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Shall We Dance?
Leigh Montville
December 06, 1999
When Cincinnati's John Copeland and Cleveland's Orlando Brown collide on Dec. 12, it will be the 10th time these Goliaths have performed their violent minuet in the trenches
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December 06, 1999

Shall We Dance?

When Cincinnati's John Copeland and Cleveland's Orlando Brown collide on Dec. 12, it will be the 10th time these Goliaths have performed their violent minuet in the trenches

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Sixth play: Copeland lined up far on the outside. Brown had another assignment. Copeland got through to Couch and gave him a whack as he threw another incompletion. The Browns punted. Copeland and Brown returned to the sidelines.

This is the way the afternoon evolved. The Browns ran 53 plays. Brown and Copeland were on the field for all of them. Thirty of the snaps were pass plays (including the three times Couch was sacked), 23 were rushes. Probably 95% of the time, the actions of Brown and Copeland did not affect the outcome of a play. The two men negated each other, off on the side, involved in their private work. Every fifth play, perhaps, they were not matched against each other, different formations creating different assignments, but basically they were responsible for each other.

"When I started and couldn't pass-block very well, Coach Belichick would give me help on pass plays," Brown says. "On the runs I'd be on my own, but for pass plays he'd keep the tight end in, and we'd double-team our man. Now that I know how to pass-block, I never see that tight end. I look for him—ha!—but he's always somewhere down the field."

"We don't run a lot of games [in which defensive linemen loop around each other to confuse the blockers] against Brown," Copeland says. "He's been around too long. He picks that up pretty good. It's mostly me against him."

The two men bounced off each other again and again. Copeland says Brown tried to hold on every play. Brown agrees. Every offensive lineman tries to hold on every play. Copeland tried to get separation, moving his body away to allow the referee to see Brown's grabbing. Brown tried to keep his arms inside Copeland's arms, hiding them from anyone in a striped shirt. This is the basic two-step.

The more vulnerable of the two is Copeland, especially on running plays. Trouble can come from any direction. He worries about his knees. He can be tangling with an offensive lineman and not see a chop block coming from someone else, an attack from the side. He says most teams, the Browns included, do not chop-block routinely. "The Oakland Raiders did it to me twice in a row in one game, tried to put me out of the game. The first time, the guard, Steve Wisniewski, came over after the play. I was yelling about it, and he said, 'That's right, Copeland, we did it, and we're going to do it again.' He yelled, 'Knife!' just before the snap, and they did it again. But that time the referee caught them."

There was none of that on Oct. 10. Copeland and Brown worked within the established boundaries, trading forearm to the thorax for elbow to the ribs, grab for slap, grunt for wheeze. Copeland talked. Brown resisted the temptation to react. Neither was called for a penalty during the game. Where they placed their hands and what they did with them was lost as they tugged and pulled at each other. Number 77 for the Browns. Number 92 for the Bengals. The two men mostly were numbers in a jumble of numbers.

Then number 92 suddenly stood out. Copeland got a sack on the second play of the fourth quarter, one of his two tackles on the day. He was in the spotlight, zap, as quickly as that. Number 92. He was dancing in the middle of the field.

The sack came on one of the plays in which Brown had another assignment. Reinard Wilson, an extra linebacker, charged though the gap on a blitz, and Brown had to shift left to stop him. Copeland looped around that collision, avoided a block from Cleveland fullback Marc Edwards and leveled Couch from behind. The ball squirted out of the quarterback's hands but was recovered by his teammate Mark Campbell. The Browns' drive was stalled, and they kicked a 33-yard field goal to take a 17-12 lead with 14:09 remaining. Zeus was not happy.

"The most overrated statistic in football is the sack," he says. "The guy makes one play—and he doesn't make it on me—and he jumps and dances around. One play out of 70. Where was he the other 69 plays? Why wasn't he dancing then?"

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