As I alluded to last week in my recap of the Browns 27-24 victory against the much more talented Green Bay Packers, there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in the NFL preseason. What you see during exhibition football is not always what you get when it really counts and game plans are more complex and specific. That’s why you can’t get too down on the Browns for coming up short against rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and the lowly St. Louis Rams Saturday night in a soggy Cleveland Browns Stadium. Now I’m not condoning a loss because we want W’s in Cleveland, but the final score of the second preseason game (which was 19-17, if you care) is pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
What you can take away from this meaningless game, though, or at least get an inkling of, is the toughness of certain players and the team as a whole. Particularly, you can begin to develop a sense of how individual players and the team responds when things aren’t going their way, and if guys are mentally and physically tough enough to overcome adversity and do their job at a competitive level.
For the most part, I was pretty satisfied with how the Browns battled back from early problems (and through the weather), and this is why I viewed my post game drink as being more full than empty following the loss to the Rams.
Things started out pretty ugly for Jake Delhomme and the Browns offense as they sputtered out of the gate on a sloppy, rainy night along the shores of Lake Erie. After a three and out opening drive that saw running back Jerome Harrison put the ball on the ground twice, Delhomme got in on the fumbling act by turning it over himself on the second play of the second drive, giving the rookie Bradford a short field en route to a field goal and a quick 10-0 deficit for the Browns.
Things didn’t get any better the third time out for Jake and the boys, either, as Delhomme missed badly on a throw to wide receiver Josh Cribbs and then got sacked thanks in large part to an “Oh, Billy!” pulled by right guard, Billy Yates, starting only because rookie Shawn Lauvao was out for personal reasons and veteran Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack is out for the entire preseason with a knee injury.
In stark contrast to the lightheaded optimism that pervaded the glorious, lone drive by Delhomme last week against a Packers defense that finished 2nd in total defense in 2009, things were looking pretty grim for Delhomme and the offense in the first quarter against a Rams defense that finished 29th in total defense last season, and I was starting to worry about Jake’s penchant for turnovers and his ability to handle the football in the frequently sloppy conditions of the AFC North. It’s not always sunny in the cities of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, in case you didn’t know. Quarterbacks have to be able to control the ball in these grimy conditions, and Jake appeared to be struggling a lot with this aspect of the position. I remember thinking, “Oh, sh*t!” after the first three sloppy series because I was expecting things to only get worse for Delhomme in this inclement weather.
But instead of compounding his mistakes like he did the past two seasons with the Carolina Panthers, he did the exact opposite and buckled down as he led the offense on a soothing 11 play, 77 yard touchdown drive that lasted nearly seven minutes.
On this drive, Delhomme made three very good plays that stand out and deserve praise. The first came on 1st and 10 from our own 36 yard line. On this play, Delhomme’s pre-snap read was man coverage, and he appeared to be leaning towards taking advantage of the single coverage WR Brian Robiskie was being defended with on the outside. But then he saw the Rams safety creep over, and knew his best bet was underneath and aborted his intial plan of throwing the ball downfield. He bought some time with his legs and let slot WR Chansi Stucky, who was dragging underneath, get open admist the chaos in the middle for a 30 yard catch and run. It was just a very smart and likable decision from a veteran QB looking to be an effective game manager and stabilizer that our offense so desperately needs.
The second highlight for Delhomme was his 4th and 3 conversion to Cribbs, who he hit on a simple quick out. It was nothing special, but it was a chain mover that led to a rejuvenated Delhomme’s third and final highlight of a very impressive drive, a 6 yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson. It was definitely a better catch by Watson than it was a throw by Delhomme, but it was a touchdown pass nonetheless, and beggars shouldn’t be choosers considering the fact that we had a total of 11 passing touchdowns all of last season between the dynamic duo of Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn.
Admittedly, Delhomme did little else his next two drives other than put the Browns in position to kick a field and cut the Rams lead to 3, but it was nice to see that Jake didn’t go in a shell after his poor start. He seemed to display some solid veteran leadership and mental toughness as he finished with a very impressive line of 12-16, 127 yards, 1 td, and a 118.5 QB rating.
As long as we’re able to establish an effective power running game, I’ll take the version of Delhomme we’ve seen up to this point through two preseason games any given Sunday.
In addition to our likable veteran QB, two other players on the Browns offense that exhibited some toughness were backs Peyton Hillis and Lawrence Vickers, albeit their toughness was of a different kind and more along the lines of a I’m gonna run your ass over! type mentality, which bodes well for the power running game we desperately need to offset our short, west coast style passing game.
Newcomer Hillis – acquired in the Brady Quinn trade with the Denver Broncos - ran extremely hard as he carried the ball 12 times for 51 yards, with a couple of his carries being hardnosed runs full of broken tackles that sent the Dawg Pound into a few drunken roars. Hillis also caught 2 passes for 12 yards, which speaks to the coveted versatilty he brings to the Browns backfield. In addition, he also seems to be part lunatic, which I also like.
Meanwhile, Vickers did what he always does from his fullback position, and that’s bust people’s asses. During the opening drive of the second half, Vickers had a stretch where he dominated his assignment on four straight running plays. The dude is just an absolute beast. He may not have a cool nickname like the Terminator or anything, but I think that he’s probably one of the top 2 pure full backs in the league today. So between him and Hillis, there’s a lot to like about the future of the Browns short yardage running game. These two are just violent.
As far as our defense went against the Rams, I’d say it was also pretty tough considering that the offense and special teams turned the ball over a couple times and gave them the luxuries of a short field. So there’s that, and also the fact that the Rams really don’t have any playmakers to speak of offensively outside of running back Steven Jackson. I mean, Sam Bradford is just screwed. End of story. This is really unfortunate because he truly does have the potential to be a very good QB if healthy and surrounded with some talent and protection. Even with a relatively soft schedule, I just don’t see him making it past their bye in Week 9. Sad.
Anyway, aside from the ideas that the Rams will be lucky to win 4 games and I feel bad for Sam Bradford, I thought our secondary was the toughest unit of our defense on Saturday. Specifically, I thought Eric Wright flexed his muscles the most and put to bed the silly idea that he was “challenging” for a starting spot. Not only did he provide very good coverage against the Rams collection of subpar WR’s and break up a couple of passes (in spite of a questionable pass interference call), but he was a beast in run support coming off the edge and finished with 5 tackles. I just loved the toughness I saw out of Wright, and I also loved how it seemed to elevate the play of the rest of our secondary. Sheldon Brown also recorded a nice pass break up and a violent collision, and both rookies T.J. Ward and Joe Haden also got in on the covering and hitting. In particular, I thought Haden seemed much more comfortable out there in his second preseason game and did a much better job of making plays on the football as he applied very tight coverage for most of the night and tallied two passes defended. Ward, on the other hand, continues to surprise me with his better than expected coverage skills, but I do wish that he could get his head turned around so he can make a play on the ball. Still, I’m excited that we have a potentially very physical secondary.
Outside of the secondary, I also liked what I saw out of defensive lineman Derreck Robinson, who recorded 2 tackles for losses and seems to do a pretty good against the run, and I continue to like what I see out of inside linebacker Chris Gocong, who continues to find the ball carrier and even batted a pass down and had a hit on the QB.
So, yes, the Browns lost to a team that in all likelihood is going to not be very competitive this season, but I still walked away from this game with positive vibes. Our guys showed some fight and toughness in them, and after watching LeBron James mail it in during the NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics, that’s really all you can ask for from the professional athletes you root for. So let’s hope that mental and physical toughness can carry over into the regular season, because it can go a long way towards some victories.
Topics: Ben Watson, Billy Yates, Brady Quinn, Brian Robiskie, Chansi Stuckey, Chris Gocong, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Derek Anderson, Derreck Robinson, Eric Wright, Green Bay Packers, Jake Delhomme, Joe Haden, Joshua Cribbs, Lawrence Vickers, LeBron James, Peyton Hillis, Shawn Lauvao, Sheldon Brown, St. Louis Rams, T.J. Ward