Thursday, November 5, 2015

Second-half blues redux

First the good news. The Browns actually played a decent football game in the first half of their Thursday night game in Cincinnati against the Bengals.

Yes they did. It wasn’t unlike their first half performance last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals at home although this time, they trailed the Bengals, 14-10.

Johnny Manziel actually looked like a National Football League quarterback, leading the Browns to drives of 71 yards (13 plays) and 92 yards (10 plays) that produced a Travis Coons field goal and Duke Johnson Jr. touchdown.

The defense gave up yardage grudgingly, holding quarterback Andy Dalton and the high-scoring Bengals to just a pair of Tyler Eifert touchdowns.

And now the bad news. For the second game in a row, the Cleveland offense disappeared in the second half, the Cleveland defense collapsed in the second half and that thud Browns fans felt was their team recapturing sole possession of the AFC North basement.

Don’t know what words of wisdom coach Mike Pettine imparted to his men between halves, but whatever it was, it didn’t work in spectacular fashion as the Bengals played near flawless football on both sides of the ball in the final 30 minutes en route to a 31-10 victory.

A national television audience saw first hand just why the Browns, who have lost four in a row and are 2-12 in their last 14 games, once again are well on their way to another double-digit loss season.

The offense had five possessions in the second half. The first four ended after three plays and gained a total of seven net yards. It began unceremoniously with an Alex Mack false start on the first play of the first series, followed by a four-yard loss by Isaiah Crowell on the only called run from scrimmage in the half.

Then it got worse.

The next 12 plays served as a signal for the defense, which had just enough time to take off the helmet and grab a drink, to get ready to return to the field. No break for the weary as the Bengals applied additional punishment.

The first four Cleveland possessions consumed 2:13, 1:08, 1:48 and 33 seconds. That’s 12 plays that took five minutes and 22 seconds off the clock. How demoralized the defense must have felt.

One can only imagine what the players thought while it all unfolded. “Are you kidding me?” “Already?” “We just got here.” “What the hell is going on out there?” “This is (fill in the blank)!!”

Of the 12 plays, only three resulted in positive yardage – a Manziel to Crowell checkdown that gained seven yards, an 11-yard scramble by Manziel and a six-yard slant to Travis Benjamin.

The Bengals, meanwhile, torched the Cleveland defense for 220 yards on their first four possessions of the second half culminating with Eifert’s third score of the evening, a Mohamed Sanu 25-yard reverse touchdown run that totally baffled the defense and a Mike Nugent field goal.

Adding to the frustration of the evening, the Browns squandered an opportunity to at least make the final score more respectable in the final stages of the game when Marlon Moore blocked a Kevin Huber punt at the Cincinnati 37-yard line.

Nine plays later, Manziel’s attempt to hit Benjamin in the end zone on one of his many scrambles of the night fell harmlessly following Dre Kirkpatrick’s failed attempt to intercept.

The Browns managed to get to the Cincinnati 10 on a pair of Manziel hookups with Dwayne Bowe (yep, that Dwayne Bowe) that totaled 27 yards, but an incomplete pass, Manziel sack and scramble that fell well short of the end zone neutered that rally as the Browns ran out of downs.

Manziel, much more effective when he rolled out, was victimized a couple of times in the second half by wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. On the first play of the second possession, a Manziel bullet right on target hit Gabriel on his left knee at the Cleveland 37 and bounced away. He dropped another good throw on the fourth possession.

At the half, sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson asked coach Mike Pettine his thoughts on Manziel’s first-half performance. “We’ll get him calmed down a little bit in the second half and hopefully get some more production,” he said in apparent reference to his quarterback’s predilection to leave the pocket.

Considering what Manziel and the Cleveland offense did in the second half, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Neither was the game called by offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who dialed up a ridiculous 20 straight pass plays in the second half.

The apparent need to throw on every down gave the Cincinnati defense a chance to froth and then feast on Manziel, who was sacked three times and harassed every time he dropped back to throw. The Cleveland offensive line didn’t stand a chance.

All in all, though, it certainly was a better Manziel performance than the last time he faced the Bengals last December in Cleveland. This time, he looked like he belonged. At least in the first half.

Just one more game remains now before the Browns finally reach their bye week. Unfortunately, that game is in Pittsburgh, where a Cleveland victory comes as often as a total solar eclipse.

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