1) The conventional wisdom for the Browns is that Phil Taylor’s return has made all the difference in the improved run defense. And there’s no doubt that Taylor has helped since he returned from a torn pectoral muscle. The Browns gave up 63 and 49 yards rushing to Dallas and Pittsburgh. But sometimes impressions overcome facts. So let’s check the facts, because it’s not Taylor who has made the difference. It’s a combination of things — as the statistics show when considering the number of plays certain guys are on the field.
2) Of prime importance to the Browns is that Ahtyba Rubin is healthy and past the calf injury that sidelined him for the better part of four games earlier this season. Against Dallas Rubin was on the field for 74 plays, which is 82 percent of the team’s total (74 of 90). Against Pittsburgh, Rubin was on the field for 52 of 63 plays (83 percent). The only guys who were on the field a higher percentage of plays were linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, safety T.J. Ward, cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden and defensive Jabaal Sheard. It’s really remarkable that a defensive tackle would be on the field for that high a percentage of plays, and it shows the Browns trust in Rubin to play the run and the pass.
3) The easy impression with the other tackle is that it’s Taylor getting the bulk of the plays. He’s not. In fact, he’s not getting as many as Billy Winn. Against Dallas, Winn (a rookie) had 49 plays to Taylor’s 39. Against Pittsburgh, Winn had 30 plays to Taylor’s 27. The Browns defense had 90 total plays in Dallas, 63 against Pittsburgh, so clearly the two are in a rotation of sorts. When these plays happen is important because Winn plays in the Browns nickel defense. He started the Steelers game, not Taylor, because the Steelers opened with three receivers. These days, though, nickel guys have to play the run because teams like to run off the spread formation. So Winn having more plays than Taylor is not insignificant. The Browns like having Taylor back, but they clearly are not giving up on Winn. The argument could be made that they like Winn as much as Taylor, that he is more like Rubin in that he is more active and able to move around, and play the run and pass.
4) Conclusion: Taylor’s return has helped. But Rubin’s helped more. And the reason having both back is a good thing is that it allows the Browns to use the defensive line rotation they envisioned when the season started. Rolling three or four tackles keeps all fresh. Having the three guys helps Sheard, whom the Browns obviously trust. But it’s not simply Taylor’s return that matters, it’s the fact that Rubin is healthy and Taylor’s return allows the Browns to keep all their linemen involved and fresh.
5) Coming later this week, Mike Holmgren continues his farewell to Cleveland with a Thursday tour of the lower level of the Detroit-Superior Bridge. During the tour, Holmgren will talk about how streetcars used to run on that level, and how much he came to love the bridge in his time in Cleveland.
6) Hard to say what Charlie Batch was looking at on the deep pass to Mike Wallace that Haden intercepted. The Browns lined up with virtually eight guys in the box, a single safety and corners manned up on outside receivers. The look showed blitz, which in my feeble mind leaves the middle of the field open. Prior to that play, Batch had just hit tight end Heath Miller a couple times for good gains. Miller would seem to be an option again, especially with the middle of the field wide open. But Batch thought Wallace could beat Haden deep on man coverage, so he threw it there. Problem is he doesn’t have the arm for that throw, so Haden intercepted. I guess we do know where he was looking, just kind of odd he took that shot instead of looking over the middle for what could have been a good gain. And … if I’m Pittsburgh, I’d be clearly ticked at the way Mike Wallace is playing. He allegedly returned from a contract squabble late in training camp, but it sure didn’t look like he’s back. In fact, it looked like he was still holding out. Wallace twice neglected to go up for deep balls that wound up intercepted or incomplete. Had he made any kind of effort, he might have made the catch, broken up the pass or gotten a penalty on the Browns. Wallace looks disinterested, and lazy, and it’s not helping the offense with Antonio Brown out. If it’s caused by the old money issue, well that does not speak well for Wallace, who is being paid $2.74 million. Real shame for Pittsburgh, eh?
7) On Friday, the Mike Holmgren Farewell Press Conference Tour continues, as Holmgren says goodbye while strolling the former site of Euclid Beach Amusement Park. “I wish I could have ridden the flying turns while I was in Cleveland,” Holmgren said. Driven, of course, by LIberty Ford.
8) Joe Banner had his first unplanned news conference Monday to discuss the Holmgren Departure Parade, and it was pretty refreshing. Ask a question, get a reasoned, to-the-point answer. No bologna, no frills, no beating around the bush. Just an answer. Example: Banner said he was the guy who made the final call to junk the white-flag-with-the-Browns-logo promotion last Sunday. His thinking? “Sometimes you don’t really worry about, even though it’s tempting, how you got to a position or whether it’s fair you’re in the position or whether someone’s interpretation of something is what you think it should be,” he said. “You just have to deal with the realities of the situation. The last thing we want to do is have somebody or people even think that we’re sending any kind of a message like that (surrender). I don’t think there’s any way anybody watching this team or meeting people that work here for a second could think there’s anybody surrendering now or ever will. But rather than try to win that argument or prove that point, it just made sense to not go ahead with that plan.” Got it. Then came his followup saying he would not hold someone accountable for something that a few months ago was designed to be fun. “I don’t think it’s fair,” he said, “to kind of call those people out. You could argue that was a Browns logo on a white background. You could argue it was a flag of surrender. You could make a bunch of points. I don’t really think it’s fair for somebody many months ago who was sitting trying to come up with an idea that our fans would enjoy to kind of put them on the spot or call them out like that. In the end we decided the right thing to do was not proceed with the plan.” Now … if we could just nail down his position on the playoff tickets.
9) After an 0-5 start the Browns have won three-of-six. Going .500 should never be cause for celebration, but with the Browns wins have been so few and far between going .500 in a six-game stretch is cause for smiles. They haven’t exactly been knock-your-socks-off wins, but they count just the same. Looking ahead, the Browns have two very tough games: At Pittsburgh (presumably with Ben Roethlisbeger) in the season finale and at Denver. But they also have this Sunday’s game in Oakland, and home games against Kansas City and Washington. The schedule set up just like it looked like it would when the season started — tough early, then easier late. It’s not unreasonable to think the Browns could win three of the last five, which would give them a 6-10 record. Which, if it happens, would be a bad overall record, but would not be all that embarrassing after an embarrassing 0-5 start.
10) In 2009, Holmgren came in as president after Eric Mangini got off to a 1-11 start. Mangini started the final four games by beating Pittsburgh, then won the next three to finish 5-11. Incredible as it sounds now, Mangini actually saved his job with that four-game winning streak. This season Pat Shurmur started 2-8 and beat the Steelers. With three “winnable” games left, will history repeat itself. with another coach saving his job with a late-season run? And if it does, how will Browns fans react?