For the second time in three weeks, the Browns won a game that salvaged their season. This wasn't the dominating play we saw against the Giants, but it was much better than what we saw in Washington.
That being said, sometimes even after a big win like this one, I find myself with reservations. That's how I feel after this game. Read on and I'll explain.
With Kellen Winslow back in Cleveland, let's start by applauding the performance of the tight ends in general,but in particular Steve Heiden. If you've been reading these reviews for a while, you know that I feel that Heiden is an overlooked and underappreciated player. He has become a good blocker over the years, but he has soft hands, makes tough catches, and he can get yards after the catch in the right situations. Everyone will remember the fourth down play that went for 51 yards, but perhaps his two other catches -- one on a ball over his head -- were better. Both converted third downs, a rarity in this game. Darnell Dinkins has also shown this year that he is more than just a special teamer.
While the offensive line had a decent game, I am finding that this simply isn't the same top-shelf unit as a year ago. That being said, I thought Eric Steinbach had a monster game, probably his best of the year. Hank Fraley is consistently out in front of running plays. Joe Thomas fell on a fumble that might have cost the game. Yet, I can't get past the fact that when Ryan Tucker played against the Giants, the offensive line played at a whole other level. For the second game in a row, when the Browns needed just one yard, it could not be gotten. Some of that is play calling, I think, but some of it is an inability to open holes in a "do or die" situation.
While Jerome Harrison and Jason Wright got token touches, this was the Jamal Lewis show. He managed to come up with some big runs when the Browns were looking to run the clock. But in this game, it will be the missed plays that are remembered. Dropping a perfectly set-up screen when the Browns could have iced the game with a touchdown, not getting in on first and goal from 18 inches out, those kinds of things. For the second week in a row, I wondered why Lewis didn't take the cutbacks when the middle was clogged up. I felt there were yards left on the field.
It was a quiet day for the receivers. Braylon Edwards made a couple of catches and Donte Stallworth had a touchdown before having to leave the game. But perhaps the signature play was Syndric Steptoe's 53-yard catch-and-run that set the Browns up at the goal line. For a small guy, he broke tackles and made a whole lot out of that play, something that is becoming the norm for Steptoe. He is so much better as the #3 or #4 receiver. Joshua Cribbs had a quiet day on offense.
Finally, there is Derek Anderson. While he made enough plays, late in the game he nearly gave the game away twice: once with a fumble and once with an interception that was wiped out by a penalty. Talk about leaving plays on the field. Anderson continues to show no touch on short passes. He made some key throws, especially on the plays to Heiden and Steptoe and a deep ball down the sideline to Edwards. But I was completely unimpressed with this performance. I can live with Anderson being a "manage the game" type of quarterback. I just think he is too mistake-prone to do that on a consistent basis. Despite a shaky performance, the Browns managed to win the game.
This defense continues to improve week by week. Despite the loss of some key players, we see more and more productivity.
Let's start from the back and work in. This secondary was the worry of many folks this summer. Then the Browns lost Daven Holly, who is a decent nickel corner. Yet, the secondary has done a pretty good job. Sure, the Jaguar receivers used their height advantage and made some plays. It's a receiver group that hasn't had a great year. And just to pour a little salt in the wound, former Brown Dennis Northcutt actually caught some passes, though I took solace in the fact that some of the catches weren't especially clean. Yet, both Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright made plays. Brodney Pool had a so-so game, but his key sack late in the game made a huge difference. Sean Jones had a great game. Terry Cousins struggles most of the time but he had a reasonable game here. Going into the season, many of us were concerned about Nick Sorenson seeing extended time playing defense, but he has been solid. After being dinged on the final drive, his breakup of the potential game-winning touchdown was a good play.
The linebackers are still a problem. Willie McGinest was active, but he always seems to come up a step short or is unable to close out a tackle. I know he is very valuable from a leadership standpoint, but the Browns need to pick their spots with him on the field. Kamerion Wimbley gets shoved out of the play way too many times. Leon Williams struggled in coverage situations, though he had one nice play. Andra Davis was in on a couple of plays but was not all that effective. But you have to appreciate the effort by D'Qwell Jackson. Yes, he missed a tackle on what turned out to be a huge quarterback scramble, but Jackson was all over the field. He may not have all the measurables, but he sure has heart. In a position group that isn't always making the plays we'd like to see, Jackson stands out. Alex Hall had one of his quietest games of the season.
Finally, how do you put into words the exceptional game Shaun Rogers had? He was a one-man wrecking crew! He stuffed the run, he chased the quarterback, he blocked a kick -- he did it all! He was still effective despite constant double teams and playing a lot of snaps. His play set the tone for the entire defense. Corey Williams is coming along and the young guys on the line all contributed. In particular, I think Athyba Rubin is steadily improving. I also liked the play of Santonio Thomas rotating in. Louis Leonard was decent as well.
In many ways, great line plays was the key to this win. The Browns let the Jaguars convert far too many third downs and consistently let them into short yardage situations, but that sure wasn't because of the run. The line was able to control the trenches and shut down the powerful Jacksonville running game. The secondary did just enough and made some key stops when needed.
There weren't big flashy returns, but the special teams did very well and were a key to this win as well. A forced fumble by rookie Beau Bell, great kick coverage by Joshua Cribbs, good punting by Dave Zastudil, and three field goals from Phil Dawson were all huge factors in this win. Of course, the play everyone will remember is the blocked field goal by Rogers. As it turned out, this was a key to being able to win it.
I've blasted Romeo Crennel often this year, but credit where credit is due. He did a good job this week. He held things together through the dicey Kellen Winslow situation, and that situation was not always handled the best by Phil Savage. At times, Crennel was left to answer questions Savage should have been answering. It did not appear that this had any impact on the team at all, and it might even have been a positive. Steve Heiden once again stepped up and made plays.
Crennel also made some good in-game decisions. Going on fourth down from your own side of the field was a gamble, but boy did it pay off! And how about those penalties? After having serious problems in that area, the Browns didn't jump offside or line up wrong or any of that. The only penalty was a roughing penalty on Shaun Rogers. This one was not of the bonehead variety; it was an aggressive play. I'll take that every time.
Mel Tucker is being aggressive and creative with the defense. The Browns blitzed in less obvious ways. They were judicious with the use of the blitz, but when you control the line, you can do that. They challenged the Jags to throw and took away the run. It was an effective strategy. They got burned by scrambles a couple of times, and that hurt, but I can live with it when the defense is keeping the opponent off the scoreboard. About the worst thing I could say about the defense was that they did a terrible job on third down. That will usually kill you, but they got away with it in this one.
On offense, though, I feel like we haven't seen the same creative playcalling we saw in the New York game since. I did like lining up in the flash formation and shifting out of it as a decoy, but the Browns never went back to it again. Jerome Harrison got a carry, but it was up the middle. Otherwise, he was a decoy on one or two plays. The goal-line situation is becoming an issue. I'd have liked to see another crack at running it in. But I suppose part of the problem is poor execution. Are we really seeing the Browns run the plays that are called the way they are supposed to be run?
Finally, this game didn't do a lot to sell me on Derek Anderson as the long-term answer at quarterback. About the best you can say is that he didn't blow the game. Not high praise.
This was a win that saved the season. It wasn't always pretty. The Browns were on the short end of a lot of the statistics. They did not put the game away when they could have. Yet, they still escaped with a tough win against a talented team.
The next two games at home are key. If the Browns are to revive their playoff hopes, they cannot afford to lose another division game. Beating the Ravens is a must. Denver has been struggling a bit of late. The Browns need to win to keep pace with the other AFC wild card contenders. Getting to 5-4 would give the Browns a chance down the stretch. Some very tough games loom ahead.
If the Browns lose Sunday, at 3-5, they have probably had it. At that point, I'd be calling for Brady Quinn so the Browns can evaluate the quarterback position for the future.
The Browns face return home to take on the Ravens.
The season is short. Bark hard!