Monday, September 29, 2014

Own the ball, win the game

Here’s one solution for the betterment of the Browns this season. Be the team with the football at the end of the game.

It’s really that simple.

Based on what has transpired thus far this season, the team with the football at the end of the game has won. That’s right . . . three games, three game-winning field goals with no time left.

That’s how close the Browns are to a 3-0 record as they head back into action Sunday in Tennessee. Or a 0-3 record for you pessimists. So 1-2 isn’t as bad as it looks right now.

The fact they had a chance to be unbeaten with any kind of luck at this juncture is fairly incredible. That they were in all three games against three pretty good teams speaks well, so far, of the progress they have made.

This is not a bad football team. It has flaws, especially on defense, but it also has strengths, especially on offense, that were not foreseen. Unless catastrophic injuries occur, it is not a team that will compile another double-digit losing season.

Unless the coaching staff completely and utterly suffers severe brain cramps, this team has a chance in the next five weeks to make some noise in the AFC North.

The combined record of the next five opponents is 4-16 and the Pittsburgh Steelers, coming up a week from Sunday at home, own half of those victories. Tennessee and Tampa Bay are 1-3 and the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders are winless. Three of those five games are at home.

Sure, it's easy to look at the schedule and strongly suggest certain games are winnable. Based on the way the season has begun, it becomes even easier once teams establish winning and losing patterns.

For example, the Jags and Raiders have scored a combined 109 points and permitted 255, a point differential of 146. They are clearly the worst teams not just in the AFC, but the entire league.

The Browns should have no problem handling them, right? Certainly not based on how they have played to this point, right?

Yes, they were extremely competitive (except for the first half of the Pittsburgh game) in the first three games against tough opposition. But you always have to factor in how they play against the so-called bottom feeders of the NFL.

It is possible – not probable – that they play down to their opponent’s level. It’s definitely a mind-set when you enter games you are supposed to win only to play poorly and lose.

With these Browns, though, that should not be the case because they know what it’s like to be considered fodder for the opposition. They should have no problem staying humble. For some reason – and I’m having trouble putting my finger on it – I don’t see that happening with this team.

There seems to be a confidence, especially on offense, that has been missing since the 2007 season, when the Browns shocked the league and turned out a 10-6 record. Credit quarterback Brian Hoyer with that.

Once Mike Pettine has enough confidence in his defense to turn it loose and play much more aggressively than it has, that fine balance of offense and defense will begin to take hold.

The most surprising aspect of this season has been Pettine’s reticence to unleash his brand of defense. It’s anyone guess what he’s waiting for.

Maybe he doesn’t feel confident enough in his personnel with Cleveland to replicate the ultra aggressive style he championed last season while guiding the Buffalo Bills’ defense. If he does, he’s keeping it to himself.

Then again, perhaps it takes time for the personnel to feel comfortable enough with the new scheme and realize positive results. Thus far, that has hardly been the case as the offense has been the saving grace.

If the season continues to unfold with no appreciable changes in that defensive approach, it would be fair to assume the Browns will heavily target that side of the ball in the next college draft.

But that’s next year. Dead ahead are the Titans. And if the Browns have the ball in the waning moments of that game and the score is close, expect good things to happen, at least based on what we’ve seen thus far. Unless, of course, the lead is secure enough not to worry about that.

With a shaky defense and an offense that is playing relatively flawless football, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a fourth straight nail-biter could be in the offing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A toast for Joe Haden

When it comes to listing the so-called shutdown cornerbacks in the National Football League, Joe Haden’s name invariably lands among the top five.

Apparently those who put together such a list haven’t been paying close attention to  the talents of the Browns cornerback. If they had, they would notice he isn’t anywhere near shutdown status.

Haden has been singed so many times last season and the first three games of this season, it’s surprising he has not been crowned with the sobriquet that hounded Elvis Patterson when he played with the New York Giants in the mid-1980s.

Giants coach Bill Parcells saw Patterson burned so many times in his four-year career in New York, he took to calling him “Toast.” That nickname became so popular, it is now pinned on those NFL cornerbacks who play similarly to Patterson.

Blow enough assignments, fail to come through with a big play on a consistent basis when needed and you risk being called “Toast.” Haden, who played a more formidable corner in his first few seasons, appears to have slipped.

His reputation as an elite cornerback, for some reason, has not taken much of a hit. But there is no question his so-called upside is on a major downslide. He longer can be trusted to shut down the opposition’s top wide receiver.

He’s only 25 years old and just approaching the peak of his career. He should be getting better. That, however, has not been the case. Far from it, in fact.

He had six interceptions in his rookie season in 2010 and everyone forecast a brilliant future. He has picked off just seven passes since then and has not been solid when attempting to shut down the opponent’s key receiver

This season, for example, leading Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown torched him with five receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown as the Steelers raced to a 24-point halftime lead in the season opener.

In the loss to Baltimore last Sunday, Haden was tasked with shutting down Steve Smith, a man 10 years younger and not nearly as quick or fast. Smith caught five passes for 101 yards, including a clutch 32-yarder over Haden in the final minute that set up the winning field goal.

Those are not the kinds of performances one expects out of a so-called shutdown cornerback, the definition of which means someone who actually shuts down the opposition.

The fact strong safety Donte Whitner has been playing more coverage safety than box safety might be construed by some as a lack of faith by the coaching staff in the cornerbacks. One can understand that lack of faith for rookie Justin Gilbert. But Haden?

Maybe the lack of a pass rush this season has led to extra pressure on the secondary, but shutdown corners are still expected to do their job no matter what happens up front. There are no excuses for elite players who fail to do their job.

The Cleveland defense, especially among the front seven, has struggled mightily in the first three games and the sloppy performance of the secondary hasn’t helped. Someone back there needs to take charge and start making plays.

The true measure of respect for an NFL cornerback is the number of times he is thrown at. Opposing quarterbacks no longer avoid Haden. Instead, they target him now that they see he's not much of a threat.

Right now, he needs to be the man because no one else is stepping up. He has to start playing like everyone believes he can or risk losing that shutdown status and start preparing to be called what Elvis Patterson was all those years ago.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday leftovers

We’re three games into the 2014 season and still waiting for Mike Pettine’s wonderful, aggressive, beat-the-snot-out-of-you defense to arrive.

Thus far, Browns fans have been treated to a defense that has been most offensive in a most unflattering way. Weak pass rush, almost no resistance against the run and a secondary that has become soft pretty much sums it up.

The offense, for the most part, has done its job. But the defense, which was supposed to be the strength of the 2014 Browns, hasn’t come even close to living up to its advance billing.

Some will argue that numbers – we’ll get into those shortly – do not tell the whole story. They say with any kind of break, the Browns very well could be 3-0 heading into the bye week.

If only the offense had awakened sooner in the season-opening loss in Pittsburgh. Or come through with a simple clutch play in the latter stages of the loss to Baltimore Sunday at home.

Maybe so, but there is a common thread in those losses. The defense had a chance to pick up the offense in both cases and failed. It failed when it mattered the most.

The Steelers maneuvered into position to kick the game-winning field goal with precious little time remaining. The Ravens did the same thing with the same result. In both cases, the defense collapsed.

Those breakdowns serve as a microcosm for the way the defense has performed this season. It has to be embarrassing for a head coach who has been nicknamed Blunt Force Trauma. The manner in which the defense has performed has been anything but blunt, not very forceful and hardly traumatic.

In three games, opposing offensive lines are controlling – no, make that beating up – the Cleveland defensive line. If it were a boxing match, standing 10 counts would be the norm.

In football, it all starts up front. It is a fact that games are won and lost in the trenches. You can have all the skill players you want, but if you don’t have the big, bad guys up front who do their jobs, your chances of winning drop dramatically.

The Cleveland offensive line has upheld its end of the bargain after a slow start in the first half of the Pittsburgh game. The same cannot be said about their brethren on the other side of the ball.

Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore have bashed the run defense for nearly 154 yards a game, as opposed to just 111 a game last season, and 426 yards a game overall. Unless you have an offense like Denver or New England, that’s a recipe for disaster.

This whole disappointing scenario falls on the shoulders of Pettine, whose reputation as a solid defensive coach preceded him to Cleveland. He talked intimidating defense and boasted that he brought the hammer (57 sacks) as defensive coordinator in Buffalo last season.

So how many sacks do the Browns have this season? Five. An average of 1.67 a game. They are on pace for 27. They had 40 last season.

Stats geeks, checking deeper into Pettine’s scheme last season, will tell you the Bills’ defense surrendered 358 yards a game, nearly 230 of them through the air. If it weren’t for the high sack total, the Buffalo defense last season was nothing special.

Making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks is Pettine’s calling card. So where is the intimidation? Where is the fear-based defense that was supposed to strike terror in the opposition?

Right now, the defensive line is nothing more than a highway to the secondary. Too often, we’ve seen running backs crash through the defensive front as if they weren’t there. Opposing offensive linemen have been getting to the second level with astonishing regularity.

Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant are merely taking up space. Whenever a big play is needed, Pettine’s system fails much more frequently than it succeeds.

One last criticism: Why all the 12-men-in-the-huddle penalties on defense? It appears as though the various situational defensive packages the Browns use are confusing the coaching staff. The Browns have been flagged five times for an extra man in the huddle and forced to take a timeout on two other occasions.

Pettine maps out the game plans, but defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is thought to be responsible for making certain the right men are on the field at the right time. Perhaps it’s time to simplify the game plans because the current ones are not working.
*          *          *
Where was the no-huddle in the Baltimore loss? For some reason, it was abandoned. Maybe because Pettine thought the Ravens were expecting it. If so, that’s overthinking.

Never give an opposing coach any credit for anything until he proves it is warranted. The Ravens have had problems with up-tempo offensive this season, allowing 6.2 yards per play. Not once did the Browns run consecutive plays without a huddle.

The manner in which the Browns’ offensive line handled the Ravens up front should have triggered at least a thought about going no huddle. Kyle Shanahan seemed too interested in gadget plays involving his backup quarterback to be bothered by something so comparatively mundane.
*          *          *
Ask Browns fans if they know who Christian Yount is and many of them will reply, “Christian who?” That’s the kind of lonely life a long snapper lives in the National Football League. All Yount gets paid to do by the Browns is snap a football. He doesn’t yearn to become famous. He loves being anonymous.

Lately, though, Yount’s name has popped up in game stories or sidebars. And when a long snapper’s name appears in stories, there goes the anonymity. It’s more like a clarion call to start preparing your resume.

Yount’s sloppy snaps have caught the attention of the coaching staff. Some have been too high. Some have been too slow. Others have been dangerously low and skidded to holder Spencer Lanning. Too many of them have required Lanning to bail out his snapper with good holds.

One bad snap on an extra point attempt against New Orleans was so bad, it forced Lanning to pick up the ball and run unsuccessfully for two points. On the eventual game-winner, the snap was so slow, the Saints nearly blocked it.

Both of Yount’s field goal snaps in the fourth quarter against Baltimore were slow back to Lanning, one of them low. Billy Cundiff hit the upright from 50 yards on the first and the second one was blocked. Make either of those kicks and the Ravens would have been forced to score a touchdown to win the game.
*          *          *
Brian Hoyer still seems to be having minor problems timing up with his receivers. Too many times we see those receivers having to reach back for the ball instead of reaching in front of them and catching it in stride.

His lack of arm strength on long throws has forced wideouts to either slow down or come back for the ball. Underthrown passes are an invitation for interceptions. Hoyer is fortunate thus far that he hasn’t thrown one.
 *          *          *
Hoyer called the Ravens’ loss “heartbreaking” after the game. Now he knows how most Browns fans feel after such a loss. “It’s going to be a long two weeks (until the next game in Tennessee).  . . We had some opportunities to put this game away and we didn’t do it. It’s on us.” A familiar lament. Only the names change.
*          *          *
Notebook: Three games, all decided on the final play by a field goal. That’s got to be some sort of record. . . . Is it correct to say the Browns lost the Ravens game more than the Ravens won it? Played just well enough to lose it? . . . How much closer is Isaiah Crowell to being the No. 1 running back? . . . The Browns have allowed 73 first downs (24 a game) and owned the ball just 28 minutes a game.  . . . Opposing quarterbacks are completing 65.7% of their passes against the Browns. . . . Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins is on pace to catch 112 passes this season. . . . Rookie fullback Ray Agnew is quietly looking like the best fullback the Browns have had since Lawrence Vickers.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A serious failure to win

Over the years, the Browns have come up with many different and wonderfully creative ways to lose football games. You name it, the Browns most likely have done it.

You don’t rack up the National Football League’s worst overall record in the last 15 seasons without a wide variety of self-inflicted wounds.

Sunday’s 23-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in front of the home fans only added to the massive amount of frustration those fans have built up since 1999. It was just another case of the Browns turning a victory into yet another loss. By now, they are used to it.

You could almost see the loss coming. Justin Tucker’s third field goal of the game with no time left was almost anticlimactic as the Ravens remained composed down the stretch despite being down by one. The Browns, predictably, fell apart.

Whenever they needed a big play, especially in the fourth quarter, they failed. Missed opportunities R (imagine a reversed R) the Browns. Whenever the Ravens needed a big play, they nailed it.

With five minutes left in regulation and down a point, the Ravens needed a stop. They got it, forcing the Browns into their first three-and-out of the afternoon. But the Cleveland defense, which surrendered another 377 yards of offense, struck back and forced Baltimore coach John Harbaugh to make a tough decision.

Well, tough might not be the appropriate adjective here. After all, these were the Browns, a team he has lost to just once. Facing a fourth-and-long at his 35, Harbaugh chose to punt with a 2:19 left and the distinct possibility the Ravens might never see the ball again.

But these were the Browns, not the Pittsburgh Steelers or Cincinnati Bengals, teams that rarely blow games. Harbaugh just knew they would somehow screw up their next possession. He believed the Browns would dig deep into their well of misery and somehow mess up. And that’s exactly what they did.

After Travis Benjamin allowed Sam Koch’s punt to bounce to the Cleveland 7 (bad move), all the Cleveland offense needed was just one first down to win the game since the Ravens burned their last two timeouts during the possession. One stinking first down. Is that too much to ask for? With this team, that’s a rhetorical question.

Brian Hoyer, who was magnificent in the first three quarters (17-of-19 for 214 yards and a touchdown) failed to deliver when it mattered most, throwing behind Andrew Hawkins in first-down territory on third down. A second straight three-and-out and the Ravens, after Spencer Lanning’s mediocre punt, began their winning drive at midfield.

One big play. That’s all the Browns needed on either side of the ball. Just one big play and the game would have been over. All they received was failure after failure to come through in the clutch. That’s obviously what Harbaugh thought when he decided to punt.

Then it was the Cleveland defense’s turn. It was their turn to come up with the clutch play. An interception (they had one already). A fumble. A sack. Anything that would stanch the momentum.

It took only two plays against that porous defense to put the Ravens in position to win the game. Wide receiver Steve Smith got behind Joe Haden. Joe Flacco bought some time in the pocket and then hooked up with Smith on a 32-yard pass play.

Smith is the Ravens’ best receiver. How and why he was allowed to get so open between Haden and strong safety Donte Whitner is something the coaching staff will have to explain. It should never have happened. Four plays later, Tucker hit the game-winner.

Despite all this misfortune, the Browns still had every opportunity to win this game.

The Cleveland offense played so well in the first three quarters, it moved offensive tackle Joe Thomas to say after the game his team “could have had easily 40 points.” Coulda, woulda, didn’t.

Tashaun Gipson’s interception on the first series of the fourth quarter set up the Cleveland offense at the Baltimore 30-yard line. The offense proceeded to slam it in reverse. Three plays and minus-two yards later, Billy Cundiff’s 50-yard field-goal attempt caromed off the left upright and bounced the wrong way.

The very next Cleveland possession should have resulted in a 79-yard touchdown pass to rookie Taylor Gabriel that would have given the Browns a 28-17 lead with about eight minutes left. Shoulda, woulda, didn’t.

Hoyer hit a wide-open Gabriel around the Baltimore 25, but he misjudged the ball and had to jump to corral it at the last second, falling untouched to the ground. He got back up, but was chased down by Jimmy Smith and brought down at the 9. And that’s when Murphy’s Law returned.

Three straight negative plays later (reverse gear again), Cundiff could have given the Browns a four-point lead with a field goal, meaning the Ravens would have needed a touchdown to take the lead.

But Asa Jackson, the outside man on left side of the kick-block line, which was overloaded to the kicker’s right, burst free, brushed off a token slap to the chest by Cleveland’s Billy Winn and smothered the 36-yard attempt.

The missed opportunities just kept on coming.

It was at this point that the inevitable starting coming into focus. The Browns were doing everything to lose this game and the Ravens, understandably, were not going to stop them from doing so.

Along the way, the generous Cleveland defense made stars of Lorenzo Taliaferro and Kyle Juszczyk, a couple of unknowns who had never before this game touched a football in a regular-season game. They looked like seasoned pros.

Taliaferro was in the lineup only because the Ravens were short-handed at the running back position with the Ray Rice suspension and an injury to Bernard Pierce. The rookie looked like a veteran as he sliced the defense for 91 yards and a touchdown.

Juszcsyk, a Cleveland-area native who played his high school ball at Cloverleaf in Lodi, caught three passes for 54 yards, scored once and delivered numerous crunching blocks for Taliaferro and Justin Forsett as the sieve-like Browns run defense was shredded for another 160 yards.

As it turned out, it was just another losing day at the office for the Browns at the Factory of Sadness. This one will fester a little longer. The bye is next.

Depending on your perspective, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Same old Ravens? Not really

The Baltimore Ravens, who invade Cleveland for Sunday’s game against the Browns, are not the same old Ravens.

No more Ray Lewis. No more Ed Reed. No more Ray Rice. No more swaggering teams that won a couple of Super Bowls in the last 15 seasons. No, those days are gone.

Instead, the Ravens who roll into town for the game are mere shadows of those bygone days when winning was not only expected, it was demanded by the strong personalities of Lewis and Reed.

These Ravens are reeling emotionally because of the scandal surrounding the recent release of Rice, and yet they are still a good team, make no mistake about that. There is still enough talent on the roster to play winning football. But they don’t scare anyone like they used to.

They still play stingy football on defense, giving up only 29 points (one touchdown and a whole bunch of field goals) while splitting their first two home games with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Nothing new there. But it’s not an intimidating defense.

There are plusses and minuses. The Ravens surrender just 32-plus yards per possession. They lead the National Football League in red-zone efficiency and limit the opposition to less than 90 yards a game on the ground

But they are missing an element of their game on that side of the ball that has enabled them to be so successful: the turnover. They have only two sacks and just one interception (by none other than defensive tackle Haloti Ngata).

The Browns, on the other hand, average 152½ yards on the ground and have yet to turn the ball over in their first two games. Can’t remember when they went that long and not gifted the opposition with the football.

There is no question that when the Cleveland offense introduces itself to the Baltimore defense, it can expect sizable resistance on the ground. That offense, which has played in fits and starts thus far this season, will receive its first big challenge.

Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, whose significant contributions to the Cleveland running game have made Ben Tate’s absence more palatable than expected, face their toughest test of the season. So, too, does the offensive line.

It is obvious the two rookies love to run behind the new zone-blocking scheme, which has opened numerous holes on the edges of the line of scrimmage. And Crowell has showed a surprising burst of speed that enables him to take full advantage.

One area the Browns most likely will explore is the up-tempo game, which has proved very successful thus far. They unveiled a no-huddle offense in the second half of the season opener in Pittsburgh, tying the game after trailing by 24 points at the half, and used it on occasion in the New Orleans victory.

The Ravens, who bring a four-game road losing streak against the AFC North into this one, do not handle the no-huddle well, giving up 6.2 yards per play against it. And with Brian Hoyer getting more comfortable with the scheme by the possession, it would not surprise to see a lot of it Sunday.

Joe Flacco, unbeaten in 11 games against Cleveland before a 24-18 loss last November, leads the pass-heavy Baltimore offense. Nearly two of every three plays is a pass. That’s a problem for the Browns.

The Steelers and Saints strafed the Cleveland secondary for 627 yards in the first two games, completing 68% of their passes. Throw in the 301 yards they gained on the ground and all of a sudden, one has to seriously question whether Mike Pettine’s defense is working.

Flacco targets most of his passes for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels and wide receiver Steve Smith, who have caught 35 of his 56 completions. Wideouts Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, long-distance threats who have burned the Browns in the past, have been unusually quiet this season with just seven catches for 80 yards.

The Baltimore running game, in the absence of Rice, is now being handled by veterans Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett with only a modicum of success.

Even though the statistics favor the Ravens, this figures to be a close, low scoring game with the defenses taking center stage.

Look for the Cleveland run defense to tighten up with the return of defensive tackle John Hughes. And the secondary can’t be that bad three games in a row, can it? A lot depends on how much pressure the front seven places on Flacco. The beleaguered secondary needs help.

One interesting statistic linking Flacco and Pettine to remember: When the Cleveland coach was defensive boss in Buffalo last season, his Bills picked off five of the Baltimore quarterback’s 50 passes and sacked him four times in a 23-20 victory.

Does that mean Pettine has discovered the formula for beating Flacco? Probably not, but it certainly has to make him think when he lines up and tries to figure out what the Cleveland defense is up to.

Again, this will not be a high-scoring game with just a few touchdowns. It probably will go down to the final minutes with the team that has the ball last winning the game by a field goal. That team will be Cleveland and that kicker will be Billy Cundiff. Make it:

Browns 16, Ravens 14

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Head games 

They’re doing it again.

Browns coach Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan, his offensive coordinator, are confidently boastful they now have successfully crawled into the heads of defensive coordinators around the National Football League.

By publicly admitting rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel now has been given a package or two of plays, they now believe they are sending a message, almost like a threat, to those defensive chiefs: Ya never know when we’re going to use Johnny.

Plan all you want for Brian Hoyer, but just know we’ve got Johnny in our back pocket and we’re able to use him at any time.

Yeah, like all those coordinators are going to cower in fear at the possibility of having to face Manziel at any time during a game. Like they’re going to spend hours and hours in their laboratories devising ways of stopping the kid.

“You weigh the pros and cons when you do something like that,” Pettine explained to the Cleveland media. “We’re forcing an opponent (to spend) extra time to prepare for that. Now they have to worry about the zone-read element of the game plan.”

The key word there is “worry.” Why in the world would a defensive coordinator worry about a player whose transition to the pro style game is on a very slow track? Why would they be concerned about a player who hasn’t proven a thing in the NFL?

Prepare for Manziel? Yes. You prepare for all eventualities.

Worry? C’mon.

The Browns appear to be threatening other NFL teams with a player whose reputation as a playmaker was gained on a much smaller stage than the NFL. Watch out or we’ll throw Manziel at you. Oooooooo. Scary.

“It makes (the opposition) think about other stuff,” added Shanahan. “Makes people have to work other stuff. We definitely got some different fronts and different coverages when (Manziel) was in there (against the Saints).”

Manziel’s brief appearance in the New Orleans victory last Sunday didn’t seem at all to affect the defense-challenged Saints, who shut him down with zero total yards on three plays. Yeah, that little change of pace really scared them.

What makes football coaches think they can outsmart other football coaches? Getting cute in football works as often we experience a lunar eclipse. OK, an exaggeration, but it’s about time football coaches are exposed for what they really do: Practice psychology without a license.

The only way the other 31 defensive coordinators around the NFL will take Pettine seriously is when Manziel backs up the coach’s words with positive results. Until then, it’s time to concentrate on making Hoyer a better quarterback and quit making veiled threats.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday leftovers

Even though Johnny Manziel made a guest appearance in the Browns’ dramatic last-second victory Sunday over the New Orleans Saints, Brian Hoyer is firmly entrenched as the club’s starting quarterback.

Why Manziel was inserted into the game on the first series of the third quarter is puzzling since the Browns, for the most part, had everything under control. They led, 16-10, at the time and Hoyer was playing mistake-free football.

Perhaps it was Mike Pettine’s way of warning the rest of the National Football League that he has another weapon in his offensive gun belt and isn’t afraid to use it. You know, give the opposition something to think about.

“Just as a change-up, we had that package ready to go,” Pettine said after the game. “It’s something we had worked on. . . . I thought we had stalled a little bit on offense and just wanted to see if we could catch them off guard and get a spark. To their credit, they defended it well.”

Coaches oftentimes think too much. To call Manziel’s contributions a package is a bit of a misnomer. A package consists of more than one or two plays at a time. This “package” was pedestrian at best.  

Manziel’s contributions were, at best, brief and unspectacular. He entered the game about a minute into the third quarter shortly after a Hoyer incompletion on first down. Isaiah Crowell gained three yards on a freeze-option handoff from Manziel, who was lined up in the pistol. And just like that, he was gone, back on the sidelines.

He appeared again for a couple of plays on the next possession, Crowell was dropped for a three-yard losss on virtually the same play, same formation. Manziel then hit Ray Agnew on simple out in the left flat near the sideline, but the rookie fullback dropped the ball when hit. And then Manziel was gone again, this time for good.

If this is the kind of package to which Pettine was referring when alerting the media –and, of course the opposition – that there was a possibility Manziel might play, time to go back to the well-used drawing board.

All that does is threaten to destroy whatever timing and rhythm Hoyer builds up during the course of a game. For all the cleverness offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dreams up, it is counterproductive to the end goal of the Cleveland offense.

It wasn’t as though Hoyer, who admitted he was upset when informed of Pettine’s plan to use Manziel, was struggling against the Saints. They didn’t need to see a new look. The way the Saints reacted to Manziel’s sudden appearance, it was as though they expected it and were ready for it.

Right now, Manziel is not nearly ready to run this offense. He might some day improve to the point where he can be trusted to come in and run a series. Not just a play here or two there. A whole series from start too finish.

It’s unfair to both quarterbacks to take this tack. It begs the hackneyed sports term – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Hoyer did not need any help against the Saints. He was in control. Sure he made a few bad throws, but they did not hurt.

Sometimes – no, make that too many times – a head coach or coordinator tries to get cute and drop the unexpected on the opposition. Too often, they get too cute and outsmart themselves. That’s when negatives things take place. Fortunately for the Browns, Manziel’s contributions turned out to be benign.

Before Shanahan thinks about pulling that same stunt down the road, it behooves him to make certain Manziel is ready to perform. He wasn’t this time.
*       *       *
For those of you still missing D’Qwell Jackson, take a close look at how his position should be played because his successor so far is putting on a clinic. Take a real close look at Karlos Dansby.

The strong side inside linebacker is the oldest and easily craftiest man on the roster. He is the glue of a defense that, at times, can be extremely stingy. He’s the captain of that defense and calls the signals, making sure everyone is where he needs to be.

At the same time, he seems to be everywhere. If he is not policing the line of scrimmage, he’s either dropping back into a zone in pass coverage or blitzing from just about anywhere. And his tackling is superb.

Last season, he was the glue on an Arizona defense that surprised a lot of people around the NFL and the main reason the Cardinals came awfully close to qualifying for the postseason. Many observers thought he should have been elected to the Pro Bowl.

Dansby, who will be 33 in November, is picking up where he left off in the desert. He led the Browns in tackles with 12 against the Saints, eight solo, was credited with two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and a sack of Drew Brees in one of the key plays in Sunday’s victory.
*       *       *
Fellow linebacker Paul Kruger looks like a different player this season. Maybe it’s the Pettine style of aggressive defense. Whatever, the linebacker is making plays and justifying the nice contract the Browns rewarded him with last season.

He was relentless from the strong side all afternoon, registering a sack, three quarterback hits, one tackle for loss and a pass defensed. His harassment of Brees caused the New Orleans quarterback to throw what turned into a Tashaun Gipson pick 6 in the second quarter. He’s finally looking a lot like the linebacker who helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl a couple of years ago.
*       *       *
Nice to see Miles Austin contribute to the cause. No telling how the Saints game would have turned out had the veteran wide receiver not helped Hoyer and made himself available on the final drive for a 13-yard reception that moved the ball to the Cleveland 48 and ultimately led to the play that set up the winning field goal.

Austin broke off his route down the left sideline when he saw Hoyer in trouble and scrambling. Instead of just staying put, he maneuvered back toward Hoyer, giving his quarterback a target. The completion survived replay. Two plays later, Hoyer hooked up with Andrew Hawkins. If Austin does not make the play, the Browns are second and 10 at their 38 with just 19 seconds left.
*       *       *
So how did the Saints blow up the Cleveland defense after a slow start? By forcing the Browns’ secondary into mismatches with tight end Jimmy Graham, tightening up the pass protection and setting the edge for running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

Graham, a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, was unstoppable. But for some reason, the Saints used him sparingly on their final possession and holding a one-point lead. They took a shade more than six minutes off the clock, but Graham saw the ball just once, an 11-yard completion on the third play of the drive. They believed he was more valuable as a blocker.
*       *       *
Notebook: The Browns were penalized twice for having 12 men in the huddle, once on offense and once on defense. Inexcusable. It’s only a five-yard penalty, but it shows confusion by the coaching staff. . . . Speaking of penalties, the Browns were flagged just four times for 30 yards. A distinct improvement. The worst was a 10-yard holding penalty on Joe Thomas following a 23-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins on third down on the first possession of the second half . . . The Browns are now 2-14 in home openers since 1999. The only other victory was the season-opening 20-3 triumph over the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. The Browns finished 4-12 in Butch Davis’ last season. . . .  The victory improved the Browns’ all-time record against New Orleans to 13-4. They won the first eight and now five of the last six. . . .  Hawkins leads the Browns with 14 receptions in the first two games for 157 yards, but has yet to score.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Not this time

The emotion on Brian Hoyer’s countenance said it all as he watched the football sail through the air Sunday in the final seconds of the Browns’ home opener against the New Orleans Saints.

When Billy Cundiff’s placement sailed cleanly between the uprights from 29 yards with three seconds left to give the Browns a 26-24 victory, Hoyer, on his knees watching almost pleadingly, pitched forward in a combination of utter joy and relief.

He rolled, it seemed almost helplessly, onto his front side with his feet rising up behind him. It was as though an enormous weight had been lifted, not only on him, but his teammates, who celebrated with unbridled joy.

The Browns’ quarterback had never before led a team from behind in the final moments of a National Football League game. Until now. And the importance of what he eventually accomplished welled up inside and finally escaped.

The kid from Cleveland started what turned out to be the winning drive from his 4-yard line with just 2:36 left and a one-point deficit. All he needed to do was get close enough for a field goal. Now you have to understand that Browns fans are conditioned to think something is going to go wrong in the final stages of a game and their team in a position win.

Sometimes, it’s a fumble. Other times, it’s an intercepted pass or a penalty at the wrong time or the coaching staff working its magic with clock mismanagement. You name it and the Browns, at least the Browns since 1999, unfailingly find a way to blow it.

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, Hoyer had seen it many times. This time, though, he could finally do something about it. But he had to do it the hard way, starting the final drive with his back scraping his goal line and three timeouts in his back pocket.

In what seemed like an eternity, Hoyer masterfully engineered an 85-yard drive in 14 plays and, with a little help from replay and a large dose of good fortune on third and fourth downs, put his team in a position to win.

It started poorly with an incomplete pass and a one-yard loss for running back Terrance West. But the Browns caught a break on the latter play as the Saints were penalized for a neutral zone infraction. So instead of third-and-11 at the 3, they had second-and-5 at the 9. A four-yard run by West and a four-yard third-down completion to Miles Austin opened up some room.

Another third-down completion to Austin, who scored the Browns’ first touchdown in the first quarter, kept the chains moving. And without a 10-yarder to tight end Gary Barnidge on fourth-and-6 at the Cleveland 38 with 26 seconds left, we are not talking about a victory.

On the next play, with just 19 seconds remaining, Hoyer and Austin hooked up on a 13-yarder when the veteran wide receiver smartly came back along the left sideline to help out his scrambling quarterback. The clock wound down to eight seconds as all of Browns Nation screamed for a timeout.

The replay official called for a review, upheld the call on the field, reset the clock to 15 seconds and the Browns did not have to take the timeout. Then it happened. But this time, it happened to the opposition.

On second-and-10 at the Saints’ 39 – well out of Cundiff’s range – with 13 seconds left, the Browns needed a miracle. It arrived in the form of a blown coverage by the Saints' secondary and Hoyer found a stumbling, bumbling, I-can’t-believe-I’m-this-wide-open Andrew Hawkins by his lonesome around the New Orleans 20.

Browns Nation held its collective breath as the slightly underthrown pass floated toward Hawkins. Just catch the damn thing, they thought. He did and was brought down at the 11.

But then came the negative thoughts again. After all, the reason the Browns trailed by a point was due to a bad snap by long snapper Christian Yount following Tashaun Gipson’s 62-yard pick 6 late in the second quarter that gave the Browns a 16-3 lead. Cundiff never got his foot on the ball as punter/holder Spencer Lanning tried to run it in and failed.

Instead of going for two points after West gave the Browns a 22-17 lead late in the third quarter with a nine-yard scoring run, coach Mike Pettine opted for the placement, so the missed extra point loomed larger and larger as the game progressed.

And with Brees dissecting the Cleveland defense after a slow start (the Saints ran just 18 plays, gained a measly 33 yards and punted four times in their first four possessions), playing pitch and catch with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, that point looked huge.

Beginning with the final drive of the first half, the Saints scored touchdowns on three straight possessions to take a 24-23 lead with 12 minutes left in regulation. They smartly took advantage of Graham’s size and speed and created mismatches all over the field.

No one could keep up with the 6-5, 260-pounder with strong, massive hands. Not Joe Haden. Not Buster Skrine. Not Donte Whitner. When he lined up wide as a wide receiver, Graham was unstoppable. Brees found him 10 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

It was an unfair fight when Graham lined up outside. They did the Browns a favor whenever they kept him in to block.

The Browns, as well and aggressively as they played in the first half, could not stop the Saints until Karlos Dansby came up with, in retrospect, what might be considered the play of the game on that side of the ball.

The Saints, driving yet again late in the fourth quarter, reached the Cleveland 31 when Brees dropped back to pass on third-and-5. Dansby stormed up the gut untouched on a middle blitz and sacked Brees for a seven-yard loss.

So instead of fourth and 5 at the 31 and the possibility of a Shayne Graham 49-yard field goal, it was fourth-and-12 at the 38 and the improbability of a 56-yarder by Graham. Thomas Morstead’s punt pinned the Browns back at their 4 and the rest is history.

Murphy’s Law hovered over Cleveland several times Sunday, but this time decided to leave town. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Defense takes a back seat

When the New Orleans Saints help the Browns open their home season Sunday, two things will be most evident. The Saints will throw the football a lot. And the Browns will run the football a lot.

That’s where these teams excel. When Drew Brees is your quarterback, you had better feature the forward pass. And when Brian Hoyer is your quarterback, you had better feature the running game.

This is no slam at Hoyer, who has performed admirably for the Browns when healthy. But he is no Drew Brees. Not even close. And Brees does not need a running game to be effective. He’s that good.

And considering the way in which Ben Roethlisberger deconstructed the Cleveland secondary in the first half of last Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, Brees must be salivating just thinking about what lies ahead after watching tapes of that one.

Now in his 14th season, Brees has thrown for nearly 51,500 yards – he’ll reach that figure with the first 86 yards against the Browns – and 364 touchdowns, completing an astounding 65.9% of his 6,841 passes. He lives to throw the football.

The Browns’ front seven should have no problem locating the smallish Brees, who is only a half-inch taller than Johnny Manziel. He will be either in or very close to the pocket at all times. He rarely wanders and has arguably the quickest release in professional football.

You can almost bet Browns coach Mike Pettine will liberally rotate his defensive linemen to keep them fresh because the only way to have any chance of beating Brees or slowing him down or force him to unload the ball before he wants to is to harass him relentlessly.

In Saints coach Sean Payton’s offense, the run game is almost an afterthought. Last season, for example, Pierre Thomas was the leading ground gainer with just 549 yards. The ball was airborne on nearly two of every three plays.

This is an offense built around throwing the ball. And with receivers like Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, rookie Brandin Cooks and All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, running the ball takes a very comfortable back seat.

Where the Saints are vulnerable is on defense, at least based on the first game of the season. In losing to Atlanta in overtime in the season opener, that defense was gouged for 568 yards and the secondary was torched by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for 448 of those yards and three touchdowns.

Former Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan took over coordinating that side of the ball for the Saints last season and brought some order to one of the National Football League’s worst defenses the year before. It finished fourth in total defense and second against the pass. And yet, it was clueless against Atlanta.

All the more reason the Browns’ offense must be prepared for what should be a full out Ryan blitzkrieg. Which, of course, makes it vulnerable against the running game. And with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell emerging last Sunday, that could translate into positive yardage for the Browns.

This could turn out to be a game of big plays. The Saints are used to them on both sides of the ball. The Falcons last Sunday rang up nine plays of 20 yards or more. The Cleveland secondary surrendered seven plays of 20 yards or more against Pittsburgh.

The Saints compiled 30 first downs and generated 472 yards of total offense against Atlanta, but the defense gave up 28 first downs. They were 8-of-13 on third down, but the defense allowed the Falcons to convert 6-of-11.

About the only way the Saints can win games, it seems, is by outscoring the opposition because the defense can’t stop it. And that’s where the Browns have a problem in this one.

They are not capable of outscoring teams because they don’t have enough talent on offense to overcome any defensive deficiencies. And they will need a nearly flawless defensive performance in order to have a chance against the Saints.

The only Cleveland team since 1999 that had the capability of staying in a game no matter how the defense played was the 2007 club that finished 10-6 and featured the passing of Derek Anderson, pass catching of Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow Jr. and running of Jamal Lewis.

This iteration of the Browns’ offense is quite different. Anderson had a gunslinger mentality. Hoyer is exactly the opposite. He’s much more of a technician who rarely takes chances. And no one in the current receiving corps comes close to what Edwards accomplished that season.

The one saving grace for the offense, if it can keep it up against the Saints, is the ability to hang on to the ball. Not one turnover against a Pittsburgh defense that is far superior to the Saints’, although Hoyer was fortunate the Steelers’ secondary dropped what should have been two interceptions.

Ball control will be the key against the Saints. The longer the Browns can keep Brees & Co. on the sideline and their defense fresh, the better chance they have of not going 0-2 for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. If the Browns can play relatively mistake-free football, they’ve got a shot.

The Saints can’t afford to open the season with two losses. Since 1990, only 12% of teams that begin the season that way wind up in the postseason.

Can’t say the same about the Browns. They do not harbor the same goals as New Orleans. Their immediate goal is respectability. The Saints immediate goal is getting back to the Super Bowl.

One final fact: The Saints are just 6-11 on the road since the 2012 season after posting an 18-6 record away from the Superdome from 2009-2011.

From a statistical standpoint, this should be a high-scoring game. The Browns rank 31st in total defense heading into this game; the Saints rank 32nd. The two worst defenses in the NFL collide. The movable objects vs. the resistible forces. In that case, the Saints hold a decided advantage with an explosive offense. Make it:

Saints 38, Browns 20 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday leftovers

The most surprised person at Heinz Field Sunday had to be Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

LeBeau had to figure Browns coach Mike Pettine would have to replace Brian Hoyer with Johnny Manziel in the second half of the Steelers’ 30-27 victory Sunday. After all, his defense made the Cleveland offense looked amateurish with only three first downs and three points in the first 30 minutes.

So it would have made perfect sense for Pettine to see what Manziel could do with the offense. How much worse would it have been? He had nothing to lose. LeBeau firmly believed he would see Manziel sometime during the game and was prepared for him.

But Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan never gave him the chance. They did something at halftime that hasn’t been seen with the Browns in a very, very long time. They made some intelligent halftime adjustments. And LeBeau wasn’t ready for them.

In less than 19 minutes, the Browns turned a 27-3 halftime deficit into a 27-27 game and scared the daylights out of the Steelers, putting points on the board on four consecutive drives.

Six plays, 80 yards and just 93 seconds into the second half, the Browns were on the scoreboard with their first touchdown. Hoyer, still the quarterback, operated a no-huddle offense. All of a sudden, the Browns were the hot knife on offense and the Pittsburgh defense was the butter.

The next Cleveland possession took only 2:31 off the clock and resulted in the first of two Isaiah Crowell touchdowns. The succeeding possession, a 75-yard drive, stalled at the Pittsburgh 7 and ended with a Billy Cundiff field goal as LeBeau scrambled to stop the bleeding.

All the while, the Cleveland defense played like the Pittsburgh defense in the first 30 minutes, limiting the Steelers’ offense to just 13 plays in three possessions at the beginning of the second half. And it took the resurgent Cleveland offense just another 2:25 to pull even early in the fourth quarter.

Four possessions totaling only 11 minutes and 14 seconds resulted in three touchdowns and a field goal for the Cleveland offense, rendering one of the National Football League’s best defensive coordinators helpless.

That’s probably because LeBeau was expecting to see someone else at quarterback for the Browns in the second half. See how much of an influence Manziel had on this game?
*       *       *
Many NFL people believe Joe Haden is one of the elite cornerbacks in the league. It seems, though, that his reputation far exceeds the talent he displayed against the Steelers.

He is far from elite and his so-called shutdown reputation took a severe hit Sunday. He can be easily fooled by double moves such as the one on Antonio Brown’s touchdown catch following a Ben Roethlisberger scramble in the second quarter.

Haden has been around long enough to know how to adjust to such moves, but apparently he is a slow learner. Roethlisberger repeatedly and successfully picked on rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, but did not shy away from Haden.

Haden’s man popped open too often in the first half, whether it was Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton or Justin Brown. If he wants to achieve shutdown status, he needs to tighten his man and press coverage. The Browns cannot afford to have problems on both sides of the field in pass coverage.
*       *       *
If improving the tackling has been one of the primary goals for Pettine and his defense, consider it a failure based on the Pittsburgh loss. How many times did we see Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell break tackles en route to a long run?

On his 38-yard touchdown run midway in the second quarter that gave the Steelers a 24-3 lead, Bell broke four tackles on his way to the end zone. The versatile running back touched the ball 27 times (21 carries and six pass receptions) overall and gained 197 of the Steelers’ 490 total yards.

The primary culprits of the sloppy-tackling squad were members of the front seven. When safety Donte Whitner (13 tackles, 12 solo), Gilbert (7 & 6) and corner Buster Skrine (6 & 3) are in the top four in that category, something is wrong.

That means too many running backs are getting past the line of scrimmage. Solid fundamental tackling, not the arm tackling the Browns seem to employ, could solve that problem.
*       *       *
Even tough it is only the first game, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Browns to improve in smoothly interchanging their defensive personnel without the need for calling a timeout. They've had four exhibition games to hone changing sub packages seamlessly. Pettine had to burn two timeouts in the first half because whoever was in charge could not count to 11. One of the timeouts needed to be called because the Browns had 13 defenders on the field. Inexcusable.
*       *       *
Antonio Brown said he was not trying to hurt Spencer Lanning when he tried to hurdle the Browns punter during a return midway through the second quarter. In doing so, he drove his right foot directly into Lanning’s face, knocking him down. Lanning popped right back up, but the replay showed Brown thrusting his cleats down toward Lanning’s face. He was not holding back. Looked suspiciously deliberate.
*       *       *
Nice to see Paul Kruger finally join the Browns. After disappointing last season, the big linebacker checked in with five tackles (four solo), a couple of sacks and two more quarterbacks hits. Most of his contributions came in the second half when the defense ramped up. If he can sustain that level of play, it bodes well for the rest of the defense.
*       *       *
Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby will make a huge difference this season. He is clearly an upgrade from D’Qwell Jackson. He is much more assertive on running plays and is much better in pass coverage. And when Pettine realizes rookie Chris Kirksey is a perfect running mate for Dansby, that little problem will be solved.
*       *       *
Notebook: The Browns had only 101 yards and three first downs in the first half. In the second half, they compiled 20 first downs and 288 yards and drove LeBeau nuts. . . . Their 183 yards on the ground were the most since Nov. 7, 2010, when they racked up 230 yards infantry style in a 34-14 victory over New England in Cleveland. Peyton Hillis ran for 184 yards in that game. . . . The Browns have to work on defending slip screens. The Steelers worked theme to perfection time and again in the first half. . . . Nice to see tight ends Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge make clutch catches in the second half in the absence of Jordan Cameron, whose shoulder injury could keep him out a while. . . . Key stat: the Browns committed no turnovers against the Steelers. More important than you think. . . . Hoyer was 15-of-21 for 173 yards in the second half. . . . And did anyone notice the Browns stuck with the ground game to open the second half despite being down by 24? . . . Kudos to Billy Cundiff, who produced four touchbacks in six kickoffs. The two that were returned were stopped at the 12- and 10-yard lines. . . . And finally, Travis Benjamin needs to stay in the end zone on deep kickoffs. Three of his five returns wound up inside the 20. No need to put the offense in a hole right off the bat. If the kick is deeper than five yards into the end zone, he needs to stay put. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Trying to figure out the split-personality Browns

Will the real Cleveland Browns please stand up?

No, not you guys who allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to basically manhandle you on both sides of the ball in the first half Sunday and race out to a 27-3 halftime lead. Sit down. You humiliated yourselves.

You guys on defense had no business being on the field with the Steelers, who racked up 372 yards and scored on five possessions and smacked you around in the process. To put it mildly, that was awful and embarrassing.

And you guys on offense looked like a schoolyard team that played football as though it was a foreign sport. It was as if you had just learned how to play the game.

OK, you guys who played the second half of the game, you can stand up. Stand up and be proud. Be proud of the way you didn’t turn the other cheek and fought back and scared the living daylights out of the Steelers.

Be proud of actually tying the game at 27-27 early in the fourth quarter when just about everybody was getting ready to throw dirt on your corpse after your miserable first 30 minutes.

It was as though you were a different team. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had nothing on you. Your bipolar personality shone through and thoroughly baffled the Steelers in the second half as you ran off 24 unanswered points.

At one point in the fourth quarter, the TV camera caught Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger – yeah, the guy who has tortured the Browns for the last 10 seasons and who passed for 278 yards in the first half  -- with a look that said, “What the hell is going on here?”

For the moment, and just for the sake of acknowledging the bottom line, Shaun Suisham’s 41-yard field goal that won the game, 30-27, for Pittsburgh with no time left should in no way lessen what happened in the second half.

Optimists might call this a moral victory. No it’s not. Moral victories are for losers. This one was more of a lesson learned that games consist of 60 minutes and teams that play only 30 of them don’t deserve to win.

Heads need to be held high, though, especially those responsible for the incredible and highly unexpected comeback. What happened produced a thoroughly enjoyable jolt to Browns Nation.

Heads that belong to quarterback Brian Hoyer, rookie running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and the offensive line. And the defense that dropped Roethlisberger four times and held the Pittsburgh offense to just 126 yards in the final 30 minutes.

Hoyer overcame an embarrassing first half to complete 19 of 31 for 230 yards and just one touchdown. But his command of the no-huddle offense and ability to make big plays to keep the chains moving and anchored the Pittsburgh defense to the field cannot be overlooked. The ball came out his hand a lot quicker in the second half.

West, who pounded out 100 yards against a tough, eight-men-in-the-box Pittsburgh defense, and Crowell, who scored on touchdown runs of 3 and 15 yards in the third quarter, have given the Browns a weapon they haven’t had in years – a dangerous ground game.

The offensive line decided at halftime to stop being mugged and provided some nice holes for West and Crowell and, at the same time, kept Hoyer relatively clean. The smallish Hawkins grabbed eight of the 10 passes thrown his way, several of the clutch variety.

The surprising display of Cleveland offense (288 yards in the second half) provided some solace at least for this game against a hated opponent. Yes, the game was lost, but so much respectability and confidence was gained in the second half. If nothing else, it proved it could be done.

As bad as the Browns were in the first half, they were just a few steps and a lucky break here or there from actually beating the Steelers. To be fair, though, they failed to stop the Steelers with the game tied and the ball at the Pittsburgh 43 with 41 seconds left.

They did not because Roethlisberger is a great player and great players make great plays for their teams at urgent times.  He produced just 87 yards through the air in the second half, but 33 of them came in the final drive with a 20-yarder to Markus Wheaton setting up Suisham for the final nail.

So what happened to turn around the moribund first-half offense in the second half? All of a sudden, it could do no wrong.

Was it the no-huddle attack that left the Pittsburgh defense gasping for air? You bet it was. For the first time since probably never, the Browns actually ran a no-huddle for most of the second half.

In the past, the only time fans saw the no-huddle was in the final minutes of a half or when they were in a close game and desperate down the stretch. No question that maneuver caught the Steelers by surprise.

And the defense, pushed around the entire first half by the Steelers’ offensive line, took the cue and responded. It was as if guys on that side of the ball said, “Hey, we actually do have an offense, so let’s take it up a notch.”

Roethlisberger looked human as the Cleveland pass rush either dropped him or forced him to unload before he wanted to. It produced a pair of three-and-outs early in the second half. It would have been three had the Steelers not desperately resorted to a successful fake punt.

Just like that, the Cleveland offense gobbled up yards to the consternation and frustration of the Pittsburgh defense. At one point, the Steelers had to call a timeout just to regroup.

Sunday’s season opener provided a rollercoaster of an afternoon for Browns Nation and a possible portent to the 2014 season. Or did it? Who knows what the next 60 minutes of the season will bring.

With this team, though, one thing is certain, at least based on what took place in Pittsburgh.

You never know. And that’s not bad.