For a while there, the Browns had their fans fooled Sunday. After 30 minutes against the Arizona Cardinals they had something rare – the lead.
It was as though the two teams had switched uniforms. The hapless, going-nowhere-Browns played opportunistic football and translated three red-zone trips into touchdowns, securing a 20-10 lead against the most potent offensive team in the National Football League.
What in the world was going on? The offense was clicking and the defense was actually effective against the run and pass, creating a couple of turnovers along the way to create a 20-7 lead.
Then came the final 24 seconds of what would have been an almost perfect first half. After scoring on the first series of the game, the Cardinals were neutralized by the Browns’ defense.
But defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil ruined it by going prevent with 24 seconds left and the Cardinals took a Chandler Catanzaro field goal into the locker room as a gift after Michael Floyd’s touchdown catch was wiped out by offsetting penalties.
And then the Browns played the second half. Rules book said they had to.
The Cardinals started playing like the best offensive team in the NFL and the Browns started playing like one of the worst teams in the league on both sides of the ball. The 34-20 final in no way reflects how terrible Cleveland played in the final 30 minutes.
The offense had seven second-half possessions that wound up in four consecutive Andy Lee punts, two turnovers and turning the ball over on downs. In those seven possessions, the Browns owned the ball for just 11 minutes and 32 seconds and gained only 86 yards on 31 plays.
The offensive spark that existed in the first half was snuffed out by an Arizona defense that stepped up the pressure on Josh McCown. The Cleveland quarterback had produced two scoring passes to Brian Hartline and a third to Gary Barnidge, but disappeared under relentless pressure by the Arizona pass rush after intermission.
A shot to the sternum by Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter on the third play of the second half sent McCown, who entered the game with shoulder and rib injuries, to the bench bent over in obvious pain. Somehow he convinced coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo he could still be effective.
A healthy Johnny Manziel exchanged his cap for a helmet just in case, but did not enter the game until late in the fourth quarter when the game was already lost.
Perhaps buoyed by the defense’s crushing three-and-out on the Browns’ first series of the second half, the Cardinals’ offense struck suddenly when quarterback Carson Palmer connected with Floyd, who badly beat Joe Haden, on a 60-yard scoring bomb to climb within three at 20-17. Haden later left with a head injury.
Palmer, who often strafed the Cleveland secondary with deep passes, connected with Jaron Brown on a 39-yarder on the first play after the Browns went four-and-out on the next series. Three plays later, tight end Troy Niklas caught his second touchdown pass of the game.
The score was set up by Patrick Peterson’s 38-yard punt return that would have been an 86-yard touchdown if not for Isaiah Crowell’s shoestring tackle at the Cleveland 48. It was his most significant contribution of the afternoon.
The Cleveland defense actually woke up on the next two series, creating turnovers three and four on the afternoon – a Tashaun Gipson pick of another deep Palmer pass and Johnson Bademosi’s fumble recovery – but followed them with a three-and-out and McCown’s lone interception of the day.
Despite all their offensive problems, the Browns were down by only four points when Bademosi fell on Chris Johnson’s fumble at the Arizona 28-yard line in the final minute of the third quarter.
After a six-yard scramble by McCown produced a second-and-four, offensive left tackle Joe Thomas was flagged for a false start on the first play of the fourth quarter. So instead of a much easier second down, McCown was faced with a second-and-nine.
Up to that point, the Browns had run the ball only three times in 17 plays in the second half. DeFilippo, obviously giving up on the ground game, called on McCown to put the ball up again. And he did. Right into the hands of Arizona strong safety Rashad Johnson on what turned out to be the last Cleveland threat.
Palmer then engineered a 12-play, 80-yard drive, which culminated with a Larry Fitzgerald six-yard scoring catch. It took 5:20 off the clock, tired out a weary Cleveland defense and boosted the lead to 11 points at 31-20.
After Robert Turbin lost the ball for the second time in the game (Thomas recovered the first), Palmer directed another time-consuming drive, this time for 5:17 that resulted in Catanzaro’s second field goal. Along the way, the Cards converted three third downs. They were an incredible 13-of-16 for the afternoon in that category.
Statistics tell the story of this one, Palmer bombing the Cleveland secondary for 374 yards and four touchdowns, Chris Johnson rushing for 109 (of the Cards’ 119) yards, although it took 30 carries to get them, and the Cleveland offense going AWOL in the second half.
The Cleveland ground game, as usual, did not show up. When your quarterback is your leading ground gainer, that says an awful lot about the offensive line. Crowell picked up a meager 14 yards in 10 carries, while Turbin fumbled twice in three attempts.
On the plus side, that offensive line allowed just one sack of McCown, but that figure is very misleading considering the number of times McCown was drilled after delivering the pass. Once again, he was a human piñata.
For some reason, DeFilippo failed to utilized Duke Johnson Jr. more. The rookie running back touched the ball only three times, just once on the ground. His 52-yard catch and run with a McCown pass helped set up Barnidge’s s touchdown in the second quarter.
Considering the offense put up only 254 total yards and 16 first downs (three by penalty) on the day, it’s a head scratcher why Johnson isn’t more involved in all aspects of the offense. Isn’t that why they drafted him? Rhetorical question.
After a surprising start, all the players reverted to form and it turned out to be just another long, dreary day inside the Factory of Sadness.
Some things never change.