Sunday, November 15, 2015

Different game, same result

The Browns are in their 17th season since the resurrection in 1999 and while no one game can serve as a microcosm for the futility that has dogged this franchise since then, Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh comes awfully close.

The dark cloud that has hovered over this franchise keeps getting darker and darker as the losses pile up. Losing has become such a habit, fans are sometimes startled when the club wins a game.

After the 30-9 drubbing by the Steelers, the current losing streak has reached five games. Now that might not seem like a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but consider that Mike Pettine’s team has lost 13 of the last 15 games.

The Browns, who seemingly can’t catch break, thought they had caught one when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a mid-foot sprain last week. So when Landry Jones opened up at quarterback for Pittsburgh Sunday, hope appeared on the horizon.

Roethlisberger has destroyed the Browns throughout his 12-year career. Browns Nation does not need to be reminded of the gaudy numbers Big Ben has posted against Cleveland throughout what probably will be a Hall of Fame career.

He was uniform just in case something went wrong Sunday. Now factor in that these were the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, where Murphy’s Law (at least for Cleveland) hangs around, at least when Cleveland is in town.

It didn’t take long for something to go wrong. Jones limped off the field after right tackle Marcus Gilbert fell into his ankle while he threw a scrambling third-down pass on the Steelers’ second possession of the game. A taped-up Landry returned in the second quarter, but this was no longer his game.

Roethlisberger, watching the game from the sideline, immediately took off his baseball cap, retrieved his helmet and asked for a football to warm up. Didn’t even consult with coach Mike Tomlin. After all, these were the Cleveland Browns.

It was at that moment, shortly after Chris Boswell’s 24-yard field goal gave the Steelers a lead they never relinquished, that the game, for all intents and purposes, ended for the Browns. Nothing they did following that turn of events weighed in their favor.

Johnny Manziel threw for 372 yards, completing 33 of his 45 passes. But the only time he could get into the end zone – a six-yard throw to Gary Barnidge – was after the Steelers’ backup quarterback, who passed for three touchdowns, delivered his only pick of the game – on a deflection – early in the fourth quarter,

By then, Roethlisberger had fun playing mad bomber against a banged-up Cleveland secondary and a pass rush that pretended to rush the quarterback. He threw for 379 yards in relief, 286 of those in the first half.

Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown, the Mutt and Jeff of the Pittsburgh receivers corps, were targeted 24 times and rang up 16 catches for 317 yards and the three scores. They made the slow Cleveland secondary look sluggish.

It was obvious Big Ben babied his bad foot, which was protected by a specially padded shoe. He lined up primarily in the shotgun, occasionally stepping up under center for a quick handoff or an even quicker pass.

The Browns, meanwhile, had all kinds of trouble on offense whenever they approached the Pittsburgh goal line or were backed up against their own goal line.

In the first quarter, Manziel, whose fumble on the first play of the game resulted in a Pittsburgh field goal, found Travis Benjamin for a 61-yard pass and run to the Steelers’ 10-yard line. Three plays and zero net yards later, Travis Coons evened the score with a 23-yard field goal.

Late in the third quarter, a nice 12-play drive ostensibly produced a Manziel touchdown on a 12-yard scramble and dive into the end zone. The score was overturned on replay (all scoring plays are reviewed), but the Browns had a first-and-goal inside the 1. And then Murphy poked his head into matters.

Isaiah Crowell scored again, but rookie left guard Cameron Erving was caught holding Pittsburgh linebacker Arthur Moats. Crowell picked up three yards on the following play, but the Browns were penalized for an illegal formation. It was self destruction personified.

The backward march continued with Manziel dropped for a nine-yard loss by Ryan Shazier. So first-and-goal inside the 1 turned into a second-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 25. After two completions to Andrew Hawkins moved the ball to the 9, Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell ended the threat with a goal-line interception.

Later in the fourth quarter, Manziel drove the Browns again to the Pittsburgh 5 only to watch Benjamin drop a touchdown pass on second-and-goal before a couple of completions ended the day for the Cleveland offense.

The offense also had a problem at the end of the second quarter when the defense, which played exceptionally stout against the run for a change, stiffened at the goal line and kept the deficit at 14-3 with just 95 seconds left in the half.

With the ball just shy of touching the 1-yard line, the offense went soft, especially the five grunts up front. All the Browns needed was a solid push or two from that line and their halftime deficit would have been only 11.

A Manziel sneak gained about three inches. Timeout Pittsburgh. A Crowell dive gained maybe a couple of more inches. Timeout Pittsburgh. Tomlin wasn’t fooling around. He had the timeouts and used them expertly. It was psychologically effective.

The Pittsburgh coach realized his backup quarterback was hot and wanted to give him another shot. After a Manziel incompletion and Andy Lee punt, the Steelers were in business at the Cleveland 47 after the Browns had burned only 30 seconds off the clock.

A false start moved the ball back to the Pittsburgh 48. That only delayed the inevitable. Roethlisberger hit Brown for 20 yards with his first pass and Bryant for the remaining 32 yards for a 21-3 lead. It took him exactly 28 seconds. Two plays, two passes, seven points. Ball game.

In the second half, the secondary had all kinds or problems with Bryant and Brown, On an 80-yard drive that produced Boswell’s second field goal of the game midway through the third quarter, 77 of the 80 yards were a result of pass interference.

Overall, the secondary, which missed injured veterans Joe Haden and Donte Whitner, committed four pass interference penalties (Charles Gaines, Johnson Bademosi and two by Tramon Williams) adding up to 151 of the team’s 188 penalty yards.

The fourth PI occurred in the end zone late in the fourth quarter and the ball was placed at the Cleveland 1. As the final minute wound down, Tomlin mercifully (embarrassingly for the Browns?) had Roethlisberger take two knees.

The Browns now have two weeks off to recover from extending yet another long losing streak. The bye has arrived at just the right time. Browns fans can take the next week off and contemplate about anything other than football, which shouldn’t be difficult.

Next up, if you still care, is Baltimore in 15 days at home in front of a national television audience. And don’t think the Ravens don’t remember what happened in week five in Baltimore. Yep, that’s the last time the Browns wound up on top of a final score. 

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