Sunday, October 2, 2016

Three turnovers, one loss

The Browns found a unique way to lose their fourth straight game of the season Sunday against the Washington Redskins. They beat themselves. Badly.

Unlike the first three games, the mistakes were small and did not seriously impact the losing outcomes. In the 31-20 loss to the Redskins, however, the mistakes were few, but extraordinarily costly.

The Browns all but handed the Redskins their first victory at home this season after two losses with a pair of fumbles by running backs with the surname Johnson that significantly swung the momentum of the game in the opposite direction.

The Browns had overcome a 14-0 start by Washington on a pair of Jordan Reed touchdown passes from Kirk Cousins on the Redskins’ first two possessions of the game to actually take control.

The Cleveland offense started slowly before looking surprisingly like a very good National Football League offense. It scored on four consecutive possessions, including a pair of touchdowns in a 98-second span in the second quarter, to take a 20-17 lead deep into the third quarter.

Isaiah Crowell was running like the second-leading ground gainer in the NFL that he is, pounding out 99 of his eventual 112 yards and breaking numerous tackles along the way. Washington defenders bounced off him like he was a human bowling ball. On at least two occasions, he was an ankle-trip away from taking it all the way.

Rookie quarterback Cody Kessler, meanwhile, was super efficient, exhibiting unusual poise along the way. He wound up 11-of-11 on third-down passes with eight third-down conversions for the game.

The defense took the offense’s cue and disrupted Cousins’ rhythm, confusing him enough after the early touchdown throws to effectively shut down the Washington offense.

The Browns, playing as well as they have all season on offense, were headed to at least a field goal in the final moments of the third quarter when the gift giving began. Crowell had just ripped off a 14-yard gain on a checkdown pass, breaking at least three tackles along the way, advancing the ball to the Washington 16-yard line.

The Redskins had no answers for the Cleveland attack. Kessler and & Co. were humming and growing more confident with each play. The offensive line. which protected Kessler zealously, looked like a bunch of All-Pros in the ground game.

In no way did the Cleveland offense resemble what fans had witnessed in the first three games. Just about everything worked. It truly was fun to watch

And then coach Hue Jackson experienced a massive brain cramp, one that ultimately pulled the plug on whatever momentum the Browns had built up to that point.

With Crowell on the bench, catching his breath after the 14-yard gain, Jackson chose to get cute. He dialed up a dive play for fullback Malcolm Johnson, who carried the ball exactly zero times in the first three games. He’s a blocking fullback and a damn good one.

Duke Johnson Jr., who had also run well, was available for the first-down play. But no, the other Johnson got the call and the ball and proved why he is a very good blocking fullback.

Redskins defensive end Chris Jones ripped the ball out of Johnson’s grasp, cornerback Quinton Dunbar recovered at the 9-yard line and the consecutive scoring streak was blunted at four. Instead of at least a 23-17 lead on Cody Parkey’s third field goal of the afternoon, the lead remained at three.

As it turned out, Johnson’s fumble was the first of three straight Cleveland turnovers that enabled the Redskins to turn a three-point deficit into the 11-point victory and send the home folks, who were beginning to sense a third straight home loss, home happy.

That’s because the Cleveland defense didn’t pick up the offense, as it had done earlier when Jamar Taylor’s interception set up the second Cleveland touchdown, and reverted to the ground- and aerial-giving crew Cleveland fans are used to.

The Redskins, with new momentum, marched 91 yards in 12 plays to take the lead for good, Chris Thompson taking a swing pass the final six yards for the score.

And then the other Johnson in the Cleveland backfield, the much more reliable Duke Jr., was stripped of the ball three plays later by Washington defensive lineman Ziggy Hood near midfield and recovered by linebacker Will Compton at the Redskins’ 43.

The Cleveland defense stiffened, sacking Cousins twice to force a punt, but Tress Way’s boot stopped bouncing at the Cleveland 2, setting up turnover number three.

After a Crowell eight-yard gain, Kessler dropped back and committed his only big mistake of the afternoon when Washington cornerback Josh Norman, who had been out-dueled by Terrelle Pryor in the first half, undercut a Pryor route and picked off the pass at the Cleveland 39.

Four plays later, Matt Jones, who shredded the Cleveland defense for 117 yards after running for just 150 yards total in the first three games, barely squeezed out the final yard with 4:25 left in regulation.

Norman lined up against Pryor all afternoon and was taken to school by the bigger Cleveland receiver, who had four receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown in the first 30 minutes. Then Norman lived up to his shutdown reputation by shutting Pryor down with only one catch for four yards in the second half.

From the first Johnson fumble to the Jones touchdown, the Browns owned the ball four more times and barely crossed midfield on two occasions, never really threatening a comeback.

Whatever momentum and confidence they had built up in the first 44 minutes of the game evaporated in the final 16 mainly because a veteran head coach placed his trust in a football player he never should have trusted in the first place.

As it turned out, it cost the Browns a really good shot at a victory during a season when victories, albeit few and far between, are that much more precious because they are not expected.

This club keeps coming close, but that’s not good enough. Good clubs that come close usually find a way to win. Bad clubs that come close usually find a way to lose. And that is exactly what Browns fans sadly saw Sunday.

Up next, the very angry New England Patriots,, who were humiliated, 16-0, at home by the Buffalo Bills Sunday. As a side note, it marks the 2016 debut of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, fresh off a four-game suspension.

Oy! As if things couldn’t get any worse.

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