Some are calling this a statement game. Some are calling it a coming of age game. Whatever you call it, the Browns overcame a 21-6 deficit to defeat a solid Seattle team in overtime. I'm going to break with my usual format and point out a couple of things about the game before I spend some time on what I think this win means.
The biggest stat on offense is this: 48 pass attempts, no sacks. This is against an aggressive, blitzing defense, and with starter Seth McKinney missing half the game. This offensive line makes the team go. The only problems were a lone holding penalty on backup Lennie Friedman and a tough day in the running game. Still, the line play was at a level we have not seen in Cleveland in a long time. Sure the skill guys are doing some great things, but without the line play, those things don't happen.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks were determined to take away Braylon Edwards after his big game in St. Louis, but Kellen Winslow stepped to the fore and had a career game. His effort reminded me of the famous Miami-San Diego playoff game where his father battled injuries and exhaustion throughout the game, but kept coming back. Joe Jurevicius once again came up big, especially on the all-important two-point conversion.
The running game didn't do a lot, though it's hard to complain about four short rushing touchdowns. Jamal Lewis gave great effort, but he was a bit slow hitting the hole. As evidence of this, note that Jason Wright's two rushing attempts went for 21 yards while Lewis had 37 on 20 carries. The touchdown runs skew that average downward, though. This was not a huge problem as things turned out, but I wonder if more touches by Wright or even Jerome Harrison, who did not get any plays, might have opened things up more.
On defense, there were some encouraging signs. The Browns actually did a good job against the run really for the first time all year. One of the keys to that, in my view, was the fact that Orpheus Roye actually had a decent game. Once again, if he can play at a credible level down the stretch, it will really help the problems up front. Robaire Smith is giving it his all, and I think Shaun Smith continues to improve. I hate to say it, but I though Simon Fraser was completely ineffective, and Ethan Kelley wasn't much better.
Another big improvement was that the Browns, and in particular the linebackers, were getting off blocks and flowing to the play. That has not happened often this year. Kamerion Wimbley in particular was making some plays in the running game. This is an important step for the defense and needs to continue.
The secondary largely got toasted. Eric Wright did knock down some passes and of course, Sean Jones had the big fourth down stop in overtime, but receivers ran free all game long, even with playing eight and even nine in coverage. I think the problems are more schematic than physical. In other words, the Browns are once again playing a sort of prevent mode on defense that gives a lot of cushion to receivers.
The special teams had a rough day. A missed extra point, allowing a punt return for a touchdown when the runner was trapped deep, short kickoffs, penalties, it all adds up. Yet, Josh Cribbs had solid returns, especially his final punt return. Phil Dawson kicked the game winner cleanly. Dave Zastudil kicked well.
Finally, there was some great coaching in this game: Romeo Crennel's decision to go on fourth down without any hesitation. Tremendous play calling, particularly in overtime. Not abandoning the run after the team fell behind early. But my most vivid takeaway from this game will be Crennel barking at Lawrence Vickers after bobbling a swing pass in overtime, then later hugging him. I'm sure that conversation was something like, "Son, I love you, but you have to catch that ball!" We are seeing that his handling of the players with a patient hand is starting to pay dividends. Yet, his emotions in the last two games have also played a large role in the success the team is enjoying.
As I said last week, as you win, the games keep getting bigger. This week's game is the biggest regular season contest the Browns have faced since The Return, with the possible exception of the 2002 Atlanta game. When you consider the implications for the 2007 season, it is big enough, but overcoming the mental block the Browns have against this team after losing 14 of the last 15 meetings is huge.
Can the Browns win? I think they can. They proved the can beat the blitz against the Seahawks. I don't think the Steelers will go with a blitz-happy game plan, though. I expect them to try to play more of a coverage game. They will try to take away Edwards and Winslow and make the Browns beat them with their other skill players. The Browns will have to establish a credible running attack. That may mean a mixture of Lewis and the scat backs. It also means that players like Joe Jurevicus, Steve Heiden, and even the forgotten Tim Carter will have to make some plays to open things up. I think the Browns may have some wrinkles in store with Josh Cribbs, too. I don't see this as a big stretch. I think the Browns can make a go of it against a very tough Pittsburgh defense.
I think the bigger problem is on defense for the Browns. In their losses, particularly in the Denver game, we saw that consistent pressure up front can get the Steelers off track. I'm not just talking about the pass rush, but holding ground at the point of attack and stopping the run also factors in. These are not things the Browns do well. To have any chance at this, the Browns would have to scheme away from the prevent types of strategies we've seen so far. For example, might the Browns consider playing more looks with five and six men on the line? The Browns would have to use extra linebackers to accomplish that. For example, perhaps a 3-5-3 alignment might be utilized. Perhaps another forgotten man, Chaun Thompson, could play a role in this.
At many times in the past, special teams have hurt the Steelers. Special teams could be a big factor for either or both teams in this game.
Winning this game gives the Browns a realistic chance to win the AFC North. The Steelers still have to face the Patriots and Jaguars. The Browns don't have another team with an above .500 record on their schedule. But, this is not a must win for the Browns. Lose the game, and you must go the wild card route to make it, but with a favorable schedule, that is still possible. In many ways, the pressure is on the Steelers here.
The Browns sit at 5-3. If they merely split their remaining games, that's a 9-7 finish. As I look at what lies ahead, 10 wins is not out of the question. Much of that will depend on the next two weeks at Pittsburgh then at Baltimore. The Browns really only need to split those games to make a playoff run. Winning both would give them a very good chance at the division. The message the Browns want to send now is that they are not a fluke. The best way to do that is to beat the teams in their own division first. Cincinnati has had it already. The Ravens are a team that seems on the edge of imploding, and they face back-to-back games against New England and Indianapolis, not to mention another game against the Steelers.
While the Browns have a lot of upside, losing this Sunday is not the end of the world, especially if they play well. But if the Browns want to be taken seriously in the AFC race, winning a game like this one would show the football world just how far they have come since the opening day debacle. Funny how that seems like years ago. It would mean that the Browns are more than a team that has beaten up on teams like Miami and St. Louis. It would be a true measure of their progress. It would mean that they are learning to win against tough opponents. It would mean they are a team that cannot be shrugged off any more.
By around 4:30 Sunday, we'll see just who the 2007 Cleveland Browns are.
The season is short. Bark hard!