Helmet tosses. Illegal replay reviews. Last second meltdowns. Blocked kicks. It seems like the Browns have faced every kind of bizarre ending imaginable since The Return. This week, we got a game with yet another new twist, but with one big difference: the Browns came out on the winning end. Let's take apart what happened.
The offense put up very good numbers in the first half, but had only 13 points to show for it, not to mention handing the Ravens seven back on an interception. But when you really look at it, once again, the special teams set up the offense on short fields several times in the game and the offense really only had one long sustained drive. Yet, at crunch time, the Browns were able to move the ball effectively both at the end of regulation and in overtime.
Derek Anderson made some great plays. The two key throws, a third-down toss to Braylon Edwards at the end of regulation and Kellen Winslow in overtime, were both good plays. In particular, the one to Edwards was made while Anderson was being grabbed. But like the previous game, I had the feeling Anderson just wasn't on his game at times, especially late in the first half and into the second half. The Ravens got pressure on him at times, certainly more so than in most of the games so far this season. And you can't blame all of struggles of the offense on Anderson alone. The interception was a bad throw that, if it had been on target, might have gone for a good gain. I like the matchup of Joe Jurevicius on Ray Lewis.
The offensive line did a decent job in protection, but the numerous penalties really hurt. On a key possession near then end of the first half, the Browns got inside the 15, but then ended up in a first down and 30 because of a series of holding and false start penalties. If the Browns scored a TD on that drive, they take a 17-7 lead instead of being lucky to salvage a field goal. I expect better out of these guys. Joe Thomas joined the hit parade along with Ryan Tucker and Kevin Shaffer. The line struggled to open running holes, but did a credible job against a team that is pretty good against the run. Much of the success of the ground game was determined running by Jamal Lewis and the fact that the Browns staying committed to the run might have worn down the Ravens defense some.
The big three receivers, Edwards, Winslow, and Jurevicus, all were effective. Watching the game, it seemed to me like Winslow had essentially been shut down in regulation and that Edwards didn't contribute. Edwards ended up with eight catches, and Winslow had several key receptions. Edwards did drop a few that would have been tough catches, but ones that looked makeable. The 50-yard play to Jurevicus was a big one and he continues to be money. Anderson was also able to check down to Lewis more than once, and there was even a very nice catch by Tim Carter. All in all, not a bad day.
I really liked the fact that the Browns mixed in Jason Wright, and very effectively. It might be time to find another play on short yardage than just handing it to Vickers. Josh Cribbs got one touch on offense.
When you consider that the offense didn't move the ball consistently, and in fact stalled out several times, it's amazing they put up 27 points (seven came on defense). A lot of that was thanks to the defense and special teams, creating turnovers and setting up great field position all day. Yet, had the Browns just been able to sustain one drive in the second half, all the dramatics could have been avoided.
While there were numerous problems, I still see this as the best performance the defense has had to date. For those of us who have been calling for more aggressive play, I see this game as a validation of that approach. When the Browns blitzed, they were very effective at shutting down the Raven offense. When they did not, they gave Boller time to throw and they paid for it.
Despite the injury to Shaun Smith, the defense line had by far its best game of the season. Robaire Smith had a great game. What a block he threw on the Brodney Pool interception return! Coming into the season, I admit that I viewed Ethan Kelley as an inadequate backup with very little upside. He showed me something in this game. I'll be watching to see if he can continue to step up his game. Orpheus Roye also had his best game of the season. While I am aware of the shortcomings of Simon Fraser, he made a great play tackling Boller downfield on a scramble and otherwise had a decent game. When Smith returns, it should help everyone to stay fresh and hopefully play better.
With the line able to hold its ground or get a push on many plays, we saw some effective play from the linebackers at times. Really, this group was inconsistent. I thought Willie McGinest had a decent game. Kamerion Wimbley made some big plays including a sack and forced fumble, but in terms of consistent play throughout the game, it was a mixed bag for him. He was handled or overran the play several times. Antwan Peek was also up and down. The Browns really miss D'Qwell Jackson in the middle. Andre Davis was ineffective much of the time. For example, on the Boller scramble I mentioned above, Davis got sucked to the outside and left the middle open. Leon Williams made some big plays, including the stop on the last offensive play by the Ravens, but he also had a costly face mask that kept a drive alive and was holding on that final play, but wasn't called. Chaun Thomspon got playing time but didn't get a chance to show a lot. David McMillian even got in the game.
The secondary was hurt by the loss of Eric Wright early, though Daven Holly filled in decently. In general, the corners got burned in the second half by soft coverages, especially on plays where the Browns did not put pressure up front. Once again, Ravens receivers ran free. For example, on the final drive for Baltimore, how can you leave Mason completely uncovered on the sideline? Leigh Bodden made some nice tackles, but he also had troubles. Brandon McDonald is looking like he might be a solid find. The safeties were at their best on blitzes, especially Sean Jones. Both of them had interceptions, including a record 100-yard return by Brodney Pool. Jones caused that interception by blizing. He also got a cheap roughing the passer call. Mike Adams recovered a fumble.
My biggest takeaway from this game on defense will be to see what the Browns do schematically down the stretch. The Browns had seven sacks in the first eight games. They had six in this game and ten in this game and the Pittsburgh game combined. Continuing to be aggressive is probably the only way the Browns can attempt to cover for the holes they have on defense.
Josh Cribbs is flat-out amazing. He had great kick returns, both on kickoffs and punts, he forced a fumble, and he continues to be a force as a gunner. He set a Browns record for return yards in a game, which is saying something when you think of previous players like Bobby Mitchell, Greg Pruitt, and Eric Metcalf. I can't adequately praise Cribbs enough for his performance. Without it, the Browns lose the game. The kickoff and punt teams in general did a nice job both on the return side and also in coverage.
While Phil Dawson became a national celebrity for his bank shot kick to force overtime, it might not have been necessary if he had not missed a 35-yard kick in the first half and if Ryan Pointbriand had not had a bad snap in the fourth quarter. Pointbriand has been very reliable in his tenure in Cleveland, and this is really the first bad snap I can remember since he arrived. On the missed field goal, Dawson was trying to compensate for the wind and if you watched the flags, the wind died just as the ball was snapped. Dawsons kickoffs were inconsistent. He had some good ones, but too many of them are coming down around the 20. This contributed to the comeback by the Ravens in the second half, yet I don't see anyone talking about it. Dave Zastudil was solid as usual.
After a lot of failed replay reviews, give Romeo Crennel credit for a good choice to challenge the "fumble" by Josh Cribbs. I also really liked that when Billick was telling his players to go to the locker room to try to influence the officials at the end of regulation, Crennel was a steady presence telling his team to stay put.
The staff has some work to do to determine what needs to be done to adjust with the offense and also just how aggressive to be on defense. This game should have given them some very interesting film to examine.
While the officials got the call right at the end, they were some very questionable calls all day. For example, the Browns had two horse collar tackles, one on Cribbs and another on Wright, that were not called. Ray Lewis got away with a face mask on Wright as well, yet Leon Williams got nailed for one on a play that would have stopped a drive. There is also the penalty on Sean Jones I mentioned above. And how is Ngota not ejected for punching Joe Thomas in the head while he is on the ground?
Had the Browns lost this game, and they very well could have, it would have been a huge blow to their playoff chances. Winning a division game on the road is big, especially since the other teams that were 4-5 lost and left the Browns alone at 6-4, other than the Titans who dropped to that record. It will be quite a race in the AFC, but the Browns will first have to overtake Jacksonville and Tennessee. They Browns are currently tiebreakers out of the final wild card spot. With winnable games ahead, the Browns cannot afford a letdown. They will have a chance to bury wild card contenders Houston and Buffalo just as they did with the Ravens. The Browns cannot take any of these teams lightly, and they need to put together 60 minutes of football in all phases of the game.
Speaking of the Ravens, a 4-6 and facing games against San Diego, Indianapolis, and New England over the next three weeks, not to mention 0-5 in the division, they are done. In fact, the Ravens have beaten only one AFC team: the Jets.
The Browns face their seemingly annual game against the Texans. They have had injury problems, but look to be healthy coming into Cleveland. This is a much bigger game than it appears, and the Browns may face some matchup problems. Let's see what they can do.
The season is short. Bark hard!