Game Review: Steelers 23, Browns 20

Joe provides his usual informed, objective, and thorough examination of the most recent Browns game. In addition, Joe also offers some thoughts on what the Browns could try moving forward as they look to get the team back on track. Thought-provoking reading for Browns fans.

Good day, Browns fans!

 

This was the most meaningful game the Browns had faced since The Return. The Browns wanted to make a statement playing a division game at home for first place. They made one, but as Tim Couch said, it was not the one they wanted to make. It was a statement that this is a team that just isn't ready yet. This disappointing loss may have ended the Browns playoff dreams. But unlike in the four previous losses, each of which had extenuating circumstances, this was a game that the Browns some how managed to hang into despite the fact that they were outplayed on both offense and defense. It was a game they did not play well enough to win.

 

Let's examine the game position by position.

 

Quarterback

 

The coaching staff finally put the game in the hands of Tim Couch. With the offense not getting much time on the field, that didn't really amount to much, as Couch only made 24 pass attempts. Couch made some great throws, especially two deep throws to Quincy Morgan. But he also forced the ball to KJ into triple coverage and it was intercepted, he put too little air under a ball down the middle to Mark Campbell that was tipped and intercepted, and he fumbled an exchange from center. All came in the second half, all cut short drives that forced the defense back on the field, and though the defense held the Steelers to just six second half points, it still hurt in terms of time of possession and wearing down an injury-riddled defense. Couch also had a tendency to throw too late, though with no running game, the defense can drop guys into coverage

 

Couch was harassed consistently, knocked around, suffered a cut on his hand, and the Browns had absolutely no running game. Given all that, I hate to rip Couch. But he did what he has done throughout his tenure. When the game gets tough, he forces the ball and makes bad decisions. Bad throws I can understand, everyone will make them, but the mental aspect has to improve. Couch has made some big plays, and for 45 minutes of this game, he did pretty well. But for most of the third quarter, Couch killed the Browns with mistakes by trying to do too much.

 

Running Backs

 

Jamel White started and had no running room, as usual. He did a great job as an outlet receiver, as usual. He did a great job blocking, as usual. When he went out of the game injured in the third quarter, it really hurt the Browns. The other guys simply aren't the all-around players that Jamel White has become. White finished with six rushes for just 19 yards, with 10 coming on one play and three more catches for 18 yards. William Green had a couple of decent runs to total 10 yards on four carries, and he made some blitz pickups. But the Steelers blitzed pretty much every time Green was in. He made some blocks, but more often, he had problems. James Jackson took over for White and he really had big time problems blocking.

 

Now, I'll say this in defense of the backs: the Steelers scheme set up some mismatches. Some of the Steeler linebackers are like defensive ends. They are the strongest pass rushers on their team. To have those guys going against William Green or James Jackson is a total mismatch. Jamel White has worked hard on his blocking and he is the best of the running backs in that department. But in some ways, these guys never had a chance.

 

Wide Receivers


After being benched last week, Quincy Morgan had his best game since the opener. Morgan had four catches for 98 yards, including a 63-yarder. His 31-yard TD catch was outstanding, flipping over the defender and holding onto the ball. Morgan should have had an even better day, as he caught a well-thrown 28-yard out pass from Couch that was nullified by a holding call. Kevin Johnson was nearly invisible, as he was blanketed by the Steelers. He finished with just two catches for seven yards. KJ was a negative factor if anything because Couch tried to force the ball to him. I speculate that KJ was lobbying on the sidelines to get the ball, open or not, and that led to the one forced throw.

 

Because of problems with matchups and protections, Dennis Northcutt did not get on the field nearly enough. He had just a few chances, but did pretty well with them. He had just two catches for 27 yards, but he also added a run for five yards. Andre Davis added three more catches for 31 yards, and he had a least one more thrown to him that he could not come up with.

 

Tight Ends

 

While Steve Heiden caught a 1-yard TD pass on fourth and goal, this was not a day to remember for the tight ends. Mark Campbell had two chances at a TD, but missed them both, though one drew a penalty. Aaron Shea was called for the first hold of his life in college or the pros. It was a takedown. It wiped out the catch by Morgan that would have put the Browns at the Steeler 24 down by three points. Instead, the Browns were backed up to their own 37 and Couch fumbled two plays later. Heiden jumped on a short third down play that hurt. He was also flagged on special teams. Some of the same mismatches apply here that did to the running backs, except blocking is an integral part of the skills for a tight end. There was certainly not consistent success there. All in all, a miserable day for this crew.

 

Offensive Line

 

Where do you even start? I'm tired of writing "no push off the ball", but there wasn't any. Ryan Tucker lost his man for a sack, but at least he didn't jump offside. Butch Davis said Shaun O'Hara graded out well, and he did make a heads up play to grab an apparent fumble at the end of the game. Other than the fumbled exchange, Dave Wholabaugh was a non-factor.

 

Frankly, the struggles of the Browns start and end here. As long as the line is bad, the Browns will not have consistent success. At least the pass protection has been decent. But you have to wonder, how can a line at this level be this flat out bad? Is it the coaching? Are they not being asked to use good technique? You'd think these guys would luck into opening a hole once in a while. Or use counters where all you have to do is shove everyone to one side and bottle them up. Butch Davis vows to find answers during the bye. Maybe it is time to take your lumps with Melvin Fowler or Juaquin Gonzalez. As long as they aren't giving up sacks right and left, how much worse can they be?

 

Defensive Line

 

Here we had a game where the line got banged up. Yet, they stepped up and played like we have been expecting to see all season long. Let's start with my defensive MVP for this game, Orpheus Roye. The man was all over the field, making plays, disrupting things, making tackles, getting pressure. He had nine solo tackles. This was just an outstanding effort by Roye. On the heels of that, Courtney Brown had by far his best game of the season. Brown had ten tackles (seven solo), two sacks, another wiped out by a penalty, a forced fumble (recovered by the Steelers), at least two batted balls, and made numerous tackles. But best of all, he was all over the place disrupting what the Steelers were trying to do. This is the kind of play we expect to see from CB week in and week out. Kenard Lang got injured and had to leave early on after making an early impact. The backups, Mark Word and Tyrone Rogers, were relatively quiet.

 

At tackle, Gerard Warren got a foot injury and tried to play through it, but he was clearly in pain. He still made some plays and ended up with four tackles. Alvin McKinley broke a thumb, which was a loss because he has been playing so well and could have spelled Warren.

 

Linebackers

 

This is the first game of 2002 where I thought the Browns got solid linebacker play. In fact at times, it was good. Darren Hambrick came alive in the second half last week and had a strong game. Granted, he did get called for roughing the "passer" on one of numerous trick plays by the Steelers, but Hambrick caused havoc at times. The stat sheet said he only had four tackles, but that does not fairly represent his impact. Earl Holmes had perhaps his best game of the season, especially in the second half. He ended up with nine tackles, and he seemed to be constantly around the ball. There was a Dwayne Rudd sighting in this game, and he actually made six of tackles, including a very nice one-on-one tackle for a loss. Kevin Bentley played, broke his hand, then later returned to the game. Brant Boyer saw a good deal of action in the nickel. He was behind on coverage once that I noticed.

 

Defensive Backs

 

Earl Little was making a lot of plays again. Is he great in coverage? No. Is he great against the run? No. But the guy plays hard and always seems to be around the ball. This game was no exception. He left the game with what looked to be a serious injury, but soon he was back on the field making plays again. He ended up with five tackles. Devin Bush continues to play hurt and I suppose it is fortunate he hasn't been burned worse than he has been. He had six tackles, which has to be one of his better games statistically, Michael Jameson had a rough preseason, but since being activated for the Texans game, the guy has made plays. He may yet be the up and coming player we all thought we had last preseason before he was hurt. He had six solo tackles, which is amazing considering he only played on a limited number of plays.

 

At corner, Daylon McCutcheon returned. Other than a penalty, McCutcheon was quiet most of the game. That's a good thing for a corner. He did end up with five tackles. The Steelers looked to be going after Anthony Henry. He made some good plays, like slapping down a ball, but he also got beat, too. Lewis Sanders had an interception that snuffed out a Steeler drive before halftime.

 

Special Teams

 

All in all, an excellent game, with just a couple of exceptions. You have to start with Dennis Northcutt's second punt return for a touchdown this season, the first Brown to do it twice in a year since Eric Metcalf in 1994. It was set up by five great blocks along the way, including a monster by Michael Jameson that took out the last defender. Northcutt continues to take the ball and run, no juking, no dancing. The Browns tried a reverse on a kick return that was fairly successful, though it got wiped out by a penalty. Chris Gardocki is Mr. Reliable. Special teams penalties hurt almost as much as the ones on offense and defense. Steve Heiden got flagged for the second consecutive week.

 

The Browns had good kick coverage in this game as well for the most part, especially considering the talent of Antwaan Randle-El. There was one instance of poor coverage, and that was the one that allowed the Steelers to start with good field position for their last possession, which translated into miserable field position for the Browns on theirs. And, with the Browns having closed to within 23-20, Phil Dawson missed the extra point. That was a shocker given what Dawson has done to date. Maybe he has a mental block of some kind against the Steelers.

 

There has been a lot of talk about the Andre King play. On the final punt of the game, the Steelers let the ball roll into the end zone. They touched it but did not down it. Andre King saw that, and as coached, grabbed the ball and tried to run it, hoping to catch the Steelers napping similar to the Barneys on the field goal return earlier this year against Denver. As the Browns understand the rule, if you do this, you are supposed to get the ball as you can advance it, and if a bad play happens such as a fumble, worst case the ball is returned to the 20. It is yet another obscure rule that has affected the end of a Browns game. I personally think it was a good gamble. King only managed to make it to the 11. Nine yards is not that much to sacrifice, but had King been able to catch them asleep and return the ball to the 35 or the 50, you might have a legitimate shot to win.

 

Just like the special teams won the Houston game, they kept the Browns in this one. Otherwise, it would not have been close.

 

Coaching

 

Finally, after eight games, the Browns let the offense attempt to play, even though it was not successful, and they did not go conservative. I start with going on fourth and goal from the one up 7-3. That was a gutsy call, and the Browns converted yet another fourth down. But the offense was just overmatched. The Browns have yet to come up with a good answer for the 3-4 defense. In essence, the Steelers use linebackers in blitz situations to essentially play a five-man line. The Browns don't know who is coming or from where, and they did a terrible job picking it up, especially once they got behind. These mismatches were the key to the game.

 

Penalties played a huge role in this game as they have in previous games. The Browns had 11 more, and they now have the 3rd most in the NFL. In this particular game, the penalties often came on third down that got us off the field or allowed the Steelers to stay on the field. The ones that bother you the most are the dumb ones like Orpheus Roye retaliating against a Steeler player. That personal foul call moved the Steelers into Browns territory. You had guys who are normally not called much, like Aaron Shea's first ever holding call, or Courtney Brown taking off before the snap, something he had not done this season. As Butch Davis said, the Browns just aren't good enough to overcome that,

 

I was perplexed by some of the defensive calls, but as I understand it, injuries during the game led to a lot of shuffling and confusion. For example, once Kenard Lang went out, that made a big difference since he typically plays inside on nickel. Losing at times Earl Little, Kevin Bentley, and Alvin McKinley, not to mention Gerard Warran getting hurt but playing anyway caused lots of problems. Butch Davis admitted there were times that half the defense was playing one coverage, while the other half was playing another, leading to breakdowns. This also was a catalyst for a costly 12 men on the field situation when the Browns would have stopped the Steelers.

 

Confusion aside, though, the Browns blitzed early and had success, then they abandoned it. Maybe it was because of the injuries. But once again, the Steelers had a critical third down with just seven yards to go, and they played a three-man line. I just hate that. Of course, they picked it up.

 

While the defense played surprisingly well, they did what we have seen all year, stop them on first and second down, then give up a big play on third. I saw one statistic that showed that of the 10 third downs the Steelers converted, something like six of them were seven yards or longer. That doesn't even consider the fourth downs they converted when the decided not to attempt a field goal. The defense was put in miserable field position, and when was the last time you can remember an opponent have the ball for over 42 minutes of the game? Granted, the punt return kept the Browns offense off the field for almost the entire first quarter, but in the second half, the defense faced short field situations on nearly every possession. You can't win like that, and with all the injuries, you're going to wear down. The Browns have to stop giving up so many big plays. Much of this comes back to problems knowing the defense to play. How much would field general Jamir Miller help with that?

 

I've already commented on the offensive line. It has reached the place where there has to be more to it than bad players. I just can't remember too many lines in the NFL that were this bad. Ross Verba is a good player, and Tucker is at least adequate. We've seen Wohlabaugh play well. How can these guys be this horrible? The lack of a true blocking tight end doesn't help. It's time to give Darnell Sanders a try and see what he can do.

 

You also saw that as ineffective as the running game was, it is far worse without Jamel White on the field. Part of the reason White struggled was the Steelers were burned by White the last game, and you could see that they respected him this time. The Steelers also took KJ out of the game by doubling and tripling him. The Browns might have made them pay if they could have gotten four receivers on the field, but the protection was so bad that they could not afford to do so. The Browns played four wides on one drive – their final touchdown drive. It was very successful. In fact, unless you count the very last possession at the 11-yard line with under a minute left, no team has stopped the Browns in a no-huddle mode yet this year.

 

Ultimately, the Browns proved to be the inferior team. There are a lot of pundits looking at scenarios of how the Browns can still make the playoffs. While it is possible if they come back and play better, and as Butch Davis points out, with the bye, the Browns might be one of the healthier teams in the NFL right now. Only one Brown has been lost for the year to date and some of the players who missed most of October are about ready to return. I think the Browns only chance to make the playoffs would be to go 7-0 or 6-1 the rest of the way. While many of the remaining games are winnable, the Browns have not shown that they can consistently beat the teams they should beat. To go 5-2 the rest of the way and finish 9-7 would be a great accomplishment at this point. I think it is very unlikely the Browns can win at New Orleans. The fact that they have no running game and play at home three times in December does not bode well for their chances, either. Perhaps a 4-3 finish against relatively weak competition is a more reasonable guess, which would leave the Browns 8-8.

 

Right now, I have some serious concerns about beating the Bengals on November 14. The Bengals may have found themselves this week offensively. The Browns need to put their focus there. Butch Davis vows to address the running game. Changes began Monday with the release of reserve tackle Roger Chanoine. The big question is, who is there to replace him?

 

The Competition

 

Yes, it is hard to believe, but the Bengals won, and on the road, no less. They made good on coach Dick LeBeau's guarantee and trounced the expansion Texans 38-3. The Bruises gave it a go against Michael Vick and the Falcons, but lost 20-17.

 

Next Up

 

A desperately needed bye gives the Browns two weeks to reflect on their situation and to get healthy.

 

The season is short. Bark hard!


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