Playing the Cardinals, it's the birds you'd expect to lay an egg. Instead, the Browns were the ones committing a series of bird-brained gaffes that cost any chance to win the game. The Browns missed a golden opportunity to take command in the wild card playoff race and put pressure on the Steelers in the AFC North. Let's examine what went wrong.
It looked to me like the Browns were attempting to employ a strategy similar to last week against Houston: establish the run and use it to set up the pass. The Browns seemed to be more willing to attack vertically than what we saw last week, probably due to the fact that the Arizona secondary has been decimated to the point that former Brown Ralph Brown is starting for them. That approach went out the window when the Browns turned the ball over twice on their first two possessions, allowing the Cardinals the luxury of an early 14-0 lead. When you consider the Browns outscored them 21-13 from that point on, even after two more turnovers, it shows just how much the Browns handed this game to the Cards.
Derek Anderson made some good throws, especially the longer ones, but his short throws continue to be erratic. The throw on the early interception was just plain bad. The Browns turned a promising possession in which they were driving into a 72-yard touchdown the other way. Then, a fumbled exchange handed the Cardinals a short field and another touchdown. Anderson's third turnover, an interception on a deep throw into coverage didn't hurt that much other than killing yet another promising drive. While Anderson has made good plays that have allowed the Browns to get this far, this performance was a regression. It reminded me a lot of the Oakland game and the first half against New England. Granted, Anderson probably had more pressure on him than in most of the recent games, but that's relative. With a few exceptions, Anderson had plenty of time to throw.
While I didn't see this as a stellar effort by the offensive line, it was certainly solid. The Cardinals blitzed a lot and the line and other blockers did a pretty good job picking it up. Ryan Tucker did have his obligatory jump offside, but other than that, the line was good in pass protection. Now, the running game was another matter. Holes were tough to come by, though Jamal Lewis was once again slow hitting the hole. Jason Wright had a nice change of pace run where he slipped through a small crack for a nine-yard gain, but there wasn't much of a hole on that play either. Eric Steinbach is dinged right now, so perhaps that contributes to this. The Browns need to step it up in the running game as we move into bad weather. Yet, I don't think you can lay Anderson's problems in the passing game at the feet of the line. They did their jobs.
Braylon Edwards has his best game in a while. Despite the fact the Cardinals were clearly worried about him, Edwards found ways to get open. Kellen Winslow will be remembered in this game for the catch he made that didn't count. It was an amazing catch. He also had a two-point conversion on a nifty play where Joshua Cribbs faked the run, then threw it. Joe Jurevicus wasn't a target often in this game, but he had a big catch on the final possession when the Browns were trying to take the lead with no timeouts. Cribbs had an end around play that might have gone for bigger yards if he hadn't slowed down to make a move. Lawrence Vickers showed that if he can catch a swing pass, it has the potential to be a big gainer. Steve Heiden had a catch, which has become somewhat rare of late.
I'm going to single out Tim Carter, though. It is time to move on. I don't care how fast he is or how much experience he has, I hate to see him on the field because it is a waste of a position. The throw on the first interception wasn't great, but did Carter make an effort to break it up? No. Did he use his supposed amazing speed to run down the defender before he reached the end zone? No. Then there was the fake spike, a play that might well have allowed the Browns to win at the end. Carter botched it, and I still can't figure out if he didn't give full effort, if he was confused, or what was going on there. At the risk of tiring him out, give Cribbs a chance. If Travis Wilson is a bust, then fine, at least you'd get an honest effort from young Steve Sanders. But Carter is worthless. He can't be gone fast enough for me.
Once again, despite the inconsistency, the offense nearly pulled out a win at the end. On the other hand, without the early mistakes, the Browns probably win this game in a blowout.
While injuries took their toll, this was a bad showing by the Browns defense. In my opinion, the performance of the players was bad, but the game plan was also flawed. Sure, the offense and special teams handed the Cardinals 21 points. On the other hand, if the defense could have held the Cardinals to a field goal on either of the short-field possessions, the Browns probably win the game. And of course, when a stop would have given the offense a chance to win the game at the end, the defense allowed Edgerrin James to run the ball down their throats until they reached the one-yard line. This coming from a team that has had no running game. Credit where credit is due, though, they finally got a stop at the goal line that kept the game from being out of reach.
It's hard to comment much on the defensive line since the Browns didn't have one through much of the game. With only four linemen available, including Louis Leonard in his first action as a Brown, it did not bode well. Ethan Kelley and Orpheus Roye did not play. I actually thought Robaire Smith and Shawn Smith played decent games. But Simon Fraser may have played his way off the team. He was consistently blown off the ball and really hurt the Browns. His head butt on the final kickoff return wiped out good field position for the offense when the Browns had no timeouts. Romeo Crennel's reaction was not pleasant. Leonard had one decent stop.
With no linemen available and the Cardinals being more of a passing team, the Browns once again reverted to the 2-4-5 look we have seen many times this season. In some cases, the Browns used Willie McGinest over the center again. He actually played a solid game, batting down two passes. Despite not racking up sacks, Kamerion Wimbley brought pressure from the edge. D'Qwell Jackson also made some plays. The rest of the linebackers, well, not so good. Andra Davis was consistently out of position and ineffective. His bonehead offside penalty late in the game hurt the Browns when they desperately needed a stop. I love Antwaan Peek, but where was he? Leon Williams was called for holding on special teams, but he is becoming a holding machine. It wasn't called, but on Pope's touchdown, Williams was holding him. He was also holding on the final offensive play by the Ravens in the game two weeks ago. He is going to cost the Browns dearly at some point. Then, there was Chaun Thompson, getting some rare playing time on defense, and missing a chance at an interception that would have prevented the final touchdown by the Cardinals.
With Larry Fitzgerald out and Anquan Boldin out for much of the second half, this should have been a break for a secondary that was missing Eric Wright. In fact, the secondary did a pretty reasonable job in the game except for the mistakes. Leigh Bodden inexplicably kicked the ball when the Browns had stopped the Cardinals on third down. That drive ended in a touchdown. That play alone might have turned the game. Both Brodney Pool and Sean Jones had roughness penalties. Pool's late hit out of bounds wasn't nasty, but in a situation when the Browns needed a stop on the final drive, he turned a first down into a big play. Sean Jones gave the Cardinals a first down when they had a third down coming up. Daven Holly's mistake was tripping Josh Cribbs on a special teams play that caused a muff on a punt, though that one is really on Cribbs. I thought Brandon McDonald had another good game, and it was clear that the Cards were throwing away from him. Mike Adams also contributed.
I heard an interview after the game where Andra Davis essentially laid this loss on the offense and special teams. The defense could not come up with a stop when it was needed. Davis in particular needs to look in the mirror first and step up his discipline. The defense did face tough situations, true, but they did not respond, either.
This was a rare time when special teams did not contribute much of anything positive to the game. The Cribbs muff on the punt was costly, as it resulted in a touchdown. Cribbs had two decent returns wiped out by penalties, so he ended up with a pitiful total in return yards. They kicked away from Cribbs and clearly weren't ready for some of the pooch kicks they got. The coverage teams allowed a big return that led to a late field goal after the Browns had closed to within 21-18. Dave Zastudil did not punt much since the Browns were handing the ball over rather than punting. Overall, this was a quiet game for the special teams.
Romeo Crennel has repeatedly warned about looking ahead. I don't see that as the problem here. This seemed more like the Oakland game. The players were so convinced they were the better team, they gave a lackluster effort and made numerous thoughtless mistakes. Crennel was agitated on the sideline with players and coaches alike. His reaction when the Browns had to burn a timeout because they could not get the play in on time showed he isn't afraid to give it to the staff.
If there was an error in game planning, I think returning to a passive approach on defense cost the team dearly. The Cardinals have an old, banged up, immobile quarterback, and the Browns did not pressure him. Gone were the blitzes we've seen the last two weeks. I'm sure the rationale was with the Browns playing from behind the entire game, they did not want to risk it. The Browns went into prevent and coverage defenses, sometimes rushing only two men. As happened earlier this season, despite having nine men covering five, Cardinal receivers were still open a lot of the time.
Don't get me wrong, though. While I dislike the defensive approach, even with the Browns handing over 21 points on a platter, the Browns still almost won. The mistakes on the field were the mistakes of the players. A lot of them were mental mistakes, but a lot of the problems on defense were purely physical. You line up, you stay with your responsibility, and you hit someone. There wasn't a lot of the happening at times. In particular, with the d-line hurting, the linebackers as a unit let the team down.
My take on the final play: officials are going to be reluctant to make a call that swings the outcome of the game, as this one would have. However, when you don't make plays throughout the game and put the outcome in the hands of the officials, this is what you get. This crew was lousy, but they were just as bad for both teams.
You have to acknowledge that nearly winning a game where you made an entire hit parade of stupid mistakes and were minus three in the turnover margin is a sign of progress for this team. But it shows that the maturity and consistency of a top-tier team still eludes the Browns. I hope this is a game that will help them to grow down the stretch. It will also show us if the leadership of veteran players like Willie McGinest and Joe Jurevicius will assert itself.
No matter how good you are, when you make as many mistakes as the Browns did in this game, it is tough to win. The Browns were the better team. Take away even one of these mistakes and the Browns probably win. But, if there was a game the Browns could "afford" to lose, it was one against an NFC opponent. Conference record will be an all-important tiebreaker for the playoffs. The Browns now probably need to go at least 3-1 in the final quarter of the season to realistically make it. For all practical purposes, this loss combined with the Steelers win over the Bengals probably locks up the AFC North for Pittsburgh.
The Browns travel to face the resurgent Jets, winners of two of the last three. They've beaten the Steelers, something a Romeo Crennel coached team has never been able to do. This game will show us just where this team is.
The season is short. Bark hard!