Game Review: Browns 24, Saints 15

Joe Brownlee dissects the Browns win over New Orleans. As you've come to expect, each unit is examined, each player who got in the game gets discussed. Here's Joe's in-depth game review.

Good day, Browns fans!


Folks, there's no way to say it but that this was the biggest victory of the expansion era. The Browns going into New Orleans and beating a winning team on the road and on turf in a game not one pundit picked them to win, and to do it convincingly establishes them as a legitimate playoff contender. There are five games to go and a lot of football to play against some tough teams. But the good things the Browns established against the Bengals worked again against a much tougher opponent. The changes the Browns have made on offense and defense at the bye are working, and the Browns played with an aggressive, play-to-win style that had been missing in the first half of the season. Consider that the Browns were the first team to hold the Saints under 32 points at home this season.


There are plenty of kudos to go around, so let's get to them.




Tim Couch made a bad throw early that was intercepted. He missed a wide-open Kevin Johnson by overthrowing and it led to a Saints field goal. Couch settled down after that. He had another interception, but that was a deflection, though it was in traffic. Couch showed confidence in his receivers at times, squeezing the ball into tight coverage, and the receivers often made the play. In particular, Dennis Northcutt got blasted on two of his three receptions. In one case, Couch threw it high and short but that was because he didn't have time.


With a threat of a running game, the play action opens up so much for the Browns. Couch doesn't have to be the star, he just has to do his job. Couch only threw 21 times, completing 12 for a modest 182 yards. Couch made some big throws deep, including some beautiful passes to Morgan and Northcutt. He also made another good block. This was not a perfect performance, but some butterflies in a big game on the road are understandable. Let's put it this way: both interceptions led to short fields for the Saints and six of their 15 points. The Browns still managed to overcome those errors, and did so easily.


Running Backs


While last week I had some good words for William Green after his coming out party against the Bengals, this was a truly complete performance by Green against a good team. He looked fantastic hitting the hole (and sometimes there even were holes!), and he ran with authority. He used the cutback effectively at times. The guys that say Green is too slow have not seen this guy get around the corner. Several times, he just outran the defense. But maybe my favorite play was a blitz pickup where Green blasted the defender to the ground. He did fumble late, which makes two weeks in a row, but neither fumble was lost. He needs to put the ball away better in traffic. Green had four runs of over 10 yards, including a wonderful run right up the middle for 23 yards. His 17-yard run on a late fourth quarter drive allowed the Browns to effectively run out the clock.


Green finished with 114 yards on 28 carries, including 50 yards in the fourth quarter. Green ran tough up inside for his second career touchdown. This is why the Browns drafted Green, and with a full training camp, he might have done this from game one.


James Jackson saw very limited playing time, but he had two very effective plays. One was an eight-yard run up the middle on a third-and-five play. Jackson exploded through a small crease. He finished with two carries for 11 yards. Jackson also caught a dump pass for five yards.


I cannot wait to see the rejuvenated Green in the game with Jamel White. What a one-two punch that will be!


Wide Receivers

The receivers got only eight receptions among them, plus another two touches for Dennis Northcutt on handoffs. But they made these limited opportunities stand up.


Working mostly from a three wide-receiver set, the Browns used Dennis Northcutt very effectively, and his speed on turf really showed. Northcutt got two running plays. One was a draw play where he short through the line and got three nice blocks including a long block downfield by Quincy Morgan to spring him 36 yards into the end zone. It was one of the most amazing plays of the season. The Browns also used the motion play they last ran against the Bears last year where Northcutt takes a handoff as he comes across the formation, but the Saints sniffed that out for a one-yard loss. All of Northcutt's three receptions were huge, and as I said above, the guy got punished but hung on. He ended up with three catches for 68 yards, and it capped a 100-yard all-purpose day for Northcutt.


The other receivers were getting open as well. Quincy Morgan had another good game. He had two catches for 57 yards, including a 41-yarder that set up the first touchdown. The all around performance was just as good, with several blocks. Morgan is not only catching the ball better, he is also rounding out his game. Kevin Johnson was thrown to several times, but at times he was open and the ball wasn't there. Of his three catches for 31 yards, one was a nice 24-yard catch and run on a third down. Johnson also threw a pass, but penetration by the Saints threw off the timing of the play and Johnson had to throw it away. He needed to throw it further away, because it could have been intercepted. He was also flagged for holding on a run. Andre Davis didn't see tons of action at wide receiver in this game, largely because the Browns seemed to be keeping a tight end in the game for blocking purposes.


Tight Ends


The Browns had a tight end in the game on most every play. They mostly blocked, and overall, I thought they did a better job than most of our earlier games. Each of the three guys caught one pass. In particular, I liked the nine-yard catch by Darnell Sanders on a third down that kept a drive going. On another, Mark Campbell was supposed to block, but when Couch got in trouble, Campbell slipped his man and Couch dumped it to him for four-yard gain that avoided a loss. The only pass that looked like a designed play was an eight-yard throw to Steve Heiden.


I like Aaron Shea as a special teams player, and I think he can stretch the field as a receiving tight end. I have to say, though, that I think the three guys the Browns are playing now are a better fit with the offense.


Offensive Line


Green's ability to make some things happen has really helped the line. Granted, it's still tough going up the middle, but when the line can open a hole and get into space, it is effective. I liked seeing Ryan Tucker and Barry Stokes making blocks five, ten, and even farther down the field. The line also came up big when Ross Verba and Dave Wohlabaugh were trailing the play on Green's fumble and were able to come up with the ball. The line still doesn't get a lot of push, but I can live with that if they can just shove guys to one side or the other to get Green into space.


Did you notice that not one offside or holding penalty was called in this game? For a change, it was the Saints making the dumb penalties on third down that kept the Browns on the field.


Defensive Line


OK, Duece McAllister did not play, but you still have to give the line a lot of credit for the way they shut down the run. In fact, the Saints would have had far more pitiful numbers if it weren't for a fake punt and one run that went for a touchdown. For the most part, the Browns held the Saints to one or two yards rushing, and it was this ability to stop the run that forced the Saints into mistakes in the passing game in the red zone. Curtis Keaton, formerly of the Bengals, had 10 carries for 19 yards. Fenderson did better, with seven carries for 35 yards, though 17 of those came on one play.


Individually, the Browns got the kind of effective play we've come to expect from Orpheus Roye. If he wasn't breaking free into the backfield, he was tackling a runner. Roye had five solo tackles in the game. Although the stat sheet doesn't reflect it, Courtney Brown had a good game. He disrupted a lot of plays, and he recovered a fumble in the red zone that he helped cause. You don't always have to get a tackle or sack; sometime just throwing off the timing or forcing the quarterback to scramble does a lot, and this is the kind of game Brown had. Mark Word had a sack and made his presence felt. This game showed me how much Kenard Lang has been missed. In limited playing time, he had three tackles and he also was a disruptive force. Tyrone Rogers got some pressure on the quarterback. Alvin McKinley had a tackle in his first duty since the hand injury.


People have made a lot out of the lack of production from Courtney Brown, but Gerard Warren had another poor game. While Roye was busting through the line, Warren looked like he was running in molasses. Warren had just one tackle and was rarely in a position to make anything happen. The Browns really have to look at this. I know Butch Davis is saying he is playing well, but that's not what I am seeing. If Warren can produce and the front four generates pressure, it will open up a lot of things. As it was, the line had perhaps its best game of the year, but they were very inconsistent in pressuring the quarterback.




The defense has played better of late, and a lot of that has been the absentee linebackers stepping things up. Let's start with Earl Holmes. After saving the day on a goal line stand last week, Holmes had another good game. It was great seeing him chase down running backs from behind. Holmes had six solo tackles and he was a difference maker. Darren Hambrick did more last week, but even though he only ended up with two tackles, he made some plays along the way. Dwayne Rudd had four tackles in the game and might have had his best game of the season. It's been quite a while since he had an impact performance.


Brant Boyer had a few problems in coverage, but overall did OK. It appeared that he had been burned on a long pass play, but in reality, Earl Little fell down early in the play and left Boyer on an island on a wide receiver. The Browns made the same mistakes we've seen other teams make, leaving guys like Joe Horn covered by a linebacker. These plays generally did not have positive results for the Browns.


Defensive Backs


The secondary had its problems, but these were usually when the Browns blitzed and did not get pressure. Overall, though, the Saints have some good receivers and the while they did rack up a lot of yards, they did not get the big play that yielded points. It is a bad sign when the secondary is making a lot of tackles, and defensive backs accounted for four of the top eight tackling performances. Corey Fuller returned to action and did well, notching three tackles. Daylon McCutcheon did pretty well until he had to leave the game with a thumb injury that is supposedly a break. Anthony Henry filled in, and though he had his problems at times, he had two interceptions, his first two of this year. In each case, Henry jumped the route like we saw him do last year.


At safety, Robert Griffith looked great, especially against the run. He made some true shoestring tackles. He led all tacklers with eight. He also defensed a pass to the tight end on a two-point conversion attempt very well. The only problem with Griffith is he has to stop knocking our guys into next week. Earl Little had a pretty good game except for the play where he fell. He gets into trouble if he has to cover, but Little had an interception in the end zone and chipped in six tackles. Devin Bush had a couple of penalties, but other than that, he probably had his best game of the year.


Special Teams


The special teams were busy. The Saints opened the game with an onside kick, but they recovered it when it had not gone at least 10 yards. They ran a successful fake punt, which led to their lone touchdown. But the Browns held dangerous return man Michael Lewis in check on his returns. This after giving up big yards on returns last week. The Browns, on the other hand, had their poorest return game of the year. Dennis Northcutt had no gain on his one punt return attempt and Andre Davis was held to just 20 yards per kickoff return.


Phil Dawson made his only field goal try from 28 yards. He had much better kickoffs than last week outside. Chris Gardocki pinned the Saints deep twice on punts and might have had his best game of the year.


Probably the biggest play of the game was the leverage penalty on Kenard Lang. With the Saints trailing 14-6 just before halftime, they kicked a successful 30-yard field goal to close to 14-9. Lang was called for leverage, meaning he is using another player to gain leverage to block the kick. The replays did not show anything wrong. The Saints chose to accept the penalty and take a first down at the Browns five-yard line. This choice backfired when Anthony Henry intercepted a pass on third down. The Browns stopped the Saints on six plays starting at the nine-yard line on that sequence.




You may not believe this with the criticism I've leveled at the coaching staff this season, but for this one, they get my game ball. Just as in other games I have felt they did not put the players in a position to win, in this game they set up a great situation with an excellent game plan.


Let's start with the offense. The Browns were certainly not conservative in this game. They used fake reverses, end around plays, a draw play handing off to a wide receiver, an option pass, and they mixed the run and pass effectively. Even the plays that did not work still made the Saints think about some things the Browns might do. The use of Dennis Northcutt on the turf was excellent, and it caught the Saints napping a few times. My only beef would be the plays where the Saints obviously had eight men in the box and the Browns still ran. This didn't happen often, but it was enough that I noticed.


On defense, I liked the fact that the Browns blitzed, even though they were burned by it at times. Sometimes the Browns rushed six or one time I think they sent seven, but when if don't get the QB, you will pay, and the Browns paid. But the blitzes helped hurry Brooks and they were also effective against the run. My biggest problem on this side of the ball is far too many missed tackles. Fatigue could not be an excuse this time.


All I can add is that if the Browns continue to play all out on offense and defense, they will have success down the stretch. I am hopeful that the last two games show a trend, and that the Browns won't go back into the conservative shell that they were in before the bye.


You may have heard that when the Browns were 2-4, Butch Davis told the players to put that behind them, and that starting with game seven, the Browns were starting a new season. They have gone 4-1 in the five games since that point, and the lone loss to the Steelers was a game where they Browns played decently, but they were not the better team that day. There is something to putting all of the craziness of the helmet toss and weird blocked kick rules to rest and focusing on the task at hand.




As I said last week, I believe that this game was a pivotal point in the season. By winning, the Browns showed they can beat a tough team on the road, and this has to give them confidence. The last few years, the model has been for surprise teams to play so-so until midseason, then get on a roll like the Patriots last year. The Browns are getting healthier and they are growing. They are playing better football. The offense is becoming more and more dangerous, and the defense is showing some of the swagger it had a year ago. This game is the first one this year that truly resembled the 2001 unit.


By winning this game, the Browns keep pace with the Steelers. While the Steelers have an easier schedule, injuries happen and you just never know. The Browns also got within one game of the wild card. Currently, if the season ended today, the wild card teams would both come from the AFC West at 7-4. The Browns sit at 6-5 along with Tennessee (whom they have beaten), the Jets (whom they have beaten), and New England. The Browns are currently tied with New England in conference record, with both teams 5-4. There is also a multiple team tiebreaker that involves all head-to-head meetings between all the teams, and the Browns would be 2-0 if all four finished tied. Several of the teams that were 5-5 lost, including Jacksonville, Buffalo, and Kansas City. If you look at the schedules of the AFC West teams, they have several games left with each other. If the Browns can win out or even go 4-1 the rest of the way, the wild card route is not out of the question, but it will be an uphill climb.


Looking ahead, the Browns need to take the Panthers seriously. They've lost eight in a row since their "miraculous" 3-0 start. The Panthers are embroiled in all kinds of legal troubles, and they seem like a team that has given up as evidenced by their poor showing in losing to Atlanta 41-0. This would be a good game to continue to allow William Green to build his confidence, because the Browns will need him to come up big in two critical home games in December. If the Browns win, they would be 7-5 and truly in the thick of things. Other games of interest next week include Miami (7-4) at Buffalo (5-6), Tennessee (6-5) at the New York Giants (6-5), Pittsburgh (6-4-1) at Jacksonville (5-6), Houston (3-8) at Indianapolis (7-4), Denver (7-4) at San Diego (7-4), and the New York Jets (6-5) at Oakland (7-4) on Monday night. There are currently six teams ahead of the Browns and three more tied with them. As these teams meet each other, it could allow the Browns to leapfrog over them. But the only way to secure anything is to continue to win.


After Carolina, the Browns travel to Jacksonville and host Indianapolis. Both teams are still in the playoff race, and the Colts at 7-4 are currently leading their division, but they have a tough schedule down the stretch. Both are must-win games. The Browns also need to win their last division game, that being in that city to the east. Finally, the Browns will complete the season against the high-flying Falcons. It will be interesting to see what Michael Vick can do on grass in Cleveland on December 29th.


The Competition


The Bengals fought back from a 17-0 deficit in Pittsburgh to take a 21-20 lead with 8:00 left. But, being the Bengals, they fumbled a punt and lose 29-21. Their streak remains intact: they have not beaten a winning team on the road since they defeated the then 6-5 Steelers in December of 1990. The Prunes rode a blocked punt and a terrible day by Steve McNair to a 13-12 victory over the Titans.


Next Up


The Browns return home to face the imploding Carolina Panthers.


The season is short. Bark hard!

The OBR Top Stories