Insane as this may sound, I think the Browns improved last week. Yeah, improved. Okay, they didn't win, and winning is everything in this league, yadda yadda yadda. Whatever. The Browns played semi-efficiently on offense, the OL was a bastion of strength compared to the Hicks/Cousins games (shudder) and the defense played well most of the time. To be sure, that wasn't enough to win. We got burned. That was bad. But the Browns should've won this game by a score of 13-10.
We got killed on big plays – three of them, to be exact. Each of those plays cost us 7 points, for a total of 21. Each of them was preventable, and all of them were long touchdowns. If we hadn't given up those plays, we'd be talking about how the Browns eked out a victory instead of how they got slammed 31-13. The narrative would be about the Browns' surprising defense and offensive efficiency, not Matt Hasselbeck's late-career resurgence.
The plays in question: Hasselbeck's 80-yard touchdown pass to Jared Cook at the start of the second quarter; Hasselbeck's completion to Nate Johnson at the end of the first half for a near-touchdown; and McCoy's interception in the late third quarter that was returned for a touchdown.
All these plays, along with every other play in the game, are described in the updated spreadsheet. What follows is a breakdown (with coaches' film!) of each of the big ones. I'm no football expert, so I'll limit myself to casual observations and let people with better analytical perspectives break it down in the comments.
Play #1: Cook for 6
With 14:10 remaining in the second quarter, Matt Hasselbeck hit tight end Jared Cook on the left side for a touchdown. This was the Titans' first play from their own 20-yard line following a field goal by the Browns that narrowed the score to 7-6 Titans.
This is how the Titans lined up. It looked to be a running formation, with Johnson in the backfield and seven blockers on the line. The LBs were also close to the line, implying they bought the run. Cook, who would eventually make the catch, was lined up on the extreme right side of the line opposite Sheard.
This is still before the snap. Notice how the TE Craig Stevens (circled) comes down in the gap between Cook and the RT. This move draws in the SS T.J. Ward (circled), perhaps because he now sees a bunch of men on that side and expects them to block for a run to the right. The thing is, it would be a weird blocking scheme if that's what they were doing, because basically they have two TEs blocking Sheard, and you can't figure Johnson is going to find a big hole behind them, right?
As the play began, Cook ran out into the middle of the flat, and Fujita kind of pushed him to the outside but didn't put a hit on him or make any real attempt to disrupt his route or cover him closely. In the backfield, the TE Stevens tried but failed to block Sheard, and the RT fell on his ass for no apparent reason, leaving Sheard with a path to Hasselbeck. You can also see that drawing Ward in with the TE movement before the snap paid big dividends for the Titans. He was too close to the line to make a play on the ball once it was thrown. Imagine if he were about 10 yards back – he would've had an angle.
This is the same moment from a different angle. Again you see Fujita pushing Cook a little, which only creates some more space between him and the tight end. Once Cook pushed off, it was off to the races and Fujita didn't catch up.
This is what Hasselbeck saw when he made the throw (the ball is in the air in the picture). Cook was getting some separation, and Sheard was running right toward him from the strong side.
This is just as Cook is making the grab, having gotten a step or two on Fujita. But notice what's happening at the top of the screen. FS Usama Young (on the right in the circle) has seen the completion and is running over to assist, but he nearly runs into the CB Sheldon Brown (on the left in the circle). Young decided to take a line underneath Brown, but by the time he got through traffic it was too late and his last-ditch effort to tackle Cook failed. Strangely enough, Brown continued to follow his receiver to the right after this. Given his time in the league, you'd think Brown would instinctually drop coverage when his own FS runs right through him.
Usama Young's attempt to tackle Cook. Fail.
Play #2: Nate Washington to the Cleveland 4
The first half was winding down and the Titans were stuck back at their own 39. With just 54 seconds left, it looked like the period would end with a couple shots down the field followed by a field goal attempt if the Titans were able to get in range. But on first and 10, Matt Hasselbeck found WR Nate Washington wide open down the left side. He ran the ball down to the Browns' 4-yard line. The Titans scored a touchdown on the next play, widening their lead to 21-6 at the half.
Washington is lined up wide left on the inside (he's circled). Dimitri Patterson is covering him very close to the line. At the stage in the half, the Browns probably assumed the Titans would try to pick away with shorter routes, which they wanted to prevent by having the corners stay tight on the receivers from the snap. It will almost surely be a pass play, with four receivers lined up.
Right before the snap, the Browns linebackers crowd the line of scrimmage on their right side (Hasselbeck's left). This looks like a blitz formation to me.
The ball was snapped and Hasselbeck predictably dropped back to pass. Washington cut left and underneath toward the sideline, and the other receiver cut right toward the middle of the field. This was effectively a pick on Patterson, who was covering Washington too close to the line to avoid it. If Patterson had been covering the receiver further back, like the SS Ward was doing on the other side of the field, a pick wouldn't have been possible.
Washington now has plenty of separation. To Hasselbeck's credit, he delivered the ball accurately. You can see the FS Mike Adams near the Browns' 35 running over to his right side.
With Patterson roundly beaten, Washington runs with the ball. It's now up to Adams (circled) to corral him. It's tough to tackle somebody with that kind of running room, but Adams could have had him down at about the 35 yard line if he played it perfectly.
Adams chose to wait for Washington to come to him, and should have had him down here, at around the 20 yard line. Instead Haden has to come out of nowhere and make the tackle from behind.
Haden finally made the stop at the 4. And kudos to him for doing so.
Play #3: Colt's Pick-six
Toward the end of the third quarter, the Browns were finally staging a nice drive. They'd been embarrassed by a couple of touchdowns in the first half and were hoping to claw back into it. McCoy had managed to drive from his own 18 to the Titans' 29 – 53 yards, in total. It was first and 10 following a nice 18-yard gain to the TE Benjamin Watson. But despite that he could afford to throw the ball away, McCoy tried to force it to Hillis in the end zone after being flushed out of the pocket. It was picked off by Jordan Babineaux, who returned it for the touchdown.
This is how the play started. Looks pretty tame, doesn't it? It was probably set up to look like a run play, the idea being to play-fake to Hillis and then either hit a wide receiver or find Hillis in the flat if they are covered.
McCoy dropped back but didn't have any options early in the play. MoMass was covered on the right, and Hillis wasn't looking for the ball.
That's Colt circled on the left running for his life. He had MoMass open to the right, but the LG Jason Pinkston couldn't contain his man. You can see Hillis at the bottom of the screen running from right to left toward McCoy.
McCoy evades the sack, but now the CB Cortland Finnegan closes in on him. At this point he should have realized it was time to throw the ball away and live for another down. Second an 10 on the Titans 29? I'll take that over forcing this pass on the run into coverage when you're about to get taken down by a cornerback.
Babineaux (circled in the middle of the screen) caught the interception just as McCoy was pancaked by Finnegan. Hillis (circled running across the bottom) never had a chance at the ball because it was underthrown. MoMass (circled on the left) would have been a better target. The best target, though, would have been the bleachers.
I'll stop there for this play, but note that there were missed opportunities to tackle Babineaux during the return by Montario Hardesty and Ben Watson. Some of the linemen missed him, too, but you can't expect them to take care of a safety.
So that was that. Three plays, three scores (or, in the case of Washington's catch, an almost-score), and a "blowout" win for the Titans.
I think the Browns can learn a lot from this game and that they are still getting better as a team. They didn't play terribly, really. They controlled the ball and had some decent drives. But they gave up big plays. And that's something you simply can't do in this league.