A football team consists of three units. You like to see all three contributing in a game. Sometimes, one unit must pick up the others. The Browns found out against the Dolphins just how far the scale between offense and defense can tip and still come out with a win. Let's review what happened.
It's hard to find much to complain about here. For most of the time since the return, the Browns have struggled so badly on offense that one had to be satisfied with even getting a first down here or there. I expected improvement from the offense due to the maturing of the young skill players, the greatly enhance offensive line, and an aggressive and creative offensive scheme. But beyond what I ever expected, all of these have converged to make the Browns one of the top offenses in the NFL through six games, and that counts an abysmal performance in the opener against the Steelers.
One of the things I was saying through training camp and into the early part of the season is that the Browns would only go as far as the quarterback position would take them. This is still true, but Derek Anderson is taking the offense places it would never have gone with Charlie Frye. In this game, not only did Anderson throw three touchdowns to Braylon Edwards and run for another, but most important, there were no interceptions, something that killed the Browns just last week.
While other aspects of the offense went well, I want to take a little time here to unpack exactly how much improvement I saw this week. On at least three occasions, Anderson made a wise decision to throw the ball away rather than risk a turnover. The biggest one was late in the game when he wanted to go to Kellen Winslow in the end zone, but he was well covered. Anderson locked onto receivers here and there, but he is getting much more comfortable going through his progressions. He missed a few open receivers here and there, but nothing glaring as we've seen in the past. I also thought Anderson took some chances, throwing the ball in places where his receivers could make a play. Both of the final two touchdowns were like that.
The offensive line continues its solid play. The Browns mixed in Ryan Tucker for about a third of the game. They did some creative things such as unbalancing the line. At times, both tackles lined up on one side. This really allowed the Browns to get a push as Tucker and Joe Thomas led the way. Anderson was sacked once, but that was really a scramble that went for a loss, not a breakdown by the line. Also, not one holding call, though there was one motion penalty. I can't say enough about how well the line is playing, and how much the changes on the offensive line have allowed the Browns offense to go from laughingstock to juggernaut.
More evidence of how well the line is playing can be seen in how well Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison did filling in for the injured Jamal Lewis. Wright is more of a change of pace back and a receiver. He gave good effort, but he did not look as quick as we have sometimes seen. But when Harrison came in, he not only looked quick, but he even ran with a little unexpected power. In limited carries, Harrison averaged seven yards, and added a nice pass reception for 15 more yards. Harrison definitely played himself into the equation for the rest of the season with this performance. Also, you cannot overlook another solid performance by Lawrence Vickers. His blocking has been good all year, he made the play on his one reception, and despite running this play many times, he managed to get seven yards on a third and one carry.
Despite a three-touchdown performance by Edwards, tying a team record, he actually had his lowest yardage total of the season at 67 yards. But all five catches were huge. One converted a critical third down on the Browns' first possession. Kellen Winslow added another 90-yard performance. His big catch and run before halftime led directly to three points. Joe Jurevicius was a surprise starter and he had another solid game. One item that doesn't show up in the stats is the pass interference call he drew because he was open in the end zone. Josh Cribbs only got one touch, but it was a nice end around run.
I only have two complaints from this game. First, Wright's fumble when the Browns were trying to run out the clock could have been devastating in a closer game. It was a classic "ball ripped out while fighting for yards". In that situation, you are better off to just go down. Second, Tim Carter was on the field for a significant percentage of the plays and did not contribute at all. I'd rather see Steve Heiden in the game. At least he is a threat to make a play.
Enough of the good, let's move on to the ugly. This was a pretty bad performance by the defense. It just continues to get worse in many ways. That being said, the defense really only gave up 24 points. I'll put the other seven on Jason Wright and the offense for the fumble.
The defensive line is such a mess, it's hard to know where to start. The Browns used a base package of Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith at the ends and Ethan Kelley at tackle. This isn't going to strike fear into any offense, but when these guys were on the field together, it was not horrible. In this game, the only lineman who really played a good game was Robaire Smith. He got some pressure and made some plays. Regular starter Orpheus Roye rotated in sparingly and was largely ineffective. Simon Fraser is not a starting caliber player in my view, but he is doing some good things. He'd probably be better in more of a rotation system. Ted Washington played very sparingly, and he was pretty much a waste when he was in. The best he did was to hold his ground, but more often, he was getting pushed backward or falling down.
I've been reporting all season that the Browns are scheming to try to cover the weaknesses on the line. The Browns played an actual three-man line with defensive linemen perhaps 25% of the time in this game. They once again used the 2-4-5 look, most often with the two Smiths as the linemen. In this game, the Browns went to a 1-5-5 or 1-4-6 look for a good chunk of the second half, and particularly once they had a lead in the fourth quarter. When there was one lineman in the game, it was invariably Robaire Smith. They lined up an extra linebacker on the line, usually Willie McGinest over the center or a guard. The Browns actually had some success getting some pass rush and disruption with this look, though this was the Dolphins and it was at garbage time.
Once again, the 3-4 functions by having the linemen eat up blocks allowing the linebackers to flow to the play. Since the linemen are not eating up blocks, the linebackers are often getting manhandled by offensive linemen. Thus, there is no pass rush. It also keeps the outside linebackers tied up and prevents them from making plays in the running game. Thus, despite the fact that Kamerion Wimbley had a sack on the first offensive play for Miami, he was relatively quiet the rest of the game. Antwan Peek had more success with a sack and a couple of other disruptive plays. Willie McGinest was surprisingly effective despite essentially playing out of position. Of the inside linebackers, Andra Davis did not start, but that might have been motivation, as he made a few plays. D'Qwell Jackson was clearly the best of the group. His tackle for loss on Ronnie Brown was beautiful. Leon Williams continues to be inconsistent.
While the secondary came up with two interceptions, it was not a great day. Particularly when the Browns played any kind of zone, Miami receivers frequently found themselves wide open. The result would have been much different if Lemon had thrown the ball on target several times. Sean Jones was asked to cover tight ends several times and he just looked terrible. Brodney Pool probably had a better game than Jones. The corners largely covered well, especially in man-to-man situations, but they need to work on the tip drill. Twice tipped balls fell between three Browns. Eric Wright did finally tip a ball to himself at the end. Daven Holly had an excellent play where he slapped a ball down.
The Browns won, but the defense looked like it quit playing after building a 24-3 lead. Allowing three long drives before halftime and in the third quarter allowed the Dolphins back into the game. On a day when the Browns were up early, scored 41 points, and won the game, the crowd actually booed the defense. And they deserved it. After four consecutive penalties, the Dolphins found themselves with a first down and 30. It turned into second and 24. The defense still allowed the Dolphins to convert. And on top of all this, when they did sniff out a play and blow it up, instead of making the tackle, they allowed tons of yards after contact, especially on third down. Tackling appears to be a lost and mythical art in Berea.
Nothing special here. Josh Cribbs had a couple of nice returns, but most were average. He set the Browns up on a short field off the opening kickoff. Dave Zastudil returned, but his two punts weren't very good. Perhaps the Browns should have retained Scott Player for one more game. The kickoff coverage teams allowed two long returns, but both were called back due to holding. This is an area of concern. Phil Dawson had several short kickoffs. One late in the game did not even reach the ten yard line.
For a guy many people said was going to be fired by the bye, me included, you have to give Romeo Crennel credit. You can see the attitude of the team turning around on a weekly basis. The Browns, especially on offense, are playing with confidence. On the other hand, I still have some nagging doubts about Crennel, and I think you can see a few clouds in what is otherwise a bright sky.
First, I know there is history between Crennel and Ted Washington, but Washington is not just old and limited as to playing time, he is terrible. It is time for the Browns to open up a roster spot for one of the draft picks or reps for the recently signed Louis Leonard. How much worse can they be? At least there you have potential for improvement. Washington is beyond just tiring out easily, he is a liability. He needs to go.
Beyond that, the Browns put some pressure on early, then went into more of a prevent mode even late in the first half. It was obvious that the prevent mode wasn't working. There were some blitzes, but almost all of those were in the fourth quarter. A more experienced or more talented quarterback would have killed the defense.
Despite some creative scheming and player rotation, the Browns are not doing anything up front. It is killing the entire defense. The secondary can't cover when there is no rush whatsoever, and the deficencies of the linebackers are exposed. It is bad news. Short of promoting someone or perhaps lucking into a castoff, it is unlikely the Browns can improve this in a meaningful way during the season. However, I think the question has to be asked as to whether the defensive coaching staff is getting everything it can out of these players. If the defense just plays decently, the Browns would be legitimate playoff contenders. Instead, this defense is one of the worst in the NFL. With the departure of Brian Russell, we are also getting some idea about how much of the success came from the coaching staff and how much Russell was doing. I think we are seeing a similar effect with Willie McGinest. I'm not advocating hitting the panic button, but I do believe the entire defensive coaching staff needs to be looked at carefully.
I know Jerome Harrison has had his problems with blocking and fumbling, but it isn't a real positive to see a player who can contribute as he did Sunday inactive week after week. We all know Crennel lovers the veterans, but it is time to let some of the young talent contribute.
A great picture from Sunday was special teams coach Ted Daisher running onto the field to pull his players out of a tussle after a tackle out of bounds on the opening kick.
Despite the concerns I raised above, the Browns are 3-3 heading into the bye. Had I been told back in August that the Browns would be 3-3 and 2-1 in the division, I'd have been thrilled. And, the Browns are a botched kick away from being 4-2. The Browns have an extra week to heal up before they start a string on 10 games, with six of those on the road. So far, 2007 is a huge success. From here on, though, the team is largely in uncharted waters. It will be exciting, that much is sure.
The bye week followed by a trip to St. Louis to take on the winless Rams.
The season is short. Bark hard!