After Saturday night’s escape with a 17-16 victory in Denver that had Browns Nation munching on nails in the final moments, one Gregg Williams characteristic stands out.
We all knew the Browns’ interim head coach used an aggressive approach on defense to build his reputation and résumé as a coordinator to the point where he is recognized as one of the best in the National Football League.
He has maintained that aggression as a head coach and has his club believing that anything is possible. After winning four of the last five games, the team is improbably and somewhat miraculously still alive in the playoff chase.
Don’t for one minute think Williams will not use the positive effect he has had on this team since taking over for Hue Jackson at midseason when he enters his name in the sweepstakes to find Jackson’s permanent successor once the season ends.
General Manager John Dorsey and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who will eventually make that important decision, have to be impressed. Right now, the Browns are playing some of the best football the Haslams have seen since becoming the club’s owners.
And if the Browns win out the next two Sundays against Cincinnati at home and at Baltimore (it feels strange writing that so late in the season), Williams can build a powerful argument for dropping the interim tag from his current title.
His decision to eschew a short field goal with less than two minutes left in regulation that would have forced the Broncos to score a touchdown to win created many nervous souls in Browns Nation.
Didn’t bother Williams, whose faith in his defense was the motivating factor to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Denver 10. The gamble failed when Nick Chubb was dropped for a three-yard loss.
His explanation to go for it was so Williamsian. “We came here to win the ball game,” he said after the game. “I don’t think anyone was ever worried about me not being aggressive. We came here to win it.
“Offensively, we were going to win it right there. If not, we’re going to come back and do it defensively.” The thought of not succeeding one way or the other never entered his mind.
It sure resonated with the players.
“It speaks to the volume of trust that our coach has to say we’re going for it on fourth-and-one,” said cornerback T, J. Carrie, who had one of the club’s two interceptions. “We’re up by one, knowing we’re going to have to play defense to win this game and his trust and belief in us if we don’t get it, our defense is going to win the game for us.”
What I liked about it was Williams’ refusal to play the dreaded prevent defense. The Browns attacked the quarterback as though it was the first quarter, Coaches too many times get burned by utilizing the conservative prevent because all it prevents is winning.
And that they did when strong safety Jabrill Peppers, who had the other club theft, barreled into Denver quarterback Case Keenum on a delayed blitz on a fourth-and-10 at midfield.
Echoed defensive end Myles Garrett, “He has complete confidence in us whether it’s on offense or defense, that we’re going to make the plays we’re supposed to make. He knew if (the offense) didn’t make it, we’d get the stop and we proved him right.”
Williams is piling up a lot of points, the good kind, with the players with his aggressive approach on both sides of the football. Winning four of the last five games can have that kind of an effect on a team.
The fans have to like what Williams has brought to the locker room. Winning, something that has been foreign to this fan base for the last 19 seasons, can have that kind of an effect on the most loyal and ardent fan base in the NFL.
Positive outcomes the next two Sundays could make Dorsey’s selection of the next head coach much more difficult than he initially thought. It would be hard to not take into consideration what Williams has done in the last six games.
He has done something numerous other Browns head coaches have failed to do since 1999. He has changed the culture for the better. That can’t be ignored.
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Williams has turned Peppers lose this season to do what the Browns thought he would do when they drafted him last season. He spent most of his rookie season in another Zip code while playing free safety, often playing as many as 40 yards off the football.
That Peppers was rarely seen near the line of scrimmage in an effort to prevent large chunks of yardage by bomb-throwing quarterbacks. That changed when the Browns traded for Damarious Randall and plugged him at free safety, freeing up Peppers to move to strong safety,
Randall, a natural free safety, had been switched to cornerback in Green Bay and fell into disfavor. He has flourished with the Browns, leading the club in interceptions with four and solo tackles with 68.
Peppers has become an intimidating force the last few games, often swelling the population in the box to eight men in an effort to take away the run. As a result his tackling has improved dramatically.
It shows in the stats, Last season, he was in on only 57 tackles (44 solo); this season, he checks in with 68 tackles (47 solo) with two games left.
The ex-Michigan star is performing with much more confidence now that he is able to stick his nose in the action, Williams sending him on occasional blitzes. It paid off with the game on the line in the final stages of the Broncos victory.
He wound up with six solo tackles, the sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. Wonder how long it will take offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to realize Peppers was a pretty good runner and decent receiver with the Wolverines.
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There is nothing like dumb penalties that will tick off coaches quicker than just about anything. The Browns committed a pair against the Broncos, both on offense, both in the third quarter that had to bother Williams.
Rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway made a tough 12-yard catch on third down midway through the Browns’ long drive that opened up the second half and showboated, dropping the football next to Denver cornerback Bradley Roby after the catch and signaling, almost defiantly, first down.
The closest official correctly threw his flag for taunting. So instead of first and 10 at the Denver 37, the dead-ball penalty moved the ball back to the Cleveland 48. The 15-play, 43-yard, nine-minute possession ended with a Baker Mayfield fumble.
Then Breshad Perriman, while blocking on a Nick Chubb run on the next possession, was engaged with ex-Brown Jamar Taylor, who wrestled the Cleveland receiver to the ground.
Taylor’s action drew a flag, which Perriman had to see. He nevertheless pushed back against Taylor and was flagged for unnecessary roughness. So instead of having the football at the Cleveland 36, the offset kept the ball at the 18.
Dumb, dumber, dumbest.
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While offensive left tackle Greg Robinson has done a decent job protecting Mayfield’s blind side, he picked up yet another holding penalty. He seems to get flagged at the most inappropriate times.
His latest hold nullified a 35-yard scamper by Chubb late in the third quarter on the first play of the club’s second second-half possession. It would have advanced the ball to the Broncos’ 40-yard line.
Chubb reeled off a 40-yarder on the club’s final possession of the game, courtesy of a Robinson block. The rookie running back was cat-quick through a tiny crease between Robinson’s outside shoulder and the defender he was blocking. He was through it before the Broncos could react.
The second-round draft choice now has booked 860 yards on the ground in a little over half the season. He needs just 140 more to become the first Cleveland running back since 2010, when Peyton Hillis ran for 1,177 yards, to top the 1,000 yards.
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One aspect of his defense has to concern Williams. The tackling against the Broncos was well below average at best. When you see a lot of arm tackle attempts, that usually means players are not in the best position to make a play.
The Cleveland defense is just fragile enough to the point where missed tackles can make a big difference in time of possession. Shoddy tackling will keep a defense on the field longer. For example, the Broncos controlled the football for nearly 34 minutes.
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Finally . . . A correction. The Broncos sacked Mayfield twice Saturday night, not once as it appeared in the gamer. That’s still not bad against one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league. Rookie Bradley Chubb was shut out, while Von Miller collected one. . . . The Cleveland defense registered seven hits on Keenum, while the Cleveland offensive line surrendered only three hits on Mayfield. . . . The Broncos averaged only 3.9 yards a play. . . . Keenum completed 31 passes for only 238 yards. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 28 yards; four receptions, 25 yards. Eight touches, 53 yards, 6.6 yards a touch. For the season: 34 carries, 168 yards; 40 receptions, 372 yards. Total touches, 74 for 540 yards, an average of 7.3 yards a touch.