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Joe's Game Review: Pittsburgh 36, Browns 33

For one last time this season, Joe Brownlee examines the Browns performance. As usual, the performance of all units are examined, but this week Joe also comments on some possible changes as over the off-season.<BR><BR>Talk to Joe in the <A HREF="">Fan Commentary forum</A>!<BR><BR><I>Opinions expressed may not reflect those of Bernie Kosar or</I>

Good day, Browns fans!


It's a tough way to end the season, but the Browns had a good year, took steps to improve, and set a nice tone for the 2003 season. In this game, the Browns did a lot of things right. They probably did more right than wrong. But the wrong things they did were very wrong and at inopportune times. As one player said, the Browns did not capitalize on every Pittsburgh mistake, but the Steelers did capitalize on Cleveland mistakes.


I've certainly been listening to the buzz since the game, and I have some thoughts I'll share with you. I'm sure some of my thoughts will change over the offseason, but I'll give you what my early thoughts are heading into the log layoff. So, one last time unto the breech…




This was a fabulous performance by Kelly Holcomb. In case you haven't seen the stat, Holcomb threw for 429 yards, the third most in playoff history. One interception when you throw 43 times is very impressive. When you throw that much, you're bound to have one go bad. Also impressive was the fact that Holcomb was sacked just twice against an aggressive defense. But Holcomb shredded the Steelers and their secondary in particular. The Browns took full advantage of Scott not playing in the game. Holcomb looked off, went through progressions, and threw the ball to receivers who were not open when the ball was released with the belief that they would make a play. Usually, they did. Holcomb showed a lot of courage standing in against the rush, and he was aided by great blitz pickups. And remember, all this was done with no running game to speak of.


So what does this mean for the offseason? The controversy will rage into August. I supported picking Couch, and I've taken a wait-and-see attitude with him, trotting out the "no weapons" argument, and praising his toughness and intangibles. I have also noted that Holcomb's big days had come against inferior defenses such as Kansas City and Cincinnati. I'd have liked to have Couch for those final 50 seconds in this one. But when I ask myself if Couch could have played at the level Holcomb did in this game, the answer I have to come to in my own mind is, "no". Couch looked brilliant in the preseason, but that was in limited reps. He was never the same after the injury. When I consider that watching Holcomb go from one receiver to the next, make pinpoint throws, step up against the blitz, and hit receivers in stride, I have to question how we can continue to accept these things from Couch.


Let me throw out one other bit of food for thought. Only twice this season did the Browns come out with an all-out passing attack: in the first and last games. Both games were started by Holcomb. The coaching staff never seemed to want to put the game in Couch's hands. Perhaps they are starting to think that Couch is becoming a Trent Dilfer, don't-make-a-mistake-and-blow-it type of guy. Davis's comments in his press conference Monday after the game included saying that performance, not a player's contract should determine who plays. It will be an interesting offseason indeed.


Running Backs


As I expected, the Steelers took William Green out of the game. A late 23-yard run let him recover to end up with 25 rushes for just 30 yards. Take away that run and Green got 24 carries to gain seven yards. Ouch! Green didn't have any holes and the Steelers took away the cutbacks as well. That left him to try to dance around or try to burn them to the outside. Neither worked. Green chipped in two pass receptions for eight yards.


Jamel White did not run the ball, but he did catch five passes for 45 yards. When he was in the game, White did a fantastic job on blitz pickups. Green did pretty well in that department, too.


Wide Receivers

What a day! When your wide receivers have 15 catches for 343 yards, that's not a bad day. Kevin Johnson started off big with an 83-yard catch and run on the first possession. He finished the day with four catches for 140 yards. This might have been his best game as a Brown. Dennis Northcutt will be forever remembered for not catching a pass on third-and-long late in the game, but Northcutt was Mr. Clutch all day. He had six catches for 92 yards, two touchdowns, and ran once for five yards to pick up a first down. He made some very nice catches. Still, had he caught the once that got away, the Browns probably hold on. Andre Davis added two catches for 65 yards. One was a 22-yard touchdown catch, and the other was a 43-yard deep throw that led to a field goal.


Then there was Quincy Morgan. After griping that he wanted the ball in crunch time a few weeks ago, Morgan made a big catch at Baltimourge. He then had a horrible game last week in what amounted to a playoff game against Atlanta, and followed it up with a forgettable performance in this one. Morgan finished with two receptions for 30 yards. He did some nice blocking. But all anyone will remember from Morgan in this game is a drop on third down that might have sealed the game.  Andre King came in for an injured Andre Davis on the last series and caught the final pass for 16 yards, but could not get out of bounds.


All the receivers kept plays alive by blocking well down the field.


There has been a lot of talk about how KJ needs to be traded and so forth. It seems to me that the Browns have a good thing going with these receivers, and KJ came up big in the last three games of the season. Unless you can get really good value for him, stand pat!


Tight Ends


Mark Campbell had three receptions for 31 yards. A couple of those were key going over the middle. Darnell Sanders was used primarily as a blocker, but he caught one pass where the ball bounced in the air, but Sanders showed good concentration hauling it in. Steve Heiden did not catch a pass. The tight ends really helped with blitz pickups.


While the tight end play this season is not Hall of Fame caliber, I think one of the reasons for the improvement was the overmatched Aaron Shea being out of the mix. If Shea is going to be used, he needs to be used as a receiver, not a blocker, and especially not a lead blocker.


Offensive Line


It is hard to grade this group. The Browns attempted 43 passes, and there were just two sacks. That's pretty good. The Steelers did get pressure at times, but overall, the pass blocking held up. There was no run blocking to speak about. There were no holes for William Green to run through. A lot of that has to do with the scheme the Steelers were playing, as part of their defensive strategy was to take away the run. But still, it's not like that was a big surprise. With Holcomb, you did have a new quarterback, but he and center Dave Wohlabaugh were not on the same page all day long. This led to far too many motion and delay penalties, and the Browns got away with letting the play clock hit zero at least twice. Shaun O'Hara made a nice block on one play pulling out, but he got shoved around on a lot of other plays.


Changes have to be made on the line. I know chemistry is important, but the Browns finally have the skill players to make some noise. With a more consistent offensive line, I think this offense can really put up points. Ryan Tucker and Ross Verba can stay, and call me crazy because I know he missed plays at times, but I like the attitude of Barry Stokes. Stokes may become the 6th man on the line.


Defensive Line


The Browns got sacks from Kenard Lang, Orpheus Roye, and Alvin McKinley. I thought Roye had a good game, and McKinley did a good job rotating in. Lang was OK. The line in general did well to hold the run in check except for one big play up the gut. Mark Word rushed a lot, but always seemed to come up a step short. Gerard Warren didn't even have one solo tackle in a playoff game. But Lang had just five tackles to lead all linemen. A lot of that has to do with the Steelers being forced to pass, but still. The defensive line has been a disappointment throughout the season, and this game was pretty much the same.


This unit needs some changes. Maybe a new defensive line coach can motivate, but Courtney Brown had another underachieving season, and Gerard Warren wasn't even that good. Brown is athletic enough that I'd like to see what a new coach could do with him in camp. Warren may use this lost year as motivation, but the knock on him coming out of college was taking plays off. He pretty much took the 2002 season off. Considering the "big money" the guy is making, you have to feel like it was wasted this year. Kenard Lang exceeded my expectations, but that isn't saying much. Orpheus Roye took a pay cut, then had a fine season. I like McKinley as a rotation player. Tyrone Rogers fought injuries, but had his moments. I'll meet with some disagreement on this, but Mark Word is overrated. He is a pass rusher and nothing more.




Like most of this year, the linebackers didn't make a lot of impact plays. In a pass-oriented game, it is not a huge surprise that Brant Boyer led the linebackers with eight tackles. Earl Holmes only got two tackles, but he seemed to make more plays than that. I would have liked to see him play more at crunch time, but the substitution packages had him on the sideline. Kevin Bentley had four tackles, while the starters Dwayne Rudd and Darren Hambrick had six between them.


I have to agree with Bernie Kosar, that losing Jamir Miller was the difference between 9-7 and 11-5. It was a huge blow, and the regression of Dwayne Rudd did not help. Darren Hambrick just did not make many plays. Brant Boyer made an undervalued contribution to the team for a guy who is not as talented as some. I like Kevin Bentley and will be anxious to see what he can do in 2003. I'll be very surprised if Rudd returns. Hambrick is a free agent, and unless he plays for cheap, the Browns have other places to spend their money.


Defensive Backs


Given the pass-happy nature of this game, some of the defensive backs were on top of the world one moment, and in a pit the next. Daylon McCutcheon had two interceptions, but got burned a couple of times. I felt that Corey Fuller had the best game in the secondary. I can only remember one ball that was caught by his man. Anthony Henry dropped a potential interception that we've seen him make many times before, and that probably would have sealed the game. He was passable at best. Lewis Sanders had seven tackles, but that was because he struggled some in coverage. He also missed a potential interception.


Robert Griffith led the team with 10 tackles. But he could have had more if he wrapped guys up and stopped going for the big hit. One of his hits cost us a personal foul. This game cinched it for me; I'll be just as happy if Griffith moves on. Earl Little had just one tackle and seemed out of position at times. This is not his usual pattern, and it was Little who felt the Browns could come up with interceptions in this game. Devin Bush was inactive, so Michael Jameson saw action in the dime defense. He had one tackle.


There are big questions to answer here. Fuller has a good season except for injuries. McCutcheon was hurt a lot, but he made plays early on. He did not do as well trying to come back from the hand injury. Anthony Henry had a tough second year. Lewis Sanders made some plays, but he was not at the level he seemed to be in 2000. Robert Griffith did not have the impact most hoped. Earl Little showed his nose for the ball and made plays at times. Devin Bush played hurt most of the year and struggled. Michael Jameson might have promise.


Special Teams


Phil Dawson had two field goals and Chris Gardocki had some nice punts. Dawson's short kickoffs really hurt the Browns at the end. One was fair cutght! The coverage teams overall did a pretty good job, but surrendered two long returns, one for a touchdown.


Dennis Northcutt did a nice job on two punt returns totaling 70 yards. He came up just short of scoring on one. Andre Davis was OK at best on kickoff returns, averaging just 16 yards. When the Browns needed a good return at the end, Davis didn't get one and instead got injured. Why did Davis run into the pile each time when bouncing outside seemed to be open? Mark Campbell had two decent returns on medium deep kicks.




Where do you start? The Browns had an excellent offensive game plan that was aggressive and took advantage of a depleted Pittsburgh secondary. Unlike a lot of people, I liked the aggressive style at the end. It was not the decisions that failed the Browns, it was the execution of them. But on defense, the Browns did the opposite, and it burned them. The prevent defense has killed the Browns since the 1980s, and it did so here. There seems to be some finger pointing about who is responsible for this, and while things will likely come out in the offseason, it seems like Butch Davis is the one who decided on this approach. Davis did a fair number of things wrong this year, and he has a lot to consider during the offseason.


That's not to say Davis didn't so a lot of things right, too, but he is learning to be an NFL head coach and has a ways to go. Davis generally did well with replay challenges, and he made some good changes at the bye week. His ten-game season helped refocus the team after early failures. But some moves, like essentially forfeiting the Tampa Bay game were killers. Davis also failed to get a handle on the penalty situation, something that hurt the team in numerous games. He did not take control of certain situations when they needed to be, like calls at the end of this game (or did he?). And he stubbornly did things that cost chances to win at times, especially early in the season. But the team did finsh 9-7, and only lost by 10 or more points once.


Say what you will about Foge Fazio and Ray Hamilton, but both had to go. The Browns blew double-digit leads against Kansas City, Pittsburgh (twice), and the Colts. They gave up 100+ yards to Dee Brown in his first start, and let several backs have days that were ridiculous. The defensive line, as noted above, was so bad that something has to be changed. The lack of pressure exposed problems with the secondary, especially when they were short-handed due to injuries, and kept the Browns from generating turnovers as in 2001.


Finally, Davis failed to give Couch a vote of confidence at his Monday press conference, fueling a quarterback controversy. I'm not sure that's bad. Tim Couch has never faced legitimate competition, and hopefully it will push him to improve. But it may be too late. I won't be surprised to see a trade.


Next Up


Free agency, the draft, minicamps. I'm already counting the days until August.


The season is short. Bark hard!

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