Sunday, September 10, 2017

No ordinary loss

They lost their 13th straight season opener, their rookie quarterback was sacked seven times in his National Football League debut and Ben Roethlisberger improved his record against them to 22-2 Sunday.

But the Browns, particularly members of the defense, have nothing about which to be dismayed after their 21-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that was unusually taut right down to the final minutes.

No question is was a tough setback after battling back to within three points with 3:36 left in regulation and plenty of emotional momentum built up after having stopped the Pittsburgh offense on the previous two possessions.

Corey Coleman’s three-yard scoring reception and a successful two-point run by Isaiah Crowell behind Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio provided the late-game impetus.

The defense, the clear star of the game for the Browns, needed one more stop (they forced six punts by Jordan Berry) after shaving the lead to three. Just one more stop. Get the ball back and rock the joint.

By this time, though, coordinator Gregg Williams’ defense, which limited the outstanding Steelers offense to just 247 total yards up to that point, appeared spent. The crusher was a 38-yard reception by Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown among three defenders at the Cleveland 44 on a second-and-12 with 2:28 left in regulation.

Coach Hue Jackson challenged the call, but replay correctly upheld it, costing him his final timeout. It showed Brown was down with total control of the football before losing it well after the whistle blew.

A pair of gutsy fourth-down gambles by Jackson (both won) and a self-destructing Steelers defense, which was penalized repeatedly for major infractions, had energized the offense. The infractions accounted for five of the Browns’ 20 first downs,

The difference in the outcome, though, seemed relatively innocuous when it happened. It eventuated in the embryonic stages of the game.

After the first three plays of the game, during which the Cleveland offense marched backward nine yards to the 16-yard line, Britton Colquitt lined up in punt formation at the 1.

Charley Hughlett’s snap was true. His blocking was not. He sort of nudged Steelers backup linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who burst into an open lane and was on Colquitt just as he was bringing up his right foot up to meet the football.

The ball squirted into the end zone, was on its way out of the end line and a safety, then improbably took a 90-degree turn and remained in the end zone, where Anthony Chickillo, another backup linebacker, fell on it for the touchdown.

Here we go again, some Browns fans no doubt thought. Damn Steelers luck. Four plays into the 2017 season and those damn, hated Steelers own a 7-0 lead on a blocked punt of all things. And wouldn’t you know it? Colquitt had never had a punt blocked in his first seven NFL seasons. That was 555 punts ago.

Without that touchdown, the Steelers still might have won because Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown worked their magic, coming up with clutch play after clutch play when no one else could because of the Cleveland defense. Every time Roethlisberger targeted Brown, he connected.

Brown did not score – tight end Jesse James caught both of Big Ben’s short scoring passes – but he caught 11 passes for 182 yards against a secondary that seemed to be in zone mode most of the afternoon, Whether it was short, mid-range or deep, the veteran wideout too often found the soft spots in the zones.

Brown’s uncanny ability to do so certainly eased whatever pressure the Steelers must have must have felt after the Cleveland offense showed some punch late in the game.

Other than the fact bad things happen to the Browns whenever the Steelers visit Cleveland, a blocked punt seemed relatively insignificant. In fact, it sort of seemed normal. The Steelers beat you on offense, defense and now special teams.

Kizer, who scored the first Cleveland touchdown on a one-yard sneak behind Bitonio in the opening quarter, was extremely poised in his pro debut despite being decked seven times for 42 yards. If not for his ability to scramble, it might very well have been as many as a dozen times.

While it’s easy to blame the offensive line, take into consideration Kizer’s main problem was finding open receivers. That’s what happens when half of the team’s six wideouts joined the team earlier this week. He doesn’t know them and they don’t know him. Many of those sacks were of the coverage variety.

It also doesn’t help when Kenny Britt – the eight-year pro is the most veteran of the wide receivers – flat out drops a pretty 18-yard pass down the middle with nary a defender near him early in the fourth quarter on a second-and-19 from the Cleveland 22-yard line.

The ball hit him squarely in the hands in first-down territory. The drop aborted what would have been at least a 25-yard play. Instead of winding up in Pittsburgh territory, the drive died one play later. Britt wound up with one catch for 12 yards.

Of course it’s just one game, but this seems to be a different crew with a different vibe coursing through it. At the risk of belaboring the idea, it seems as though Williams’ defense will set the tone this season. The offense will be a work in constant progress.

There is also no question the Browns, again mainly because of the defense, deserved a better fate in a game they might very well have won against just about any other team.

The reality of the outcome of this game is the notion that barely losing by just a field goal to the team favored to win the AFC North championship indicates a step forward, not a step back. It showed it can play with the big boys, at least on this day.

The Steelers were near double-digit favorites to win – on the road. That’s an enormous slap in the face at the Browns. No doubt they took it personally. And it showed.

Did the better team win? Of course it did. But is that team going back home with a new-found respect for its chief rivals? Of course it is.

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