Sunday, September 25, 2011

'Tis better to be lucky . . .

Talk about your ugly wins. They don’t come much homelier than the Browns’ 17-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

This one came with blemishes plastered all over it. Not even Clearasil could erase them for the first 56 minutes and 37 seconds. But Colt McCoy, playing the part of Brian Sipe, could. And Mo Massaquoi, playing the part of Reggie Rucker, could.

The Browns, outplayed badly by the Dolphins in every phase of the game for the better part of the afternoon, somehow cobbled together one last-ditch drive and sent the visitors home on the wrong end of the score in a manner that usually bedevils the Browns.

Massaquoi’s leaping grab of a McCoy jump-ball pass in the end zone in the final minute of the game suggests that maybe it was the Browns’ turn to dance the dance of good fortune.

Ordinarily, there are victimized in the final moments of a game while desperately clinging to a slim lead. Usually, they fail to come up with the big play as they blow yet another lead.

This time, the Dolphins head back to Miami knowing exactly how the Browns and their fans have felt for the better part of the last dozen seasons. It’s an empty, uncomfortably dyspeptic feeling that tugs at your innards for a couple of days before disappearing.

Tomorrow, Browns fans will be able to empathize with Dolphins fans and send them a week’s supply of Pepto-Bismol while enjoying the victory.

The Dolphins, with any kind of a big play, would have won this game going away. Only their inability to make that play enabled the Browns to hang around long enough to have a chance.

A quick perusal of the final statistics points to a Miami victory. The Dolphins owned the ball nearly 38 of the 60 minutes. That’s 63% of the time. They ran 14 more plays than the Browns. You don’t lose many games with that kind of ball control.

The Miami offense outgained the Browns, 369-280. It ran for 138 yards while the defense limited the Browns to 70 yards on the ground.

Quarterback Chad Henne carved up the Cleveland secondary (15 of 19 in the first half), but put up just 10 points. His defense baffled and harassed McCoy for the first three quarters.

The Cleveland offense, clearly missing the power running of Peyton Hillis (out with a strep throat), didn’t help with a sputtering performance that produced just three successful conversions on third down. Only some solid red-zone defense saved the Browns from further damage.

The defense, on the field way too often, revealed a disappointing lack of tackling technique most of the afternoon. Miami running backs Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush gained far too many second- and third-effort yards, the direct result of too much arm tackling.

However, the mark of a good team is the ability to hang around long enough to have a chance to win the game. And that’s exactly what the Dolphins allowed the Browns to do. Perhaps that’s why they’re still winless.

But I’m not nearly ready to say the Browns are a good team yet, but the way this game was won sure won’t hurt team morale. They’re 2-1 and on top of the AFC North.

When Browns coach Pat Shurmur shook hands with Miami coach Tony Sparano at midfield after the game, their exchange was extremely brief.

It probably went something like this:

Shurmur: We were lucky today.

Sparano: Damn right you were.

The Browns lost the battles, but won the game. In the back of their minds, however, they must know they were very lucky.

Quick thoughts: Shurmur had to be heartened by the performance of running back Montario Hardesty, who ran 14 times for 67 yards in Hillis’ absence. More important, he caught a swing pass from McCoy on a fourth-and-4 at the Miami 37 and gained 10 yards with about 90 seconds left to sustain what turned out to be the winning drive. The best part is that Hardesty made some tough runs, several difficult change-of-direction moves and emerged uninjured. It looks as though he is 100% healthy and ready to contribute. . . . Punter Brad Maynard averaged 42.2 yards on five punts, but never placed one inside the Miami 20, even though the last three punts originated from his 41, 47 and 35. That has to improve. . . . It’s puzzling why Evan Moore is being used so little. He has the best hands of any receiver on the club and yet he was targeted only three times. One of those catches was an eight-yard grab on a third-and-5 at the Miami 22 just prior to the TD catch by Massaquoi. . . . The offensive line allowed no sacks of McCoy and has yielded just three in the first three games, but that’s somewhat misleading since McCoy was often forced to run for his life against the Dolphins. . . . The defense, meanwhile, racked up five more sacks and has rung up 11 this season. The line produced four of the five with Ahtyba Rubin and Jayme Mitchell splitting three and Phil Taylor with one. It would have been six except one was wiped out by a Jabaal Sheard roughing penalty. . . . Once again, penalties are on the rise – eight more for 85 yards. This has got to stop. . . . On several occasions, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron unveiled a zone blitz on Henne with Sheard dropping back in coverage. . . . Henne was held to just four of 10 passing in the second half for 33 yards. . . . For whatever reason, Henne went deep three times on the final drive, which started at the Cleveland 47. All he needed was 15-17 yards to get into field-goal territory and yet he threw three deep incompletions. . . . McCoy threw to five different receivers on the final drive.

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