A strange game with one of the strangest endings you're likely to ever see.
The Browns 33-30 overtime victory over the Ravens included a first half with practically no offense whatsoever, and ended with both teams easily moving the ball into field goal position on their final drives.
Of course, the weird got weirder when regulation ended with a Phil Dawson field goal attempt bouncing off the left pole, landing on the post behind the cross-bar and then bouncing back onto the field. The kick was initially ruled no good as time expired.
The Ravens celebrated, the Browns fretted, the officials pondered, and decided (correctly) that Dawson's kick crossed the plane of the goal posts. A Browns loss turned into a new opportunity in overtime.
Back onto the field came the Ravens and fans streamed back into the Stadium, still recovering from the turn of events. After winning the toss, Josh Cribbs willed the kick return across the 40 of the Browns, as he often does, putting Derek Anderson and the Browns offense in good position. Anderson hit Winslow on a key third down pass to set up Phil Dawson's winning field goal.
As happy as we all are with the win, today's game, on first glance, leaves a number of open questions.
Let's not forget that, again, the Browns got what they needed - turnovers and excellent special teams play - and still had to go down to the wire to beat a stumbling Ravens squad, albeit one still potent on defense. The Browns should have blown out the Ravens in the first half after turnovers and the Boller Effect gave the Browns the football in good field position repeatedly.
Yet they did not, and the team's defense once again let an opponent close the gap after being two touchdowns behind.
Looking back on the game, we're left two questions:
FIRST QUESTION: Was the Browns offense ineffective in taking advantage of field position and turnovers in the first half, or was the Ravens defense that effective?
I believe credit needs to be given to the Ravens defense, stocked over time with talent through savvy draft selections much the same way that the Browns offense has been given several top draft picks to build around. The Ravens front seven is still tenacious, although fading, and the return of Chris McAllister completely changed the complexion of the Ravens secondary from recent weeks. McAllister was not only back, but surprisingly effective, and his superlative work in no small measure kept the Browns from moving effectively through the air.
What's worrisome, however, is the way that the Browns offensive line played in the noisy conditions in Baltimore. The Browns came into the game 1-3 on the road, and they seem much less comfortable working when the noise is against them. Numerous false start penalties likely came from the combination of background noise, Baltimore's blitzing attack, and likely some deliberate distractions from across the line of scrimmage.
Against a better opponent, those slips would have proven fatal. Offensive line coach Steve Marshall has an excellent group of athletes to work with, but clearly has work to do, This line can get better.
Jamal Lewis had his best showing since Week 2 against the Bengals. Just as a lot of us were getting ready to send him off to pasture, Lewis showed tremendous focus and effort, keeping his legs moving after contact and pushing Ravens defenders backwards. Lewis finished with 92 yards and a 4.2 yard average, much of it after contact.
I'm still going to say that the Browns need to provide Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison with more opportunities. Wright averaged 4.8 yards per attempt and hits the crease faster than Lewis. Harrison gets to the hole faster than either of them.
The clash of the Browns offense and Ravens defense was a stellar confrontation to watch, and the Browns 380 yards of total offense against this group is a statistic to be proud of. If you can score over 30 point on the Ravens (albeit seven by the defense), you have done alright.
Given the Browns dominance on special teams due to Cribbs and yardage against a stiff Ravens defense, however, one would have expected a much easier game than the Browns had.
The reason for that were self-destructive first-half failures to take advantage of good fortune and a second half defensive effort that allowed a very suspect Baltimore offense to get into a rhythm.
SECOND QUESTION: Was the Browns defense bad enough to allow even the inept Ravens offense, led by the sub-mediocre Kyle Boller, multiple second-half scores or did the Ravens actually manage to get in a little rhythm in the second half?
In this case, I have to point the finger at the Browns defense, which was steady in the first half and surprisingly effective in holding Willis McGahee to short runs in the first half.
Unfortunately, since the OBR, which has grown significantly in the last two years, still isn't at the point where we can afford to send Fred and I on the road, I had to watch this on TV like everyone else. Watching on TV really limits your ability to analyze the game through the narrow window of the TV monitor. Thanks to the support of OBR subscribers, we're getting closer to being able to follow the team on the road.
Here are my theories, in any event...
I believe that the injury to Browns CB Eric Wright was a key event, forcing Daven Holly into coverage against Devard Darling and out of the more appropriate role as a nickel back. This helped to expose the Browns secondary when eight were in the box trying to stop the run. Browns defenders, including the aging Orpheus Roye and without the critical services of Shaun Smith, seemed to wear down somewhat in the second half even when matched up against the weak Ravens offensive line. The Ravens play-calling was more effective as well, mixing up the pass and run and keeping Browns defenders guessing.
Kyle Boller is a quarterback who will take head coaches down with him, much as I thought Derek Anderson was (and still is, to some extent). He displays flashes of excellence, and has the right physical attributes to be a potent dropback passer. Like Anderson, however, he also will make the occasional ill-advised throw, and is significantly less accurate than Anderson. Boller did get some rhythm in the second half, after playing skittishly in the first two quarters.
Comparing the two, Anderson has become more accurate and has been well-coached to reduce mistakes. Anderson's footwork is better than Boller's as the Baltimore quarterback wasn't positioned correctly, particularly in the the first half and often in the second. Boller, despite the comments of CBS' announcers, still looks to me to be much the same quarterback as when he came into the league. He'll make some bad decisions, and just doesn't have the accuracy to be a top NFL QB. He had a low completion percentage in college, and it's easy to see why.
Still, the loss of Wright may have forced the Browns to drop more defenders into coverage, and the Ravens line wore down a Browns front three left short-handed due to the loss of Shaun Smith. When this happened, McGahee became much more effective.
McGahee finished with 102 yards on 21 attempts. It needs to be said, however, that he was much less dangerous than in the first game against the Ravens, where he averaged around seven yards per carry. McGahee ran at will in that game, but today was limited, particularly in the first half.
McGahee's second-half effectiveness, however, I suspect created a tendency for the safeties to creep up, opening things up downfield. I could not confirm this via the TV, however. When that happened, even Kyle Boller could make the occasional downfield throw, and the Ravens became more effective.
My theory is that it was the injury to Eric Wright and the wearing down of the Browns thin defensive line which set the Browns defensive decline in motion. I can't really argue Todd Grantham's defensive scheming, which was more aggressive in past week, particularly near the red zone. Sean Jones did a nice job of disguisnig what he was doing and was successful enough blitzing to derail the Ravens attack at points. In the first half, his approach was effective at rattling Boller, but with personnel issues in the second half, the strategy began to falter.
Even with these concerns, the Browns persistence and resolve in fighting off a determined Baltimore squad was heartening. The Browns got big plays out of their safeties, which had been lacking most of this season. We can hope that Pool's interception return for a TD will mark a turning point for the second-year safety.
Josh Cribbs remains nothing short of a force of nature, and his performance as once again a critical element of the Browns win. The shorter the field against the Ravens defense, the better fortunes your offense will have. Cribbs kept the field short, and deserves a significant helping of the credit for the Browns victory.
Those are my takes... I hope to see yours in the forums!