Was it an ugly win? Sort of, but San Diego didn't outplay Cleveland, and that counts for something.
A 7-6 win doesn't sound like the most impressive feat in the world, does it? Off the top of my head, I'm pretty sure that the Browns are the only team in the league this year to have scored only seven points in a game, yet come away with a victory.
Was it an ugly win? Sort of, but when you watched the pace of the game, you never really got the sense that the Chargers were getting screwed out of a victory; they didn't outplay their competition. This was a game in which the weather dictated the gameplan for both teams. The rules of your typical chess match were modified, and Cleveland emerged victorious.
How did they do it? Let's take a look at some of the reasons why the Browns won despite only scoring a touchdown, improving to 2-6 on the season, starting with our game ball.
WEEK 8 - SAN DIEGO CHARGERS VS. CLEVELAND BROWNS (COMPLETE GAME REVIEW)
- Awarding the Game Ball: DE Juqua Parker - Some of you might be surprised to see Parker's name right here, but sometimes an individual effort on one specific play can change everything. During the Chargers' opening drive of the fourth quarter, a play that Parker was involved with gave me that feeling.
The first play of the fourth quarter was a punt by Reggie Hodges, which was downed beautifully by CB Johnson Bademosi at the 3 yard line. Only needing a field goal, this was the best-case scenario for the Browns' defense -- force the Chargers to work for it.
Unfortunately, San Diego dug out of the hole quickly and were starting to gain momentum by converting three consecutive third down. First, they converted a 3rd-and-1 with a one-yard run by Ryan Mathews in which the officials gave them a very generous-looking spot. Then, they converted a 3rd-and-2 with an eight-yard completion to Malcolm Floyd. Finally, they completed a 3rd-and-4 with a 10-yard completion to Floyd. On the next play, Mathews had an 6-yard run.
Things weren't looking good. The Chargers had just crossed midfield and were facing a 2nd-and-4 with just over nine minutes to play in the game. If San Diego kept moving the chains like they were, they could've kicked a field goal with about six minutes to go in the game, and Cleveland would've then been in the spotlight in need of a key drive. All Cleveland needed to stop San Diego's momentum on the drive was one big play. That's what Parker delivered on the next play.
At the last second, the Browns brought T.J. Ward up to the line of scrimmage to the point where they almost have nine people in the box to stop the run or short passing game. Let me explain what my colorful indicators are here, because Parker has help on this play too (he just finishes the job).
The yellow shows that LB Kaluka Maiava is going past the line of scrimmage to take on the fullback. Ryan Mathews is expected to take the cyan arrow straight through that hole. Unfortunately, he sees D'Qwell Jackson (in the red) filling this hole. Instead of taking a small loss or no gain, Mathews decides that he wants to try to bounce this to the outside. He must have been watching a bit too much of Trent Richardson, eh? This is indicated by the cyan dotted line. The guy in the blue circle is Parker, who is being blocked by the Chargers' best lineman, Jared Gaither.
Bang. When Mathews makes his move, he never anticipates Parker shedding his block so quickly. Not only does Parker slow Mathews down, he eats him up for a loss of five yards. If Parker doesn't make this play, Jackson was still in pursuit, as you can see in the photo. There's always the chance of a missed tackle, though, and Jackson may have only stopped Mathews for no gain anyway. The five yard loss was the critical factor, considering the weather. On 3rd-and-9, perhaps still stinging from letting Parker make the play, Gaither false starts. That made it 3rd-and-14. San Diego had no chance to convert and were forced to punt it back to Cleveland. Disaster averted.
- Goat of the Game: RB Montario Hardesty - I hate to name a goat in a win, but I'll go with Hardesty. His workload was reduced significantly this week, but he had a chance to show that he's a valuable asset if Trent Richardson needs a breather. That's the opportunity that Pat Shurmur gave Hardesty late in the fourth quarter. After the drive discussed above (where Parker made the big stop), Cleveland was marching down the field. I thought they were going to run out the clock completely at the rate they were going. In a span of five plays, Richardson caught a pass for 12 yards and had runs of 4, 13, and 4 yards.
The final run set Cleveland up past midfield, facing a 2nd-and-6. Richardson went to the sideline, presumably for a breather after getting popped by Atari Bigby. Insert Hardesty, who fumbled when Eric Weddle reached his hand in from the side. The ball bounced ahead of Hardesty, and by dumb luck, ricocheted back underneath Hardesty, who was on the ground. Cleveland didn't turn the ball over all game, and a substitute almost changed that in one play.
- Tipped Passes: Before Hardesty's fumble, Cleveland almost had another major blunder: a pick six, thanks to a tipped pass. Brandon Weeden is making much better decisions with the football, and the decision to throw to Alex Smith in the flat wasn't a poor one, given the conservative nature of the gameplan. A blitzing Melvin Ingram tipped the pass, and Atari Bigby dropped what could have been an easy pick six...if only he weren't a "DB."
In the screenshot above, Weeden just ran a playaction to Richardson. Because Richardson is selling the fake, he can't go back to block the freely blitzing Ingram, even though he tries to. Weeden's first read seems to be Alex Smith in the flat, and with Ingram in his face, Weeden decided to let loose. If Ingram doesn't tip the pass, this could pick up a few yards.
You can't see it because of the blurriness, but Ingram's tip changes the trajectory of the ball, turning it into a duck. The charging Bigby can't make the pick six, despite the ball being right in his breadbasket. Don't be fooled by Smith's proximity to the ball; he wasn't able to do anything to break this up, and Bigby would've had a clear path to the end zone. I'd be interested in hearing rufio's take on whether the protection from the offensive line and the read by Weeden was appropriate on a play like this.
- Stellar Day for Richardson: I commend Trent Richardson for his toughness. We've been told that he's still not 100 percent, but he went out their in pretty frigid conditions and posted career highs in carries (it was the first time he went over 20) and yards on the ground. He didn't shy away from contact and looked like a man on a mission. He still needs to work on not dancing around on some plays, but I'm more than willing to let him work through that as a rookie. He averaged over 5 yards per carry against one of the league's better run defenses, a week after he couldn't average more than 1 yard per carry against one of the league's worst run defenses. The NFL is a funny business sometimes.
- Debating the Timing of the Reverse: One of the most controversial playcalls by Pat Shurmur against the Chargers came on the final play of the first quarter. I will take a greater look at this play later on in my "plays to remember" feature, but for now, I'll talk about the negative impact it ended up having. The Browns were up 7-0, and after a fumble by Ryan Mathews, Cleveland took over in Charger territory. Their first play was a 6-yard gain by Richardson.
My first impression, pre-snap, was that I was surprised the Browns did not let the clock run down to the end of the first quarter. After the play was all complete, I admit that I was excited to see a play that involved trickery, just because I'm a sucker for trick plays. Looking back, though, the call completely went against the approach that we had the rest of the game. It involved three exchanges involving two receivers...in wet conditions. I'd venture to guess that the Browns haven't practiced many plays in the rain during practice, let alone a risky one such as this. For that reason, I'll say that I disagree with the call. Yes, it could have resulted in a big play, but given our field position at the time (and the fact that the offense already scored a touchdown), I would've maintained confidence in Richardson moving the chains.
- What Happened on Meachem's Drop? Since I plan on covering the reverse in detail later on, let me do a mini-analysis of what happened on the play where Robert Meachem dropped a probable touchdown in the third quarter.
I'm not sure how often the Browns have done this on defense, but they brought a corner blitz from both sides with Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown. That left T.J. Ward with the responsibility of Robert Meachem (in the red circles). The other circles indicate the responsibilities in coverage.
In the screenshot above, the corners are coming. The Chargers pick this up as well as you can ask for; Philip Rivers is never under duress. You can see Ward start running over to the left sideline. It's at this point that Ward is probably already screwed.
When Meachem makes his move to the post in the screenshot above, Ward can't change direction again. The corner blitz did nothing but leave Meachem wide open.
Thankfully, Meachem blew it. It almost looks like our safeties cringe at the sight of the drop, in disbelief that they were bailed out. Do you blame Ward for this play? I guess my answer would be that I don't blame him for giving up a big play (since the blitz didn't work), but I blame him for this potentially being a touchdown vs. just a big completion.
- Dropped Passes: I logged drops for Greg Little, Josh Gordon, Josh Cooper, and Chris Ogbonnaya. Should I give Cleveland's receivers a "pass" for "dropped passes?" I'll take the cop out answer and say, "yes and no." Clearly, the weather conditions had an impact on both teams, so I feel like looking the other way. On the other hand, this is the NFL, and I can't believe the ball was over-the-top slick. The killer for me was on Cooper's drop at the end of the third quarter. Pre-snap, Cooper was in motion so Weeden could see who was in man coverage on him.
In the screenshot above, the defender in man coverage on Cooper basically gets picked by another pair of players. Cooper has an easy route for a first down, as indicated by the arrow.
When I watched the game live, this was one of those rare plays where I saw it coming all the way and got excited because I just knew Cooper was going to be wide open. In the screenshot above, the ball is on Weeden, and I thought he caught it and was on his way up the field. I was stunned to see it pop out of his hands. There's a chance he could've taken this for some pretty good yardage after the catch, had he not dropped it. Instead, Weeden took a third down sack after a breakdown in protection, and the Browns punted.
- Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our Week 8 snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, RB Montario Hardesty's reps were way down, and Alex Smith made the start at fullback with Owen Marecic a healthy scratch. On defense, the Browns were able to finally operate from their regular 4-3 defense more than their nickel package, and all of the linebackers came through with a good amount of tackles.
- Special Teams Tackles: The Browns had five special teams tackles. CB Buster Skrine led the way with two tackles, and registering one tackle each were LB Kaluka Maiava, LB L.J. Fort, and LS Christian Yount. There were four assists, one each from WR Joshua Cribbs, CB Johnson Bademosi, CB Trevin Wade, and S Ray Ventrone.
- Brownies: I remained frustrated by the punting of Reggie Hodges, even with his one gem in the fourth quarter. ... TE Benjamin Watson almost had a touchdown in the first quarter, but was overthrown on a touch pass by Brandon Weeden. ... I think CB Sheldon Brown might have missed a tackle or two on edge runs by Ryan Mathews. ... I'd hate to think what I'd feel like today if Buster Skrine hadn't come up with a tip on Philip Rivers' final pass attempt. ... The protection held well for Weeden, all things considered. ... Even though it was only for six yards, I agreed with Pat Shurmur throwing the challenge flag (and winning) in the first half. ... I would've loved to see Phil Dawson boot a 50-yarder in that weather, but for once, we didn't need him to.
Up next, the Browns take on the Ravens for the second time this season. Let's see here...
-Facing a division opponent for the second time this season, and at home, with the services of Joe Haden this time around?
-Facing a team at home that is coming off the bye, and that had an embarrassing loss before the bye?
Where have I heard these storylines before? Oh yeah -- Cincinnati and San Diego. Both wins. Can Cleveland make it three home wins in a row this Sunday?