Fourth-quarter blues . . . again
The Browns’ defense is an enigma. Just when you have it figured out, it goes in a completely different direction.
Take, for example, Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears in the home finale.
The Cleveland defense, which produced 14 of those points by the way, came out in rip-roaring fashion at the beginning of both halves and virtually shut down the Bears’ offense.
Only seven Chicago points went up on the scoreboard in the first and third quarters. They came out of the dressing room ready to play even though the only thing they had to play for was pride and, to get sappy, the love of the game.
But when quarters two and four unfolded, that pride vanished. So did a pair of leads as the Bears unfolded 31 points. The inability to sustain a good start to a half is a malady that has plagued this defense during the team’s current five-game losing streak.
In those five games, the Cleveland defense has shut down the opposition with only 35 points in the first and third quarters. In quarters two and four, that figure zooms to 130 (64 in the second quarter, 66 in the final 15 minutes).
And you wonder why this team has lost five in a row and eight of its last nine? This is not an accident. It is not a trend. It has happened too often this season to become anything less than a huge problem that hasn’t yet been fixed.
Sunday’s loss is a perfect example of how this team falls almost completely apart when it matters the most. The fourth quarter was a microcosm of the extremely frustrating afternoon.
The Browns clung to a 24-17 lead at the end of three quarters mainly because of that defense. Safeties Tashaun Gipson (44-yard pick 6 in the second quarter) and T, J. Ward (51-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter) outscored the offense at that point.
In the fourth quarter, it was as though the Cleveland defense turned everything off and stopped playing, and the Bears’ offense could do no wrong. Welcome to the Browns’ fourth-quarter meltdown.
Three possessions, 17 plays, 209 yards and three touchdowns later, the Bears erased that seven-point deficit and turned it into a 14-point advantage. Just like that. It took just seven minutes and 56 seconds off the clock.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, playing his first game in a month after an ankle injury, shook off the rust after a rough beginning and connected with Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery to begin that fourth quarter, and Michael Bush put the bow on the victory with a 40-yard burst over right guard with 2:17 left.
Drives of 95, 36 (following a 21-yard punt return by Devin Hester that set up the Bears’ offense in Cleveland territory) and 78 yards were accomplished in ridiculously easy fashion as the Cleveland defense disappeared.
And it had no one to blame but itself. On the first drive, which began at the Cleveland 5, the first two plays were incomplete Cutler passes. But cornerback Leon McFadden was flagged for pass interference on the first and fellow corner Buster Skrine was nailed for illegal contact on the second. A 35-yard free gift from the Browns.
Four times on those drives, the Bears were in a third-down situation and four times, the Cleveland defense whiffed. For the afternoon, the Bears were 9-for-14 on third down.
While he did not get into the end zone, Chicago running back Matt Forte was a thorn all afternoon and became the first back to run for 100 or more yards (127 on 24 carries) against the normally stingy Cleveland run defense.
He picked up a significant amount of yardage on a misdirection counter pitch play where the flow went right and the two guards pulled backside and led him to sizable gains on four occasions.
So how did the Cleveland offense answer the three Chicago scores? With a three-and-out and a five-and out after the first two. On the three-and-out, the Browns were penalized on the first play of the drive for delay of game at their 14-yard line. A delay penalty on the first play of a drive? What’s wrong here?
The offense, which had sputtered hopelessly most of the afternoon, looked nothing like the offense that gave the New England Patriots fits last Sunday. Jason Campbell had a terrible afternoon. His numbers (23-of-39 for 273 yards) were respectable, but also misleading.
Two of his passes wound up in the hands of Chicago cornerback Zack Bowman, who took the second one 43 yards to the end zone on the third play of the third quarter, and a couple of others were nearly picked off. He looked shaky and somewhat confused most of the afternoon.
It wasn’t as though the Bears’ defense harassed Campbell. He had time to throw and missed wide-open receivers. On a couple of occasions, his receivers either ran the wrong route or he threw where he shouldn’t have.
The running game, meanwhile, was its usual awful self against the worst run defense in the National Football League.
However, newcomer Edwin Baker ran well in his NFL debut. The 5-8, 200-pounder, who joined the team this week after being picked up off the Houston Texans practice squad, ran for 38 yards on eight carries. He ran hard and scored one of the two Cleveland offensive touchdowns.
The other was scored by Josh Gordon, a virtual no-show until he and Campbell hooked up on a 43-yard touchdown pass with a minute left in regulation and the Bears, who owned a two-touchdown lead at the time, loosening their coverage.
Once again, the running game failed to produce 100 yards (just 93). To give you some idea of how much faith the coaching staff has in this running game, that staff came up with a curious call when the Browns were in a third-and-1 situation at their 31 on the third series of the game in the second quarter.
Third-and-1 and Campbell lines up in the shotgun. That, right there, should tell you this staff has no faith whatsoever in this team’s ability to pick up a first down in a short-yardage situation. An incomplete pass later, Spencer Lanning punted.
Not certain whether that lack of faith lies with the offensive line or running backs. Probably both. Maybe someone should inform the Browns this is the NFL where the big boys play and third-and-1 calls for a big-boy play.
As the losses pile up and another 10-plus-loss season is a reality with this setback, one thing stands out: This team plays just well enough to lose.
As it sinks deeper and deeper into the sinkhole known as the basement of the AFC North, the last two games can’t come and go quickly enough.