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Game Review: Browns Start Fast & Finish Strong in 26-24 Victory Over Saints

Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns are 1-1 and are starting to get noticed. Not many people, including Cleveland fans, gave the Browns a chance to win their home opener because a) it was the Saints, and b) we suck at home openers. This year's Browns pulled it off -- perhaps things really are starting to change?

New Orleans Saints vs. Cleveland Browns

1st 2nd 3rd 4th FINAL


  1. Awarding the Game Ball: TE Gary Barnidge - The Browns needed somebody to step up at tight end in the absence of TE Jordan Cameron, and Barnidge was ready to answer the bell. He caught 4 passes (for 41 yards), the most he's ever had in a single game in his NFL career. Even more impressive is that he got 13 yards on 3rd-and-12, 13 yards on 3rd-and-13, and 10 yards on 4th-and-6. All three of those conversions led to a touchdown and two field goals.

  2. Goat of the Game: LS Christian Yount - We're two games in and I've already seen a couple of high snaps from Yount. The high snap in this one nearly cost Cleveland the game. However, as I mentioned in the post-game thread, when you think about it, Yount's mistake might have actually helped Cleveland win (logic: if it's a tie game on our final drive, we don't go for it on fourth down, and then the Saints get the ball back with a chance to win it).

  3. Defense Starts Fast: The Browns were a different team defensively from the get-go. Last week, the Steelers beat them with a screen play. The Saints tried a screen pass to their running back on the first play, but ILB Karlos Dansby spotted it immediately and had great pursuit from the middle of the field to the sideline to stop the play.

    On 3rd-and-10, the Saints tried a quick screen to WR Brandin Cooks.

    As WR Marques Colston tried to throw a block on rookie CB Justin Gilbert, Gilbert dipped his shoulder and made the stop on Cooks for a gain of just one yard. Just like that, Gilbert logged his first notable play of the 2014 season.

  4. Hoyer Knows Where to Go: The intangibles for QB Brian Hoyer are so good, but now we need his accuracy to match that more often in order for him to take the next step forward as a quarterback.

    This is a 3rd-and-6 on the Browns' opening drive of the game. The blue line indicates where the first-down marker is. At the top of the screen, WR Miles Austin is running a pick play for WR Travis Benjamin at the bottom of the screen. In the slot to Hoyer's right is WR Andrew Hawkins, who is running an out route beyond the first down.

    Hoyer spots the open man right away, as he so often does, but the pass is well over Hawkins' head, forcing the Browns to punt.

  5. Kruger Finishes a Coverage Sack: Thanks to a good punt, the Saints start this drive backed up inside the ten yard line.

    On 1st-and-10, QB Drew Brees does a soft playaction fake to his running back. The Saints are basically only sending two receivers into the route -- a wide receiver at the top of the screen and TE Jimmy Graham int he slot. All of our cyan defenders are dropping back into coverage, and not a single one of them creep up with the playaction.

    The coverage is good, and at first, New Orleans has protection. Brees eyes his deep threat but sees he's not open. OLB Paul Kruger then beats his man once the tight end of his double team releases as a receiver, and he plants Brees at the one yard line.

    I posted the screenshot above for two reasons -- first, it's another beautiful shot of the stadium renovations. Second, the Saints made a lot of mistakes with timeouts here. Since they were already at the one yard line, they didn't need to take a timeout to avoid the play clock running out; a penalty would've only moved the ball back a few inches.

  6. Benjamin Not Quite There Yet: The Browns' defense held strong, forcing another three-and-out punt.

    After WR Travis Benjamin fields the punt, he starts going to his left. He dodges one diving defender, and it looks like a play where he can use his speed to make something happen if he follows the green arrow. The Browns have blockers ready to account for all of the Saints. Instead, Benjamin doubles back and goes to his right for just a two yard return. We haven't seen Benjamin get in a groove yet on punt returns...but all it takes is one. He'll get there.

  7. The Right Degree of Mobility: One of the things I've been waiting to see from QB Brian Hoyer is how well he can move up in the pocket to help his offensive line out after his ACL injury.

    The Browns are facing a 3rd-and-12 situation in the first quarter. The player to pay attention to here is RB Terrance West, who is lined up to Hoyer's right in the backfield.

    Pressure comes off of the right side, but since it's only a three-man rush, Hoyer steps up in the pocket and rolls out to buy himself some time. This draws the defender closest to West up, and then West makes a nice adjustment to his route to pick up 11 yards. The Browns went for it on 4th-and-1 and converted with a run by West.

  8. TD to Austin Set Up by Run Game: One play after the fourth-down conversion, Cleveland faced a 1st-and-goal from the 3 yard line.

    WR Andrew Hawkins is in the slot to QB Brian Hoyer's right, and WR Travis Benjamin is at the top of the screen doing a flag route. WR Miles Austin is at the bottom of the screen. Austin is going to be one-on-one with his defender because when Hoyer does the play fake to the running back, the three Saints defenders in the middle of the field all shoot up. That leaves the green area uncovered.

    Pitch and catch, easy touchdown. This season might be the most I have ever seen defenses respect our running game/playaction game, and it's doing wonders for the passing game in turn.

  9. Improved Against the Blitz: In Week 1, PFF said that QB Brian Hoyer was only 1-of-6 when he faced pressure against the Steelers. He was a lot better against the blitz in Week 2, and opponents may think twice before they bring the heat in future weeks.

    The Browns are going to streak three receivers upfield. TE Gary Barnidge lines up in the backfield to Hoyer's left. The Saints are going to bring everybody in the cyan circle on this 3rd-and-12 blitz. RB Isaiah Crowell is supposed to be giving a chip block.

    Hoyer has a good feel for when the pressure is coming and gets the ball out to Barnidge in time. Now, this is not a play that would go for a first down very often -- usually, a defender would still have time to shoot up and stop a guy like Barnidge shy of the marker. In this case, Hoyer really had no alternative, though, and it worked out for Cleveland and led to a field goal.

  10. Wilcox Rider, Wilcox Rider! We don't get to hear Browns quarterbacks scream out audibles "OMAHA style" very often, so when QB Brian Hoyer shouted, "Wilcox Rider, Wilcox Rider," to his unit before taking the snap, I knew something had to be up besides your average play.

    As it turns out, Hoyer must have seen something that he liked pre-snap that made him know he was committing to a bomb to WR Travis Benjamin. Only two receivers are going into the route here -- the green guys are the ones focused on Benjamin.

    Benjamin is just using pure speed here, but CB Patrick Robinson does a good job staying right with him.

    Robinson tries to deflect the pass, but he whiffs. The ball actually bounces off Benjamin's helmet for an incompletion. I don't know if I can complain about the accuracy from Hoyer too much -- he launched this ball 55 yards and pretty much hit Benjamin full stride as you see above. One of these weeks, Benjamin will get some more separation and this pair will connect.

  11. Pick Six for Gipson: The Browns have QB Drew Brees' number, don't they?

    With a 10-3 lead later in the second quarter, the Saints were trying to find a groove offensively by getting TE Jimmy Graham involved in the gameplan. Graham is lined up tight to Brees' left, and he'll be running a crosser to the right. FS Tashaun Gipson stays pretty much where he's at pre-snap, and ILB Karlos Dansby tries to drop back on Graham. The key to the play here is going to be OLB Paul Kruger, though, who hits Brees just as he throws.

    Kruger starts outside, but is going to throw Saints left tackle Terron Armstead aside and make his move to the inside.

    The move on Armstead was something that DBN's Tim Miller actually scouted prior to the game as a weakness of his, and Kruger was able to exploit it at the right time.

    Graham is going to be open, but you can see that Kruger is tackling Brees as he's trying to throw the ball here.

    The hit by Kruger is enough to make the throw just barely sail over the hands of Graham and right into the waiting hands of Gipson, who takes it to the house for a pick six and a 16-3 lead (this is when the extra point was botched).

  12. Brees Retaliates Against Haden: One thing is for certain -- QB Drew Brees did not give a damn about who was covering who pre-snap, and that meant that CB Joe Haden was targeted several times.

    Just before the two-minute warning, Haden is matched up with WR Kenny Stills at the top of the screen. Stills has the reputation of a deep threat receiver, so Haden has to respect that.

    Stills goes into a sprint, and this is where Brees is good -- the ball is already going to be out of his hand before the receiver even turns around, so Haden has no chance of stopping this play as it does for 14 yards and gets the Saints into Browns territory.

  13. Situational Football Gone Wrong: The Browns blew two opportunities to prevent a score before the half, or at the very least, hold New Orleans to a field goal.

    Here is the first mistake. Facing a 3rd-and-10, the Saints had no timeouts left. Brees hits WR Robert Meachem on a crossing route. SS Donte Whitner comes up and immediately delivers a hit on Meachem. Despite all of the green defenders pursuing him, Meachem spins off and muscles his way for a first down.

    If Whitner makes the stop, think about it -- it's a fourth down, and the clock continues to run. Brees can't spike it, and there probably isn't enough time to race the field goal unit onto the field. Odds are that Brees would've run a quick play to try to pick up a first down, but maybe he doesn't convert it. We missed that opportunity.

    Now with 0:08 left in the half, the Browns have CB Joe Haden lined up one-on-one with TE Jimmy Graham. The Browns waste two defenders trying to guard possible crossing routes by Graham, so Haden is on an island for this jump ball. Haden does a good job trying to knock the ball away, but Graham is too good.

    The blown opportunity here is that Haden could have just tackled Graham while the ball was in the air. By the time the pass would fall incomplete, there would be about 0:04 left on the clock. Yes, the ball would be at the 1 yard line for pass interference now, but you put New Orleans in a predicament: go for it, or take the chance to cut it to a 10-point game? Again, we missed that opportunity.

  14. Johnny Football's First NFL Pass: (Flashforward, where the Saints are now up 17-16). I couldn't let the first NFL pass by QB Johnny Manziel go by without a breakdown, right?

    WR Andrew Hawkins is at the top of the screen and WR Taylor Gabriel is at the bottom of the screen. FB Ray Agnew is going to dive low at a defender, and then quickly get up and run open into the flat (it very well may have been designed that way).

    A defender wraps around from OG John Greco's side and fills the void left by OG Joel Bitonio, who went to help double team a defender with C Alex Mack. That forces Manziel to roll out. The downfield receivers are covered pretty well, but Agnew has some room.

    When I saw this throw live on TV, I thought that Manziel floated the ball too much. After re-watching the play a few times, I no longer think that's the case. It was a good throw to Agnew, and I'd be nitpicking if I said he should've thrown it differently. I'd like Agnew to catch this one, but I do understand that fullbacks typically don't fare well at catching passes as a defender comes full force into them. I'll chalk it up as a good play by the defender. The Johnny package worked out great because it didn't cost us a win, but now we're forcing other teams to gameplan or think about it.

  15. Hoyer Keeps His Cool: The incompletion by QB Johnny Manziel meant that QB Brian Hoyer had to re-enter the game on a 3rd-and-12 after having sat out for two straight plays.

    Hoyer keeps his cool, and once again he goes to TE Gary Barnidge in a clutch situation. Barnidge is lined up tight to Hoyer's left and is going to do a button hook shy of the first down, but in the soft spot between the zone.

    Hoyer has it spotted right away, and after making the catch, Barnidge rumbles forward to just barely get the first down (personally, I thought he was a tad short, but the Saints didn't challenge it).

  16. Hawkins Can Always Get Open: I love WR Andrew Hawkins.

    Facing a 2nd-and-6 late in the third quarter, the Browns run a playaction to the left where their entire offensive line crashes that direction. On the backside of the play, Hawkins sells the fact that he's just standing there, and that gets his defender flat-footed.

    As soon as Hoyer bootlegs to throw, Hawkins has it timed up perfectly and darts out to the right. You can see his defender is just trying to get his feet started here while Hawkins is already getting his gears going. This goes for a ten-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, RB Terrance West made a nice cutback for a 9-yard touchdown run, giving the Browns a 23-17 lead.

  17. Dansby Finally Stops Brees: Flashfoward to late in the fourth quarter now, where QB Drew Brees has led three touchdown-scoring drives on the Saints' last three possessions. This drive started at the 10 yard line, and the Saints had already worked their way into field goal range.

    Facing a 3rd-and-5, could somebody step up on defense for the big stop? Yes! RB Pierre Thomas does into the flat for a route, and it's been suggested that perhaps he should have pass blocked (magenta). The two Browns defenders in green race over toward Thomas. ILB Karlos Dansby (cyan) blitzes up the middle. The Saints still have five blockers to the Browns' five rushers, but DL Armonty Bryant draws an immediate double team in the middle, and that allows Dansby to shoot in untouched.

    Dansby finishes the sack too! Because of how quick he got there, Brees' receivers aren't even looking for the ball yet, so the Pro Bowl quarterback has to eat it, and that forces a much-needed punt.

  18. Barnidge Comes Through on 4th Down: After picking up a couple of first downs, the Browns faced a gloomy situation: 4th-and-6 from our own 38 yard line with 0:38 left. I thought for sure that "this is where the magic ends" -- I've been conditioned that way, I suppose.

    Once again, it's going to be TE Gary Barnidge getting the ball, lined up tight to Hoyer's right. This is not going to be wide open, as the safety immediately creeps up on Barnidge.

    Even though it's not wide open, it's the only route that is somewhat open and beyond the first-down marker. Barnidge gains the advantage on his defender because he crossed in while the defender was running straight as if it would be a button hook.

    It's a clean pocket and a great throw, but with a defender draped on him, Barnidge still needs to hang on, and he does. New life!

  19. Coming Back for the Ball: On the next play, Hoyer didn't see anything open and then rolled out to his left.

    You could hear a collective gasp in the stadium, as fans saw all of the space in front of Hoyer. A run by Hoyer would be worthless. He'd have to run about 25-30 yards from where he's at to get into field goal range, and that would've taken a ton of time off the clock. Plus, he wouldn't make it to the 40 without getting clocked. Instead, he keeps his eyes darting back and forth between the tight end coming across the field, and WR Miles Austin on the sideline.

    Austin works back to the ball and makes a hell of a catch at the 39 yard line. The icing on the cake is that after review, it was determined that he got out of bounds, and the game clock was set at 0:15 instead of 0:07.

  20. Rob Ryan's Defensive Nightmare: After a quick incompletion, Rob Ryan's worst nightmare came true -- a defensive breakdown with the game on the line.

    Pre-snap, the Browns send WR Miles Austin in motion, and he's going to run a quick route to the flat. If you look at the two magenta defenders, the deeper one is yelling at the shallower one to move, because initially, he just stood there when Austin went in motion.

    The ball is snapped as the shallow magenta defender is running in to WR Taylor Gabriel, so he just grabs hold of him, drawing the flag. Meanwhile, amidst this confusion for the Saints, WR Andrew Hawkins is going upfield, uncovered.

    Some people are wondering why QB Brian Hoyer just fluttered the ball only. Here's my input why: from the screenshot above, it looks like Hoyer could just hit Hawkins in stride. That assumes he's running straight, though. What if the route was called to be a flag route? What if Hawkins changes his route because he's so open? What is he doesn't? GOD, WHAT DO I DO?

    After Hoyer has already released the ball, Hawkins turns and starts running the flag portion of the route. The throw is perfect for the situation of just needing to get into field goal range.

    Hawkins camps under it, says, "please don't drop it, please don't drop it," and secures the catch. We're almost there!

  21. Nearly Blocked It: I was so excited by the Browns' game-winning field goal that upon first glance, I never realized how close the Saints came to blocking it.

    In the screenshot above, the ball has already been snapped. Look at the perfect jump that the defender on the left got (compare his feet and yardage spots to the defender on the far right).

    The defender's outstretched arms are diving just as K Billy Cundiff is ready to kick the ball off the ground.

    The yellow line represents the top of the defender's hand, and the green line represents the bottom of the football. Whew.

  22. Final Assessment: Normally, I would complain about our defense giving up three straight touchdown-scoring drives, but this was against the Saints' offense. I can't say "we better have an answer for Jimmy Graham next time around," because we won't face him for another four years. Plus, our defense came up with opportunistic plays in the first half and then on the final defensive drive.

    Not counting his game against Buffalo, Hoyer has now led three game-winning or game-finishing drives in four contests. If you count the near comeback against the Steelers, that would be 4/4. Kyle Shanahan has totally redeemed himself after the disastrous first half against the Steelers in Week 1. Life is good.

  23. Special Teams Tackles: There were four special teams tackles, with two by CB K'Waun Williams and one each by S Jordan Poyer and S Johnson Bademosi. S Jordan Poyer was credited with a forced fumble on the final kickoff return by the Saints (as time expired), and WR Marlon Moore was credited with the fumble recovery. It's always nice to pad your stats like that, eh?

  24. Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, the Browns increased the reps for WR Andrew Hawkins, but gave all four receivers a fair amount of reps. On defense, DE Desmond Bryant returned, which shook up the distribution of snaps on the defensive line compared to Week 1.

  25. Brownies: The Browns were 7-of-16 (44%) on third downs, but the Saints were 7-of-13 (54%) on third downs. ... Cleveland was gashed in the running game, yielding 6.4 yards per carry. ... The Browns converted both of their fourth-down opportunities. ... WR Marlon Moore was the Browns' kickoff returner but only took one out for a 32 yard return. ... P Spencer Lanning got three of his five punts downed inside the 20 yard line. ... The Browns' two scoring drives in the second half were a 14-play, 85-yard drive (touchdown) and a 14-play, 80-yard drive (game-winning field goal). ... It was nice getting to hear Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnson, and Tony Siragusa call our game for once.

Up next, the Browns take on the Baltimore Ravens at home before heading onto the bye. Keep it tuned to Dawgs By Nature for our coverage leading up to the game!