Revamped Browns getting better

PITTSBURGH – Having resurrected the franchise in 1999, the Cleveland Browns, on paper, are a new team. On the field, they've become showroom new.

Since coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage took over the team this year, only six starters have returned to their spots since the end of last season. Throw in center Jeff Faine, who was injured for the finale, and the Browns have seven returning starters from their 2004 opening-day lineup.

The defensive line was, for the most part, traded to the Denver Broncos for running back Rueben Droughns and a draft pick with which they acquired quarterback Trent Dilfer.

In the secondary, Earl Little, Anthony Henry and Lewis Sanders were exchanged in free agency for Brian Russell, Gary Baxter and Ray Mickens.

The offensive line lost three, and they were replaced by free-agent acquisitions Cosey Coleman, Joe Andruzzi and L.J. Shelton.

Linebacker Matt Stewart and punter Kyle Richardson also were signed via free agency.

Some of the names remain the same: Antonio Bryant, Jeff Faine, Dennis Northcutt, Orpheus Roye and Daylon McCutcheon. But the upshot of the makeover is the Browns, who finished last in the AFC North with a 4-12 record last season, are 3-5.

The biggest change statistically is in a pass defense that went from fifth in the NFL last season to 19th this season. Some of that may be due to the loss of Baxter to a preseason injury. He's been replaced by former Duquesne University track star Leigh Bodden at right cornerback.

In all, the Browns have only 27 players left from last year's roster.

"It is a little different with the new faces and new personnel," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "But their coach was the defensive coordinator for the Super Bowl teams, and he's faced our personnel. He knows more about us than we know about them."

Crennel may have installed the Patriots' 3-4, but the Browns don't have the depth or flexibility enjoyed by the Patriots the last few years.

"The players are learning the system, so they're not as advanced as the guys in New England," Crennel said. "We want to build a good foundation and make sure that our guys understand that they need to fit, how they need to play and then we can expand on that."

The Steelers may have had problems with the Patriots last January, but they're typically successful against novice 3-4 schemes. They moved easily through the Houston Texans earlier this year and also beat the San Diego Chargers on the road.

However, the Steelers' offense is barely recognizable without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He was replaced last week by Charlie Batch, who passed for only 65 yards in a win over the 1-7 Green Bay Packers.

"We're going to have to pass," said guard Alan Faneca. "If I were them I'd make us do it, so we'll see how it works out."

"I see myself playing better," said Batch. "I went back and looked through the film, analyzed it and sat back and said here are the things I need to correct. Obviously, more attempts and more yardage will come if we convert third downs. I didn't do that. That was something I had attempts to convert and didn't do it. You do that, a lot more attempts come, a lot more yardage comes, and I think a lot more plays downfield will happen."

The Steelers didn't convert any of their eight third-down attempts last Sunday. On defense, they allowed the Packers to convert eight of 17 attempts. On both sides of the ball, the Steelers rank 31st in the league in third-down conversions.

They'll have to deal with those problems tonight, as well as a potential motivational mismatch. The Steelers have beaten the Browns nine of the last 10 times in a series that was a better rivalry before the original Browns moved to Baltimore. But even though the new Browns have been revamped further, they'll come to Pittsburgh with blood in their eyes.

"This is a game that we have to win to get to first place in the division," reasoned Steelers receiver Quincy Morgan, a former member of the Browns.

"But I know in Cleveland those fans, those guys, they're pumped up right now. They're pumped up like it's the Super Bowl or a playoff game."


Steel City Insider Top Stories