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.

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