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Game Review: Thin Secondary, Missed Opportunities, & Poor Officiating Cost Browns in 23-20 Loss to Cowboys

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Will there be a game this season where we can reflect back on the Browns' gameday performance and say, "these guys played a 'complete' football game for four quarter"? The theme for Cleveland this year, and really for most of the Pat Shurmur era, is that as good as the team looks in spurts, they can never play a complete game, particularly when it comes to finishing a game.

Cleveland arguably played their best first half of football under the Shurmur era against Dallas. They held a 13-0 lead at the half, and were able to stop Dallas from putting together a two-minute drive. Cleveland outgained Dallas 177-68 in yardage for the first half. According to CBS Sports, the 68 yards for the Cowboys was the lowest total in a first half for them in five years. Unfortunately, while the Cowboys appeared to make some adjustments at halftime, Cleveland did not.

Let's get to this week's goat of the game, followed by the rest of my complete game review.

Cleveland Browns vs. Dallas Cowboys

1st 2nd 3rd 4th OT FINAL
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WEEK 11 -

  1. Goats of the Game: CB Buster Skrine & CB Sheldon Brown - I thought about giving this dubious honor to one player or the other, but in reality, the problems came with both of them. Skrine was penalized several times for holding, illegal contact, pass interference, or whatever you want to call it. There appeared to be a few other plays where he committed a foul, but got away with it. Skrine regularly gave a big cushion, meaning it was impossible for him to break up passes or jump a route for an interception. Instead of trusting his speed when a receiver went deep, he persisted in jostling with the receiver beyond five yards. Here is a prime example of a play in which a penalty wasn't called, but should have been, during the first half:

    Arm extended in front of the receiver? Not looking back at the ball? Ugh. Everything I've seen from Skrine as a starter this season just "screams" that he will never be a full-time starting cornerback in the NFL. Regarding Brown, in the heat of the moment of the fourth quarter, he was called for pass interference when his arm clubbed the helmet of WR Dwayne Harris before a pass arrived. He never found a way to stop the bleeding when he was targeted during the fourth quarter and overtime.

  2. Awarding the Game Ball: DE Frostee Rucker - The entire defensive line deserves credit for the spark they provided. Even though Tony Romo ended up adjusting to some quicker throws in the second half to burn our secondary, the pressure kept coming. I'm specifically giving the game ball to Rucker because when it looked like the Browns were officially dead and buried, he came through with the defense's only turnover the game. Brandon Weeden had just fumbled, and with less than six minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Dallas was already in field goal range. In Dallas' mind, in a worst-case scenario, they would've ended the drive with a full touchdown lead. Instead, Rucker not only got pressure on the play, he wound up and tomahawked Romo's arm.

    Success. Romo fumbled, and LB Craig Robertson quickly fell on the ball to give the offense another chance. Cleveland still needed a touchdown, but now there was more pressure facing Dallas' defense. When the Browns eventually scored their go-ahead touchdown, I said to myself, "I'm going to make sure I give Rucker the game ball." Sadly, we couldn't hold on for the win, but he still deserves it.

  3. Coming Up Short on Offense: Even though the secondary took a ton of flak for their shortcomings against the Cowboys, in a way, we already knew that the unit was going to struggle without Joe Haden. After all -- Haden already missed four games earlier this season, and the combination of Brown/Skrine didn't exactly set the world on fire. That's where the offense desperately needed to deliver whenever they were given an opportunity. There were several blown opportunities that stood out, which I will highlight in the next couple of bullet points.
  4. Overthrow to Cooper: For much of the afternoon, Brandon Weeden had more than enough time to throw the football. There are a lot of other quarterbacks in the league, particularly ones on losing teams, who would kill to have that type of protection. When Weeden doesn't make the defense pay, though, it hurts. In the second quarter, you can see Weeden with a clean pocket on 3rd-and-8. He takes his time and makes the right read to find a wide open Josh Cooper.

    This should be as easy of a completion as you can get, given how open Cooper is.

    Instead, the pass is sailed over Cooper's head. If this is Greg Little, maybe he's able to go up and get it. Think of the ramifications of completing a pass like this; with a fresh set of downs, your momentum continues, and maybe you get a touchdown. That makes a big difference in the long run versus a field goal. Cooper and Weeden failed to convert a first down earlier in the game, too, which was surprising given their hypothesized "chemistry" factor.
  5. Screen Plays Still Fail: The Browns still can't execute screen passes very well when Trent Richardson is in the game, which is a shame considering the type of damage he can do when he gets the ball in space (I know, I know, he got stonewalled later in the game in space).

    On this screen, you can see the problem: Shawn Lauvao is late getting to the defender who sees the screen coming. No matter what Weeden or Richardson did on this play, it's dead when you can't block everyone in a case like this.
  6. Ben Watson's Drop: Two bullet points earlier, I showed Brandon Weeden missing Joshua Cooper, forcing Cleveland to settle for a field goal. On the next drive, the Browns were on the move again. On 1st-and-10, this time, Weeden made a nice throw over the middle when he had time after a playfake. Weeden connected with tight end Benjamin Watson for what appeared to be a first down:

    Watson has the ball comfortably, but then the defender from behind knocks the pass away, ruining what should've been another gimme first down.
  7. Failed Opportunity on the Draw? On the very next play after Watson's drop, the Browns ran a draw play. I actually looked pretty promising at the start:

    As you can see in the screenshot above, all of the blockers are lined up, and Trent Richardson looks to have some space.

    The screenshot above comes a few frame rates later. Richardson is headed toward the outside, and if the receivers are able to maintain their blocks, I think he can get a first down.

    Inexplicably, Richardson decides to plant his foot in the ground and cut this back inside, where three unblocked defenders are waiting for him. He gets met by the first guy, and everyone else on the Cowboys joins in to gang tackle him.
  8. Throwing in a Positive: One thing I did like was that twice during the game, the Browns decided to accelerate their pace on offense. Both times, it seemed to throw Dallas off. The first instance came in the first half, on the play where Brandon Weeden had a lot of time to throw. Some fans wondered why Weeden did not just take off and run for the first down. What you couldn't see on TV as Weeden rolled out was that the defender I circled ended up shifting with Weeden, and would've gone after him had he scrambled.

    In my opinion, Weeden actually seems to make a pretty good throw to a diving Benjamin Watson on this play, but the veteran tight end can't make the catch. The second time the Browns did the accelerated pace came at the end of regulation, when they got the second touchdown pass to Watson. The Cowboys rushed two defenders onto the field late, and their whole defense seemed misaligned.
  9. Ware Gets by Thomas: OK, sometimes, you can't always ask for perfection, right? The Browns' 13-0 lead heading into the half was still good because they were set to receive the ball first. Things started pretty well on the drive, too. Cleveland got three first downs right off the bat and were only 41 yards away from the end zone, already near Phil Dawson's range. On first down, Montario Hardesty only managed a yard. On the next two downs, Weeden faced some pressure for the first time in the game. The third down one involved a sack.

    I'm not going to completely fault Joe Thomas on this. DeMarcus Ware is a heck of a player, and odds are, he is going to get at least a sack in every game. As you can tell by the screenshot above, Ware had a tremendous jump at the snap. I rewound this play several times to see if Ware came early; he did not. He timed it beautifully, and it really gave Dallas the momentum they needed for the rest of the half.
  10. Another Crack At It: After not getting points to start the half, Dallas responded with a field goal. Dallas then botched an onside kick attempt, giving Cleveland great field position. After two run plays, Cleveland faced a 3rd-and-4. Here's what happened from the All-22 perspective:

    Brandon Weeden is winding up to throw to Greg Little, who is at the 40 in this picture. A defender (the arrow) is racing in for the double team. The pass falls incomplete, and Little almost got killed. There was a much safer throw that probably would've gotten a first down in the same line of vision as Little. That would be Josh Gordon. As a side note, I'd love to see our receivers have the option to settle down in the zone in a situation like this. In that case, Gordon could've stayed in the middle, and Weeden surely would've found him for the easy first down. Instead, Cleveland had to punt, and Dallas later drove the length of the field for a touchdown.
  11. Poor Officiating: The crew that called the game did a terrible job. I'm not blaming the officials as the sole reason Cleveland lost; that should be evidenced by all of the bullet points above that. Despite the issues above, though, Cleveland would've had a better chance had it not been for some poor calls. Here are a few screenshots on the officiating; I'll try to keep my descriptions brief.
  12. Disparity in the Play Clock: There was an issue in the stadium where the play clock stopped working. The officiating crew was supposed to keep track then. Well, take a look at this sequence...while the Cowboys were losing 13-10 in the fourth quarter. On 1st-and-10 from 41 yards away from the end zone, Tony Romo's pass to the running back is stuffed for no gain.

    The play above ended at 9:44 (the whistle clearly blew). The next play should've been snapped at 9:04, give or take a second or two. Instead, Romo was allowed to sit at the line and call out a bunch of commands, which made even the television announcers start to wonder about the play clock.

    The next play was snapped at 8:55, meaning the Cowboys had an extra nine seconds to snap their play off. To make matters worse, on the very next play, Dallas' left tackle had the most obvious false start you can get in the NFL, and it wasn't flagged. Both plays contributed to Dallas getting a first down, and eventually a go-ahead touchdown.
  13. Romo's "Grounding" That Wasn't Called: I am still upset about this one. The Cowboys only needed a field goal to send the game to overtime. With no timeouts, they took a risk to try to get a touchdown -- a sack or completion shy of the end zone would end the game. On this play, Tony Romo looked to his right and didn't find anything. He looked left and saw WR Cole Beasley headed toward the end zone, presumably going to beat the flatfooted defender guarding him (note the circled defender I have in the background).

    As Romo is throwing the ball, I think he notices the risk of the defender behind Beasley and thinks better of it. He can't stop the momentum of his arm, so he twists his body toward the out of bounds line and just throws it into the ground.

    Behind the line of scrimmage? Check. No receiver in the area? Check. Under ten seconds to play? Check. I still think this should've been called intentional grounding with a ten second runoff to end the game. Mike Pereria on Twitter claims that grounding was not called on this play because of the tuck rule. Pfft. What a joke.
  14. Overtime Fumble With Miles Austin: This one stings too.

    Austin catches the ball at the 24 yard line.

    Austin takes two full steps, and is half way into his third step, covering three-four yards of distance, when Sheldon Brown punches the ball out. I am frustrated that the officials blow this play dead immediately when they know they can review it after the fact! The whistle doesn't even blow until Cleveland starts picking up the ball too. If they let the play stand as called, reviewed it, and then said, "OK, by our rulebook, this was an incomplete pass," I wouldn't be so frustrated. Don't kill it right off the bat.
  15. Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our Week 8 snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, all six receivers were active and saw some reps. On defense, S Tashaun Gipson played the majority of the snaps at safety, and the defensive tackles saw a healthy rotation.

  16. Special Teams Tackles: The Browns had two special teams tackles -- one each from WR Joshua Cribbs and CB Johnson Bademosi. There weren't many tackles needed because Phil Dawson had a bunch of touchbacks.

  17. Brownies: I got carried away in this review because I wanted to cover a lot of stuff. ... I was disappointed in Joshua Cribbs looking so dejected after every play he was involved in. ... Credit to CB Johnson Bademosi for a pass breakup in overtime in his first defensive snaps of the regular season. ... The Browns converted two early 3rd-and-1's, including a fullback handoff to Chris Ogbonnaya. ... I did agree with the horse collar penalty called on Joshua Cribbs, because I think the defender reached under the collar first, had his hand slip, and then latched onto his hair. ... The Browns' cornerbacks have to at least try to be more aggressive and confident without Joe Haden. ... I hate the penalty on T.J. Ward, but it is something they call pretty universally around the league to protect receivers. ... I liked seeing a fade, but it just needs to be executed better.

Up next, the Browns take on a banged up Pittsburgh Steelers team. After all of these close losses, it would certainly heal some wounds if Cleveland could beat our arch rivals, right?