WHAT BROWNS FANS LEARNED IN LAMBEAU
August 19, 2010 § 1 Comment
After the first preseason game there is much to look forward to as Cleveland Browns fans. The 27-24 victory was ultimately inconsequential, but good for morale. Like spending 2 dollars to win a 10 cent toy in one of those claw machines, the sense of accomplishment far outweighs what was won. The statistics were generally impressive, but, as those who have read my bit on stats know, they only tell some of the tale. For the full story we need a comparison, and that comes from last year’s embarrassing display in the 31-3 routing by the Packers. Then we can see what was good, and what question marks still loom. I think it goes without saying, but I will say it anyhow, this is not a dissertation on everything that happened in the game, rather a look at the projected starters and some of the more crucial aspects of position depth.
In week 7 of last season (2009), the Browns took on the Green Bay Packers. As a Brown’s fan myself, this was hands down the worst game of the season, and one that just made you feel dirty all over. It was an unbelievably feeble display of offensive ineptitude, and the overwhelming majority of it falls squarely on the shoulders of Derrick Anderson. Defensively it was not much better. In the end, the strengths of Green Bay matched up with the weaknesses of the Browns and there was no reason why they should not try to do the same thing.
Last year the Packers game plan was an obvious, they were determined to stop the run. The inexcusable part of this was inability to exploit the opportunities presented by their plans in an even moderately respectable fashion. Green Bay stacked the line with eight, or even nine, players in the box, leaving one-on-one coverage on the receivers, a favorable match up for the offense. Derrick Anderson, and his gross inaccuracy, takes much of the blame for the terrible game. Defensively last year, the Brown’s were forced to scheme for pass rush because they were unable to line up with players who could beat the blockers in one on one pure talent. Aaron Rodgers responded to this as well as any QB could be asked to, taking advantage of players pulled from coverage and extending plays with his feet to afford receivers time to get separation. In the end, the offense was impotent, and the defense gave up some big plays.
In this year’s contest Green Bay tried the exact same thing as last year against our offense. Both Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace responded well to the challenges posed by the Packers defense, a defense that ranked 1st against the run and 2nd overall last year. It was impressive the way they both kept poise and simply took what was given by the defense, a concern considering Delhomme’s interception laden 2009 campaign. Essentially, no one has grounds to say that the Browns have a dominant passing game, but we have seen the evidence that they are good enough to take advantage of favorable match ups. One part that was particularly impressive was the way the team responded to blitzes, Delhomme in particular, making the adjustments on the line, with the blocking schemes and hot routes and everyone on the same page, which has been a long time coming in Cleveland.
One blitz in particular that Green Bay ran very successfully last year was where they crash both “A gaps,” that is the spaces between the center and each offensive guards that flank him. What the defense is trying in these blitzes is duel fold; first it plugs two prime running lanes, as most running plays happen between the tackles, and has the secondary benefit of quarterback pressure, not allowing him to step up in the pocket, or flushing him out. It was one of the highlights for me to see the way the Browns picked up this blitz from a team that is one of the best at it, because it is so effective on run heavy teams, which I, and many others, expect the Browns to be. This also has much to do with Jake Delhomme’s mobility, or lack thereof, he will not be scrambling out to extend too many plays by outrunning defenders. The fact that they successfully picked up that blitz repeatedly was bigger than any preseason touchdown or even win. It is also worth noting that one of key guys in pulling it off was a rookie, Shawn Lauvao, a third round pick who is physically impressive, and this game made strides for my confidence in his technique and, consequently, overall ability.
Turning to the defense, which had an approach very similar to last year, The attempt was at manufacturing pass rush through schemes and blitzes, rather than the more straightforward lining up and let our guys beat yours, will be a recurring theme. There were many moveable parts to the linebackers which did some good and bad. That said, Aaron Rodger’s is one of the best in the face of pressure, and I believe better than every QB we will face this year except two (and they are back to back); when the Browns travel to the Big Easy and when New England comes to town. Still there was noticeable improvement in the secondary, as last year the Browns were scorched for several big plays that blew the game wide open, and Saturday Rodgers was, for all intents and purposes, relegated to check downs. The run defense was not tested often, but looked good when it was. This is with special regard to Ahtyba Rubin who forced a fumble on the first rushing attempt, on the first play of Green Bay’s first possession.
While there was much that looked good, there are still a few questions looming for the Browns. Putting my perennial “homer” mentality on the shelf for a moment, there are still aspects that need to be addressed. First offensively where Delhomme looked great on the opening series, but only one series begs the question of consistency. One can only assume that the coaching staff and organization thought it best to makes sure he ended on a high note, and going 6 for 7 on an 11 play drive that ended with a touchdown was about as good as one can ask. While we as fans could want to see more from him, we also know how fickle our fellow fans can be, and an interception from Delhomme, regardless of fault or even some random fluke, would have ignited controversy.
Outside of consistency, Delhomme’s briefness still merits a considerable amount of doubts to look at in the passing game. First, the type of passes, largely dictated by Green Bay’s blitz heavy style and space given to receivers so as not to give up the big play, made most (4) passes short stopping routes, with one deeper, and connected on the crucial 4th down quick slant. This begs the question of his ability to recognize passing lanes and deliver the ball, for teams that will not devote so many to blitz, and drop into zone coverage. Moreover, while I hope that he never faces a 3rd and long scenario that would make that soft zone more likely, I am sure that he will see it, and this game gave no indication as to how he will perform.
The questions in the passing game are not just limited to Delhomme, but extend to the receivers as well. Delhomme did not test Charles Woodson at all on the opening drive, and neither did Seneca Wallace (I kept an eye on him, as soon as he did not play the third series I stopped looking out for him), and an injured Al Harris, the other starter, was on the sidelines all game. This makes me question their ability to separate from an elite cornerback. I also noticed that there was a lack of extension to catch the ball by the receivers all around, but particularly Robiskie. There were a few plays where he had the ball and tackler arrive at the same time, if he were to catch the ball solely with his hands it might be jarred loose, but he would certainly have a higher chance of making the reception. This also goes into receivers helping the QB as well, if he catches the ball and drops it on the hit, the ball generally falls to the ground for an incompletion, but if he uses his pads as a backstop, the ball could bounce anywhere with the contact. Perhaps I am being critical of Brian Robiskie by singling him out, but after watching him at OSU, considering who is dad is, Terry Robiskie, and the projected starting role, I expect more.
As for the running game, there was not much that could be done among the starters. The way that the Packers positioned their defense, Cleveland had to throw the ball. It really was probably the best showing that the Browns could have had to help their running game. The running backs that I was disappointed in were Chris Jennings and James Davis, both coming into their second year. Davis received a lot of hype in last year’s preseason before going down for the year in week 1 versus the Vikings. Maybe it was an unrealistic expectation to assume he would step in not missing a beat from where he left off, but ultimately he has regressed a bit. He did look explosive in Berea, but that might speak more about the Browns team speed than Davis’ personal speed. Jennings on the other hand was serviceable last year spelling Harrison, so his bar was not set as high, but still hoped he would make more of a splash. Hillis, who came over in the Brady Quinn trade, flashed his receiving abilities that have earned him some praise recently. Ultimately, I am not one to judge running backs too much on their preseason performances as they are typically better off against fatigued defenses, and there are an abundance of fresh bodies in preseason games. Then there is Montario Hardesty, the rookie who did not even dress for the game. There is more concern for depth at the RB position on the Browns more so than other teams, as Hardesty and Harrison, the projected 1st and 2nd stringers, have had issues with injuries, and assumed run heavy style of play for the Browns this year.
The defense has its share of questions as well, and primarily in coverage. Haden got picked on early and often, but performed well considering the transition of a rookie, and that many of the passes were just perfectly executed by the Packers, despite good coverage. T.J. Ward looked like a beast in tackling, but, as many were concerned with, is lacking in coverage, mainly in awareness, not in ability. A few of the Packers bigger plays, including one touchdown where Ward was covering for a corner blitz from Haden, were on Ward. Then the 34 yard pass to Jennings where it looked like Sheldon Brown was squatting intentionally to try to jump a hot route for an interception, Jennings blew by him and Finley’s free release from a blitzing backer pulled Abe Elam back and he was wide open. That just looked like an unfortunate play call, a high risk high reward type that was exploited by Rodgers. All in all, considering Aaron Rodgers, a top five QB, throwing to Driver and Jennings, probably the best 1 & 2 WRs outside of New England, coverage on the outside was pretty good, especially when the top CB, Eric Wright, was out due to some hamstring tweak.
Coverage of “check downs,” on the other hand was bad. The biggest issue I see for the Browns’ defense this year, barring injuries, is covering the tight ends and running backs. Of the veritable stable of linebackers, there are two that I do not see as significant liabilities in coverage, Scott Fugita and Eric Barton. While Aaron Rodgers is great, there were some frightening plays to the TEs and RBs that were too open to be acceptable. The tight end position is exacerbated a bit with the amount of blitzers that were sent, leaving TEs to be covered by safeties giving a cushion by play design, Rodgers got the ball too the TEs quicker than most QBs in the league could, and Green Bay picked apart those little gaps. While they gave up a lot of completions this way, it was the play of Aaron Rodgers that made that statistic, and the upside was the lack of missed tackles in the secondary that could have gone for long plays. The receiving running back is also a key part of the equation as well. Typically this falls on veteran Eric Barton, he does a serviceable-to-good job in that responsibility, but a faster breed of back could cause nightmares. Also, in Green Bay, the biggest threat posed by receiving backs came on plays where they initially are blockers who break off the defender and get free in the flat. With the considerable lack of defensive team speed, this can be exceptionally dangerous. I do not claim to know what to do about it; I am just going to carefully watch what happens to see what Rob Ryan, Matt Eberflus, and Eric Mangini do to manage that risk.
In the end, the Browns were markedly better offensively compared to last year. They led several successful marches down the field with the majority of their starters versus Green Bay’s starters. Defensively they were better as well. Though it seemed Aaron Rodgers could move the ball at will, he earned it yard by yard, not simply capitalizing on Browns errors for huge plays. There was a lack of blown coverages and missed tackles that plagued the team in recent years, not to say there was not much to be improved upon, but it is certainly a good start. I am eager to see what happens next week when the Rams come to town. While it could be tempting to dismiss a game against last year’s worst team in the league, they are still NFL caliber players, and there starting units are better barometers than any teams own backups. Plus the way that that they play their players, their schemes and systems, are welcomed as much from a different approach, regardless of the talent of individual players.