Outside the Perimeter: After Buffalo

Mark looks back on two "non"-plays which could have made last weekend somewhat less stressful...

There were at least two un-made plays by the Browns Sunday in Buffalo that turned what might've been a much easier victory into a needlessly difficult and agonizing experience.

Of course the obscenely dropped pass mishandled by TE Robert Royal is easily remembered. But equally uncomfortable was seeing Cleveland CB Eric Wright—with a gift pick-six arching toward him as he settled in the near flat, nothing between him and the endzone but green field turf—mistakenly choose to play the receiver rather than the ball.

Forsaken was an easy touchdown, one that might've thoroughly destroyed the pressing Buffalo QB Trent Edwards, the subject of much fan angst and a popular scapegoat for the many disgruntled with the Bills'  tormenting offense. Nearly as bad was Wright's drawing a pass-interference call against Bill WR Josh Reed, negating the host team's need to punt.

Royal's gaffe was nearly painful, particularly coming as it did so late in the proceedings. That third-quarter error might've relieved so much of the building stress Browns' fans were feeling, sensing this might've been yet another winnable contest slipping away. But Wright's second-quarter misjudgment was part of what allowed Buffalo to hang-in with the Browns longer than they should've.

As absurd as it may be to write of a winless outfit on the road in one of the more notorious places for a visitor to attain victory, Wright's decision may have prevented a Cleveland blowout.

But that possibility was probably lost early because of the repeated Cleveland drops offensively. How different might the outcome have been if only the Browns had made the plays that were undeniably there for them to make.

The consequence of un-made plays is immeasurable. They rob a team of momentum and confidence. They keep an offensive unit from achieving a roll, hitting a stride, feeling its potency, playing loose and with ease. That contagious feeling of success and achievement is denied throughout the roster. One play building upon another is never permitted. Tension sets in and things can unravel quickly.

Consider the two dump-offs dropped early by RB Jerome Harrison, each a grade-school toss the likes of which is seen daily on playgrounds at recess. Coming as they did for Harrison off a 29-carry, 121-yard effort against Cincinnati and upon his return to the site of his fabulous 72-yard scoring dash last November, Jerome might well have gone on to have another break-out performance, the type that has many Cleveland fans thinking this Washington State product is only opportunities away from game-breaking regularity.

Instead, what resulted were two drive-ending drops, demoralizing displays leading to punts, contributing to fan anxiety, QB distress and a significantly minimized role for Harrison the balance of the afternoon.

What is more, since RB alternative Jamal  Lewis is less of an open-field threat, as well as less able as a receiver out of the backfield, Harrison's mishaps essentially subtracted the threat of the screen and dump-offs from the day's game plan. This surely lessened the eventual burden upon the replacement LBs Buffalo was later forced to employ.

The point is not to re-hash the most painful elements of Sunday's irritating victory—imagine such a sentiment coming from a fan whose team hasn't won in nearly 11 months, spanning ten regular-season games—but to illuminate how one bad play can build upon another, demonstrating how the little things accumulate to prevent a club from winning. Or to at least complicate the task at hand.

I suppose such things are what are thought of when saying: "Sometimes a team just needs to learn how to win."

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Remarkable was the fan reaction, some of which has already been mimicked here. The win wasn't aesthetic enough for many. They wanted to throw it back, as if it wasn't good enough for them, however rare a Cleveland Browns victory may be.

Is this symptomatic of a stat-obsessed generation? One raised on fantasy football?

Regardless, it was a true team win, accomplished by a collective bunch, achieved not insignificantly by members populating the bottom of the roster, those who play on special teams. It was almost as if the coaching staff orchestrated things so as to illustrate how special teams can win a game for you, in this showdown of arguably the NFL's top two special teams units. It most definitely exemplified field-position football.

Not much else good can be attributed to it, unless one were to reiterate what is commonly known by now: Very few penalties, especially relative to Buffalo's. Outstanding punting by Cleveland, featuring seven downed inside the 20, three inside the five. Only nine first downs? Only 193 total yards? Nine dropped passes? At least 12 incompletions that hit the hands of intended receivers?

Yuch, indeed.

One thing the game demonstrated is there is at least one additional OL worse than the Cleveland unit ranked by scouts for The Sporting News as the third-worst in the NFL.

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It seemed evident the Browns' coaching staff simply did not believe Buffalo could ever outscore their team. Allowing the Bills repeated possessions did not seem to concern the Cleveland staff at all. Though Buffalo RBs combined 99 yards on 30 carries, Buffalo seemed never to threaten. They certainly did not seem to threaten the Browns' defensive staff.

These are incredible attitudes on behalf of a unit ranking second-worst in both scoring and yardage going in.

Sweeps were strung-out again this week, much as they had been the prior week against the Bengals. There was greater discipline with the filling of running lanes, the so-called gap integrity.

For the most part, tackling was sufficiently good, though much too frequently just after the needed first-down yardage was achieved. This tendency was especially prevelant when oppositional RBs caught short passes in front of the backpedaling defenders. Closer coverage and quicker, more abrupt tackling would also have made this a much easier contest to secure. The game once again served to demonstrate the team's need for another three-down OLB.

But a win's a win and we should be happy to have one, I suppose. After all, this was only Cleveland's third in its last 16 regular-season NFL adventures.

Peyton Manning's Colts, on the other hand, have won 64 of their last 78. Wouldn't that kind of success rate be welcomed here?

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So, perhaps we should search for even meager signs of progress.

At least against clubs without much backfield speed or quickness, the Browns' front seven appears to be solidifying. Except, of course, when asked to defend passes to the backs. It seems to be a recommended strategy for moving the ball against the Cleveland D. A team can nickel-and-dime the Browns to death with the approach.

Another point of evolution is the new regime's conviction in the running game, though what it might indicate is ultra-conservatism and/or an absence of trust in other methods of attack. Head Coach Eric Mangini's leading rusher has carried 29 and 31 times in his last two games, respectively. Both games went right down to the final half minute.

RB Lewis looks frisky, alive, hungry and healthy. That's a good thing. (Especially with the trade deadline looming?)

DL Corey Williams has been making his presence felt. That is another positive.  And the aforementioned Wright, as evidenced by his being named the team's defensive  player of the week, played an outstanding game, his forsaken pick-six notwithstanding.

The overall defense's capacity to contain the opponent has been exhibited for two weeks running now.

These may be baby-steps, but they are progress.

So, too, has been the play of the Cleveland OL. The running game has worked because of their efforts and QB Derek Anderson has had ample time when passing, as well. RT John St. Clair is getting no one killed and veteran center Hank Fraley has both stabilized and solidified the RG spot. That job would seem to be his for the duration now. In short, the OL has lately been as solid as had been anticipated going into the regular season.

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Lastly, in what will initially appear as an "of course" type of comment, it seems clear Joshua Cribbs is much more dangerous with the ball in his hands when he can see the threatening tacklers, a condition which further argues for his utilization as a RB rather than as a WR.

Some players can instinctively elude oncoming tacklers even when they cannot be seen. We've all witnessed these amazing creatures. Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders and Walter Payton were three such animals. Some have been, in fact, running backs, but the skill is most often seen in wideouts who convert short patterns into long gains.

Cribbs shows little, if any, of this potential. Since he is not a burner who'll beat you over the top, this shortcoming seriously reduces his effectiveness at WR, virtually nullifying him as a game-altering threat. Minimally, it mandates creative measures insofar as getting him the ball is concerned.


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