They won! They won! The Browns won!
We’re all so excited, but let’s take a look at where the team improved from Week 1:
As bad as the Browns defense was against Pittsburgh in the first half last week, that’s how good they were against the Saints in the first half this week. The Browns elected to begin the game with their defense on the field, and it was definitely the right call. The defense was more than ready to go. The first defensive series set the tone for the entire first half, starting with a huge tackle by veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby. The Saints would quickly go three-and-out. Then, the second defensive series started with Kruger introducing Drew Brees to the turf and another huge tackle by Dansby. And the Saints would again go three-and-out. It continued like this for much of the first half–just absolute dominance by the Browns defense. And I could revel in every beautiful tackle, every perfectly batted down ball, and every monster hit on Brees from that first half all over again… but I won’t. I’ll just say this:
Karlos Dansby is a beast! If any Cleveland fans were still questioning whether the Browns made the right move replacing D’Qwell Jackson with Dansby, they aren’t anymore. And listen, all you sentimental folks, I get it. I loved D’Qwell too. He was a great guy and a spectacular leader in the locker room. But, from what I’ve heard, Karlos Dansby is all that AND he’s a beast on the field. He finished the game with a team-high 12 tackles and a huge sack on 3rd down with 3:36 remaining in the 4th quarter that gave the Browns offense the ball back for their game-winning drive. BEAST!
But Dansby wasn’t the only defensive player who had a spectacular game. So did Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard. And so did Tashaun Gipson, who capped off his performance this week with a huge interception that he returned 62 yards for a touchdown. It was the seventh pick and second defensive touchdown of Gipson’s 3-year career. Wow! So listen… I’m going to take the time right now to mention that the Browns picked up the safety Gipson as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Because I think this kid is a sleeper for a ProBowl nod this year. And I just want to put that out there now.
And the rest of the secondary played well too! And one of them in particular really needed to… That’s right, I’m talking about you, Rookie. Justin Gilbert wasn’t perfect, but he improved by leaps and bounds over last week’s atrocious performance in Pittsburgh. All week it was reported that his veteran teammates were showing him “tough love.” I don’t know what that entails–I don’t even know if I want to know (swirlies anyone?)–but it worked. The rookie corner looked vastly improved, both in coverage and while tackling. He even came close to having his first NFL interception. I hope he maintains that positive momentum going into next week against the Ravens.
But the defense can’t take all of the credit for the Browns win on Sunday. The offense played well too.
Let’s start where the Browns offense looked the best… and that’s running the ball. With Ben Tate still out with a knee sprain, the rushing duties fell squarely on the backs (the “Baby Backs,” that is) of the two rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. And they both rose to the challenge. Crowell rushed for 54 yards, and West racked up 90 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown. West is currently tied with Le’Veon Bell for the fourth most rushing yards in the NFL (only DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, and Alfred Morris have more). Crowell is currently tied with Percy Harvin at 32nd. The running back tandem of Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack is legendary in Cleveland. Could we witness the emergence of a similarly dominant duo this season? And what happens when Tate returns? Do they become the Three Musketeers? Who knows?!?! But I can’t wait to find out!
And now, I have to ask for forgiveness (sorta). Because I harp a lot of the importance of the offensive line and said repeatedly throughout the preseason that I thought the right side of the Browns’ line was abysmal. And I was wrong (sorta). I still do not think that they provide sufficient pass coverage for Brian Hoyer. (Although Hoyer was only sacked once by the Saints defense this week.) BUT… their run blocking has been absolutely phenomenal, and they deserve a lot of credit for that. Right guard John Greco has grown into (or, rather, slimmed down into) one of the best run blockers in the entire NFL. So, it’s impossible to give so much credit to the running backs in this offense without throwing some love to the O-line as well. Nice job boys!
And while I’m handing out the love to the Browns offense, I should probably throw some to Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. I’m going to be honest here… I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with glee when the Browns grabbed Shanahan from Washington’s obliterated coaching staff after last season. I had a lot of questions: Could he hack it by himself or would he always live in the shadow of his father, Denver coaching legend Mike Shanahan? Did he have a similarly divisive personality? Was he part of the reason RGIII was in constant danger of injury in Washington? Could he game plan effectively for a much less mobile quarterback? But I have to admit… I’m coming around quickly. So far, my favorite quality is Shanahan’s flexibility. He seems to have a knack for adjustments based on different personnel packages (especially at quarterback) and always-changing opposing defenses, doing an especially impressive job adjusting to Pittsburgh’s defense at halftime in Week 1.
And, finally, I’m going to throw a bunch of love at Brian Hoyer. Because he deserves it. On the last drive of the game, when the Browns were down 24-23, Hoyer took the ball on the Browns 4-yard line and drove it 85 yards up the field so Billy Cundiff could kick the game-winning field goal. The fact that the odds were against him didn’t matter. He looked poised and confident in the pocket. The fact that his starting wide receiver, tight end, and running back were all unavailable didn’t matter. He completed crucial passes to Miles Austin, Taylor Gabriel, Gary Barnidge, and Andrew Hawkins. He did what needed to be done using whatever resources were available. He led the team. He led them right to a win.