Joe's Game Review: Browns 20, Falcons 9

Joe Brownlee takes an in-depth look at the Browns-Falcons pre-season contest, zeroing in per usual on the play of each unit. In-depth analysis of the game doesn't get a lot better than this!<BR><BR><I>Opinions expressed by fan commentators may not neccessarily reflect those of Bernie Kosar or the staff of BerniesInsiders.com.</I>

EDITORS NOTE: Joe's commentary was written several hours before the Browns announced their roster cuts yesterday.

Good day, Browns fans!

Exactly eight months to the day after defeating the Falcons to make the 2002 playoffs, the Birds returned to town. After a lackluster preseason, the Browns looked much better in all three phases of the game. The offense moved the ball quickly and easily, the defense looked as if it could actually stop an opponent, and the special teams had an excellent night. All that being said, the mood is anything but jubilant as left tackle Ross Verba was lost for the season.

With final cut downs here, let's examine what happened position by position.


Quarterback

Kelly Holcomb had a much better game than the pedestrian effort he turned in against the Lions. Holcomb did a good job on some play action fakes, and he got rid of the ball quickly, which was a necessity at times. As usual, Holcomb was aggressive and accurate on deep throws. Lost in the excitement of a flea-flicker on the first offensive play, Holcomb did a nice job pulling down a high pitch back from Green. Holcomb also made a very nice play throwing to Heiden down the middle under heavy pressure. When you complete four passes, but they go for 126 yards, you can't really complain about that kind of success.

More exciting that that, after a performance against the Lions that looked like he wanted to be anywhere but playing football, Tim Couch seized his chance and made the most of it. On his first possession, Couch was saddled by bad field position, and then a first down run play lost yards. This doomed this possession to a three-and-out. But after that, Couch got a chance. Pinned deep by a penalty on a kick return, the Browns started around their own 10. Couch made a nice deep throw to Andre Davis to dig out of the hole. Couch threw the ball with zip and accuracy and made three deep throws, not the least of which was an audible to Dennis Northcutt lined up on a rookie. Couch turned a third-and-forever play into a 56-yard touchdown. Couch finished 7 of 8 for 144 yards. This might have been his finest performance as a Brown. The only negative on the night was a lost fumble when Couch held on to the ball too long and was crushed. Perhaps now that the pressure is off, Couch can blossom into the player everyone hoped he would become.

Against Tennessee, Josh Booty looked sharp. He was injured against Green Bay and struggled against the Lions. Let's just say Booty has performed better than in this game. The best thing Booty did was to hook up with C.J. Jones four times. Booty was careless with the ball and not especially accurate. It is always tough to judge when the player is playing with the backups, but the final fourth down play at the end of the game was a bonehead play. Booty was trapped near the sideline and tried to fling the ball away, weakly tossing it into a crowd of Falcons. Butch Davis looked less than pleased and used it as a "teachable moment". A loud one. Booty ended competing 6 of 13 passes for 63 yards.


Running Backs

On paper, William Green's ten attempts for 20 yards doesn't look very good. But consider that three attempts came from inside the three-yard line, and that Green's best run of the night was wiped out by a penalty. Green had a nice six-yard run up the middle on a first and goal situation. Green looks ready to start the season.

Once again, James Jackson's numbers do not do his performance justice. He ended the night with ten carries for 28 yards. Jackson has shown some nice burst at times. He showed he still has a place on this team. Jamel White continues to recover from various injuries. He has had a rough preseason. He caught two passes, on for six yards and a busted screen pass that lost four. White looks rusty.

Kevin MacLeod may make the roster. He had a few nice blocks and did some good work on special teams. He caught one pass for three yards. The Browns would like to see the fullback be a credible threat as a receiver, and MacLeod drops far too many balls. He had a sad drop in this game. Billy Blanchard also had bad stats with 11 rushes for 18 yards, be he did have a very nice eight-yard run and he might have some potential. Perhaps Blanchard could end up on the practice squad.


Wide
Receivers

Each of the Four Deuces had at least one catch, with Dennis Northcutt getting two. Each of these guys had a reception of at least 32 yards. Not a bad evening at all. Kevin Johnson hauled in the flea flicker but didn't have enough to make it to the end zone. Still, I'll gladly take a 68-yard gain. The Browns did not get a touchdown on that possession, and KJ's false start on third-and-goal did not help matters. Northcutt had the 57-yard TD catch, and another critical third-down catch for a total of 62 yards. Quincy Morgan caught a 34-yard pass on what looked like a blown coverage. He also took a reverse a long way but gained just two yards. Andre Davis hauled in a 32-yard pass from Couch. He looked as if he was just step from breaking it over double coverage.

Among the reserves, Andre King had one good catch for 31 yards in a two-minute situation. King may breathe a sigh of relief because of the injury to Frisman Jackson after a rough preseason. But the star among the reserves was once again C.J. Jones. Jones led all receivers with four catches for 64 yards. He also had an end around play that lost four yards. With his special teams play and receiving ability, it is hard to believe that Jones will not make the team. I did not even see Marc Soumah in the game.


Tight Ends

It was interesting that Aaron Shea did not play. The Browns say it was to protect him from injury, but the offense looks better without him. Steve Heiden and Darnell Sanders were the first two tight ends. Heiden caught a key 19-yard pass and Sanders had three short catches for 18 yards. Both looked inconsistent blocking. At times, both did well. Other times, they were completely ineffective. Chad Mustard had one pass thrown at him, which he did not catch. He had his problems blocking as well. I can't see Mustard sticking with the team.

The Browns have been signing and releasing tight ends all week. You have to wonder if either they are looking for the ever-elusive H-Back, or if one of the guys on the roster is in trouble. Aaron Shea can do some things, but I'd far rather see one of the other tight ends on the field for blocking or one of the wide receivers. Shea's best option is as a receiver, but they rarely use him except for dump passes. Darnell Sanders has been mired at the bottom of the depth chart. Butch Davis prizes consistency, and Sanders has not been consistent. Mustard won't stick.


Offensive Line

Where do you even start here? Losing Verba hurts, but he did not have a great game. Watching the tape, Verba losing his man led to pressure on Holcomb. He was shaking his arm after the play in question and I suspect that might have been when he got hurt, not when he fell as some reports have claimed. Jeff Faine is what you expect from a rookie at this stage. He is learning. There are plays where he totally controlled his man, as in the Green touchdown run. But he blew an assignment on the play where Holcomb was sacked. The defender went untouched to the quarterback, but Faine was looking for someone to block. I think Faine is struggling more with the mental aspects of the game right now, but he is doing well physically. He is right on schedule. I was pleasantly surprised by Shaun O'Hara, who had by far his best game of the preseason. He did nice work on both run and pass plays. Barry Stokes also did well. The few plays where he moved to tackle, I thought he did nice work. Ryan Tucker has been solid all preseason, with just one offsides call. This was an area he struggle with last year.

The backup line is another matter. There is so little experience here, and pretty much every man was inconsistent. On running plays, these guys often ended up three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Paul Zukauskas got an early start on his evening when he came in after Verba went down. The Browns tried counter plays with Zukauskas pulling. Let's just say he won't strike fear into the heart of any opponent. He might be the best of the backups. Melvin Fowler really looks lost. I hate to say it, but this guy just looks like a bust at this point. He can't seem to hold a block to save his life. Qasim Mitchell looks great one play and terrible the next. There is potential here that is worth continuing to explore. The tackles did not show me much, either. I'd really like to see Joaquin Gonzalez make it in the NFL. Chad Beasley is a project.


Defensive Line

This was the best effort of the preseason. That being said, one has to wonder if playing against a Falcon offensive line that is not used to having to block so long made a big difference. If you've read these reviews throughout the preseason, there won't be any big surprises. Orpheus Roye continues to show effort and hustle. The Lions double-teamed him, which is the right move at present. Gerard Warren showed up in Detroit and again in this game, but he still has plays where he just looks like he gives up. Watch him. The guy rarely gets off a block. Kenard Lang had perhaps his poorest game of the preseason. He was almost completely ineffective. He looked at times like he was trying to run away from the play.

After watching the tape of the game, the guy that impressed me was Courtney Brown. I agree with something Bob Trumpy said on the television broadcast. You can tell that Brown isn't 100% on that knee and that he is learning to trust it. That being said, Brown had some excellent moments. On one play, he shrugged off a double team using his unbelievable arm span, made it to the quarterback and forced a bad throw. On another play, Brown missed a potential sack, but he blew up the play for a minimal gain. This is purely a gut feeling on my part, but Brown just looked like he was playing with more fire than I have seen at times. With the Falcons playing their starters the entire first half, all of Brown's time came against the first team. Brown played both sides, but seemed far more effective from the left side. That might have to do more with facing veteran Bob Whitfield on the right side.

You want a telling stat? If you can go by nfl.com for the official tackle numbers, among the starters, only Roye and Brown appear on the stat sheet, accounting for three tackles and one assist between them.

The backup defensive line did some good things. It is interesting that Mark Word finally got a good play on the quarterback with the backups. Still, Word was largely invisible. Tyrone Rogers and Felipe Claybrooks continue to fight for a backup end spot. Going from this preseason alone, Claybrooks gets the nod, but Rogers has made plays for the Browns over the last four years. This is a tough call. At tackle, Alvin McKinley continues to play well. Antonio Garay got playing time with the second unit over Cedric Scott. This is another close call, but I'd give Garay a slight edge. I also like Thomas Pittman. He moves very well for a big man. Unfortunately, I don't see him making the team. Perhaps he can go to the practice squad, though I am not sure of his eligibility.

As noted above, the defensive line is making far too few tackles. The backups accounted for just six tackles and no assists in nearly three quarters of play.


Linebackers

Andra Davis looked great once again. He had a fantastic tackle, though he missed the tackle on a play where he was in the hole. Ben Taylor had an active game and was in on five tackles in limited duty. It looked to me like Taylor was in better position to make plays. Barry Gardner started for Kevin Bentley and was never around a play. Of course, that is pretty much the same as Bentley had done this preseason. It was good to get Brant Boyer back. He is one of those guys it is easy to overlook, but when he was in the game, he made things happen. He had two tackles in very limited duty.

The backups were awful. They were out of position. They missed tackles. For example, Howard Clark had a good might on special teams, but on defense, he was terrible. He missed several tackles. Funny thing is, he led the stat sheet with six tackles, but I believe two of those were on special teams. Clark is undersized. I like his hustle and effort, and he might develop into a reasonable player given time. Mason Unck also gives a lot of effort, but he missed plays, too. Chaun Thompson got to play with the second unit and was decked by Alge Crumpler. It knocked Thompson cold, but he did come back into the game. The cocky Thomspon really blew it for this season by holding out.  If he wasn't a second round pick, I'd say he would not even make the roster. Some of the other guys have shown more. Sherrod Coates made one very nice tackle. Jeremy Loyd might have had his best game of the preseason, but it is probably too little, too late for him.

If you assume that Davis, Bentley, Taylor, Gardner, and Boyer all make the team, that leaves one or perhaps two spots for everyone else. Butch Davis has made some surprising cuts in the past, such as Tre Johnson and Ricky Dudley a year ago. I would not be surprised to see either Bentley or Gardner gone. I'd be very surprised if they released Thompson. If they keep him, that almost means there is no room for anyone else. Clark may have an edge over the other guys because of his special teams play. I personally like Unck. At least one of the backup players will make the practice squad.


Defensive
Backs

I was amazed at how much difference seemed to be made by the return of Robert Griffith.  They say he calls the defensive signals, and if true, it makes sense that a veteran presence could be huge there. But either way, the defense looked a lot more comfortable and seemed to have a better idea what was going on. Griffith made some hard hits, but his "body check" tackling doesn't always work. Wrap a guy up more, even if you do have a bad hand. Anthony Henry made a very nice pass breakup, and he had a nice attempt on a low pass that Finneran somehow managed to catch. Henry looked a lot more aggressive. I did not see much from Daylon McCutcheon or Earl Little in limited playing time.

Beyond the starters, it's hard to know what to make of things. Both Michael Lehan and Lewis Sanders were out for the game. They figure to be among the top four corners. That gave Leigh Bodden a lot of playing time. Everyone will remember him being burned by Peerless Price for the only Falcon touchdown, but that is an unbelievable mismatch, similar to the touchdown caught by Northcutt. Otherwise, Bodden did fairly well. He is learning. Kalvin Pearson started the preseason well, but he had his problems against both the Lions and Falcons. This is much like last season when he had a good preseason, made the roster, then was terrible and demoted to the practice squad. Chris Crocker saw a lot of playing time. He needs to look up once and awhile and he might come up with an interception. The Browns had numerous chances to intercept passes and did not get even one. Michael Jameson is still leaning, but he has had some good plays this preseason. Ricky Sharpe has not impressed me.

There will be some tough decisions here. Assuming Henry, McCutcheon, Sanders, and Lehan stick at corner, and Griffith, Little, Jameson, and Crocker at safety, that leaves probably one spot left or maybe two. I'd say the final spot comes down to Pearson and Bodden. Between the two, since Pearson was a star in NFL Europe, the Browns have a better chance of sneaking Bodden onto the practice squad. Sharpe has no chance.


Special Teams

Jay Taylor had a nice field goal, but he will be sitting by the phone come Sunday. If the Browns get an injury to either kicker, Taylor will get a call. Alvin McKinley blocked an extra point. This guy is quite a threat. The return game was quiet, but the coverage units did well. In particular, Dennis Northcutt knocked a ball back in from the end zone on a punt.


Coaching

Kudos to Bruce Arians for some good and aggressive play calling. You don't usually see that in the preseason.

I'm really glad I don't have to make the roster moves the Browns are going to have to make this weekend.

I hope the Browns can find a decent veteran tackle or guard on the waiver wire. For example, Corbin Lacina was recently released by the Patriots. Maybe he is out of gas, but he might be a better option than anyone we already have on the roster. I'm sure the front office will watch that closely.

Next Up

The Browns start the season against the Colts. Both the defense and the offensive line will have their hands full.

The season is short. Bark hard!

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