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Game Review: Browns' Comeback Falls Short in 30-27 Loss to Steelers

Gregory Shamus

The Browns lost to the Steelers by a final score of 30-27 this past Sunday. Every week after the game, I like to review the key points in the game by re-watching the plays, both via the broadcast camera angles and the All-22 coaches film. I usually like to finish my review by Tuesday or Wendesday, but NFL Game Rewind was having issues this week, so I just finished it now.

Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

1st 2nd 3rd 4th FINAL


  1. Goat of the Game: CB Justin Gilbert - I understand that rookie cornerbacks need some time to adjust to the league, but for every bad play, can we at least have a couple of good plays? Instead, with Gilbert, he hasn't been able to step up to the challenge when quarterbacks attack him -- he was consistently beaten by WR Markus Wheaton, who was basically seeing his first NFL action as well. Gilbert also cost the Browns field position when he tossed a receiver to the ground after the play. From coverage to tackling, Gilbert needs work everywhere, and he's expected to receive a cut in playing time this week.

  2. Awarding the Game Ball: OLB Paul Kruger - The NFL made a scoring change on Wednesday which took away one of Kruger's sacks, giving him just one for the game. Nonetheless, he arguably played his best game as a Brown against Pittsburgh, showing an ability to get pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger and make individual stops against the run. Kruger had an impressive preseason, so hopefully this is a sign of things to come for the rest of the 2014 season.

  3. Defense Caught in Early Frenzy: The Steelers came out firing with the quick plays in the first half and the Browns weren't ready to answer the bell.

    First off, this is a pretty bold coverage by the Browns. The Steelers are spread five wide, and yet we have ILB Craig Robertson (cyan circle) lining up WR Antonio Brown pre-snap. Brown is going to fake a move upfield and then bubble back to Roethlisberger for a screen while the right guard leaks out.

    The timing of this is perfect, and Robertson really does all he can to try to stop this, but the right guard shields him away from Brown. After that, you can see all of the open field that Brown has to work with.

    Brown makes a couple of open field moves. First, as seen above, he makes SS Donte Whitner miss. He also gets CB Joe Haden to miss a little later, completing a 41-yard catch-and-run on the second play of the game. Cleveland's defense held Pittsburgh to an opening field goal, thanks to a penalty calling back a rushing touchdown.

  4. At Least There Was One Good Play: Offensively, it looked like the Browns were ready to fire back on their first offensive possession.

    This is a 1st-and-10 play with TE Jordan Cameron lined up to Hoyer's immediate right, followed by WR Miles Austin and WR Taylor Gabriel at the top of the screen. WR Andrew Hawkins is in the slot to the bottom, and RB Ben Tate motioned to the outside. Pittsburgh has a linebacker set to cover Cameron, and they only have one safety.

    Hoyer's eyes are looking toward Hawkins, and then shifts the safety to his side of the field.

    Without hesitation, Hoyer turns and fires a perfect deep ball to Cameron in stride for a 47-yard completion. If Cameron stays on his feet, he probably has a touchdown, and with that type of momentum, who knows how the first half could have been different.

  5. Hawkins Evades Disaster: On the next play, the Browns tried to go to the bag of tricks a little.

    With WR Andrew Hawkins in motion, QB Brian Hoyer is going to get the snap and quickly do a forward pitch to him. The Browns are going to have everyone blocked except for OLB Jarvis Jones, who it looks like RB Ben Tate should be chipping.

    Tate is late to chip Jones, who drills Hawkins. Hawkins is able to stay on his feet, but is now slowed down in getting to the edge, leading to only a gain of 1 yard. If Tate gets the hit earlier, Hawkins had the blocks to get a first down or even a touchdown here. Cleveland eventually settled for a field goal, their only points of the first half.

  6. Gilbert Burned Deep: More shocking than the offense struggling in the first half was the defense struggling. Unfortunately, our fears about CB Justin Gilbert not being up-to-standard were confirmed.

    The Steelers are only sending three receivers into this route, and yet CB Justin Gilbert is the guy who is going to get the one-on-one responsibility at the bottom of the screen (green). FS Tashaun Gipson was just injured on the previous play, so Jim Leonhard (magenta) took his place.

    Leonhard is playing the middle of the field, so Roethlisberger is going to take a shot down the right sideline. At this point, Gilbert is pretty even with Wheaton.

    Now, Gilbert has lost him. When Gilbert looked up for the ball, he started to stumble a bit, and that allowed Wheaton to get just enough separation to haul in a great pass by Roethlisberger.

  7. Gilbert Playing Heavy on the Inside: A few plays later, Roethlisberger went after CB Justin Gilbert again.

    Here, Gilbert is covering WR Markus Wheaton at the top of the screen. Wheaton is running a simple out route, and Gilbert has no reason to be overly worried about an inside route.

    Gilbert is staring at the quarterback the whole time, and Gilbert's acting like a player who thinks he just baited a cornerback into a pick six. The problem is that this is the NFL, and Roethlisberger is going to put this throw on the money to Wheaton as Gilbert tries to undercut the route.

    Above, you can see the effect of Gilbert being late to the ball and not staying tight to the receiver. Pittsburgh plunged in for a touchdown with RB LeGarrette Blount on the next play to take a 10-3 lead.

  8. Slower Developing Plays for Hoyer: I hated what Kyle Shanahan called in the first half for QB Brian Hoyer. I think Hoyer is at his best when he can work the quick throws and mix in the running game. Yes, longer-developing plays are necessary, but I think he needs to play to his strengths first before he delves into those other plays.

    The Browns are going to send two receivers downfield -- WR Travis Bejamin at the bottom of the screen and TE Jordan Cameron on a crosser. This is a 3rd-and-1 play, mind you, so the Browns are trying to show run and then get a guy wide open.

    Hoyer runs a playaction and then turns to the left (which I also don't feel plays to his strengths -- turning left -- but I'll live with it). FB Ray Agnew is running to the flat. I think Hoyer wants to get Cameron the ball immediately here, but is thrown off because it looks like S Troy Polamalu could be charging in on him. Instead, Polamalu covers Agnew, but Hoyer still keeps the ball an extra second.

    Now Hoyer is trying to rush things, so he doesn't set his feet and misses Cameron. If he sets himself, he also could have tried taking a shot at Benjamin, but again, this was just a 3rd-and-1 play.

  9. Dansby's Playmaking Ability: The Browns couldn't capitalize, and while ILB Karlos Dansby did have a few bad plays, he had enough good ones to show off the playmaking ability he has.

    On 2nd-and-10, Roethlisberger fakes to the running back, who will run his route into the flat.

    Roethlisberger wants to go deep, but nobody is open. In the yellow circle, you can see Dansby pursuing RB Le'Veon Bell.

    Bell tries to establish position, so Roethlisberger fires it in there, only to watch Dansby make a heck of a play on the ball to snag the interception. This is a surprising decision by Roethlisberger for a few reasons. First, this play, if completed to Bell, basically goes for no gain. Second, if Roethlisberger rolls out, he has a ton of room to take off, or use his scrambling ability to let one of his receivers spring open.

  10. Getting Too Cute: With great field position to work with, the game was far from a disaster yet -- this is part-way through the second quarter, and it's only 10-3 Pittsburgh.

    On a 2nd-and-7, Shanahan continued trying the longer-developing plays for Hoyer, who will fake a handoff to RB Ben Tate and then fake an end-around to WR Travis Benjamin. TE Jordan Cameron is providing a block in the backfield. WR Taylor Gabriel is running the "Josh Gordon dig route" at the top, and one of our tight ends is running underneath that.

    When Hoyer turns, I think the safety (cyan) makes him hesitate, because he is in an area where he could undercut Gabriel's route or jump the tight end's route.

    Here is another view of the tight end and the safety behind him. Once Hoyer hesitates once, it's too late, because Cameron couldn't contain OLB Jarvis Jones at all. Hoyer takes the sack, and Cleveland gets knocked out of field goal range.

  11. Failed Blitz Leads to Magic TD: This is the one where the pessimism started to creep in.

    After already moving the ball down the field to the 35 yard line, the Steelers' offense faced a 1st-and-10. The Browns are going to bring a blitz from CB Buster Skrine at the top of the screen. CB Joe Haden is in coverage with CB Antonio Brown at the bottom of the screen.

    OLB Paul Kruger takes on the right tackle, and Skrine has a lane to shoot through with Roethlisberger not paying attention to him. This should be a success, right?

    Wrong. Skrine runs by Roethlisberger, who then proceeds to do his magic to roll out to his right and fire a perfect touchdown in the corner of the end zone to Brown.

    Here is an overhead shot of when Skrine ran by Roethlisberger. Right as that happens, to make matters worse, WR Antonio Brown does the savvy move that he's so good at pulling off -- getting a subtle push off on a cornerback. This gives him enough seperation to haul in the touchdown pass after Roethlisberger rolls out, making it a 17-3 Steelers lead.

  12. Missing Gabriel Over the Middle: In terms of chemistry, it seems liked the wide receiver who Hoyer was least synced up with was WR Taylor Gabriel.

    This was a 3rd-and-5 situation in which the Browns were trying to stop the bleeding. Cleveland has two receivers stacked at the top of the screen -- WR Travis Benjamin in front, and Gabriel behind him. Benjamin continues using his speed to draw defenders deep.

    Gabriel has enough of an opening here for a first down, but (can't tell from this angle) he seems to slow down a hair, while Hoyer throws the ball as if he's running full stride. I'd side with Hoyer here, because the backside defender is close enough to where slowing down could result in a knockaway. Gabriel then has to dive for the ball, but he can't hang on and Cleveland goes three-and-out. Imagine the boo birds if this was happening in Cleveland.

  13. Kicked in the Face: The Browns then literally got kicked in the face.

    To which Lanning must have been thinking, "what the %#@& just happened," and Billy Cundiff wonders if he'll be the team's leading scorer by the time the game is all said and done.

  14. Deep Dropback for the Sack: The Steelers went on to score another touchdown, and offensively, the way the Browns responded was with a ten-yard dropback for Hoyer, backed up in his own territory.

    This led to a sack. Again, my point is not to say that we should never do these types of plays. It just came off as frustrating in the first half that we acted like it was the strength of our offense, when it should be used more sparingly.

  15. Quick Hitter to Hawkins: The Browns got things right from the first play of the third quarter.

    QB Brian Hoyer lines up under center and turns to fake the ball to RB Terrance West.

    The fake is a good one, and Hoyer doesn't even have to fake the ball all the way into his gut. Hoyer quickly turns around and finds WR Andrew Hawkins for a 16-yard gain.

  16. West Kicks it Into Another Gear: The Browns' running game was awesome against the Steelers, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

    On the second play of the third quarter, QB Brian Hoyer is going to hand the ball off to RB Terrance West.

    West is going to start to the outside, and Pittsburgh's defenders are in hot pursuit in that direction.

    From this still shot, you wouldn't expect this to turn into a 22-yard gain. West makes a great cut and has shows good instincts here, though, and TE Jim Dray and RG John Greco are going to continue their blocks into the second level.

    The quick-paced offense of the Browns led to their first touchdown of the season a few plays later, as RB Isaiah Crowell cut the lead to 27-10.

  17. Kruger Takes Over: The offensive spark wouldn't have meant much if the Steelers just drove back down the field, so we needed some individual defenders to step up their game.

    On a 2nd-and-9, the Steelers have a big hole sealed for RB Le'Veon Bell. ILB Craig Robertson is going to play the outside, and OLB Paul Kruger is engaged with a blocker.

    Despite being engaged with a blocker, Kruger grabs on to Bell and hangs on so he only gets a gain of two yards. If Bell had gotten past Kruger, who knows how long this thing would have gone for. The Steelers went three-and-out and Cleveland drove right back down the field for another touchdown run by RB Isaiah Crowell. It was a whole new ball game at 27-17, and there were still over 9:00 to go in the third quarter!

    Staying with Kruger, this is Pittsburgh's next drive. They were on the verge of field goal range when Kruger made Roethlisberger feel the pressure from behind. That was enough to make Roethlisberger step up and right into the way of ILB Chris Kirksey, who notched his first career sack. On the next play, the Steelers had a botched sack and Kruger pounced on Big Ben (that was the play a sack was taken away from him on, because it was ruled an aborted play).

  18. Hoyer Underthrows Benjamin: Flashforward to the fourth quarter, where the Browns are now trailing 27-20.

    This is a 1st-and-10 situation with the Browns at the 38 yard line. In the first half, I didn't like the idea of long developing plays when nothing else had been established. Here, the case is different -- the Steelers are in full panic mode and don't know what to expect. On this play, Hoyer is going to get protection, as only three receivers go out. WR Travis Benjamin is flying down the field, and TE Gary Barnidge is leaking out into the flat.

    Hoyer fakes a handoff and is looking deep. The safety is creeping up and leaving CB Ike Taylor to take Benjamin one-on-one. Benjamin has the speed to burn Taylor for a touchdown here. (Side note: in the flat, the tight end is completely uncovered).

    You can really tell the separation from here. Hoyer seemed to have enough protection, but he didn't step into the throw. Because it's underthrown, Taylor nearly comes away with the interception.

  19. Perfect TD to Benjamin: Fear not, because four plays later, QB Brian Hoyer made things right by firing a game-tying touchdown pass to WR Travis Benjamin.

    Benjamin is lined up at the bottom of the screen. He is going to go straight up the field and use his speed to actually run behind the defensive back, rather than trying to cut in front of him.

    Here you can see where Benjamin is using his speed to go around the cornerback -- if a quarterback has limited time to throw, this is a tough way to get open. Being able to sell the run game makes it work, though, as Hoyer has no defender blocking his throwing lane.

    Hoyer fires the ball to the corner of the end zone and Benjamin secures it. Tie game!

  20. Burned by the Fake Punt: The Browns' defense forced another three-and-out, and that's when Pittsburgh pulled off the fake punt.

    Pittsburgh did the exact same thing for every punt -- they spread the field, and then shifted back into a normal formation. I don't know why both CB Justin Gilbert and CB Joe Haden decided to shift in as if we needed a punt block. Even if the Steelers don't fake it here, we're preventing ourselves from being able to see a punt return from WR Travis Benjamin (he'd most certainly have to call for a fair catch). By converting, the Steelers gained 25 yards in field position and took an extra two minutes off the clock.

  21. Second-Down Incompletion: The Browns appeared well on their way to making the fake punt an afterthought. After a 29-yard run by RB Terrance West, the Browns faced a 1st-and-10 from the 38 yard line with 5:20 to play. On first down, QB Brian Hoyer hit WR Miles Austin for a gain of 3 yards.

    Now facing a 2nd-and-7, the Browns are sticking with the passing game. Yes, it would be nice to wear down the Steelers with our successful running game here, but remember, they still didn't know what was coming between pass or run. When we have them in that mindset, I am all for whatever Kyle Shanahan wants to try.

    At the top of the screen is WR Miles Austin, who is running a deep out route. He's going to be the target.

    The coverage isn't bad by the cornerback, but Austin leaves himself with a lot of room to work with toward the sideline. If Hoyer delivers an accurate throw (similar to the one that Roethlisberger delivered to Wheaton in Bullet Point #7), then this is a first down completion and we're in field goal range.

    Instead, Hoyer makes a bad throw -- it is not hitting Austin in stride, and the cornerback is nearly able to come away with the interception.

  22. Third-Down Incompletion: Now the Browns are facing a 3rd-and-7.

    This is a play that QB Brian Hoyer admitted he rushed after the game because all he was thinking about was getting enough easy yards to get into field goal range. WR Travis Benjamin is running a deep in, WR Andrew Hawkins is running shallower over the middle, and TE Gary Barnidge is sitting down shy of the sticks.

    Benjamin is in cyan, Barnidge is circled Green, and Hawkins is in yellow. There is a lot of traffic near Barnidge, but Hoyer probably feels that Benjamin will receive the double team, so if Barnidge shields his body, he has a quick easy completion. Because he locks in to Barnidge, though, he misses the fact that Hawkins will be uncovered. The linebacker underneath Hawkins isn't even paying attention to him -- he's eying the quarterback.

    Here you can see that once Hoyer starts to throw, Barnidge will actually be double teamed. Meanwhile, my mind can only wonder, "what if" Hoyer had gone to his next read and found Hawkins.

  23. Passing on the Field Goal: Passing on the field goal was the right move by head coach Mike Pettine. Nobody makes 50+ yard field goals in Heinz Field, and especially not a guy like Billy Cundiff who isn't accurate from beyond 50 yards.

    The Browns punt instead, and P Spencer Lanning drops a beauty. We could have this at the 1 or 2 yard line, but unfortunately, we have too many cooks in the kitchen. If the Browns pin the Steelers back inside the five, Cleveland maintains the lead by virtue of field position, and we probably go on to win the game. Instead, it's a touchback, and Pittsburgh can operate their offense comfortably.

  24. Roethlisberger Knows Where to Attack: After both teams exchanged punts, the Steelers got a chance to run their two-minute drill with 0:47 to go and a short field.

    Now with 0:20 left, the Steelers had no timeouts left at their 44 yard line. The Browns needed to prevent a 10-yard completion or more, and Pittsburgh is sending three receivers out. WR Markus Wheaton is cutting in at about the 20 yard mark in front of CB Justin Gilbert. Can Gilbert stay with him?

    We already know the answer, and it is, "no." Again, I don't mean to pick on Gilbert for every play he has, but when you're a first-round pick/semi-starter, the expectation is that you can make at least some plays to help your team win. He had a chance to be a difference maker here again...

    ...and instead, he slipped and allowed Wheaton to get the Steelers into field goal range. One spike and a field goal later, the Steelers came away with the 30-27 victory. Depression time.

  25. Final Assessment: The first half was awful, being outscored 27-3. The second half was mostly amazing, outscoring the Steelers 24-3. Hopefully the Browns' coaching staff can see the elements that worked in this game and focus on playing to the strengths of the team this week against the Saints.

    The special teams unit was a big disappointment. We allowed a big punt return, saw our punter get his face kicked off, called for too many fair catches, allowed a fake punt, and then failed to down a punt inside the five with the game on the line.

    QB Brian Hoyer showed off why he's a compelling option to lead this team. However, he also showed that he needs to improve -- there were plays he missed, like the one to Benjamin deep, the out route to Austin, the crosser to Cameron, etc. Overall, though, for a guy who only has five career starts under his belt, I remain confident in him. With a running game like the Browns displayed against Pittsburgh, Cleveland can strike a lot of fear into teams offensively, which is something I didn't expect. Defensively, I hope Pettine can rally the troops, because sometimes his Buffalo team had those "off" games, such as when he faced Cleveland last year.

  26. Special Teams Tackles: There were three special teams tackles, with one each by CB Aaron Berry, CB K'Waun Williams, and S Jordan Poyer. There were four assists, one each by TE Jim Dray, CB Buster Skrine, S Jim Leonhard, and S Johnson Bademosi.

  27. Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, the Browns went with a pretty even four-man rotation at wide receiver, which is something I projected before the game. On defense, ILB Chris Kirksey saw the majority of reps over ILB Craig Robertson.

  28. Brownies: The Browns converted just 2-of-11 (18%) third downs for the game, but they were successful on offense in the second half because their hurry-up approach rarely encountered a third down. ... Defensively, the Browns held the Steelers to 4-of-12 (33%) on their third down attempts. ... The Browns' defense gave up 503 yards of total offense, most of which came in the first half. ... Cleveland had 8 penalties, while the Steelers had 11 penalties. ... It was great getting to listen to Bernie Kosar on the local pre-game show in Cleveland. ... Pittsburgh held the ball for 32:27, while Cleveland held it for 27:33. ... SS Donte Whitner led all players with 13 tackles. ... S Jordan Poyer only played on special teams.

Up next, the Browns take on the New Orleans Saints for the home opener. Keep it tuned to Dawgs By Nature for our coverage leading up to the game!