Game Review: Browns 24, Falcons 16

Joe reviews the final regular season game of the year. The Falcons game, Joe writes, was "one of the best and most meaningful victories in the long history of the franchise". Get Joe's takes on each unit's performance in the huge victory.

Good day, Browns fans!

 

Someone start my heart again!

 

This was the biggest game the Browns have faced since The Return. Though not officially a playoff game, it had "lose and go home" implications for both teams (at least at the start), so this was close. As with the entire season, it was a roller coaster ride of a great start, problems resulting in the team falling behind, then a comeback and a late defensive stand. This game will go down as one of the best and most meaningful victories in the long history of the franchise. It was also quite a step up for this young team, as the Browns were finally able to win a big game at home.

 

True to this season's form the win didn't assure anything, as the Dolphins blew an 11-point lead with 3:00 remaining, leaving Browns fans to wait for the result of the Green Bay-New York Jets game. The Jets came through, and the Browns are headed to the postseason for the first time since 1994. Given where the Browns seemed to be after playing poorly and losing to Carolina, and playing fairly well and still losing to the Colts, the fact that the 9-7 Browns made it into the postseason is all the more amazing. It capped off a true cardiac season in which 12 of the 16 games were decided in the final two minutes.

 

This was truly a team victory, so let's see how it was accomplished.

 

Quarterback

 

What can you say about Tim Couch? He did not play that long, and although he went 7 for 11 and made a couple of nice plays, the interception he threw was a terrible decision. Kevin Johnson was coming across the field, was maybe open just briefly, but by the time Couch threw, it was into a crowd and trying to throw over two or three defenders. But, Couch broke the small bone in his leg in the 2nd quarter and was finished for the season.

 

This was sad on several levels. First, this was the chance to see how Couch would do in a big game, and there was not enough time to really see. Despite the interception, Couch left with a lead. Second, it allowed the Falcons to stack the line to stop Green and put pressure on a rusty Kelly Holcomb. But finally, it is very sad to see a tough competitor like Tim Couch miss out on the biggest game of his life. Couch said this was the game he always dreamed about playing. We would have learned a lot about where Couch is as a quarterback. Now we can only speculate.

 

Kelly Holcomb came in on very short notice. He was very rusty. The Browns did not let him throw much, and that was a good thing. His timing was definitely off. Holcomb completed just 7 of 14 passes with two interceptions. He made three big throws. One was on his first series to Kevin Johnson that converted a third down. It was a low throw where the ball could not be intercepted. The second was the ball to Quincy Morgan that Morgan eventually fumbled. It was still a good throw. Finally, there was the throw to KJ for the touchdown that came on a third down and 14. KJ was wide open, but you still have to execute the throw.

 

Holcomb got the job done, but three consecutive possessions with turnovers in the third quarter nearly lost the game. Frankly, for all the people who have clamored for Holcomb all year, this game was not exactly a ringing endorsement. Holcomb did not use it as an excuse, but I do realize he had little practice time, something that should be rectified this week, but Holcomb has to make better decisions and throw the ball with accuracy. I hope that Holcomb will spend extra time working with the receivers this week. In my mind, though, if Couch plays the entire game, the Browns win handily.

 

Running Backs

 

Wow! This was just a great performance by William Green. He showed why he was drafted in the first round in this game. Green had his best game of the season, and not just statistically. Yes, he had 178 yards on 27 carries, including the game-winning 64-yarder. That's nearly seven yards per carry. Take away the big carry, and that's still 26 carries for 114 yards, which is very good. Green added another two dump passes for nine more yards. Beyond the statistics, Green not only made something out of nothing, but he ran with tremendous authority, often breaking through first contact to gain more yards. At times, he looked to be stopped at the line only to break through for a three or four yard gain. He was one person away from breaking all the way two or three times before breaking the long run when the Browns needed it at the end. He showed speed to the corner a few times, including on his first touchdown run of 21 yards. Green established himself as a gamer in this one. It's hard to imagine him making a more meaningful contribution to the game.

 

It was surprising to see Jamel White get so few chances, but given the injury to Couch, I suppose when the Browns decided to run, White ended up the odd man out. He got only two touches for a total of four yards, one rush and one pass. I liked seeing both White and Green on the field together again. White is a valuable player and I hope the Browns can continue to use him as they did against the Barneys.

 

William Green finished with 887 yards for the season, just 13 yards shy of Leroy Hoard's 900 in 1994. This is truly amazing considering over 700 of that have come in the last seven games.

 

Wide Receivers


Call me a mental case, and the numbers don't support it, but I truly believe that the return of Dennis Northcutt was a key element in this game, especially early on. Northcutt had just one catch, a nice one for 22 yards with a good block by Kevin Johnson. Northcutt also ran twice for 10 yards, once on a direct snap with a nice fake of a bad snap by Tim Couch. In my opinion, though, Northcutt's return opened up other things for both the receivers and running backs. Kevin Johnson had just three catches, but they were huge, including the aforementioned third down conversion and touchdown. He also had his best day of the season blocking. Andre Davis contributed two catches for 36 yards. Frisman Jackson and Andre King both got in the game as well.

 

Then there was Quincy Morgan. If one man is fortunate this game did not end the season, it is Morgan. Of all the players on the team, he delivered a truly poor performance in a big game. Morgan has two catches for 32 yards, including a nice 24-yard catch and run, but while fighting for extra yards, Morgan fumbled. This led to a Falcons field goal. The Browns had just four penalties in the game, but Morgan accounted for three of them. He had an offside call, probably caused by our own crowd noise (!), an illegal shift call, and a holding penalty. Overall, it was a miserable day for Morgan. I am glad he did not have to head to the offseason after this performance.

 

Tight Ends

 

Mark Campbell had one pass reception where he rumbled for 12 yards. He had another pass thrown to him by Holcomb that was a little short and would have been a good gain. On the other hand, it was nearly intercepted, too. Steve Heiden added two short catches for nine yards, including a nice third down pickup on the same play the Browns used at the goal line in Baltiless. Darnell Sanders was in the game as a blocker. I thought the tight ends did a pretty good job of blocking.

 

Offensive Line

 

No penalties. Not one. That has not been the norm for this bunch, and they did it at a good time. In general, the line did a decent job on the run, but on the pass, the tackles did pretty well, but the middle of the line was consistently shoved backward by a smallish Atlanta front. This led to some of the passing woes for both quarterbacks. Barry Stokes looks so much better in space than at the line, but both he and Ryan Tucker did a nice job on the run. It was interesting that the Browns really did not try to screen in the game.

 

Defensive Line

 

The Browns decided not to spy Michael Vick, but instead used a scheme other teams have used with success. The floated the entire defensive line with Vick as he scrambled, and overall, they did a good job of keeping him contained. When they did lose containment, it was generally in the middle of the line. Even when Vick scrambled to the outside, such as on that amazing 17-second scramble, the line may not have been able to tackle him, but they did not let him get away. This strategy was at the expense of stuffing some of the inside run game, yet the Browns did decent job of stopping Warrick Dunn, especially in the second half when he gained just 16 yards.

 

Individually, my defensive game ball goes to Tyrone Rogers for a monster game. He contained on pass plays, and he did very well against the run. On the stat sheet, Rogers only got credit for three tackles, but that is not indicative of his contribution. Mark Word had some pressure on Vick and did well on containment, but he ended up with just one tackle and his eighth sack of the year. Kenard Lang also had a sack and did OK. Gerard Warren was largely invisible again with just two tackles, but his fumble and recovery on a swing pass to the fullback was a turning point in the game. He just wrestled the ball away from a Falcon lineman. Alvin McKinley had two tackles in a backup role. Orpheus Roye had a surprisingly quiet game, being shut out on the stat sheet.

 

Linebackers

 

For the first time this season, the linebackers truly had an impact game. Earl Holmes has come alive down the stretch this season, and added eight more tackles. None was bigger than his stop on fourth and goal at the one-yard line that sealed the game. Dwayne Rudd had just three tackles, but his stop on third down at the end of the game was huge, as was his coverage of the tight end on second down. Perhaps his play in this game will allow him to put the ghosts of the Kansas City game to rest. Darren Hambrick had four tackles including a couple of impact plays.

 

Brant Boyer had just one tackle, but it stopped Warrick Dunn just short of the goal line on first down. Once again, Boyer was active and the stat sheet does not do him justice. He did make a mistake by trying to scoop up a Vick fumble rather than falling on it. That would have saved the Browns three points. Kevin Bentley was active and had five tackles in limited duty. It was good to see him back on the field.

 

Linebacker has been a problem spot for the Browns in 2002, but this was the best effort across the board of the entire season.

 

Defensive Backs

 

It is hard to fault the secondary for some coverage breakdowns when Vick made himself all kinds of time to throw. The Browns contained him, but did not get tons of pressure. To me, Vick's 17 of 40 passing day indicates that the secondary did a decent job. Corey Fuller had a great game, forcing the fumble recovered by Warren. He broke up plays and his name was rarely called. Daylon McCutcheon had a decent game considering he can't wrap up with one hand. Yes, he lost Finneran on his touchdown. The normally sure-tackling McCutcheon doesn't miss a play like that unless he is hurting. McCutcheon also leapt high to attempt to break up another pass, but when the receiver caught it off the tip, you have to just salute a great play by the opposition and move on. Anthony Henry had a decent game as the nickel. His miss of a possible interception that hit him in the hands might have swung the game to the Browns sooner than it actually did. It was the kind of route jumping we've seen from Henry in the past. Lewis Sanders was quiet at corner; he made his big plays on special teams.

 

At safety, Robert Griffith had perhaps his best game of the year. A nice interception off a tip, six tackles, and some truly hard hits rounded out his day. One hit was a shot to Vick that leveled him. Earl Little also had six tackles and did a good job helping to contain Vick. Little has been valuable since returning to the starting lineup. Devin Bush has been fighting injuries and was inactive. Michael Jameson played instead and didn't do anything of special note.

 

Special Teams

 

The Browns got some good plays from the kicking game. Phil Dawson made his only field goal attempt from 40 yards. He also had a nice pooch kick off a fake field goal that pinned the Falcons deep. Chris Gardocki didn't have a big day on punt average, but he dropped one inside the five that led to a fumble and a short field for the Browns.

 

Phil Dawson once again kicked short. I understand that he is doing it on purpose, but I just hate seeing it. It's almost like handing the opposition extra yards. Allen Rossum is a good kick return man, but the Browns kick coverage units did a great job containing him. Lewis Sanders recovered a Rossum fumble on a kickoff return, though it led to a Couch interception. Meanwhile, Dennis Northcutt had one decent punt return, and Andre Davis did OK on kickoffs. Andre King and Mark Campbell also returned kickoffs.

 

Coaching

 

I'm not sure what to say here. It's hard to judge much of the game plan with Tim Couch going down and the defense playing on short fields through much of the second half probably hurt the game plan. Other than the pooch punt call, the Browns did not go conservative. They did rely more on the running game once Couch was out, but that was necessary given the problems with Holcomb. Also, while many people felt the pooch kick was too conservative, remember that the Browns were going to go for it on fourth down and five before Quincy Morgan jumped offside.

 

The offense has so much more spark to it with Dennis Northcutt on the field, even if he does not get the ball.

 

On defense, Foge Fazio was about to be run out of town, but you have to admit, the defense came up big in this one. Corey Fuller made remarks indicating that if people had executed earlier game plans as well as they did with this one, the Browns would have fared better. That may be true. Fazio mixed in the blitz, which helped, even though the Browns did get mildly burned by it a couple of times. I still like the aggressive style of blitzing anyway. And what can you say about the goal line stand? Wow!

 

I think Butch Davis deserves credit for his remarks regarding the fans. The players greeted fans after the game, and I saw video on TV that had Butch telling players to go thank the fans.

 

Commentary

 

The coaching staff must be congratulated for sparking the running game after the bye, and Butch Davis and his 10-game season resurrected this team. From October 20 on, the Browns went 7-3, and this despite the death of their owner. While none of the pregame shows gave the Browns a chance in this game (heck, even I didn't expect them to win), the Browns showed what they are made of. The Browns have really grown as a team in the last month. Regardless of how the playoffs go, I consider the 2002 season a success and a valuable step up. The experience the team will gain will really help heading into 2003. But – do not count this team out.

 

We are in uncharted waters now. How will the Browns react to a road playoff game against a team that has squeaked past them twice without their starting quarterback? I think the Browns are going to be a dangerous opponent Sunday.

 

An interesting twist to events on Sunday: The Browns ended 1994 with Vinny Testaverde leading them to a playoff win over the Patriots, followed by a third loss to the Steelers. Sunday afternoon, it was Testaverde at the controls for the Jets as they knocked off the Packers, once again sending the Browns to the playoffs.

 

Looking Ahead

 

The Browns face the archrival Steelers Sunday. While we know them all too well, the Steelers have not faced Holcomb, nor have they seen the post-bye William Green. Jamal Lewis ran all over them Sunday, and now Kendrell Bell may not play. The Steelers can be beaten.

 

If I am Bill Cowher, I look at stacking eight men at the line and daring Holcomb to throw. While the Browns have faced 3-4 defenses the last two weeks, Holcomb only played part of one of those games. I would try to confuse him by sending different people on each play, something the Steelers did effectively in our last meeting.

 

Knowing this, I think the Browns should plan on using a short, quick passing game to loosen up the defense, opening the way for William Green. While this will require some timing throws from Holcomb, I have to believe that a solid week of work will allow him to shake off the rust. I hope he spends extra time with the receivers this week. I'd try to use Green, Northcutt, White, and the tight ends to try to create mismatches against some nicked up linebackers. Jamel White had tremendous success in the first meeting between the two teams, and limited success before being injured in the second meeting. White and Green, either together or individually, can really open things up for the offense. If Green can grind out yards even when the defense is looking for the run, it will allow Holcomb to do some things. Ultimately, we know them, they know us. You can't fool them, you have to line up ready to execute plays regardless of whether the Steelers expect them or not.

 

On defense, the Browns have to shut down the receivers of the Steelers, something they have managed to do at times. Taking away huge plays may be a more reasonable goal. The lack of a pass rush could come back to hurt the Browns. Though Jerome Bettis may not play, and I respect the talents of Amos Zeroue, the player the Browns have struggle with its Fu (no, I'm not going to spell it). The Browns have to be able to stop Fu.

 

Bottom line: I believe the Browns can win. They play well on the road and tend to play to the level of the competition. If the game is close, I like the Browns' chances.

 

The Competition

 

The Steelers locked up the #3 seed in the playoffs by overcoming a 31-20 deficit in the fourth quarter to dump the Prunes. The Bengals got stomped 27-9 at Buffalo, putting the capper on a 2-14 season, the worst in franchise history. Dick LeBeau is now unemployed.

 

Next Up

 

The Browns play their first playoff game since 1994, visiting the Steelers.

 

The season is short. Bark hard!


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