Game Review: Browns 27, Bengals 20

The Browns have a lot to feel good about after whipping the Bengals in Cincinnati. The tough Saints loom, however, and Joe Brownlee dissects last Sunday's game to see how the Browns altered their approach to be more successful. Joe looks back at the performances at Paul Brown Stadium and ponders what the future may hold.

Good day, Browns fans!

 

What a difference a bye makes! Many Browns fans speculated what the adjustments made by the coaching staff would mean in the remainder of the season. The Browns went into this game banged up on the defensive line, without their leading rusher and receiver in Jamel White, and with major problems on the offensive line. Perhaps the hapless Bengals are the tonic for these ills, or maybe, just maybe, the Browns have made some of the necessary adjustments to compete going down the stretch.

 

Let's look inside each player group and see what happened.

 

Quarterback

 

Tim Couch has probably had better games, but overall, this was a good performance. He spread the ball around, and for the most part was careful with the ball. He made some very good throws. He probably held the ball too long at times, but usually Couch had all the time he could possibly want to survey the field and so he could allow routes to progress and guys to get open. He rolled outside the pocket well to buy time, and he stepped up to avoid rushers when necessary. His one interception was thrown to a man who was covered, but on that play, you expect your receiver to turn into a defensive back and break it up, and that didn't happen. Couch also threw two monster blocks. One was on an end-around play, while the other was on a cutback run.

 

Trying to rate his performance, I give Couch a good grade. I don't think this was a stellar performance, but Couch did what was needed to win. He was victimized by a few drops, and for putting it up 35 times, he was fairly careful with the ball. I actually think a sideline pass to Morgan that might have turned into an interception and a TD was a worse throw than the one Kaesviharn picked off.

 

Running Backs

 

This space has contained a lot of criticism of William Green and how he has been handled. I'm still not sure he was handled well, but Green finally had his coming out party in this game. He looked more sure of himself, he took on potential tacklers, he made cutbacks, and in general, played a solid game. He had a great run where he used a stiff arm to shove a defender to the ground. Sure, he made a couple of rookie mistakes. He fumbled early, but it went out of bounds. He went out of bounds on a play where the Browns were trying to run out the clock. He failed to convert a third-and-short late in the game. He missed a cutback opportunity or two. But on the whole, this is the sort of game the Browns envisioned from him when he was drafted. Green had 96 yards on 25 carries and added two short catches for four yards, so you have to consider this performance a huge success. Consider that with all of this, Green was throwing up during the game, evidently due to nerves.

 

If the Browns can get this kind of play from Green in the weeks to come, it opens up a whole new dimension for the team. I'm anxious to see Green teaming up with a healthy Jamel White. They will be an excellent combination. On the other hand, I don't want to get too optimistic, because this was the Bengals, and they were without run-stuffer Oliver Gibson.

 

James Jackson got his first carries of the season on the heels of his war of words in the media with Butch Davis. He had seven carries for 27 yards. Jackson had one really good run, but for the most part, he resembled the James Jackson of 2001. People made the argument that White has been the beneficiary of spread out defenses on third down and that he racked up better stats in those situations. It was the opposite with Jackson. Given some more favorable downs to play, he did not do as much as Green did.

 

Wide Receivers


All five receivers made an impact on this game. Kevin Johnson has usually excelled against the Bengals, but he was quiet in this game. The Browns threw to him often. He dropped a catchable ball in the end zone, but most of the other non-catches were balls that had no chance to be caught. He did make one excellent catch and ended up with three for 32 yards. Quincy Morgan had a drop early on a slant play that looked like he had the defense beaten. But Morgan did end up with five catches for 81 yards and contributed in the game. He also took the ball on a reverse that went for 11 yards and according to Butch Davis, had 10 effective blocks as well.

 

The Browns got Dennis Northcutt on the field more often, and it paid off. Northcutt was often covered by a linebacker, which creates a mismatch to say the least. Northcutt was the leading receiver with six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown and made some nice catches, especially on third down. Another excellent performance. Although Andre Davis was relatively quiet, he had a touchdown catch for 15 yards, and he had a good effort on an end around play but only managed one yard. Frisman Jackson saw his first action at wide receiver, and made a critical third-down catch. He also attempted an option pass, a deep throw to Northcutt that was nearly complete even into double coverage. Man, this guy can throw the football!

 

Tight Ends

 

With Aaron Shea out, the Browns had to make a few adjustments, and I have to say, the other guys seem more suited to what the Browns are doing with their tight ends. Mark Campbell was the primary H-Back, and I think he is better suited to the lead blocker role than Shea, though neither is the prototypical guy. The Browns had three dump passes between Heiden and Campbell, and they were effective plays that kept drives going. Darnell Sanders saw action and had a very nice touchdown catch when he was not all that open, although he dwarfed the defender. Campbell did jump offsides.

 

One thing I have to say here is that with the changes in the running plays, I thought that the I-formation might wind up being a thing of the past. It was pretty ineffective at the end of the game when the Browns were trying to run out the clock. The Browns used a three tight end set early. The Sanders TD came on a third down play with three tight ends. The interesting thing about the play is that if you look carefully, William Green and the single wide receiver (I believe it was Morgan) were also open on that play. It was a good play out of that formation, as everyone expected them to run. Late in the game, though, this formation was not effective when they Browns wanted and needed to run.

 

Offensive Line

 

Finally, the Browns went to more trapping and pulling, and it really made a difference. The Browns went back to a staple from last year: running "cutback" plays off tackle that trap all the defenders to one side and get the back in space. I called for this very type of play in this space a week ago, and I am glad to see it. This seems like a great play for a relatively nimble offensive line, and the Browns used it very effectively throughout the game.

 

Interestingly, this might be the first game of the year where the Browns did not use a screen, another good play with this line, but I think that was smart. The screen is good against an aggressive pass rush, something the Bengals do not have. The screen is less effective against a team with good linebackers, which the Bengals do have, although they did not make that big an impact on this game.

 

I don't want to make too much of the success of the line. They still had trouble opening inside holes against a weak Bengal front. Ross Verba jumped offside. Barry Stokes got rolled a couple of times that I saw. Dave Wholabaugh got manhandled a couple of times. But this line looks good moving around rather than trying to drive block, and they gave Couch tons of time to throw or at least an opportunity to step up in the pocket and make plays. And this came with Bengals blitzing, but even when they did, they did not get to Couch. I want to single out Shaun O'Hara for some really nice work pulling. Maybe the scheme changes along with playing time together will allow these guys to do a decent job the rest of the way.

 

Defensive Line

 

This was not a great game by the line, but given the injuries to Kenard Lang and Alvin McKinley, that was to be expected. The guy who played well again was Orpheus Roye, who was a monster against the run. Corey Dillon burned the Browns with a couple of traps and cutbacks, but the line did a pretty good job of containing him, and he had several carries of two yards or less. Courtney Brown disappeared for the most part, though he had one good tackle from behind. Mark Word was pretty ineffective, and the Browns rarely got any pressure on Kitna, though Word did get their only sack of the day. Gerard Warren was active, but he seemed to be stunting a lot, but he was taking the long route to the quarterback on not getting there nearly in time. Warren just looks out of shape and if he has to move, he's behind every play. Check the stat sheet, you won't find his name under tackles. Looks like Big Money needs to refinance.

 

Damian Gregory had a solo tackle. If Tyrone Rogers got in the game, I didn't notice it.

 

Linebackers

 

I'm becoming optimistic that the linebackers are going to start making some plays. Let's start with Earl Holmes. He led the defense with nine tackles, six solo. His two touchdown saving tackles are why the Browns brought him in. Holmes said that they had talked during the week about the possibility that, with the game on the line, Holmes might well be the only one who could make a game-saving play. Holmes had a solid game. Darren Hambrick made five tackles, and I am starting to think maybe he truly did not have a grasp of the defense. He was in on the goal line stand and got good pressure on Kitna on a scramble. Dwayne Rudd was in on the goal line stand as well, and though he did not make a lot of plays, he did seem to be around the ball more.

 

Brant Boyer snuck in five tackles from his nickel role. Both Andra Davis and Ben Taylor saw action, and I have to admit that I liked what I saw of Taylor, even though he wasn't credited with a tackle. When he was in, he seemed to be around the ball. When Kevin Bentley comes back, the Browns young trio will really start to make an impact on this defense, and one that is sorely needed.

 

Defensive Backs

 

The starting secondary was intact for the first time in over a month, accounting for the switch from Devin Bush to Earl Little. Things started off shaky, with a blown coverage on the third play that resulted in a long touchdown catch and run by Chad Johnson. Robert Griffith ended up one-on-one with Johnson, but it looked like one of the corners, probably Daylon McCutcheon, covered the wrong man. Other than that, the secondary had a relatively quiet day. McCutcheon made a nice play to tackle Corey Dillon on a long gainer to save a touchdown and ended with six tackles, but it isn't a good sign when a corner is the second leading tackler. Anthony Henry got burned again. Lewis Sanders missed a ball he should have intercepted in the end zone. Corey Fuller dressed and played in nickel situations, but I didn't see it.

 

It's hard to point at any individual, but the secondary had a tough day. Receivers were open far too often, and Corey Dillon was knocking these guys around like bowling pins. Even though the starters were on the field, not everyone is entirely healthy. I'd like to see better play from this unit, but at the end of the day, it was a good enough performance to win. When everyone is healthy, things should look up.

 

Special Teams

 

Special teams have contributed to the success of the Browns all season. In this game, there were a couple of plays that went well, but overall, it was the special teams of the Browns that kept the Bengals in the game. Let's start with Phil Dawson missing a 24-yard field goal. Granted, the field at Paul Brown Stadium is terrible, but it did not appear that the field had anything to do with it. Then, Chris Gardocki came very close to having his "no punts blocked" streak come to an end. Dawson and Gardocki both had short kicks, perhaps due to the wind.

 

More serious than any of these was just terrible kickoff coverage. The Bengals started every possession around their own 35, except the long return of 80+ yards. Now, the Bengals did some great blocking, as with Lorenzo Neal on Michael Jamison. I do give credit to Devin Bush and Chris Akins for not giving up on the play because, just like a year ago, a long kickoff return by the Bengals led to no points. Dennis Northcutt didn't do much on punt returns, although an interference call against the Bengals led to a field goal. You also have to credit Steve Heiden and punt coverage team for nabbing the fumbled punt late in the game, especially on a sprained ankle.

 

Coaching

 

I have to admit that I was less than optimistic about the playbook changes the Browns were making during the bye week. However, I think that meaningful changes were made. This along with the coming out party for William Green really gave the Browns' offense a different dimension and the balance they have lacked. Green's average declined at the end of the game when the Browns were obviously trying to run out the clock, but in the first half and early in the second, Green was averaging six yards a run. Getting the Browns into 2nd and five or 2nd and six consistently allowed them to do a lot of things on offense. The Browns dramatically improved their third down conversion rate as a result, giving the offense more plays and eating up the clock. I, for one, liked some of the wide open calls, even though some did not work.

 

After too many penalties in earlier games, the Browns only drew four, and those totaled just 15 yards. Of course, there was the non-call on Anthony Henry when he put his hands on a receiver's upper body before the ball got there. In fact, the Browns seemed to have most of the calls going their way. The only downside is that at least three of them were for false starts, and maybe all four. Dumb mental mistakes can be overcome against a team like the Bengals, but a stronger opponent will use those to bury you.

 

Every place you read about the Browns, writers have been slamming the offensive line. It is amazing how much better this group looks when they are asked to do things that fit their talents and abilities. The runs off tackle and some plays with pulling to run wide were effective against the Bengals. It will be interesting to see if these same kinds of plays will work against a much better Saints defense. Don't forget that the Saints will also have the film of this week's game to digest.

 

Once again, the Browns were burned by big plays. There was the blown coverage on the first drive that led to a 72 yard pass play. Then there was Dillon's 27-yard run. Overall, the defense held. The Bengals had a lot of negative plays. But you can't afford to give up big plays that allow your opponent to either stay in the game or to win.

 

I hope Kenard Lang and Alvin McKinley will be back soon, because the line got absolutely no pressure on Kitna. If they don't find a way to get to Aaron Brooks next week, it will be a long day.

 

Commentary

 

The Browns have evened their mark at 5-5. Of course, winning is job one the rest of the way. Looking ahead to the remaining six games, and looking at the rest of the AFC, I still think the Browns' only realistic shot at the playoffs is to win the AFC North. Given the happenings in the Steeler camp Sunday, that may be a lot more realistic. The Browns trail the Steelers by just one-half game, and because of their tie, all of the playoff tiebreakers go out the window. But, the Steelers still have games with Houston and Cincinnati on their schedule. Still, the Bengals have a way of winning when you least expect it at this time of year. The Barneys are now a game behind the Browns but they have a head-to-head meeting the next to last week of the season. They have to face the red-hot Titans next week, and could be reeling by then.

 

As for the wild card situation, you now have Miami, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Oakland, San Diego, and Denver all ahead of the Browns. You also have New England, Buffalo, the NY Jets, Jacksonville, and Kansas City all at 5-5, and the Browns have lost to the Chiefs. Discounting the division winners, that is a total of seven teams vying for two spots, not counting those purple guys to the east at 4-6. I don't think the Browns can afford to think wild card. The chances of getting in that way are remote.

 

Maybe I'm making too much of it, but as I survey the remaining schedule for the Browns, I think their playoff hopes hinge on the upcoming game with the Saints. This will be a tough test on the road, but the Saints are a team that can be beaten. Before this last week, I had read that the Saints were the first team to both score 20 points and give up 20 points in each of their first nine games. The Browns might well find themselves in a shootout, and if the Browns can run the ball, I think they can win. But they will be hard pressed to stop both the passing game and Deuce McAllister both, especially with the defense hurting. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the Browns have not played on turf since their first preseason game, though I think the speed on offense, especially if Jamel White could play, would help the Browns.

 

If the Browns get to 6-5, they follow with a home game against Carolina, a team that is 3-7 and has lost seven in a row. At 7-5, the Browns could be poised to make a run in December. But let's say the Browns lose. At 5-6, you risk falling back to one-and-a-half games behind the Steelers with just five to play, and the Steelers have a fairly soft schedule. Losing even one more game makes it almost impossible to secure a wild card spot in any scenario, as you'd likely have to go undefeated the rest of the way to achieve that.

 

I don't usually comment much on the opposing team, but the Bengals seem ready to implode. After going 0-6 before their bye, they have played much better football and have still fallen to 1-9. The Browns did not score touchdowns in the red zone, and missed a critical field goal, allowing the Bengals to hang in the game. But as usual, mistakes like fumbled punts and interfering with a punt reception and missed opportunities like a long kickoff return and failure to get out of bounds have killed this team. Every time I think it can't sink much lower, it gets even worse. Interesting how the highlight shows all showed how the Bengals lost the game, not how the Browns won it.

 

The Competition

 

The Steelers met the Titans. The Steelers lost the game and Tommy Maddox. News on his injury is encouraging, but one wonders even if he fully recovers whether he will actually be able to play football again. A late comeback effort by Kordell Stewart came up short at 31-23. The Barneys fell to Miami 26-7, and even with Ray "The Obstructionist" Lewis back, they dropped below .500 and into third place.

 

Next Up

 

The Browns go marching into New Orleans for what is probably the most difficult game left on their schedule.

 

The season is short. Bark hard!


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