Monday leftovers (Saturday edition)
If you watched the Browns’ 24-3 victory over the Bengals very closely Thursday night in Cincinnati, you saw in many respects a microcosm of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
That Ravens team, which left Cleveland and relocated in Baltimore just four years previously, won the Super Bowl that season by developing and then sticking with a proven winning formula that ultimately landed the Vince Lombardi trophy.
They won games by playing stifling and opportunistic defense that placed a premium on turnovers, combined with an offense led by a solid running game and a quarterback who played mistake-free football. Their special teams also were very special.
With the exception of the special teams aspect of the game, the Browns used that formula to totally dominate the Bengals on national television. It was thorough, painless and a distinct pleasure to watch for Browns Nation.
The defense staggered the Cincinnati offense, creating four turnovers and making Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton look like a college freshman. The offense churned out 170 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, while quarterback Brian Hoyer played yet another mistake-free game
The 2000 Ravens featured running back Jamal Lewis, quarterback Trent Dilfer and a truculent defense led by future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Dilfer, who took over at quarterback in mid-season, was not spectacular. He didn’t have to be with a terrific running game.
All coach Brian Billick wanted the terribly inconsistent Dilfer to do was manage the game. Don’t worry about bombing the opposition. Take care of the ball. Do not turn it over. That’s exactly what he did all the way through the rout of the New York Giants in the 2001 Super Bowl.
And now with the Cleveland running game apparently back in early-season form following dismal performances against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, Hoyer once again can concentrate on playing the kind of football that best suits his talents.
The fact he has thrown only four interceptions in 275 attempts is solid evidence that he places a premium value on protecting the football. That’s one pick every 68.75 throws. He threw half of them in the Tampa Bay victory last Sunday.
To put that in perspective, Hoyer last season threw three interceptions in three games before tearing his ACL. Against the Bengals, he had what one would call an impressive game.
His numbers, 198 yards and no touchdowns, didn’t make anyone sit up, take notice and rave. Until, that is, you broke down their importance to the greater cause. He kept drives going with clutch plays.
Sometimes, gaudy quarterback numbers can be deceiving. So can more modest figures. That clearly was the case here. Taking care of the ball is just as important as compiling impressive numbers.
The Bengals victory was just one 60-minute exercise in the proper way to play and win a football game. But it at least proved the Browns have it in them to put forth such a total effort, considering they didn’t come even close to it in the first eight games of the season.
The offense, playing mostly in come-from-behind mode, carried the club in the first five games because the defense performed in sieve-like fashion. Opposing teams ran and passed with such efficiency, it sometimes looked as though the Cleveland defense wasn’t on the field.
In the last couple of games, actually more like the last six quarters, the Browns’ defense has shown definite signs of finally grasping the Mike Pettine system, something he talked about when he won the job as head coach.
And now that the offense has reemerged from its funk against three of the worst teams in the National Football League, all the right parts appear to be falling into the right places.
If nothing else, the manner in which the Browns attacked the Bengals on both sides of the ball proves an aggressive nature resides at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. The fact it revealed itself in what can arguably be called the most important game of the season to date harbors hope for the club’s first post-season action since 2002.
Please do not confuse this as suggesting these Browns are just like those Ravens. That would be absurd. Again, it was only one game. The Ravens did it all the way to the Super Bowl.
The immediate aspirations of these Browns are not as lofty as the Super Bowl. At least not realistically. Carving out a 6-3 record at this point of the season is lofty enough. But now that they know they can hang with the big boys, we are on the verge of finding out just how far they can take this journey.
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So what did go right with the running game against the Bengals? After averaging just 52 yards a game in the last three games and going up against a solid Cincinnati defensive line, how did the Browns gouge out 170 yards on the ground?
The offensive line fired out all evening. They beat the Bengals off the ball on just about every snap. No one had a bad game. Center Nick McDonald had a particularly solid game.
Manhandled by Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy the previous week in his debut as the Cleveland pivot, McDonald’s improvement was the main factor in the offensive line’s comeback.
He was solid on all his snaps and combined with guards John Greco and Joel Bitonio to provide adequate running lanes for running backs Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Of the 52 running plays, 39 were between the tackles.
McDonald was especially effective down near the Cincinnati goal line as the Browns scored on all three goal-to-go situations. On the first, Tate peeled off McDonald’s block on the first offensive series of the game to score from four yards out.
This is not to say there is not a falloff in the quality of play at center with All-Pro Alex Mack out for the season. There is because Mack is that good. But at least McDonald, in his first two games, has shown the falloff is not as dramatic as initially believed.
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Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill took the loss particularly hard. It played tricks with his thought process. In his mind, the Bengals lost the game rather than the Browns winning it. Being a gracious loser is not his forte.
“Those guys, they’re not so good,” he said following the game. “It was on us. We gave them the game. They didn’t go anything special. We just gave them the game. They just sat back with coverage the whole (game). We’ll play them again and see what happens.
“We were embarrassed. It’s pathetic. I had a fumble and you can’t do that. They didn’t do anything special. We just couldn’t get it done.” He’s right about two things. The Bengals were embarrassed. And it was pathetic. He just couldn’t bring himself to credit the Browns.
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To their credit, the Bengals did not blame the loss on injuries to five significant contributors. Missing were linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga, cornerback Leon Hall, running back Giovani Bernard and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Marshall Newhouse, Smith’s replacement, was eaten alive by Cleveland linebacker Paul Kruger.
The Browns also played without two of Hoyer’s favorite targets: Andrew Hawkins and Jordan Cameron. Not to mention Josh Gordon and Mack.
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Old friend Greg Little had a memorable night. The ex-Browns wide receiver, who bad-mouthed Pettine in the days leading up to the game, had an eight-yard reception in garbage time, dropped a pass and was flagged 15 yards for head-butting Cleveland cornerback K’Waun Williams following an incompletion. Earlier in the week, he said, “Hopefully, I make (the Browns) pay” for cutting him. He’s not good enough to do that. It’s only a matter of time before the Bengals find that out.
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Strong safety Donte Whitner, who has become the team’s emotional and spiritual leader, put it best after the game with regard to the difference between this team and those that preceded it: “We’re not the old Cleveland Browns,” he declared.
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The strong winds down in Cincinnati seemed to affect Dalton much more than Hoyer. Several of the Cincinnati quarterback’s sideline throws were high and landed out of bounds after being caught by gusts of that wind.
Because of the breeze and the reemergence of the running game, the Browns played it conservatively in the second half, although it owned just a 14-3 lead. Hoyer threw only seven passes in the final 30 minutes, but completed five for 79 yards.
The ground game was performing so well and the defense kept hammering away at the Cincinnati offense, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialed up runs on the last 11 plays from scrimmage.
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Notebook: Jim Nantz, who provided the play-by-play for the NFL Network, couldn’t resist complimenting his old buddy Mike Lombardi, the most hated man in Cleveland on two occasions, for bringing Hoyer to the Browns. He doesn’t understand why the former Browns general manager is so disliked. . . . Pettine modestly labeled the Cincinnati victory “a huge confidence boost.” . . . The Cleveland defense has turned the ball over to the offense on 12 occasions in the last four games. . . . Of the Bengals’ 14 drives, half lasted four plays or less with only three lasting longer than six plays. Included were five three-and-outs.