Another shootout is in the books. While the Browns offense was impressive during Sunday's 41-31 win, we saw another poor display from the team's defense.
Quarterback Derek Anderson may have played his best game at the professional level. His focus, determination, and awareness were instrumental in the offensive success the Browns tasted as they out-scored a winless Miami Dolphins team.
Impressive also was the continued progress of the offensive line in evidence on Sunday, and execution of the offense in general. Thanks to time the provided by what is quickly becoming a solid offensive line, Anderson was able to make his reads and throw downfield with very little resistance from the Miami front seven. While the Browns power rushing game has been slow to materialize, the vertical passing game has been a tremendous factor in the rise of the 3-3 Browns.
Rookie offensive tackle Joe Thomas did a solid job against All-Pro defensive end Jason Taylor, while the interior of the line played well against a Miami defense which consistently loaded the box in an attempt to stop the run and force Anderson into mistakes.
By handling the blitz, the Cleveland offense was in position throughout the game to pressure the Miami defensive backfield downfield. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards had his way with former Browns defensive back Michael Lehan, registering five catches for 67-yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Kellen Winslow was simply too much for the Dolphins' safeties and linebackers to contain, and Winslow hauled in five Anderson passes for 90-yards.
Replacing an injured Jamal Lewis, running back Jason Wright put forth a workmanlike effort gaining 60 yards on 20 carries, with a touchdown. While the yards per carry were not impressive, Wright fought for yardage as the Dolphins focused on stopping the run, and scored the Browns first touchdown on the day from one yard out in the first quarter. The surprise on the day had to be the stellar play of Jerome Harrison. Active for the first time this season, Harrison's speed and quickness factored into the Browns running the ball effectively in the second quarter, as he rushed for 57-yards on eight carries on the day.
Slowly but surely, the Browns running game is improving. The Browns line has backed off attempts to simply overpower the opposition. Instead, the Cleveland line is engaging and using their athletic ability more so than expected when the season began. Mixing in zone and man blocking schemes, with the offensive line is pinning defensive ends and linebackers more often than any time in recent Cleveland Browns memory. It is the agility of the players along the offensive line which has promoted the recent line play and scheme.
Another promising note coming from the contest was the Browns ability to run behind the right side of the line in spurts. Guard Seth McKinney and tackle Kevin Shaffer played well, while backup tackle Ryan Tucker was solid when relieving Shaffer throughout the game.
As the line plays together and learns the each other's tendencies, the overall state of pass protection will continue to improve. After a few rough moments a week ago against the New England Patriots blitz packages, the Browns linemen were excellent in blitz recognition and performance. This is a tribute to the long hours and hard work of the linemen, Anderson, and offensive line coach Steve Marshall.
Whereas the offense deserves recognition for their performance, the defense continues to be disappointing and puzzling.
With nose tackle Ted Washington spending plenty of time on the bench and Shaun Smith replacing Orpheus Roye in the starting lineup, the Browns were looking for a little more push and physicality along the front three. Ethan Kelley put forth a serviceable performance replacing Washington, but was far from the presence the team needs in the middle of the defensive line. Unable to penetrate at the line of scrimmage, Kelley did manage to maintain his gap responsibilities more frequently then witnessed in earlier games this season.
The Cleveland defensive ends Shaun and Robaire Smith held their own and often played with enough of a physical presence to demand the attention of two offensive linemen. While not providing the defense with any significant push, their play helped Kamerion Wimbley, Willie McGinest, and Antwan Peek get occasional pressure on Miami quarterback Cleo Lemon, who was starting in place of the injured Trent Green.
As has been the defensive norm this far this off-season, the Browns blitzed on occasion, but were unsuccessful in most instances. Disguising the blitz and timing have been ongoing issues, a real problem for a team with a desperate need to generate any sort of pass rush. Against the game-inexperienced Lemon, the Browns defense often disguised the coverage in an attempt to force the quarterback into mistakes. After a rough start, Lemon settled in and exposed the zones in the Cleveland defense, as well as taking advantage of the poor coverage play of safety Sean Jones.
Jones, a bright and budding star in the 2006 season, has struggled throughout the early portion of the 2007 campaign. Generally solid in coverage and a hard-hitter in the middle of the Browns defensive backfield, Jones has been consistently beaten by tight ends, especially in the past two weeks. Far too often, opposing receivers are finding their way into the soft zones and seams, without the threat of the safeties being in position to make plays.
The Cleveland Browns defense is lacking many things, but primary concerns are the lack of a physical presence in the middle of the secondary, along the line, and at linebacker.
Stopping the run was the primary objective of the Cleveland defense against the Miami Dolphins. Running back Ronnie Brown has been as good as any back in the league over the past three weeks and the Browns game-planned to minimize the impact Brown would provide. Early in the game, the Miami offensive line pinned well, opening gaping holes in the Browns defensive line. Inability to fill the hole, poor tackling, and Ronnie Brown's talent had the Cleveland defense on their heels in the first quarter. If not for the shaky play of Lemon early, the Dolphins would not have fallen behind and been forced to play catch-up football.
After falling behind 14-3, Miami went away from the running game as the Browns began to load the box and bring a safety up in support. Suddenly, due to a lack of a pass rush and more room to work with in the secondary, Lemon settled in and moved the Dolphins up and down the field through the air in the second and third quarters. After softening the Browns defense, Miami went back to Brown and the outstanding ball carrier was again successful against a less-than-able Cleveland defense.
Throughout the game, the Cleveland linebackers were unable to make plays at the line of scrimmage. From being bodied off the gap, to being taken out of plays due to to undisciplined activity, Cleveland's linebackers struggled in space in retaining their rush responsibilities. Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was all over the field in pursuit - speed and quickness are his greatest attributes - but his size and a lack of productivity along the defensive line prohibits him from making many note-worthly plays.
Starting inside linebacker Andra Davis continues to play at a marginal level. Often late to fill and out of position, Davis was credited with one tackle on the day. Davis was the victim of two Ronnie Brown positive yardage carries after contact was initiated by the veteran linebacker. Davis was also pushed back on a run by Lemon.
The strength of a team defense can be often measured by the play of the team up the middle, In the case of the Browns, Washington/Kelley, Davis/Jackson, and Jones/Pool fill this category. All continue to struggle and progress appears limited.
With this current state of the defense, the bye-week could not come at a better time. Expect more shootouts from the Browns in the second half of the season, as this defense isn't going to significantly change any time soon.