The Browns and Jaguars were both supposed to compete for playoff berths this year. After Cleveland traveled to Jacksonville and pulled off a surprising 23-17 win, both teams are long shots to play meaningful games in December. The Browns' victory was marked by a return of the big-play offense that made them exciting last season, while Jacksonville's pass defense continued to get shredded and its offense struggled to run the ball.
The preseason hype that surrounded Cleveland was based on its explosive passing attack. That attack ranked 11th in the league in 2007 and featured young talent such as Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Derek Anderson. Seven games into this season, Edwards was dropping balls, Winslow was fighting with management and Anderson was looking over his shoulder at Brady Quinn.
Last year's high-voltage offense was based largely on its ability to generate big plays in the passing game. Last season, more than one in 10 attempts by Anderson was a 20-yard gain. Before Sunday, Anderson had only seven completions over 20 yards in 183 attempts. Opposing defenses have taken away the big play. Last year, Anderson completed 49 percent of his passes that traveled 16 or more yards in the air. This year, he is completing only 32 percent of his deep passes.
On Sunday, Anderson connected on four completions over 20 yards. The Browns scored on each drive in which Anderson hit a big play. They failed to score on their other six drives.
The Browns' offense is simply too low-percentage to sustain drives. Anderson's completion percentage remains under 50 percent. His lack of accuracy and a team-wide propensity for drops can stall drives where Cleveland is required to convert numerous first downs to move the ball down the field.
Was Sunday's game a re-emergence of the 2007 Browns offense, or was it a one-game aberration? The plays themselves make it hard to answer that question. Two of the big plays were to Edwards. The other two were to more surprising targets. The first was a 51-yard catch and run to tight end Steve Heiden. That play came on a fourth-and-1 surprise play. The final big play was to Syndric Steptoe on a crossing route. Steptoe was able to break multiple tackles and turn a medium gain into a 53-yard catch.
Edwards' catches highlighted his own extraordinary physical skills but came against the single coverage he rarely faces. Both big plays, Edwards' only catches of the game, came in one-on-one matchups against Rashean Mathis. Mathis is a very good cornerback, but he is not the elite player the Jaguars sometimes think he is. Edwards beat him inside for a 21-yard gain on the Browns' first touchdown drive and later down the sideline for a 43-yard completion.
Overall, Mathis got the better of Edwards. Anderson completed only two of his six attempts for Edwards in the game. Still, the Browns as currently constructed are so dependent on the big play that the better path is to play it safe on Edwards and avoid any big plays.
Of course, another crucial point is that the Jaguars, despite their reputation, have been a bad defense this season. They rank 28th against the pass in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. It should be noted that Atlanta head coach Mike Smith, an early candidate for NFL Coach of the Year, was the Jaguars' defensive coordinator until this season. An underlying problem is the absolute lack of a pass rush. The Jaguars have a paltry nine sacks on the season and got to Anderson only once on Sunday.
The big plays allowed Cleveland to get to 23 points, a hardly unmanageable total for a team playing against the Browns' mediocre defense. The Jaguars, however, got to only 17 despite a solid if not spectacular effort from David Garrard. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for 53 yards on 20 carries. The two are running behind a depleted line that still is not healthy. Sunday, both players struggled, but for the season, Jones-Drew has been the much more effective back.
Neither stood a chance against the Browns' interior which dominated the point of attack, led by defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. Unfortunately, while the Browns have Rogers, they do not have more than one of him. Sunday's game was an aberration; previously, Cleveland ranked as the worst defense in the league on defending runs up the middle. Teams routinely double-team Rogers and then easily slice through the rest of the defenders in the middle of the Cleveland defense.
Going forward, the Browns (3-4) have dug too big a hole to come back this season. The rest of the year will be spent showing whether a slow start held back a talented team or if the offense is too flawed to succeed as currently constituted. At 3-4, Jacksonville is not in an insurmountable hole, but with a porous defense and inconsistent running game, the odds of a late-season playoff push are slim.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.