Sunday, November 02, 2008

Run Over

If the Cleveland Browns season is lost, fans and players alike can look back at Sunday’s 37-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens as the reason why. Needing a victory to both pull even with the Ravens in the AFC North and to even their divisional record, the Browns instead couldn’t solve a pair of rookies and one savvy veteran. Now, instead of evening their record, the Browns find themselves firmly locked in third place in their division and again wondering why and where things went wrong.

The rookies, running back Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco, were primarily responsible for sending the Browns to another home loss. But without several key third down catches by receiver Derrick Mason, the Ravens might instead be the ones questioning themselves.

That Rice, Flacco and Mason were the primary reasons the Browns lost Sunday is beyond question. But a huge momentum killer could be placed once again in the stone hands of receiver Braylon Edwards, except he’d probably drop that, too. Edwards, with a step on a Ravens’ defender, dropped a critical and perfectly thrown pass at the Ravens’ 25-yard line early in the fourth quarter with the game tied that quarterback Derek Anderson launched from inside his own 20-yard line. It was the last time the Browns came close to scoring in a game that until then had as many lead changes as this year’s various presidential polls.

The Browns did have two opportunities late to get in position to either tie or win the game. But their first attempt was a harmless three-and-out and the second ended with Anderson’s first interception in four games, a rather unfortunate softball to linebacker Terrell Suggs that he ran back for a touchdown for the final margin of the game.

When the Browns look back at this game, they’ll wonder how it got away from them so quickly. The inability to contain either Rice or Mason will figure prominently, as will the Edwards drop. But a defense that had bent all season finally broke at all the wrong times and allowed the Ravens to run up 30 points on them. What was most disappointing about that is that the Browns had a 14-point second half lead that evaporated under an onslaught, yes onslaught, of 24 unanswered Ravens’ points. Offensively, the Ravens aren’t exactly Texas Tech.

The game wasn’t necessarily without a handful of Browns’ highlights. It’s just that there weren’t nearly enough. Indeed, all looked well when the Browns went into the half tied. But then again, the Browns led 10-7 at the half when the teams met earlier this season and we all know how that one turned out. It was foreshadowing.

A Josh Cribbs 92-yard kickoff return after Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco hit Mason on a 47-yard touchdown pass obscured a mostly dominating Ravens’ defensive performance in the game’s first half. The Browns were limited to two Phil Dawson field goals, one from 23 yards after the Browns’ best drive of the half stalled at the Ravens 7-yard line, and another from 54 yards late in the second quarter.

That second Dawson field goal actually seemed to give the Browns a lift heading into the half. After the Ravens answered Dawson’s first field goal with a 32-yarder of their own by Matt Stover, there was only 29 seconds remaining in the half. Seemingly ready to take that lead into the locker room and assuming Cleveland wouldn’t risk a turnover so late in the half, the Ravens relaxed enough on defense to allow Anderson and the Browns to move quickly into Ravens’ territory. With three seconds left in the half, Dawson then hit the 54-yard field goal, with plenty of room to spare, to knot the score once again, this time at 13-13.

For what seemed to be the first time in way too long, the Browns finally came out of the half as if they really had made adjustments. They seemed to have the Ravens on their heels, both offensively and defensively. After a quick Ravens’ three-and-out to start the second half, Cribbs took a line drive Sam Koch punt back 32 yards, to the Ravens’ 28-yard line. Anderson pump faked on the first play and found Edwards in the right corner of the end zone. Cornerback Frank Walker nearly had the interception but Edwards wrestled it away and held on for the 28-yard grab, helping give Cleveland the quick 20-13 lead with the half barely two minutes old.

On the Browns’ next drive, the middle of the field was wide open for Anderson as he first hit Edwards for a 18-yard play and followed that with a 12-yard pass to Winslow that got the ball to the Ravens’ 15-yard line. Though not a great red zone team all season this time the Browns were able to solve those woes. A 7-yard run by Lewis set up an Anderson to Jason Wright 7-yard touchdown pass that replays showed may have been a bit of a gift. That pushed the score to 27-13. It seemed like a rout might be on.

The Ravens, meanwhile, still seemed stuck somewhere between their locker room and the tunnel leading onto the field, with two quick three-and-outs to start the second half. And just when the Browns seemed poised to take away the Ravens’ sea legs for good, Flacco found Mason on 3rd and 16 with a 20-yard pass to keep the drive alive. Just as a similar Mason catch had done earlier in the game, this catch by Mason seemed to ignite the rest of the team. The Ravens then went into a no-huddle offense that had the Browns struggling to make substitutions on defense. Rice peeled off an 11-yard run, then fullback Le’Ron McClain added another 8 yards. Mason helped keep it going with another key catch and then Rice took over, first with an 8-yard run and then an 18-yard run that initially was signaled a touchdown before it was overruled by the sideline judge. Two plays later though McCain barreled in from the 1-yard line and the Ravens were within a touchdown.

It was the momentum shift the Ravens needed. The Ravens’ defense held the Browns to another quick three-and-out and then returner Yamon Figurs took a Dave Zastudil punt 23 yards back to the Browns’ 42-yard line. Flacco hit Clayton for 14 yards and two plays later found Mason with a pass at the 20-yard line. After the catch Mason made a nice inside move on cornerback Eric Wright and then waltzed the rest of the way into the end zone. A game that the Browns were well in control of was suddenly tied at 27.

With the Browns now reeling, they had the chance to turn it back around on their next series, but the Edwards drop ruined that party and the Browns were forced to punt, again. It was either Edwards’ 11th or 12th dropped pass of the season, depending on who’s counting. Either way, he still leads the league in that dubious category. Rich Gannon, doing the commentary for CBS, suggested that the Browns get vision therapy for Edwards. Hire that man.

Still, the game was tied even if the Browns’ body language suggested otherwise. After holding the Ravens on their next series, the Browns got the ball back but deep in their own territory. An interference call on Winslow, which was actually a smart play in order to avoid an interception, pushed the ball back even further. After Zastudil’s punt put the Ravens at their own 37-yard line, Rice galloped 60-yards down to the Cleveland 3-yard line. But the Browns’ defense stiffened, forcing a 22-yard Matt Stover field goal.

The Browns still had two shots to either tie or win the game. They could have had 41 shots and by that point the result would have been the same. The game was effectively over. The Suggs interception was just some unneeded icing.

Though it arguably didn’t figure into the final outcome, Stover’s first field goal, a 41-yarder that came on the Ravens’ first possession of the game, bears some mention somewhere in the chronicling of this game. A promising Ravens’ drive had stalled at the Cleveland 23-yard line. On third and 11, the Ravens were caught holding. Inexplicably Crennel declined a penalty that would have put the Ravens into a 3rd and 21 from the Cleveland 33-yard line and a potential 51-yard attempt for Stover which seems beyond Stover’s range at this point in his career.

Indeed this was underscored a short time later when the Ravens, facing fourth down from the Cleveland 34-yard line elected to punt instead of attempting the long field goal. But then again, what would a Browns game be without a questionable call by Crennel?

The Browns aren’t necessarily finished for the season, but they aren’t exactly in the catbird seat either. With the erratic play of this team serving as its calling card, there’s every indication that the rest of the season will be a similar ride.

Anderson perfectly captured the vibe. He wasn’t exactly terrible in the game just erratic. At times he looked like the Anderson of last season, or at least early last season. At other times, he looked like the Anderson that most fans now see in their nightmares. In all, he completed 17 of 33 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw the rather unfortunate interception to Suggs that sealed the Ravens’ win and was booed mightily for it. His counterpart, Flacco, was far better. He was 17-29 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t intercepted.

The Ravens’ defense, which hasn’t let an opposing running back rush for over 100 yards in a game, left with that sting in tact. Lewis had 19 carries for 49 yards. Rice, on the other hand, was busy impersonating the Lewis that used to carry the ball for the Ravens against the Browns. He had one big carry after another to keep drives alive. He finished with 21 carries and 154 yards.

The Ravens now appear to have the team that the Browns’ coaches envisioned for themselves. They have a quarterback who can consistently manage a game, even if he is a rookie. They have a running attack that can actually shred a team that is otherwise built to stop the run. They have a lockdown defense that for every body blow it takes it delivers two in return. It’s why, ultimately, the Ravens have the Pittsburgh Steelers in their sights and the Browns don’t.

It’s a short work week for the Browns and then back at it on Thursday night against a Denver Broncos team with a shaky defense. If the Browns’ offense can’t find a way to solve them, then at 3-6 all that’s left is a run toward a low first round draft pick. Like Sunday’s game against the Ravens, it certainly didn’t seem like that would be the case when it all started.

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