineman on numerous occasions, while moderately successful early in the game, the veteran does not posses the quickness and strength to get caught inside. The changing of the gap responsibilities and scheme was an interesting look for the Browns, as defensive tackle/end Shaun Smith played reasonably well, with Robaire Smith playing a solid game, while often double teamed.
Aiming to get pressure up the middle, the Browns defense did not benefit with the infrequent blitz looks, as Brady quickly changed the play, often looking to a quick curl.
Again, poor tackling and a lack of solid play from the Cleveland safeties hurt the Browns tremendously. Unable to maintain their responsibility, wide receiver Donte Stallworth waltzed through the defense for a 34-yard touchdown reception, which resulted from poor tackling. The New England score was on the first play following the second Anderson interception of the first quarter.
As was the case on the first interception, Anderson threw late and a streaking Adalius Thomas swatted the ball in the air, with Samuel being on the receiving end. Anderson's tendency to have difficulty in the intermediate areas of the field continued with the linebacker trapping on the route, and Anderson falling right into the ploy of the experienced New England defense
New England tight-end Ben Watson easily ran by linebacker Leon Williams in coverage for a 7-yard touchdown pass from Brady and in the fourth quarter was on the receiving end of a 27-yard scoring strike, easily beating Sean Jones
Running back Jason Wright played well in place of Lewis. Wright hit the holes quickly, and was able to gain positive yardage, which has been an area of question over the first four weeks of the season. While Lewis has played well, it was Wright's quickness and elusiveness which provided a lift to the rushing attack on Sunday.
Despite the sacks and hurries, the Browns offensive line did not play poorly. Recognizing the complex blitzing scheme of the Patriots, whihc is well-executed by veterans, is a complicated issue. The Patriots disguise blitz and coverage schemes as well as any team in the game. Anderson made plenty of correct reads and played with confidence after a rough first 15 minutes
In the end, the story remains the same. The Cleveland defense must find a way to pressure the quarterback, as Brady made it look too easy at times against a game, against an out-gunned Cleveland defensive backfield. Complicating matters is the continued inability to contain the rush, and numerous missed assignments and tackles. Missed tackles accounted for over 100 additional yards for New England, as well as resulting in a touchdown and no less than four first down plays
The Browns need help up the middle of the defense. The nose/defensive tackles struggle to maintain gap responsibility, the inside linebackers do not get off bodies well, and the safeties appear to be playing without confidence
A loss is a loss. Even with the Browns issues, they are playing well enough to be more than a competitive team. The team's 2007 season, intended as a period of growth for the club, is progressing well