CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 27: Geno Atkins #97 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates a sack of Colt McCoy #12 of the Cleveland Browns during their game at Paul Brown Stadium on November 27, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bengals defeated the Browns 23-20. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
The Cleveland Browns registered 66 offensive plays during Cincinnati's 23-20 win last Sunday. And of those plays, we're tasked with finding Cincinnati's top five defensive plays. It's not easy, but in some respects, it kind of is.
Our purpose here isn't just to remark on huge defensive plays; it's also a story on how those defensive plays impacted either the game or that possession. For example if Geno Atkins records a quarterback sack on first down and the Browns overcome the yards loss with a first down on the next two plays without punting, the reality is that the defensive play didn't have that great of an impact because the drive continued regardless. Additionally is a defensive play in the first quarter weighed with the same impact as a play in the fourth quarter, where careers are made and games are won or lost?
That being said, this week's top five defensive plays against the Cleveland Browns.
5. Rey Maualuga Tackle For Loss Puts Browns Behind Schedule
Mike Nugent converted a 40-yard field goal to tie the game at 20 with 11:01 remaining in the fourth. An unopposed Dan Skuta shuts down Joshua Cribbs' kickoff return to the Browns 19-yard line where Cleveland's ensuing possession begins -- after Skuta does this uncomfortable white man's dance as he heads to the sidelines.
Peyton Hills lines up in single-back formation with middle linebacker, Rey Maualuga, five yards off the line of scrimmage, foaming at the mouth ready to serve obliteration with a side of destruction. It's an off-tackle to the right with the pulling right guard lead-blocking. Maualuga picks up the scent and finds the point of attack opening to his left.
Four yards before reaching the line of scrimmage, Hillis' pants turns a shade of his team's name when he notices an unblocked Maualuga roaring like Uruk-hai in a dead-sprint for the running back. Hillis tried a stiff arm, but Maualuga ran through it wrapping Hillis, dragging him down for a four-yard loss.
The play essentially put the Browns behind schedule, unable to overcome the loss. They would punt three plays later.
4. Geno Atkins Sack On Third Down In The Fourth Quarter
With 7:01 remaining in the game with the score tied at 20 (which is this week's defensive theme), the Browns line up on their own 38-yard line on third and four.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins lines up over the right guard, takes a stutter step left and bounces off the guard with an inside move that gave Atkins a direct path into the quarterback.
Atkins hits Colt McCoy high, knocking the quarterback to the ground for the sack, forcing the Browns to punt.
3. Reggie Nelson Fourth Quarter Interception
Cincinnati gained so much momentum in the third quarter that if one fails to understand or buy into the legend of momentum, we can only conclude that they're fooling themselves. Down by ten points at half time, Cincinnati scored on their first two possessions in the third quarter reducing their deficit to three points. And following Jermaine Gresham's 22-yard touchdown reception with 1:29 remaining in the third quarter, the Browns ensuing possession began at their own 15-yard line with a first down gained after consecutive runs by Peyton Hillis.
Then on the first play of the fourth quarter, third play on the drive, on first and ten from the Browns 25-yard line, Colt McCoy did something he should never do. Throw the football.
The quarterback takes the snap, fakes the handoff and bootlegs to the right. Geno Atkins tracks him, fighting the right tackle who slide-steps with the quarterback for protection. Once the quarterback passed the 15-yard line, Atkins frees himself up with three Browns blockers looking on as McCoy, realizing he has to get rid of the football, chucks it down the right sidelines as Atkins drills the quarterback in the gut.
Reggie Nelson, more like a right fielder than a safety, tracks down the floater and hauls in the interception at the Bengals 47-yard line, dropping both feet in bounds before falling out of bounds with a firm grasp on the football -- at least the officials judged that Nelson completed the act of the catch five minutes later -- and we're not talking about a challenge.
The interception led to a Mike Nugent 40-yard field goal that tied the game at 20 with 11:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.
2. Frostee Rucker And Nate Clements Force A Three-Yard Loss
Cleveland's offense had possession late in the fourth quarter, moving down the football field as the two minute warning neared. With 2:10 remaining in the game, Peyton Hillis picked up three yards rushing, forcing the Bengals to take their first timeout, well aware that time is quickly becoming an issue for Cincinnati.
At this point Cleveland only needs a field goal and Phil Dawson had already converted a 54-yard field goal in the third quarter. We know he has the leg, therefore we also know that the Browns really don't need that many yards. If the Browns attempted a field goal now, it would be a 52-yarder.
Colt McCoy takes the snap from Cincinnati's 34-yard line with 2:04 remaining on second and seven and tosses the football to Peyton Hillis on a pitch to the left. Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker, lined up at right defensive end, beats the pulling right guard with a quick one-arm deflection, targeting Hillis in the backfield. Nate Clements, covering Greg Little in the slot on the left, deflects the tight end and avoids Joe Thomas, securing contain and forcing the running back to cut upfield, meeting Rucker three yards deep in the backfield.
Now a three-yard loss is a great defensive play. How big was this one?
It not only prevented the Browns from reducing the distance on an attempted field goal, it pushed Cleveland backwards that eventually led to this...
1. Nate Clements Pass Defensed Forces Missed Field Goal
Game still tied at 20 with 1:59 remaining in the game, the Browns line up on the Bengals 37-yard line. A converted first down gives the Browns at least a 45-yard field goal attempt while milking the clock for a Cincinnati possession that might not even come. It's as critical of a third down as they come for both teams.
Browns wide receiver Greg Little lines up in the slot to the right with Colt McCoy in shotgun. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (aka, the crazy bastard) dials up an eight-man pass rush with three defensive backs in coverage. McCoy notices and tries to get rid of the football as soon as his third step is planted. Little runs upfield five yards before cutting in with Nate Clements a couple of yards away from the receiver.
As the football arrives for Little, Nate Clements, using precise timing, collides with the receiver, jarring the football loose.
Though the pass would have been completed for at least a seven-yard gain, the pass deflection forced Phil Dawson to convert a 55-yard field goal rather than, say a 48-yarder. Dawson missed it and the Bengals offense went on a seven-play drive, milking the clock with Mike Nugent converting the 26-yard game-winning field goal with 41 seconds remaining in the game.