OK, I admit, I am surprised. After what we had seen the first four games, I thought perhaps the Browns might pull the upset – but not like this! I would argue that the game was closer than the score, but the Browns still did a lot of things well. That's not to say there isn't room for improvement.
Several people have asked me why I thought the Browns were able to turn things around in this game. I think they did three primary things that made a difference.
1. The offensive line played up to its billing.
2. A masterful offensive game plan and play calling.
3.The defense had problems, but came up with plays when they needed them – especially turnovers.
There is plenty more to unpack here, so let's dig in.
To me, the key to the turnaround on offense was the return of Ryan Tucker. An offensive line that had been shaky since camp suddenly returned to its 2007 form. If Tucker was rusty, it did not show. His seal block on the Jamal Lewis touchdown was what allowed that play to happen. Actually, Rex Hadnot had a great block on that play as well. The entire line did a good job against perhaps the best defensive line in the NFL. Yes, there were too many penalties and that has to be fixed, but overall the line had its best day overall this season.
As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense; and more specifically, Derek Anderson. In the first four games, Anderson was often harassed. He was playing scared. In this game, the Giants never came near him. In response, Anderson had his best all-around effort since the middle of 2007. Anderson not only made throws, but his mechanics looked much improved. Anderson threw an off target pass on the Browns' first series that might well have been intercepted. If it had been, I suspect the game might have gone in a very different direction than it did. Give Anderson credit, he showed he can still make plays. Best of all, Anderson did not turn it over.
The running backs were all productive. One of my favorite moments in this game was a series of three plays where the Browns ran Lewis, Jerome Harrison, and Jason Wright on consecutive plays. Lewis found it tough to run inside. The Browns were having better success running off tackle. And the Browns finally found some creative ways to get Harrison the ball. Boy, did it pay off. Credit Wright for a great blitz pickup, too. Lawrence Vickers had a tremendous game blocking, but that's business as usual for him.
The underrated Steve Heiden had a great game. He made a lot of catches, especially on third down. Playing without superstar Kellen Winslow, Heiden was able to make an impact. He has soft hands and makes some critical catches. I've said before that using Heiden and Winslow together is a good option, and hopefully when Winslow returns, we'll see more of that. Darnell Dinkins made a great catch following a good route for his first NFL touchdown. In reality, Heiden also made this happen. Heiden ran a square-out on that play and dragged a safety to the outside. That left a linebacker to recover late to try to cover Dinkins. Too late, touchdown Browns. What a great performance by the tight ends.
Then there was the much-maligned Braylon Edwards. What more can you ask? He caught a long ball, after a great move I might add; he broke a short pass for a 49-yard gain; and he made a touchdown catch and one for a two-point conversion. This was the Braylon Edwards we saw last year. Donte Stallworth actually played and made a few catches, but the defense had to pay attention to him. That was important. Finally, Syndric Steptoe is so much better as the third or fourth receiver. I was tremendously impressed when he broke a tackle!
Finally, and it's been too long coming, the Browns used some of the "flash formation" plays they were working on in training camp with Josh Cribbs. The first one was a thing of beauty. During a timeout, the Browns had Stallworth on the field. With the hair and the similar number, it would be easy to not notice Cribbs in the game. The Browns snuck Cribbs on and Stallworth off right when the timeout was over. Cribbs took the direct snap for a first down. The Browns then had Cribbs hand off. I was sure they were setting up for Cribbs to throw. So were the Giants. So when Cribbs took his third snap, the entire defense flowed to that side. Cribbs pitched it to Harrison on a reverse and he picked up 33 yards. This sequence was well done and it really set up the reverse. Don't be shocked if Cribbs throws it in a game soon. One criticism: Cribbs needs to be sure he has the timing down on handoffs, because there was nearly a bad exchange on the second play.
The offense scored three touchdowns and set up three field goal attempts, one of which was missed. It added a two-point conversion on the final touchdown. There was not a single punt for the first time since 1995. There were no turnovers. This was what we all expected of the offense coming into the season. It was an outstanding performance.
The defense wasn't perfect. They gave up way too many rushing yards, though I will give them somewhat of a pass on the last half of the fourth quarter. Once the Browns got a three-score lead, they largely played six defensive backs and dropped the safeties 20 yards off the line. But, as I said earlier, the defense came up with plays when they were needed, and they continued the aggressive style we saw in Cincinnati.
It's bad enough that Robaire Smith is out for the year, but the Browns were also without Shaun Smith as well because of a broken hand. The Browns schemed some to cover, using only one lineman at times. Playing a large percentage of the snaps, Shaun Rogers was a monster. In fact, it looked to me like the Giants were trying to run outside to stay away from him. While Corey Williams started something with his remarks about how a certain Giants running back takes to being hit, I thought he had a so-so game. Louis Leonard is looking like a valuable pickup. I thought Ahtyba Rubin had his best game so far spelling Rogers.
I can only imagine what this defense could do with good linebacker play. Andra Davis was nearly invisible, and Kamerion Wimbley had very little impact. Willie McGinest returned and did OK other than one penalty. I thought D'Qwell Jackson did a decent job and made some plays. The guys I thought stepped it up in the rush department were Shantee Orr and Alex Hall. I found myself watching for the downs when Hall entered the game. Leon Williams did a pretty decent job in coverage, though the Giants tight ends were open too many times.
Entering the season, the secondary was a concern. Through the first four games, this unit has had its problems. The team was hopeful Sean Jones might return, but he did not play. Yet, the secondary held up pretty well. Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald each had great games. Both intercepted passes, and both made plays throughout the game. The Browns were able to shut down Amani Toomer and control Plaxico Burress. Brodney Pool also had a good game, and his interception was nicely done. Both the Wright and Pool interceptions were the result of having multiple Browns in the area so that someone could gamble a bit. The three interceptions were a huge swing in the game. You have to appreciate the contributions of Mike Adams, who made some nice plays. He had a nice tackle for loss. But the illegal contact penalty right before halftime cost the Browns four points and a lot of momentum. Luckily, the Browns claimed it right back with an interception at the start of the third quarter. Nick Sorenson was OK, but he is awful on blitzes. Terry Cousin, well, he had his problems.
The special teams were quiet. Phil Dawson had great kickoffs, all except the first one. I wondered if he pooched it on purpose. The Giants muffed it, but the Browns could not get there and grab it. Dawson barely missed a 51-yard field goal, but made his other two attempts. The coverage teams did a solid job. Cribbs did not do much in the return game.
This game was how the 2008 Browns were supposed to work. The offense would score a lot of points, keep the ball away from the opposition, and use big plays to keep them off-balance. The defense would not be among the league's best, but it would play decent football and use aggressive tactics to force turnovers. The special teams have not been what we might have expected quite yet, but it is early and Cribbs is now healthy. This formula most definitely works. It was gratifying to finally see it in action.
I'll be the first to congratulate both coordinators for good game plans, as noted above. I was a little puzzled by the play calls at the end of the first half and I still think the Browns telegraph their blitzes way too much. But those things didn't affect the outcome. Mel Tucker's remix of the UFO Defense was an interesting wrinkle, and it certainly seemed to confuse the Giants. How would you like to see Shaun Rogers coming at you with a running start? Yikes!
The penalty situation was something Romeo Crennel specifically talked about during the bye week. The offense is largely being blamed for this with all of the motion and false start penalties. But even more alarming is the fact that if you watch carefully, the defense was lined up in the neutral zone more than once. This officiating crew just didn't call it. The Browns were able to overcome numerous penalties in the game, but in a closer game, this might be the difference between winning and losing.
Much as I was fed up with Derek Anderson, perhaps staying the course with him will ultimately turn out to be the right decision. I'm still not convinced he is the quarterback that can lead the Browns where they want to go. He may be. But, this game convinces me more than ever that Anderson can only function in an environment where he feels no pressure. In that situation, he will kill you. If you rattle him, you see what we saw in the first four games. If I am the opposition, I'd sell out to rattle Anderson at the expense of coverage. It will be interesting to see how the Redskins game plan. Expect a lot of blitzing.
The coaching staff will also have a very interesting decision to make when Kevin Shaffer is ready to return, which could be as soon as this weekend. Shaffer isn't a guard, so either Tucker slides inside or Shaffer stays on the bench. While Hadnot has struggled at times, he certainly played well in this game. This will be a tough call.
Most people thought this game was hopeless. I didn't think it was hopeless, but I did think it would either be a blowout in a losing effort or a close win. Despite the fact that, in my opinion, the game was closer than the score would indicate, the Browns surprised everyone with a very complete effort, perhaps even themselves. If this is not the best all-around performance since The Return, it has to be in the top three.
There is still a long season to go. I think the Browns have to at least split the next two games to crawl back into the race. With the Steelers at 4-1, the Browns would have to win a lot of games and sweep the remaining division games to have a chance. Getting to 4-4 would at least give them a chance down the stretch.
While I enjoyed every moment of this game, and while I recognize what an accomplishment it is, I am not convinced that this is what we will really see the rest of 2008. This was four great quarters of football, making seven good quarters out of 20. They are on a streak with five good quarters in a row. I still want to believe. I'll take that step of faith if the Browns play like this on the road against a good opponent this weekend.
The Browns face the Washington Redskins, who will no doubt be angry after being stunned by the Rams.
The season is short. Bark hard!