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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.