Sunday, October 17, 2010

Self-inflicted wounds

It's one thing when their opponents try to beat the Browns. But when they unwittingly help those opponents by beating themselves, that's too much to handle.

Take, for example, Sunday's 28-10 loss in Pittsburgh. Losing to the Steelers is bad enough, but it becomes maddeningly frustrating when the Browns practically hand the game to them.

On a day when the defense played more than respectably, when Colt McCoy looked like anything but a a rookie quarterback making his first National Football League start, when there appeared to be some hope for this team, the Browns failed miserably when it counted.

It is a team that certainly knows how to compete, especially on defense, but it does not know how to win. It does not know how to make plays that help win games. It is a like the little engine that tried, but couldn't.

The Browns played what can be best described as a reasonably good game against the Steelers for the better part of two and a half quarters. They made Ben Roethlisberger look like a quarterback playing for the first time this season. The rust showed early from his four-game suspension.

But then like most bad teams, when it really counted, the Browns hit the fail button with regularity in the game's final 20 minutes, dropping them even deeper among the league's bottom-feeders at 1-5 with New Orleans and New England dead ahead.

The Steelers turned a 7-3 lead into a 14-3 margin late in the third quarter in a snappy two minutes as Roethlisberger strafed the sieve-like Cleveland secondary with three passes covering 96 yards in a five-play drive. Missed tackles on Hines Ward on third down inside the 5 turned a certain field goal into six points.

A couple of series later, the self-inflicted-wounds alarm sounded. The Steelers, in punt formation in Cleveland territory, twice were called for infractions. Coach Eric Mangini accepted the penalties. Not certain why he accepted both when his best punt returner was knocked out of the game with a concussion midway through the second quarter. (More on that later.)

What in the world did he expect? Third time is a charm? Not in this case. More like a disaster when Chansi Stuckey attempted to the field the punt like a center fielder catching a routine fly ball. The gift, er, muff was recovered by the Steelers who then did what good teams do four plays later for an 18-point lead.

But then something unusual happened. The Cleveland offense, with McCoy looking more comfortable with each play, stung the blitz-happy Steelers with an impressive six-play, 70-yard scoring drive. Where in the world did that come from? Best drive of the season.

Gives one hope that maybe, just maybe, McCoy could turn out to be the real McCoy. He threw a couple of interceptions and looked confused at first by the incessant blitzing. But for the most part, he seemed to make the right move at the right time for someone so young and inexperienced. He did not embarrass himself.

But his coach embarrassed himself in the latter stages of the game. With the score at 21-10 and the Steelers with the ball deep in Cleveland territory following an interception, Mangini chose to stop the clock twice even though the game was well in hand and the Steelers were more than willing to run the clock out by running the ball.

So Big Ben and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin decided all right, if that's the way you want to play it, if you don't want to accept an 11-point loss, how about an 18-pointer? Forget the run. Let's try a TD pass to Heath Miller. Is that better? You can take your useless timeouts and stuff them.

What Mangini should have been angry about is the way Pittsburgh offensive lineman Flozell Adams nearly yanked Joe Haden's helmet off by the face mask when the rookie cornerback returned a Roethlisberger pick 62 yards in the first quarter. It went unflagged.

And he should have been angry about a vicious and very blatant helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison on fellow Kent State alum Joshua Cribbs midway through the second quarter, knocking him out of the game. It also went unflagged. Harrison also nailed Mo Massaquoi with a a double forearm shiver later that knocked him out of the game, too.

With Cribbs and his Wildcat plays out of the game and the game plan out the window, it was all McCoy all the time. And he acquitted himself well. A lot better than many fans expected.

One last rant: If the NFL does not crack down heavily on any hit involving the helmet, it is asking for trouble. The league is understandably skittish about concussions, but what will it take for it to realize most concussions are caused by helmet hits? A death? Some other catastrophic tragedy like permanent paralysis? The league needs to do something now.

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