If a close loss was a measuring stick for the progress of the 2007 Cleveland Browns, we learned some things about them. This team has come a long way since the first meeting, but it still has a ways to go. I've read a lot of thoughts on this game. It's amazing how many opinions there are out there. Let me unpack for you what I saw and what I think it means.
Derek Anderson has grown and improved a lot since being handed the starting job. He's worked on protecting the ball. He's done great beating the blitz. But in the second half of this game, the Steelers exposed his weakness in the short passing game. Anderson has done better in previous games with touch passes, but not only was his touch off here, but the accuracy of the short throws was also not good. Anderson has improved in so many areas, and I believe this is an area where he can improve as well. If not, opponents will try to do what the Steelers did to rattle him.
With the passing game shut down for most of the second half, many of the skill players simply did not get a chance to contribute. The one player who did get the chance was Jamal Lewis. The second of his two fumbles was lost and fueled the comeback by the Steelers. He also did not hit the hole well. By the time he got to the line, if there was a hole, it was closed. Interestingly, the Browns did not try to use Jason Wright to change things up, and Jerome Harrison was left inactive.
The one part of the offense that did well was the offensive line. The line was exceptional in pass blocking against a tough Steeler defense. Once again, Derek Anderson was not sacked, and he was rarely even hurried. Admittedly, the line did not do as well in the run game, but the Steelers have generally done well at shutting down the run. Considering the Browns pressed Ryan Tucker into service at guard with the loss of Seth McKinney, it was a good performance against one of the top defenses in the NFL. Once again, let me mention the secondary blockers, in particular Lawrence Vickers and Steve Heiden. Both made definite contributions.
We've gotten used to the offense moving the ball at will against pretty much any opponent, so it was hard to watch the unit go three-and-out numerous times in this game. Had the offense put together even one sustained drive after the opening possession, the Browns would have probably won.
In some ways, this was the best performance of the year by the defense. In others, it was just more of the same. While the Browns did a decent job against the running game, they were horrendous on third down and got burned by scrambles (lumbers?) by Big Ben.
This was the best performance of the year by the defensive line. It has been rare to see Ethan Kelley make multiple plays in one game, but he did that here. Robaire Smith continues to play hard. Shaun Smith is improving each week. Simon Fraser and Orpheus Roye also contributed. The Browns were able to contain the run and get rare pressure on the quarterback because the line was able to hold its ground much of the time.
The linebackers made some plays. Because the line was holding the point of attack, we saw Kamerion Wimbley, Antwan Peek, Willie McGinest, and Andre Davis make plays. Unfortunately, we also saw some plays left on the field because the Browns were often a step slow. The Steelers did get away with some blatant holds on linebackers. But you really have to wonder how much Willie McGinest has left. He is an on-the-field coach and he has made some plays since he has returned, but the plays he missed in this game really hurt. Though he played a fair amount, I thought Leon Williams did not have a great game.
The secondary had problems, yet also came up with plays. Sean Jones made some good plays in the running game. Brodney Pool came up with an interception. Leigh Bodden made a number of plays. Eric Wright tipped away a pass. But the Browns did not have an answer for Hines Ward. It is baffling to me how the Browns can leave Ward uncovered near the goal line. It was nice to see Brandon McDonald in the game and contributing.
As much as I think the offense was the main problem in the game, the defense once again allowed an opponent to convert fairly consistently on third and long. This isn't new; the defense has given up longer conversions against Oakland and Miami. But here, it was the Achilles heel of the Browns. Allowing the scrambles on third down was particularly bad.
I've been saying if the defense could step up and just be poor rather than awful, the Browns would be a real threat. Well, that happened in this game. But for the offense suddenly going silent, the effort of the defense would have been enough despite its flaws.
What can be said about Josh Cribbs that everyone else hasn't already said? His two long returns were great, and the touchdown return was nothing short of amazing. He also had a big punt return wiped out by the phantom holding call. The coverage teams did a nice job. Dave Zastudil punted well. Phil Dawson, though, not only missed the potential tying field goal, though it was a long one to attempt of the slop at Pittsburgh, his kickoffs were ridiculously short as well. Only good coverage and the tendency to fall down by Steelers returners overcame the short kicks.
This was not a great showing by the coaching staff in general. Romeo will long be second guessed for challenging the final Pittsburgh touchdown. Blowing two timeouts really cost the Browns at the end. Another 30 seconds would have made a world of difference.
Then there is the defense. Whether it is Todd Grantham or Romeo Crennel calling the shots, I do think being more aggressive helped. It just seems inexplicable that there is so little discipline that we've seen receivers running free with eight and even nine men in coverage, and in this game, we can't stop a quarterback from running who isn't all that fast. There are talent deficiencies, yes, but this seems a lot more than that. Steps have been taken, and some improvement was seen. More is needed.
I believe the offense will bounce back. I think Derek Anderson will learn from this game and it will make him better. The big questions are whether the Browns can work out ways to spring Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow from multiple coverage and whether the Browns can make reasonable improvements in the running game. The Browns need to be spelling Lewis with the faster scat backs.
Other than sticking with Lewis and not giving Wright even a carry or two, I don't agree that the offense went conservative in the second half. In fact, I'd argue that the offense didn't get enough plays to really tell. They did throw on first down several times. Also, I waited all game for a screen pass or any play with Josh Cribbs. Where were these? They might have caught the Steelers off guard.
Before we get too upset, though, the Browns were blown off the field by the Steelers in week 1. The Browns offense had a poor game and the team was still in a position to have won. This is a lot of progress. After the debacle on opening day, I think most Browns fans would have been happy to arrive at this point at 5-4. There are problems, but this team continues to grow up before our eyes.
It's always hard to lose to Pittsburgh, especially a game that one play here or there would have won. However, I said last week that this game was not a deal-breaker for the Browns to make the playoffs, and it isn't. It does make this week's game much more critical against the collapsing Ravens. After that, the Browns should be favored in almost every game the rest of the year. The team is going to have to show that it can take care of business in situations where it is expected to win. It will also have to do better in situations where the opponent makes adjustments than in this game.
The Browns have a chance to kick the purple team near the bay while it is down. By all means, kick away!
The season is short, bark hard!