The Cleveland Browns were in position to win their second game of the row this past Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. Trailing by a score of 17-13 mid-way through the fourth quarter, Brandon Weeden dropped back on a 3rd-and-1 play. With pressure in his face, he delivered a strong throw over the middle to an open Josh Gordon. It should have been the go-ahead touchdown for the Browns, which would have given them a 20-17 lead. Instead, this happened:
New owner Jimmy Haslam was present in a booth in Indianapolis, and his reaction to the dropped pass says it all:
Let's take a look at some of the reasons why the Browns failed to beat the Colts, dropping to 1-6 on the season, starting with our goat of the game.
|Cleveland Browns vs. Indianapolis Colts|
WEEK 7 - CLEVELAND BROWNS VS. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (COMPLETE GAME REVIEW)
- Goat of the Game: P Reggie Hodges - Does WR Josh Gordon deserve to be a goat for dropping what could have been the game-winning touchdown pass? Absolutely. There's another player who was deserving, though, and that is Hodges. I've tried to remain a supporter of Hodges this season, but he just hasn't been the same type of player. Two years ago, Hodges would have masterful punts on a weekly basis; ones that would make me say, "this guy should be a Pro Bowler." I haven't thought that once during a game this season.
Hodges had two huge gaffes against the Colts. When the Browns scored their first touchdown of the game in the second quarter, Hodges botched the hold on an extra point try. It prevented Cleveland from tying the game, and it set up head coach Pat Shurmur for ridicule when he did not go for a two-point conversion later in the game. Then, because of that, it forced the Browns to need a touchdown instead of a field goal during the fourth quarter.
The thing that irked me more than Hodges' botched hold was his post-game reaction to his punt on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter. It was already a decision that fans were going to hate Shurmur for, but Hodges could have helped matters by pinning the Colts back. Instead, his 21-yard punt went out of bounds at the 20 yard line. Instead of taking responsibility for another botch, it sounded as though Hodges was making excuses to the media:
"I did what I was told," he said. "We wanted to get the ball out of bounds so they were starting back in their end. I had to put the ball out of bounds inside the 20, which is where they got it."
First off, I assume that special teams coordinator Chris Tabor is the person who instructed Hodges to punt it out of bounds. Considering the Browns were at the 39 yard line, that might have been the stupidest strategy I've ever heard of from a professional coach. There is almost zero chance that the Colts would return a punt there. Hodges could easily get some air under a punt in bounds, and our coverage units would be able to get down there. Being that close, ideally, we could pin the Colts inside the five. Maybe we even get a nice bounce and can put them at their own one yard line. There should be no fear of a return, and yet there was. Because of that, Hodges shanks it out of bounds...and acts like everything was still "mission accomplished." Ugh.
- Awarding the Game Ball: QB Brandon Weeden - Without the support of a running game against the Colts, Weeden delivered. I thought he made some good reads when the Colts were giving our receivers one-on-one coverage. He also converted a lot of third down situations in which the Browns needed ten yards or more for a first down, something that only happened once prior to this week. In fact, on the team's first offensive drive alone, Weeden and the Browns' offense was 3-of-3 on plays of 3rd-and-10 or longer.
Speaking of that first series, let's take a look at Weeden's touchdown pass to Greg Little. Little runs what I'd call a skinny post. At this point, Weeden has just completed a playaction fake to the running back. He sees the space behind Little in the end zone and makes the immediate decision to throw it to him. Everyone else is pretty much covered. He has Jordan Cameron in the flat, but unless he breaks a tackle, he wouldn't get a touchdown.
As Weeden is loading up to throw, CB Cassius Vaughn does a good job getting in front of Little to make a potential play on the ball. Weeden's placement is high and right in his receiver's wheelhouse. Little might have jumped just a hair too early on this one, which is why he needed to tip the ball to himself. What counts is that he still hauled in the touchdown. From Weeden's quick decision to the ball placement, I loved every bit of this play to cap off a drive in which he also scrambled for a first down on 3rd-and-long.
I also liked how Weeden stays calm in the face of adversity. After the Colts' long opening possession, Weeden didn't guide the Browns to a three-and-out -- they responded with a long touchdown drive of their own. On the next series, when the Browns needed to respond again, they were on their way of doing so until Trent Richardson was stuffed for no gain on a 3rd-and-1. To start the second half, Weeden came right out of the gate with a touchdown-scoring drive. As far as I'm concerned, Weeden did all that I could've asked of him in the fourth quarter. He threw the go-ahead touchdown 50 frickin' yards through the air as he was being taken out by a defender, only to have it dropped and the head coach take the ball out of his hands on fourth down.
I won't get into the "Weeden outplayed Luck" argument. Luck did a good job helping the Colts sustain drives. What I will say is that Weeden showed again that to this point in the NFL season, he's just as important and a leader to Cleveland as Luck is to Indianapolis. Amen.
Questioning the Officiating: I was not very pleased with the officiating of Sunday's Browns vs. Colts game. One of the plays I disagreed with was D'Qwell Jackson's late hit on a running back. Yes, it seemed to be borderline extracurricular by Jackson, but that happens all the time and without being penalized. The hit came after the whistle, too. The spots that the officials were awarding weren't very good either, and the Colts seemed to be the beneficiary on several instances. One instance that I'm not sure was talked about came on the drive that involved Gordon's dropped touchdown (continued in the next bullet point).
Where's the Challenge? One play after Sheldon Brown's strip, sack, and recovery at midfield, Brandon Weeden found Travis Benjamin for what the officials ruled to be a 9-yard completion. On the play, Benjamin dodged a defender and then did a long dive and roll that landed him past the first down marker. On first glance, it might seem like the referees made the right call because it seems likely that Benjamin's knee would have had to touch the ground for him to travel that distance. Maybe it did. I tried my best to go back and look at it, though, and I'm more inclined to think that Benjamin did a hell. I reviewed the All-22 to try to get a better angle of how close Benjamin's knee came to touching the ground, and here's what I saw:
That's as far down as I saw Benjamin's knee touch. Then, he extended his body out like a missile. In the photograph below, his legs still have not touched the ground after his leap. His elbow or forearm touch the ground, but now he's right at the marker.
The officials spotted the ball at the 41-yard line. At this juncture of the game, I would have liked to have seen someone tell Pat Shurmur to throw the challenge flag. When the play happened live, I questioned whether the official got the spot right, so surely someone on the sidelines should have second guessed the spot too.
Three Sides to the Story: It was an ugly day for Trent Richardson. 8 carries for 8 yards against a Colts' run defense that was terrible heading into the game and was thin on the depth chart should have been ripe for the picking. Richardson's rib injury probably played a role in his lack of effectiveness, but there were two other issues. The first one was that the offensive line wasn't doing a good job creating lanes. The second one was that instead of settling for small gains, Richardson tried to dance his away out of the design of the play. It backfired every time.
I don't blame Pat Shurmur for the run-pass ratio again, because he tried to go with what was working. The running game still needs to be fixed, though, because in order to be a complete offense, Cleveland has to have confidence in their ability to move the chains on short yardage runs.
Allowing Long Drives: Take a look at the Colts' first two drives of the game, and their first drive of the second half:
Colts' 1st Drive of 1st Half: 11 plays, 80 yards, 7:37 of game clock
Colts' 2nd Drive of 1st Half: 14 plays, 76 yards, 6:20 of game clock
Colts' 1st Drive of 2nd Half: 17 plays, 66 yards, 8:34 of game clock
To the credit of the defense, the Browns did a much better job forcing the Colts off the field in the fourth quarter. It'd be nice to prevent these early drives, though, so that Cleveland has the opportunity to control a game early.
In order for the Colts to sustain the drives that they did, they needed to convert on third downs. The Colts were 5-of-7 in third-down situations, something that I didn't expect considering how much Vick Ballard had been struggling to run the ball up until this game. I decided to look at one play the Browns could have stopped on the first drive of the game. The Colts were facing a 3rd-and-2, and they lined up with the following formation:
The defensive tackle to the left of Andrew Luck is Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, and the defensive tackle to the right of Luck is John Hughes. If the Colts are going to run the ball, you want your two big bodies to be able to come up with the stop, or at least generate a push, to help a linebacker come in through a gap.
Right at the snap, before Luck even has a chance to hand the ball off to Vick Ballard, our defense is doomed. The Colts' center, Samson Satele, just mauls Kitchen to the ground. The right guard and the right tackle do the same thing to Hughes, mauling him to the ground. At least Hughes has the excuse that he was double teamed, but you'd still like your defensive tackle to hold his own rather than being pushed down.
Even the indecisiveness Ballard can't miss this hole, as he picks up five yards for a first down. You may not think that having Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor back could change the whole complexion of a game. I know Taylor wasn't the best run defender last year, but I'm optimistic about the fact that we would've had a different result with those guys in the game.
In Agreement With Ventrone: A lot of fans were upset with the two holding calls on Ray Ventrone during the game. After it was all said and done, Ventrone insisted that he did not hold in either instance, and that the Browns would send the plays to the league for review. Thanks to the All-22, I can review them as well. I'm in agreement with Ventrone -- the Browns got hosed. On the first holding call, the Colts' defender met Ventrone head on, then fell when trying to spin off of the block. On the second holding call...there just wasn't anything there that resembled a hold.
Baffling Decision: I've chastised some of the coaching decisions made by Browns head coaches over the years, but Bruce Arians made a horrible decision in my book when he called a timeout with one second left in the first half.
Let me re-state the circumstance: at the end of the first half, with 30 seconds left, the Browns ran a "give up" draw play on third down to Chris Ogbonnaya. If the Colts wanted to call a timeout to force a punt right away, it would have made sense. Instead, Arians waited until there was one second left. What could the Colts have possibly gained out of that? The Browns were 59 yards away from the end zone, which was probably too long of a throw for a Hail Mary. They took a knee...but the Colts, the team that called the timeout, had 12 men on the field. That moved the ball five yards closer, and now the Browns decided to attempt a Hail Mary. Yes, it fell incomplete, but Arians basically afforded the Browns a free play at no cost.
The Final Drive: On the final drive of the game (not the one with the laterals), I have a lot of "what ifs?" when looking back at the plays. For example, what if Josh Cooper did not fall down, untouched, on the first play of the series? Does he run up the sideline for a lot more yardage?
Two plays later, on first down, Brandon Weeden decided to take a shot up the left sideline to Josh Gordon. This is the play where Gordon ran out of bounds, so even if he caught the pass, it wouldn't have counted. Weeden is protected, though, and with the safeties starting to play back, he could've had a big gain to Greg Little over the middle.
On the next play, the Browns tried to be a little sneaky by running a draw. If it doesn't work, though, it feels like you wasted a down and valuable clock time. The defense is rushing around the edge, and while the gap is not super wide, if Hardesty hits this without thinking twice and John Greco keeps his block, I think this could've been a first down run.
Instead, Hardesty decided to attempt a cutback to the right. To be fair, in fast motion, it looked like he was a bit concerned about the rusher next to Joe Thomas coming in a little too quick from the edge. Given where the players are in the photo below, though, I still think Hardesty should've stayed left. He only got four yards on the play.
Two plays later, Weeden tried to hit Josh Cooper on a quick slant. I thought it was the right decision. The ball was probably a little behind Cooper, but the defender had tight coverage.
- Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our Week 7 snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, WR Travis Benjamin saw the fourth most reps at wide receiver, while Josh Gordon led the receivers in snaps for the first time this season. On defense, the Browns continued to operate from their nickel package more times than not, and Ahtyba Rubin had to leave after aggravating his calf injury early on.
- Special Teams Tackles: The Browns had two special teams tackles, one each from WR Joshua Cribbs and CB Buster Skrine. Phil Dawson had two touchbacks, and the Colts only attempted one punt return. Special teams mistakes and penalties killed us, but like I said earlier, the ones on Ventrone weren't justified.
- Brownies: It was good to see WR Greg Little consistently catching passes. ... Brandon Weeden does a nice job spreading the ball around, but I'd still like to see a higher number of targets for TE Jordan Cameron, who came up in the clutch in against the Bengals. ... Weeden was not sacked once. ... Andrew Luck threw for 186 yards, which was the lowest amount against the Browns' defense this season. ... After going 5-of-7 in the first half on third down, Cleveland was 1-of-6 in the second half. ... Even though DT Billy Winn took the fall for jumping on the Colts' 4th-and-1 hard count near the end of the first half, DT John Hughes jumped along with him and deserves equivalent blame (remember what I said about Rubin+Taylor?).
Up next, the Browns come home to take on the Chargers. The Browns seem to be competitive each week, so you can never count them out. San Diego is coming off a collapse to the Broncos and then a bye week, so it'll be interesting to see how they handle the trip to Cleveland.