Kenyon Coleman, Robaire Smith, Eric Barton
Another Sunday down, another painful and frustrating loss for the Browns.
Cleveland lost another heart-breaker, once again playing winning football in the first half and then unraveling on the b-side. While the game was really closer than the 20-10 final score would indicate, the Browns once again squandered an early lead and the Cleveland faithful went home disappointed.
But despite the multiple mangled quarterbacks, a gimpy and for the first time this season, largely ineffective Peyton Hillis, and the worst game of Joe Thomas' career, the Browns still finished Sunday's contest with something to be proud of: their solid and much improved efforts on defense.
There were still some hiccups and their performance was far from perfect, but the Browns' defense turned in a commendable effort on the whole.
Following are ten observations on the performance of the Browns' D in Sunday's loss to the Falcons.
Prior to Sunday, the Browns defense has struggled mightily over the last few games. Opponents' passing games have flattened them. Receivers have soundly beaten their cornerbacks over and over again. They have failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks almost entirely, and have made it way too easy for opponents to convert on third down, especially in crucial situations where the opponent has field position inside the red zone.
This Sunday was different in a very, very good way. The defense ceded just one touchdown and two field goals for 13 points. They had Atlanta 0-for-3 in the red zone, giving up only those two field goals inside the 20.
Unfortunately, they got burned on two big plays (Matt Ryan's 45-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White and Michael Turner's 55-yard run). Combined with the horrific problems the Browns suffered on the offensive side of the ball, those two big plays were enough to sink the team.
For weeks, we've all been complaining about the Browns complete failure to generate any sort of effective, consistent pass rush.
It seems they finally figured it out this week, holding Matt Ryan to just 173 passing yards and one touchdown.
While they were unable to force Ryan to make a huge mistake and yield a turnover, their efforts did force Ryan to scramble out of the pocket, and resulted in a 16-for-28 completion rate for the Atlanta quarterback. The Browns managed to sack Ryan twice, and clearly were able to pressure effectively enough to throw him off his game.
Still, there is room for improvement. Ryan still had too much time to throw on multiple occasions, one of which was the play where he connected with Roddy White for a 45-yard touchdown pass that may have been the beginning of the end for the Browns in this contest.
The Browns and Coach Ryan should undoubtedly be commended for their improved pass rush, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
As mentioned earlier, the Browns did a stellar job of preventing the Falcons from moving the ball in the red zone. Atlanta's offense was 0-for-3 on converting in the red zone and was held to just two field goals after moving the ball inside the 20.
Kudos to Eric Barton for his amazing third down stop, one of three great plays by the Browns in the red zone where they were able to stop the Falcons once at the six yard line and twice at the twelve.
This is an area where the Browns have struggled in the past. This week, they were virtually flawless here. Had the Browns defense not done such an excellent job in the red zone, the score in this game would have been much uglier.
For the most part, the secondary's handling of the opponent's passing game was outstanding this week. The difference between their coverage of the Falcons offense this week and the way they struggled with the Baltimore offense just two weeks ago was huge.
Their coverage in the end zone was most impressive - Ryan was not able to find anyone open there over the course of the game. At all.
Their only major mistake was on the play that resulted in the touchdown catch by Roddy White, who beat Sheldon Brown in single coverage for the catch and the score. To be fair though, Brown had been removed from the field just two plays prior to that after injuring his shoulder on a tackle of tight end Tony Gonzalez.
In recent years the Browns have had a terrible time trying to stop the run. This season that hasn't been much of a problem, and instead it's been the opponent's passing game that has given them fits.
Unfortunately this week the Browns defense regressed a bit in it's ability to handle the Falcons' rushers. Michael Turner posted 140 yards and was the first running back to rush for over 100 yards against the Browns this season.
Turner also had that huge 55-yard run that was one of the two disastrous plays for the Browns' defense that wound up being instrumental in their destruction.
This is not to say that the defense was awful this week against the run, just that they appear to have taken a step backward in this area.
Additionally, their performance looks worse when compared to that of the Falcons' rushing defense. The Falcons held the Browns to just 48 rushing yards, whereas the Browns ceded more than three times that many (165 yards total).
The biggest problem with the fact that the Falcons were able to shut down the Browns running game? We've got virtually nothing to fall back on failing that.
A lot of the reason the Browns' offense was ineffective this week had nothing to do with the Falcons' defense directly. Hillis fell far short of his usual totals because he was banged up in practice earlier in the week, and much of the problem with the passing game largely resulted from ankle injuries suffered by both Wallace and Delhomme.
However, you have to give credit to Atlanta defensive end John Abraham, who was absolutely fantastic on Sunday.
Abraham essentially had Joe Thomas for lunch. I've never seen Thomas play so terribly. Abraham had his number, and boy, did he take advantage of that. He got Thomas for two sacks, one of which resulted in the hit that took Seneca Wallace out of the game. He was also the player whose pressure forced Jake Delhomme's second interception and all but assured the Falcons a victory.
Abraham would say after the game that he had noted a weakness against the inside rush and the bull rush by the Browns O-line and used that to his advantage (though it should be noted that it was actually an outside rush that took Wallace out of the game).
A frustrated and slightly embarrassed Thomas gave credit where it was due after the game and implied that Abraham was maybe the second best pass rusher in the game after Dwight Freeney. I don't think the Browns' quarterbacks would argue that.
Combine a pass rush that effective with the fact that the Falcons were able to almost completely shut down the Browns' running game, and there was just nothing left for the Cleveland offense to work with.
The biggest criticism of the Browns coaching staff was on the other side of the ball this week: why didn't anyone challenge Biermann's interception? The Browns said they were confident the call was correct, but it seems like it would have been worth a timeout under the circumstances to be sure of that.
On the defensive side of the ball: Props to Rob Ryan for making the necessary adjustments in his defense to avoid the same pitfalls that befell the Browns D over the past few weeks.
I still saw too much man coverage in situations where the cornerback was over matched. What was Ryan thinking sending an injured Sheldon Brown into single coverage against Roddy White? Predictably, White ended up in the end zone. The team just doesn't use enough nickel or dime coverage in situations where it seems clear that they lose in a one-on-one match-up.
Overall though, Ryan did use his secondary much more efficiently and accurately than he had prior to this game this season, and he also finally put together an effective pressure package that allowed the pass rush to succeed significantly where it had failed so miserably in recent games.
Give Ryan some serious credit - his defense did its job. Their efforts should have been enough for a win.
Big ups to Scott Fujita, who forced a fumble again this week, just as he did last week against Cincinnati. He stripped Matt Ryan on third down in Atlanta's first series of the second half (Kenyon Coleman would recover the ball), and thus put the Browns on the 24 with the ball and a very short field for their offense.
In addition to forcing the fumble, Fujita logged four tackles and a sack on the day, and played an instrumental part in the success of the pass rush on countless other plays.
Other game balls this week should go to Barton for his key stop on third down of Jason Snelling for no gain on third and 1, and to TJ Ward, who blocked Matt Bryant's third field goal attempt.
Credit should also be given to Ahtyba Rubin, who had six tackles, and Marcus Benard who had a sack and was another integral part of the success of the pass rush this week.
While we saw a lot of improvement this week, there are still a few areas in which the Browns need to continue their efforts to get better going forward:
1. Stop trying to go with single coverage in match-ups where the defender is likely to be beat.
This was a problem in Baltimore for Eric Wright, a problem for anyone who got stuck covering T.O. in Cincinnati, and a problem for Sheldon Brown while covering Roddy White this week. This shouldn't be this difficult to fix. If the cornerback is overmatched, go to double coverage. Rob Ryan appears to realize this only about 50% of the time.
2. The Browns have to figure out how to stop both the pass and the run on any given Sunday.
There's always a piece that isn't working. Either the opponent's passing game is flattening the Browns' defense, as was the case in Baltimore (to name just one example), or the opponent's ground game is pounding the Browns' defense, as was a big problem this week.
On a team with a stronger offense that puts up more points consistently each week, a defense can afford to be a bit lacking against either the pass or the run. But for a team which doesn't typically post high scores like the Browns, dependence on the defense is significant enough that it must be able to stop both the pass and the run consistently.
All of the Browns' losses this year have been tough to take. They've been in every game. They haven't been blown out once. They've taken a lead into the second half only to watch it melt away at the end four times now. Yet this week's loss to the Falcons may have been the most difficult one to swallow so far.
The Browns were coming off a huge win and had momentum and confidence on their side. They were facing a team against whom they matched up well. They adjusted and improved in many areas where they needed to do so, and looked as though they might be well on their way to a win in the first half of the game.
Like most folks, I believe that if Wallace hadn't been hurt, the Browns would have rolled to a win. There's just nothing more frustrating than playing a pretty good game only to find yourself taken down by bad luck. Okay, okay, bad luck and Jake Delhomme's apparent lack of understanding that you're supposed to throw the ball to people on YOUR team, not the other team.
This was a tough loss for the Browns and their fans, and is particularly deflating going into Pittsburgh next week, where the Browns need all the momentum and confidence going in that they can get.
It's tough to be happy about any element of this game since the final result was so frustrating, but we should all try to take some solace in the improvements we saw this week.