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Browns: Better days are ahead



Published: Fri, August 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Two games remain in the Browns' preseason, but, hey, I'm from Cleveland, so it's never too early to start making predictions.

Barring any unforeseen injuries, the Browns should go 6-10. If they're lucky, they could go 7-9. And they will be better and earn some respect.

Some fans in Cleveland think the Browns are playoff contenders (we Cleveland fans always have so much faith in the beginning), but that's not likely. The defense is improved, but we're not talking Baltimore Ravens or Tampa Bay Buccaneers here.

The secondary remains weak. They didn't really get burned the last two seasons, but their drop-off coverage looked like a prevent defense, consistently allowing 7-, 10- and 12-yard gains. We haven't seen that yet in the preseason, but it's still early. Stay tuned.

Better run defense: The run defense played great in the first two preseason games, but a true test won't come until the first game against the Seahawks, who have Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander.

Looking at the Central Division, if Fred Taylor is at full strength for the Jaguars, the Browns defense must stop him twice, Corey Dillon twice, Eddie George twice and Jerome Bettis twice, along with Watters and Alexander, rookie LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers and James Stewart of the Lions. Scary.

Imagine if Jamal Lewis didn't bust his knee.

Stalled Bus: The defense should be able to shut down Bettis, particularly because he is slow and the Steelers passing game is frighteningly bad (What's worse? Kordell Stewart's accuracy or Plaxico Burress' stone hands?), but the smaller, quicker guys could wreak havoc.

Pass rushers Courtney Brown, Keith McKenzie and Gerard Warren or Mark Smith should spend a considerable amount of time in opposing backfields, breaking up passing plays and crushing quarterbacks.

But somebody has to stop the run. Butch Davis' defense relies heavily on the linebackers, so Wali Rainer, Jamir Miller and Dwayne Rudd must step up.

Offense: As for the offense, anyone who watched the line's performance as doormats against the Buccaneers was surely disturbed.

But two projected starters, Ross Verba and Tre' Johnson, didn't play and will be back soon, maybe even tonight. And the Buccaneers defense is arguably the best in football.

However, it usually takes an offensive line time to jell, and Verba and Johnson are new to the team. We'll just have to wait and see.

If the line does come together and play well, quarterback Tim Couch has good crop of receivers to choose from when Dennis Northcutt and JaJuan Dawson return, with surehanded Kevin Johnson and the quick, strong rookie Quincy Morgan.

None of that will matter though if the running game doesn't do anything. In the Browns' new offense, Couch throws a lot of play action passes and needs a legitimate threat in the backfield. That won't be Travis Prentice, who lacks the speed and strength to play in the NFL.

My money's on James Jackson or Ben Gay starting, with Jamel White as the third down back. But wait to see Gay play with the first team. He has a lot of talent, and if Davis decides to start him for the season, he could provide that soothing feeling Browns fans have been waiting for.

The Browns won't have the worst offense in the league. That honor will go to either the Patriots or the Bengals, or perhaps the Steelers or the Bears.

The Browns still have a lot of holes, but 6-10 or 7-9 is realistic. Every team has holes somewhere (hey, the Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer), and the Browns play the Bengals and the Steelers twice each, plus the Patriots. They should win at least three of those five games, if not more, and a few more wins here or there (possibly Seahawks, Chargers or Bears) and the season could look good.

A playoff berth is unlikely, but the Brown's defense will earn some respect, and after this season, Davis will have a better idea of what he needs.

But the weight of this season rests on the offensive line's back. If they perform, the future is bright. If not, it's going to be a long season.

XPhilip Novak is an intern for The Vindicator.




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