Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks at Browns

In this week's Seahawks.NET opponent preview, Doug Farrar asks Barry McBride of the Orange and Brown Report about the Cleveland Browns. How has Cleveland's offense turned around, how can their vulnerable defense be taken, which under-the-radar players should Seahawks fans be watching out for, and who the heck is this Derek Anderson guy, anyway?

Doug Farrar, Seahawks.NET: For the second straight week, sixth-round draft pick Derek Anderson will be facing another sixth-round draft pick quarterback - first, the Rams' Marc Bulger, and now Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck. Anderson, for his part, was drafted in the sixth round of the 2005 draft by the Ravens. He was projected as a fourth-rounder - kind of a raw prospect with a propensity for errant throws. Currently, however, he's thrown more touchdown passes this season than any quarterback not named Tom Brady. Was this a case of the Ravens blowing it by releasing him, or was Cleveland's selection of Brady Quinn in this year's draft (and subsequent promotion of Charlie Frye) proof that the Browns didn't know what they had in Anderson, either?

Barry McBride,
The Orange and Brown Report: Moving Frye was a risky move, but it has paid off. Anderson was horrible in pre-season games and didn’t look very good in training camp, either, frequently locking on primary receivers and making questionable decisions. Charlie Frye clearly won the battle based on the performance of both quarterbacks through the exhibition season. Anderson, up until the Browns game against the Bengals, was mostly thought of as a dramatically inconsistent QB, to the point where fans would regularly speak of “Good Derek” and “Evil Derek”. We’ve seen some of that since (e.g., Anderson’s awful first half against the Raiders), but a lot of folks have jumped on the DA bandwagon following several strong performances in a row.

Clearly, Anderson has wound up being a much better fit for how the Browns are constructed in 2007 than Frye would have been. He’s getting impressive protection, which is good because he’s an immobile guy who needs a pocket, and has receivers who can get to less-than-perfect passes. What Anderson brings to the table is a strong arm and quicker release than Frye, and it’s all clicked so far this season. Over the last several weeks, his decision-making has visibly improved, and he’s only been sacked twice in four games at home. Dealing Frye to keep Anderson was a gutsy move by the team’s braintrust, and didn’t fit what we had seen in the pre-season, but it’s paid off, and they deserve some applause for having the courage to make that move.

For what it’s worth, the Ravens really didn’t want to lose Anderson… they were trying to get him to the practice squad and, unfortunately for them, ex-Ravens scout Phil Savage snagged him before they could get him through waivers.


DF: Since it seems that the Browns have a bit of a Drew Brees/Philip Rivers situation here, what do you think will happen with Anderson and Quinn in the long term?

BM: I believe that Brady Quinn will be the team’s quarterback, but the Browns are ecstatic with how things have turned out. Anderson’s emergence will let them sit Quinn this year, and perhaps even next, which seemed unlikely at the start of the season. Keep in mind that the Browns need a lot of defensive help and don’t have a first-round pick next year. If they can tender Anderson high, or deal him for a first-round pick, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them go that route.


DF: How does Cleveland's rushing attack shake out? There's the veteran Jamal Lewis, second-year speedster Jerome Harrison, and youngster Jason Wright. Lewis is obviously the main target right now, but has Harrison been coming along? Could he be more of a weapon in future?

BM:
Wright is a player the team likes, and is a bright and reliable player. He’s a real asset to the team, and got a contract extension this off-season that shows the team wants him around long-term. Harrison, however, is a player who I’ve been very high on, and who we knew the Browns were targeting in the 2006 draft. Thanks to an injury to Lewis, Harrison finally got an opportunity against the Dolphins after being inactive for most of the year. He really took advantage of it, and got some additional carries against the Rams last week. Lewis will get the bulk of the carries, but the Browns coaching staff is intrigued by Harrison and will give him opportunities throughout the season unless he starts putting the ball on the ground again (which held him back as a rookie). Harrison has been impressive in quickly getting to holes generated by the team’s offensive line and displaying a bit more power than we might have expected. At this point, Harrison looks like he will, at the very least, be a serviceable third-down back and could have a shot at being next year’s feature back if the team isn’t able to land a free agent like the Chargers Michael Turner during the off-season. He showed the last two weeks that the yardage he piled up in the PAC-10 wasn’t a fluke. Harrison is a very interesting runner, and he doesn’t need much of a hole to explode into the second level.


DF: There's no question that with Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Joe Jurevicius, Cleveland now has one of the better aerial attacks in the NFL. Before this season, Edwards and Winslow have been more about decent numbers but unfulfilled potential. What's been the difference this season?

BM: Both players are healthier now than they’ve been in the past. Edwards suffered on ACL in 2005, and it generally takes a couple of years for players to fully recover from that injury. He’s fully back this year, and has matured off-the-field as well. He still makes mistakes (such as some ill-advised histrionics last week against the Rams which cost the Browns fifteen yards) but has displayed better hands and athletic ability throughout the season. He’s made some catches which have displayed jaw-dropping physical ability, and has really displayed an ability to use his size against smaller defensive backs. Winslow is receiving a lot of attention from safeties and linebackers this year, which has helped Jurevicius and Edwards to get open more, and Winslow is continuing to get healthier after all the problems he suffered in 2004 and 2005. He had a great campaign in 2006, and opposing defenses have dedicated themselves to making sure Winslow doesn’t beat them. It won’t help his reception numbers, but opens up all sorts of possibilities for the Browns offense.


DF: Jurevicius is a guy who's very much missed in Seattle from his great 2005 season here. How's he doing in Cleveland?

BM:
Jurevicius is the same clutch receiver that Seahawks fans enjoyed seeing, and has been a key part of the Browns offense this season, particularly on third downs. The Browns could still use a fast #2 receiver, but Jurevicius brings a route-running discipline and approach that has clearly helped to lead the rest of the Browns receiving corps by example. It was feared earlier this season that Joe was near the end of his run, but he’s shown thus far this season that he can still be a valuable cog in the Browns offensive machine.


DF: The Browns may also have the most underrated offensive line in the league. We heard so much about left tackle Joe Thomas when we were at the Combine, and he seems to have lived up to the hype. How much has the addition of Thomas and former Bengal Eric Steinbach redefined this line? Who else is stepping up?

BM: In my opinion, Thomas and Steinbach are why the Browns have turned things around on offense. While Anderson and Edwards get the bulk of the attention, the Browns significant investments in their offensive line is what has led to the team’s offensive output. Without the protection afforded Derek Anderson and holes provided to the team’s running backs, everything else becomes moot. Thomas and Steinbach give the Browns a dominating left side, and Kevin Shaffer has adjusted fairly well to moving to the right after grumbling about the move after the draft. The unheralded player in the bunch is probably C Hank Fraley, who filled a key gap in the middle of the Browns line last year after the team lost three centers to injuries and off-the-field issues in under two months. The Browns thought highly enough of Fraley to make him a team captain this year, and it’s not an uncommon sight to witness Fraley downfield, getting out to the second level and putting a helmet on linebackers. He’s not a Pro Bowler like LeCharles Bentley would have been, but Fraley has played a key role in solidifying the line.


DF: For all the talk about the Cleveland offense, the defense is a major problem. They have a few good players on that side like Kamerion Wimbley and Leigh Bodden, but they can't seem to put an integrated, consistent effort together against elite offenses. What's missing there, and what can Seattle exploit?

BM:
The Browns are having defensive problems up the middle. Ted Washington’s career is over, and the Browns haven’t been able to move Shaun Smith to the middle because he has had to fill in for aging DE Orpheus Roye. The Browns were crossing their fingers and hoping two aging vets (Roye and Washington) could hang on for one more year. It hasn’t happened. The weakness on the line has exposed the team’s undersized inside linebackers who simply don’t have the ability shed blocks and make plays near the line of scrimmage if the defensive line isn’t occupying the interior offensive line. The Browns have also been disappointed with less-than-expected play from highly touted safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool, who seem to miss Brian Russell’s defensive play-calling and leadership. There’s an increasing number of fingers being pointed at defensive coordinator Todd Grantham as well, as the Browns defense is often not positioned correctly and are having trouble disguising blitzes. It all starts, however, on the defensive line, which is where Phil Savage will focus during the next off-season.


DF: Josh Cribbs has been a bit of a sleeping giant on special teams, Who else on Cleveland's roster are people not talking about when they should be?

BM:
Cribbs is absolutely fearless and has the athletic ability to make things happen on his own. The team’s corners, Leigh Bodden and Eric Wright, both have the potential to be standouts if there was more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but are being victimized to a degree by the inadequate pass rush and lackluster safety play. Also of note, the Browns have some of the most reliable special teams players (Ryan Pontbriand, Dave Zastudil, and Phil Dawson) to be found anywhere in the league. Don’t write off Kamerion Wimbley, who will explode once he gets some more help in the front seven. Right now he’s getting a lot of attention because of the weaknesses around him, but if he’s freed up more, he’ll register some impressive sack totals. He’s simply too good to be held back for long.


DF: Talk a little about Cleveland's coaching staff. What's your take on Romeo Crennel, and is offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski a future head coach? And is defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on the hot seat?

BM:
Romeo Crennel is a guy that most everyone who follows the team closely wants to see be successful. I was just thinking yesterday about how rare it is that a third-year head coach hasn’t developed enemies in the locker room or the media corps, and Crennel genuinely hasn’t. He commands respect without embarrassing his players publicly, but until this season suffered with a reputation of holding on too long to coaches or players who weren’t working out. He has an understated sideline demeanor which doesn’t sit well with fans when the team is struggling. We’ve seen Crennel grow as a head coach this season, however. He’s been much more aggressive about making moves which benefit the team, which as pushing veteran Ted Washington aside, and has been helped immeasurably by the investments made on offense.

Grantham is not faring well because of the defense’s poor production, and there are increasing murmurs behind Berea’s closed doors that he’s not blameless for the defensive collapse.
Everything is coming up roses right now for Chudzinski, but let’s remember that he’s had less than half of a season to show what he can do. There’s no telling if he has the approach and organizational skills to be a successful head coach, yet. The Browns next three games are against tougher opponents (Seahawks, Steelers, and Ravens), and will tell a lot about Chud’s ability to react when facing opponents who have already seen the Browns new offense and made their own adjustments.


DF: It's pretty easy to assume that the Browns' current 4-3 record comes as a bit of a surprise to many observers. After so many losing seasons since the team came back into the NFL in 1999, what would be an acceptable win total for the franchise in 2007? Will 8-8 be a success?

BM:
Absolutely. The Browns weren’t expected to go to the playoffs this year, and a .500 record would be double the wins they got last season. Savage has targeted this team for 2008 and 2009, and getting to 8-8 would be right on schedule, or even a little better than expected. If they can sneak into the playoffs, it would be a real stamp of approval on Savage’s construction of this team.


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