After spotting the winless Rams 14 points, the Browns came to life and won their first road game of the season. This game had me saying "wow" a lot, sometimes in a positive way, sometimes not. I admit, I'm feeling conflicted about the performance of the team in this game. Let's dig into the details.
While there are plenty of positives to talk about in the performance of the offense, much of the game was mixed. But, for Derek Anderson, I thought this game was his finest performance yet. Once again, he did not turn the ball over, which has been the knock on Anderson since college. He also made some incredible plays. He is really learning to throw to his skill players when they aren't exactly open, but in a way that puts the ball where only the receiver can make a play on it. Perhaps most impressive was how Anderson's throwing bailed the offense out of numerous holes caused by penalties or other negative plays. I'm beginning to think when it is third down and 16, somehow the offense will find a way to convert.
The offensive line continues to open holes in the running game and protect the quarterback. For the most part, Anderson wasn't even hurried. My only beef here is the motion penalties, something we haven't seen a lot this season. For now, I'm going to chalk this up to playing inside, something the Browns won't do again this year. When the line plays like it has been of late, it really makes things go.
Braylon Edwards had an amazing game. His eight catches put him over 100 yards again, and two more touchdowns put him two ahead of his 2006 total already. He made a fantastic toe-tapping catch along the sideline early in the game. My favorite was an out around the 10-yard line where he reversed direction and turned over in mid-air while falling. Just unbelievable. But before we call this the coming out party for Mr. Edwards, he made two bad plays. One was going Dwayne Rudd on us and taking off his helmet. In his defense, he thought the third quarter had expired but there was still :03 showing on the clock. His response to it was also positive. But the more troubling gaffe was dropping a pass that would have sealed the game. Instead, it took an interception to end a drive that might have tied the game. These mistakes will help Edwards continue to grow up. He has quickly become one of the top receivers in the game.
This was also a game that saw Joe Jurevicus play the role we all anticipated when he came to Cleveland. Jurevicus made three big catches on third down. He was the option left open when Edwards and Winslow were covered. Winslow had just two catches, but his touchdown catch was an amazing play. Teams have been keying on Winslow, but with Edwards' performance, Winslow may find more chances as the season wears on. Tim Carter even had a catch, as did Steve Heiden late in the game, but they were largely afterthoughts as Edwards, Winslow, and Jurevicius made big plays throughout the game.
The running game did not carry the team, but it was very effective. The Browns used a running back-by-committee approach. Jamal Lewis returned with a modest 61 yards. On one drive in the second quarter, though, Lewis ran on the majority of the plays and was gaining good yardage up the middle. The Rams eventually adjusted. Jason Wright was a solid change of pace. He looked great on the screen pass. Young Jerome Harrison was active again, and once again, he was ripping of good runs thanks to his quickness. Josh Cribbs added 18 yards on an outstanding run off the end around.
Also, in recent years, Browns fans have often heard the excuse that "play calling is overrated". When you look at the way the Browns are mixing throws of varying depths, running the ball, and sprinkling in some razzle-dazzle plays, you cannot help but be impressed with what Rob Chudzinski is doing. The Browns have talent, but Chud is doing his part by putting the players in a position to succeed.
There were way too many mistakes, and way more than we've seen in most of the games this year. Yet, unlike in the past, the potent offense of the Browns was able to repeatedly overcome them against a decent Ram defense.
We've heard a lot of talk about changes during the bye week. Changes were made, but the results looked pretty much the same, especially at the beginning of the game. This should have been a chance for the much-maligned Browns defense to get healthy against an opponent that has been decimated by injuries. Instead, it was a performance that tells me the problems have not yet been addressed.
Once again, the Browns left Ted Washington inactive. It helped some. The Browns largely played the two Smiths, Ethan Kelley, and Simon Fraser. Kelley actually got some push a couple of times. But against an offensive line that is in complete disarray, the Browns should have done better. Robaire Smith was solid. Shawn Smith batted down a pass and probably had the best game he's played. Even so, the Browns got very little pass rush, allowing a dinged up Marc Bulger to find open receivers.
This was a pretty ineffective effort by the linebackers overall. Willie McGinest was the most effective. He batted down two passes and was moving around well. I thought Antwan Peek contributed. D'Qwell Jackson left the game early with an injury. We did get a rare sighting of Andra Davis in the backfield. Kamerion Wimbley was pretty much ineffective. He jumped offside on a third and long, allowing the Rams to convert. He got minimal pressure on the quarterback.
The secondary was expected to be a strength, but this was not a good game for them. Other than the final interception, Leigh Bodden was terrible. He got toasted repeatedly in the first half. Eric Wright is improving, but he had his problems in this game. Many of them seem to be correctable to me. I think it speaks volumes that the Rams went after Bodden and not Wright as much. Other than a few plays late, Brodney Pool and Sean Jones were invisible.
One of the biggest concerns I've had this season so far is that Browns defenders get engaged with blockers and don't shed the blocks to make plays. Watch the defense on most plays and you'll see them get locked up with an offensive player and stay locked up until the whistle. It seems to me that this contributes to the problems we've seen with tackling. When defenders are already engaged, you tend to get a lot of arm tackles.
I will give the team credit for holding the Rams to six points over the final three quarters. They also came up with two critical fourth down stands. But that is as far as I will go. The Rams are an injured bunch on offense and they played the majority of the game without workhorse Steven Jackson. I believe if Jackson plays the whole game, the Rams probably convert those third downs and the Browns lose. Because the Rams turned the ball over on downs, the score makes it look as if the Rams weren't moving the ball. They pretty much moved the ball at will the whole game. The Rams were pitiful on offense and did not have a rushing touchdown. The Browns allowed their first rushing touchdown early and gave up 20 points to a team that can't score. Not good.
Not surprisingly, the Rams tried to kick away from Josh Cribbs. He still had a nice 18-yard punt return and a solid kickoff return. If the opponent kicks short, memo to Ted Daisher: I really don't want to see Lennie Friedman returning kickoffs. That was the second time we've seen that this season. Phil Dawson made two field goals and had nice kickoffs. Dave Zastudil didn't get a lot of work, but his kicks were good.
Romeo Crennel showed some things we haven't seen a lot. First, he was ripping the defense after the Browns went down 14-0. They deserved it. The defense was even worse than normal in the first quarter. Next, he was having quite a "discussion" with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. That surprised me. But I was very surprised at his reaction to the Edwards helmet penalty. Knowing Edwards was feeling that he let the team down with the mistake, Crennel showed him some mercy. I also liked the fact that despite their past relationship, Crennel was not afraid to sit Ted Washington if it helped the team and he played young Jerome Harrison again. Perhaps Crennel is beginning to get the hang of dealing with the players on a situational basis.
As you watch the games and read about what is happening in Berea, it is becoming increasingly clear that while the Browns lack both talent and experience on defense, the defensive schemes are still part of the problem. They are not putting the talent the team does have in a position to succeed. Corners are playing way off receivers, blitzes are a rarity, and we don't seem to be getting our players into favorable match ups. I expected some improvement on defense after the bye, and admittedly, there was a little, especially later in the game. A better opponent would have killed the Browns, though. There are still a lot of problems and not so many solutions on this side of the ball.
Still, when you consider the Browns got off to a terrible start on the road, indoors, made numerous mistakes, and still won the game, you begin to understand just how far the team has come. A year ago, one or two of those mistakes would have been enough to cause a loss. Even opening day we saw a team waiting to unravel after a mistake. This year, the team has overcome mistakes on several occasions. It is growing up before our eyes.
A win is a win, no matter how ugly. Some of it was really ugly, yet parts were drop dead beautiful! At 4-3, the Browns are in the division race. They have won back-to-back games for the first time since 2003. They won on the road for the first time this year. They did not turn the ball over for the first time in, well, a long time. This is the latest the Browns have been over .500 since their playoff season of 2002.
But as is the case when you win, each game becomes even bigger. If the Browns have any chance to do anything in 2007, the next three games will show us. It starts by taking care of a solid opponent at home. The Browns have beaten a lot of teams that are not that good. Can they do it against a team that has been a contender over the last few years? Cleveland Browns Stadium is becoming a decided advantage for the Browns. A late start this week will give the contest more of a big-game atmosphere. Are the upstart Browns ready for this challenge? We will learn a lot about just where this team is over this critical stretch starting with this Sunday.
The division-leading Seattle Seahawks come to town for the biggest game the Browns have played in five years.
The season is short. Bark hard!