Any Given Sunday: Browns Over Saints

Any Given Sunday: Browns Over Saints
Any Given Sunday: Browns Over Saints
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

New Orleans enacted a bold offseason plan as they realized the Drew Brees window would not stay open forever: they decided to build a defense that would allow the Saints to go for it. That meant trying to emulate the Seattle combination of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor by giving Jairus Byrd a six-year, $56 million contract. Paired with Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints would have one of the best safety tandems in the league. And to make sure New Orleans had the cornerback depth next to Keenan Lewis, they brought on the ageless Champ Bailey on a small deal.

Two weeks in, Brees has lived up to his part of the bargain. But Rob Ryan's Saints are toting the 31st-ranked DVOA defense after two games. As our highest-ranked 0-2 team -- 20th when Total DVOA is published later today -- there is still plenty of hope for New Orleans. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are a fine one-two pass-rushing combo, though it'd be nice if the Saints had seen more solid performances from their depth.

Instead, the problem has been in the secondary. Namely, with the youth in the secondary. It turned out that Champ Bailey was not ageless. When the Saints released him before the season, it left old friend of AGS Patrick Robinson in their nickel rotation. Robinson has responded by getting torched. While some skid marks against Julio Jones are to be expected, Robinson struggled to deal with Miles Austin in this game. If an NFL cornerback can't cover Miles Austin, the pros on his resume probably read something like "could totally win a foot race against Santana Moss."

A more unexpected regression has been from Vaccaro. The Saints safety who looked so good in his rookie season has had an incredibly disheartening start to his sophomore campaign, missing tackles left and right against the Falcons. Vaccaro was up-and-down throughout his Texas career as well, though, so this isn't completely out of the ordinary.

Finally, against the Browns, Keenan Lewis had a bad game. The big mistake that everyone was talking about Sunday was leaving Andrew Hawkins wide-open to set up the game-winning Cleveland field goal. Hawkins has been a smart signing for the Browns -- a feather in the cap for their front office -- so it's hardly mockable for Lewis to have a down game against him. Hawkins is a tough cover assignment. Even when the Saints do actually have players covering him.

The cure for New Orleans' secondary relies a lot on regression to the mean. Vaccaro can't be this bad. Robinson has the track record that says he can be this bad, but not the rope to keep playing so poorly and keep his job. Finally, with a competent third safety in Rafael Bush, it's probably time for the Saints to make the move to more big nickel and dime packages. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are not the two linebackers to whom you want to entrust the middle of the field.

But Byrd on his own is not a cure-all. The Saints are discovering that the other part of the Seattle equation is, hey, their cornerbacks play pretty well too. New Orleans may have to scrounge up their own Byron Maxwell or Jeremy Lane if they want to keep the comparison from being laughable. Whoever they find, he can't play much worse than Robinson has the first few weeks.

By the VOA

Unadjusted numbers, of course, since it is early in the season.

CLE 16.4% 21.7% 8.6% 3.3%
NO 26.0% 5.3% 0.9% 21.6%

So our DVOA system looks at the Saints picking up 5.8 yards per play and six yards per carry and wonders what all the fuss is about.

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Football isn't a very complicated game. If you lose the turnover battle by two and one of those turnovers gets returned for a touchdown, you're behind the eight-ball. The latter isn't something DVOA sees as repeatable, so Cleveland gets zero credit in DVOA for it. None. Zero. Nada. Or, the number of targets Marques Colston had in this game.

Did Johnny Manziel meaningfully impact this game?

He played some snaps and threw an incomplete pass while scrambling. However, you can't deny that he played and they won. That's Quarterback Wins 101, folks. Unfortunately, he didn't play in the fourth quarter, so no Scott Kacsmar love yet.

OK, seriously, the Browns are doing something right, right?

Sure! The young secondary had some highlights while locking down players not named Jimmy Graham (who finished fifth among receivers in DYAR this week), but the more impressive unit right now may be the offensive line.

Anchoring with Joe Thomas -- one of the premier tackles in the NFL -- is always a good start. Alex Mack got a humongous offer sheet from Jacksonville in free agency that the Browns quickly matched. (After Sunday's game, the Jaguars probably wish they'd bid even higher.) He's worth every penny of that.

But the important thing is that the Browns have filled in the trouble spots on the line. Rookie guard Joel Bitonio has been an instant hit in the run game, though his pass protection has been iffy. More importantly, through two games, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has improved from "cataclysmically bad" to "acceptable." Schwartz blew 41.5 blocks in 2013 per our charting project, more than anyone not named Lamar Holmes or Michael Oher. The new zone running game has made better use of the athleticism that got Schwartz drafted in the second round in 2012. (Schwartz ran a 4.8 40-yard dash at the Combine.)

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This has meant that, despite already losing Ben Tate Holding His Leg to an injury, the Browns running game has barely skipped a beat with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

Cleveland's ability to stockpile high picks over the past few drafts has served them well even as the on-field product has struggled under poor quarterbacking and an inconsistent pass rush.

Compare this to the situation in Jacksonville, where Blake Bortles is clearly ready to be given a shot but the Jaguars have reservations about putting him behind a line that just allowed 10 sacks to Washington. When the Browns finally turn over the keys to Manziel, whenever that is, he'll have every support system a quarterback can have. A good offensive line and running game that can function without help, a tight end (Jordan Cameron) that can make things easy over the middle, and, assuming there are no more drug slipups, a No. 1 wideout in Josh Gordon.

In an AFC North that looks to have varying degrees of stagnancy, the Browns could be a real contender if all this talent gels together.

I mean, if we keep saying that, eventually we'll be right, right?


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