A glimmer of hope from another loss
Believe it or not, the Browns showed more than a little promise on offense in their 38-24 loss Sunday to the Lions in Detroit.
Too bad the defense didn’t show up to support it, especially in the fourth quarter when the Lions’ offense woke up after a sleepy start and continued a trio of embarrassing losing streaks for the National Football League‘s stepchild.
It was Cleveland’s ninth straight loss this season, 10th straight overall, 17th consecutive setback on the road and the second straight season the Browns have opened 0-9.
Even so, the team panning for nuggets this season when it owned the football finally unearthed a few against a Detroit defense that might have been taking the heretofore inept Cleveland offense lightly.
It was afternoon when the Cleveland running game hummed as it hasn’t in any game this season; when DeShone Kizer finally displayed some progress in his rough rookie season as an NFL quarterback; and coach Hue Jackson seemed to have another time management brain fart moment at the end of the first half.
Looking at the statistics, one would have thought the Browns had breezed in this one. They ran 77 plays to only 49 for the Lions. They owned the football nine more minutes.
They compiled 413 yards on offense, 201 on the ground against one of the NFL’s stingiest against the run, and racked up a season-high 26 first downs, 14 of them infantry style.
It was also an afternoon when Kizer went down after a vicious hit by Detroit cornerback Quandre Diggs, who came clean on a blitz and almost cut the rookie in half with a blow to the solar plexus with six seconds left in the third quarter.
Kizer, who had piloted impressive touchdown drives of 88 and 80 yards on the first two possessions of the second half to give the Browns a 24-17 lead only for the defense to collapse and allow the Lions to tie, left the game for seven plays and went to the dressing room for X-rays of his ribs that were negative.
By the time he returned to lead the Browns’ final possession of the game, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who seemed baffled by some of the defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ early exotic pass coverages, had dialed in and taken advantage.
He broke the 24-24 tie with third-down touchdown passes in the final 15 minutes to tight end Eric Ebron, who beat safety Derrick Kindred on a stop-and-go move on a 29-yarder, and Golden Tate, who scampered 40 yards on a wide receiver screen pass.
Cody Kessler, who replaced Kizer, ran seven plays in his absence and proved beyond a doubt he is the quintessential NFL backup quarterback. He was as awful as one could imagine.
While Stafford was strafing, Kessler completed one of three passes, scraped himself off the ground after three sacks and 22 yards lost, produced a pair of three-and-outs and had a net gain of minus-13 yards. All that in seven plays.
The offense ran much smoother when Kizer returned with 4:28 left in regulation, but his final effort wound up with a Darius Slay end zone interception on a first-and-goal at the Detroit 5. He converted three fourth downs – the Browns were perfect on all four fourth downs – along the way.
Just about everything was working out of the gate. Ironically, it was the defense that set the tone in the first quarter, giving the offense the ball twice in Detroit territory and it took advantage with a short Zane Gonzalez field goal and Kenny Britt 10-yard touchdown catch for a 10-0 lead..
Outside of Kessler’s dismal performance, the only other player hiccup on offense belonged to tight end Seth DeValve, who was stripped of the ball by cornerback Nevin Lawson after a short pass completion. Lawson returned the fumble 44 yards to give the Lions a 17-10 lead with 3:44 left in the half.
Another hiccup, this one of the strategic variety, occurred on the sidelines in the waning seconds of the second quarter on the possession following the Lawson score. It sure looked as though it belonged squarely in the lap of Jackson, who appeared to botch an opportunity to tie the game going into the dressing room.
Kizer, who threw for one score and sneaked for another, marched his men 73 yards down to the Lions 2-yard line, converting a pair of third downs along the way, including an 18-yard scramble on a third-and-6 with 19 seconds left.
Out of timeouts, Jackson called for a fade to rookie tight end David Njoku, who caught the ball, but failed to get both feet in bounds. The play took only four seconds.
So with 15 seconds left and no timeouts on second down at the 2, the only call had to be a pass. If completed, it’s a touchdown. If it’s incomplete, the clock stops and there is still time for at least one more play. If not, then a Gonzalez field goal. A running play, unless it produced a touchdown, would be futile.
For whatever reason, Kizer tried to sneak the ball into the end zone from the 2. From the 2!!
The offensive line, which played well most of the afternoon, was stonewalled by the Detroit front and the 6-4, 235-pound quarterback managed maybe six inches. The offense scrambled furiously to spike the ball to kill the clock, but time ran out.
Jackson angrily slammed his headset to the ground. Running back Duke Johnson Jr. slammed his helmet to the ground in sheer frustration when time had run out and was rewarded with an unsportsmanlike penalty.
After the game, the coach shouldered the blame for the botched call, refusing to blame Kizer for what looked very much like it could have been an audible.
“It’s on me,” he said. “I’m mad at myself. It doesn’t matter (whether or not Kizer changed the call). To go around and around about it, I’m not going to do that. . . . It’s on me. I’m taking the fall for everything.” One doesn’t need to read between the lines to interpret that one.
The faux pas didn’t look that important at the time in the grand scheme of things, especially after the Browns stormed out in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead.
It was just another missed opportunity in a season filled with them. But there are definite signs they are getting closer and closer to that elusive first victory.
The Browns return home next Sunday against Jacksonville feeling pretty good about an offense that has stagnated most of the 2017 season. All they need now is for the defense to rebound from Sunday’s uncommon performance. Then maybe that first victory will eventuate.