Once again, the Cleveland Browns began to get all of our hopes up by stringing together a couple of victories and slowly approaching wild card contention. With a relatively weak strength of schedule these last four games outside of a rematch with the Ravens, it is probably a little too early to completely rule them out of playoff contention. However, it is tough to get anyone’s hopes up too high after a loss against our biggest rival, led by their third-string QB, which just so happens to be a guy named Duck. Beyond that, the Browns continue to make the same mistakes they have been making all season: bad discipline, bad clock management and bad scheme. It is easy to peg all of that on the coaching staff, so it is understandable why Freddie Kitchens’ seat just got a whole lot hotter. With that being said, people need to stop feeding the narrative that his shirt is the reason we lost and start talking about those aforementioned issues and the fact that Odell Beckham Jr just doesn’t get opportunities in this offense.
Seeing the Bills keep winning distancing as a ‘for sure wild card team’ and the Titans heating up with the tiebreaker over the Browns from Cleveland’s Week 1 loss, the Browns playoff hopes look grim. If the Browns have any chance at salvaging this season and contending for a playoff spot, they will probably have to be perfect the rest of the way. Here’s what happened last game to point out what needs to be addressed once and for all to make one last valiant effort:
The all-too-familiar mistakes continued to plague this Browns team: penalties and play calling.
The Browns started off the game great with a beautiful drive down the field and into the red zone. Unfortunately, the Browns’ goal-to-go woes remained as the drive stalled with a loss, a sack and an incompletion that held the Browns to settle for a chip-shot field goal to make it 3-0. As the Browns defense came onto the field for the first time, it was simple to see just how depleted the unit was missing key players all over the field. However, the defense played tough all game as it has all season forcing a three-and-out headlined by Chad Thomas rocketing towards the Steelers QB for the 13-yard sack on third down. After picking up a first down on a couple of shorter gains, the Browns couldn’t keep it going as they were forced to punt from around midfield all the way back inside the Steelers 20 to the 14. After surrendering a first down on a swing pass to Jaylen Samuels, the Browns defense tightened up with the help of a false start penalty to force the Steelers to punt quickly once again.
With the first quarter ending in a relatively lackluster 3-0 score, neither team could take advantage and gain some momentum with a score. On the Browns first possession of the second quarter, they did exactly that. Baker found Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry for a couple of intermediate pickups for a first down, and then Nick Chubb ran for two of his own on four carries for 23 yards. After a short loss on a Kareem Hunt run, Baker found Landry for eight yards to bring the Browns back into the red zone. On 3rd & 5 from the 15, Baker hit Kareem Hunt over the middle where he was able to break a couple of tackles and wiggle his way to pay dirt. After the extra point, the Browns had a nice 10-0 lead with a little under eight minutes remaining in the half.
The only problem was that the lead didn’t last too long.
The Steelers beat-up offense needed to answer before the game got out-of-hand and they found a glaring weakness on how to beat Cleveland – deep passing. After immediately forcing a third and long, the Browns defense looked in total control, but Hodges made a great throw up the left sideline to WR James Washington over CB Greedy Williams for a 31-yard big play that they desperately needed. After that, the Steelers picked up two more first downs on gains of 17, seven and five yards respectively. Luckily, a phantom false start that likely should have been an encroachment penalty stalled the drive forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal making the score 10-3 Cleveland with three minutes left in the half.
The Browns didn’t have an answer and they were shut down on the following drive forced to punt after a quick three-and-out. After a nice return by Diontae Johnson, the Steelers started their drive from their own 31 with a little under two minutes to go. Hodges found receivers for two intermediate gains for a first down before finding Tevin Jones for a 28 yard gain on the fourth play and then James Washington in the end zone on a deep ball on the next for a 30-yard touchdown. The Steelers were able to string together big plays at will against the Browns secondary making the score tied at 10 with about one minute left in the half.
Without much time left on the clock, the Browns had two options: move quickly and try to score or be conservative and go into the half. They chose the ladder and it was a questionable decision, to say the least. After the kick return was mishandled, the Browns started from their own seven. Considering they had to go 93 yards in less than a minute, their chances to score were quite slim, but they tried anyway after Kareem Hunt broke off two nice 16 yard runs to give them a little more hope. The Browns decided to try and throw deep four-straight times for incompletions. On the third pass attempt in a row, Baker Mayfield hurt his hand on the follow-through as he connected with a Steelers defender’s helmet. The Browns kept trying to force the issue seemingly desperate to score at the end of the half, which led to their franchise QB getting injured. Regardless of the fact that he was able to come back in, there is no reason to put the team in that position because either way the game would likely remain tied, no matter if they tried or not, at 10 at the half.
The Steelers received the ball to start the second half and they were looking to keep their momentum going. Just like the end of the first half, the big plays continued. Hodges found Samuels for 15 yards and James Washington for 44 yards two plays later. A couple plays after Denzel Ward gave up that 44-yard reception, he had a pass interference call setting the Steelers up at the one with 1st and goal. RB Benny Snell Jr punched it in on the next play giving the Steelers their first lead of the game, 17-10, following the extra point.
The Browns needed an answer and it would be interesting to see how Baker could still play after the hand injury at the end of the half. He responded by completing two-straight passes for 16 and seven yards sandwiched in between two Chubb runs for three and five yards. The Browns were then able to convert on fourth-and-short on the next set of downs on a Nick Chubb dive over the pile. Things were looking good for Cleveland until their offensive tackle nightmares continued. Following a holding penalty by Chris Hubbard taking them out of field goal range, Baker was strip-sacked on the next play, which was recovered by the Steelers around midfield.
At this point, the Steelers had all the momentum, home-field advantage and their offense was firing on all cylinders. Snell started the drive with two rushes for 18 yards and then caught a pass for four more following a false start penalty. Then, Hodges was able to convert the third and long with a nine-yard rush. After another first down two plays later, the Steelers had 1st and goal on a sustained drive. The Browns defense was able to hold tough though to keep it a ballgame and held them to a field goal. Joe Schobert nearly recovered a fumble on third-and-goal that would have prevented any points at all, but at least they held the Steelers to three making the score 20-10 with a little under 14 minutes left in the game.
While the Steelers offense were outperforming expectations, the Browns struggled immensely. They were forced to a three and out highlighted by Baker Mayfield being sacked for a short loss on third down. The Steelers had great field position to start the drive, but they were forced to a three and out of their own with a little help from a false start. With the Browns starting from their own 23 down 10 with about 10 minutes left; they had a lot of work to do. Odell Beckham Jr. was finally involved with a 19-yard catch, then a 21-yard reception for Nick Chubb and a 23-yard hookup with TE Demetrius Harris finding a hole in the zone taking them all the way to the red zone right away. The Browns looked like they had a touchdown on a gorgeous throw by Baker Mayfield, but it was dropped by Demetrius Harris in the back of the end zone. The next play, Mayfield was sacked forcing the Browns to settle for three points making the score 20-13 with around 7:30 left in the game.
On this drive, the Browns wanted to get a stop as quick as possible to give the offense plenty of time to get back into the game. Hodges overthrew his receiver on the first play and the pass was intercepted by CB Terrance Mitchell down the left sideline. Following a nice return, the offense got to start at the Steelers 30 with all the time in the world. Instead of using arguably the best running back tandem in the league, the Browns elected to throw three times resulting in two incompletions and then a sack. Seibert lined up for the long field goal, but he ended up pooch kicking it all the way to the one-yard line. On the first play following a false start, though, Snell broke through for an 11-yard run giving the Steelers a little more room to operate. Hodges was then able to convert consecutive third downs to keep the drive alive, but the Browns finally forced an incompletion following the two-minute warning to force the Steelers to punt.
After Berry punted the ball into the end zone, the Browns had one final chance to score. Following an incompletion, Baker was hit late on the second play, which gave the Browns 15 yards and first down. Hunt caught a pass to advance up to their own 40 with 1:36 remaining, so they still had time. Unfortunately, a miscommunication at the top of the route led to an errant throw by Baker Mayfield, which was intercepted by former Browns CB Joe Haden to seal the game dropping the Browns to 5-7 and improving the Steelers to 7-5.
There were certainly a few key turning points in this game and the team had opportunities that they simply did not take advantage of. The fact that both running backs were hardly utilized at all even though the game was well within reach, and the three-straight vertical pass play calls following the Mitchell interception, were blatantly horrible by Freddie Kitchens. The defense is so depleted by injury and suspension that it was surprising to see starting FS Damarious Randall left at home leaving the Browns to play Sheldrick Redwine, Justin Burris and JT Hassell. I have no issue with Randall staying home as something disciplinary, but it better be a great reason because it was tough to watch that game. Redwine was consistently out of position on seemingly every deep ball that the Steelers connected on and it is fair to assume Randall makes a couple of those plays. I was happy to see Hassell get his chance because he played great in the preseason and I think he played respectably in a support role at the position.
Beyond that, the cornerback play continues to be pretty underwhelming. Greedy Williams never seems to turn his head around and no one can figure out exactly what happened to Denzel Ward. One cure for bad cornerback play is a pass rush, which is clearly missing with no Myles or Vernon, but Terrance Mitchell made a nice play. I think he should be utilized more because he’s a quality player who could give the young CBs a little breather every once in a while. The team had to stop abandoning the run as well considering that, combined with play-action, has been the catalyst of their offensive successes. Hopefully, next week, the tackle play will be slightly improved, but it is evident that there is a desperate need for offensive tackles and safeties on this roster just like we all thought entering the season.