Many Browns players stepped up in Sunday's win, none moreso than Josh McCown. The veteran set multiple franchise records in a superb day for the wily quarterback.
Few things are sweeter than a win over an AFC North rival, particularly the hated Ravens. Browns fans will feel good about this victory for a while, even though the team stands at 2-3.
Not all was perfect. This is a deeply flawed Browns team with noticeable weaknesses exposed again by the Ravens.
But a victory cures many ailments. At the very least, this win will provide some needed temporary relief to long-suffering Browns fans.
Without further ado, here are the key takeaways from the Browns' win:
1. Old dog, plenty of tricks: Quarterback Josh McCown enjoyed a career day, leading the Browns to victory. McCown didn’t start strong, but the veteran went above and beyond to secure a victory in a hellacious day for Browns fans.
You can call McCown old, slow, and even inaccurate. But don’t call McCown ineffective in the clutch. McCown orchestrated a go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter and then the game-winning drive in overtime. Unlike many quarterbacks before him, McCown didn’t panic in the final moments.
Looking at his performance as a whole, McCown enjoyed a record day. The veteran finished 36-of-51 for 457 yards and three total touchdowns. McCown set the franchise record for passing yards in a single game and became the first Browns’ quarterback to pass for over 300 yards in three consecutive games.
The secret to McCown’s success? His exploits underneath. Baltimore used a man-scheme underneath all day, allowing McCown to find his targets in the flat and across the middle for big games. McCown repeatedly tossed short passes to Gary Barnidge, Duke Johnson, and Isaiah Crowell, taking advantage of coverage mismatches.
McCown’s teammates provided a big boost, as they did much of the work, particularly on big plays. Crowell broke multiple tackles en route to a critical 22-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter and Barnidge hauled in several clutch catches. Barnidge’s first big play came early in the fourth quarter, as the big tight end used his legs to corral the ball on a 18-yard touchdown reception. His second came early in overtime, as Barnidge hauled in a short pass on 3rd and 1 and scurried 19 yards to take the Browns into Baltimore territory.
McCown also avoided throwing any costly interceptions. He mostly stuck to the short game, but didn’t make mistakes when throwing deep. His accuracy on the deep ball wasn’t there in the first half, but he found Taylor Gabriel on a deep post route for 56 yards early the fourth. The long connection set up the SportsCenter-worthy touchdown pass from McCown to Barnidge.
The 36 year old signcalcaller even broke a 10-yard rushing touchdown late in the third quarter, bringing the Browns to within one score.
McCown’s effectiveness did come into question in the first half when three offensive drives stalled inside Ravens’ territory. His struggles largely stemmed from Baltimore’s blitz schemes, as the Ravens found creative ways to pressure him in the pocket.
As the game continued, however, McCown adjusted to the pressure and stayed in the pocket. His poise and effectiveness in the clutch won this game for the Browns.
2. Just enough: The Browns’ rush defense bent considerably in the second half, but managed not to break. The Browns largely shut down the Ravens’ rushing attack in the first half, but Baltimore’s running backs nearly buried the Browns in the second half.
The Ravens only managed 30 yards on the ground in the first half, though Flacco scored his first rushing touchdown on a missed assignment by the Browns defense. On a naked quarterback bootleg preceded by a fake run inside, Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey got sucked inside and lost contain. Kirksey's missed assignment allowed Flacco to dance into the end zone untouched.
The Browns’ run defense again hindered the team late on Sunday, surrendering big runs to the Ravens.
The Baltimore offensive line simply wore down the Cleveland front seven. Midway through the third quarter, Javorius Allen burst through the middle of the Browns defense for a 44-yard run, setting up a one-yard Flacco quarterback sneak.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Ravens further exploited the Browns’ weakness up the middle. Justin Forsett and Allen combined to rush six times for 43 yards on a drive capped off by a one-yard Forsett touchdown run. The score granted the Ravens a 27-22 lead.
On Baltimore’s next drive, Forsett and Allen played a key role in setting up the Ravens for a game-tying field goal with 29 seconds left. However, the Browns did not surrender a rushing touchdown inside the red zone in the final minute and stopped Allen on the first play of overtime.
The Browns allowed 196 yards on the ground today, far too high a number for a team priding itself on its defensive line. But you do have to give the Browns’ front seven credit for stiffening when it mattered, particularly with an injured Joe Haden leaving the game with a possible concussion.
3. Three inches and a cloud of dust: The Browns’ rushing attack looked lackluster against the Ravens . The offensive line could not get any traction against a big Baltimore defense.
The Browns once again tried and failed to generate offense on the ground in the first half. On eight run plays, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson combined for just nine yards on four carries apiece.
Quarterback Josh McCown proved to be the team’s most effective rusher. He notched the club’s second-longest run of the game, a 10-yard scamper for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
Crowell and Johnson did not show extraordinary bravery running between the tackles, dancing in the backfield while waiting for a whole. But in the duo’s defense, the Browns offensive line could not push back the Ravens’ front seven.
Center Alex Mack struggled to block nose tackle Brandon Williams on run plays, forcing Crowell and Johnson to the outside. On runs to the right side, tackle Mitchell Schwartz could not seal the edge, forcing the Browns’ backs into the teeth of the Ravens’ inside linebackers. The Browns’ tight ends and wideout even share some of the blame, as members of the Ravens secondary frequently found ways to cause trouble in the Browns’ backfield.
Since the Browns won, though, there’s a silver lining here: Johnson and Crowell had a couple of clutch runs in overtime. Johnson gained three yards on a crucial 3rd and 1 at the Baltimore 28-yard line and Crowell picked up five on 3rd and 5 from the Ravens’ 20 on the Browns’ game-winning drive in overtime.
Interestingly enough, both of the runs were out of the shotgun. Perhaps the Browns need to do this more often.
4. Call a blitz, please: Facing an elite quarterback in Joe Flacco, the Browns refused to blitz, allowing him plenty of time in the pocket. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil dialed up plenty of blitzes on run plays, but did not try to pressure Flacco.
On a majority of the Ravens’ rushing plays, the Browns sent extra players. Save for a 44-yard rush by Javorius Allen, the tactic worked early on. For whatever reason, the Browns took a much different approach to the passing game.
The Browns did not blitz once on Baltimore’s 20 passing plays in the first half. And I could be mistaken, but I didn’t see the Browns rush more than four players even once today. If the Browns did blitz, it wasn’t more than once or twice.
O’Neil did not dial up a creative pass blitz until the 10:45 mark of the third quarter, when he called an overload corner blitz to the right side. Even still, the Browns only rushed four. One play later, Desmond Bryant registered the Browns’ first quarterback pressure of the day.
The Browns did finally manage to sack Flacco on the second play of the fourth quarter, as Armonty Bryant beat his man and Flacco stumbled, forcing a Ravens punt.
On the day, the Browns finished with just one sack and two quarterback hits. Luckily for the defense, Flacco lost his mojo late in the game, allowing the Browns to win in overtime.
Special Average teams: The Browns’ special teams units, save for the field goal team, didn’t have much of an impact against the Ravens. Kicker Travis Coons connected on three field goals, but the other special teams units did not do much.
The Browns continue to accrue penalties on special teams. The club was flagged twice on special teams plays on Sunday, keeping on pace to top the league in that category. The Browns entered the game with eight flags on special teams, second only to the Bills' 10 this season.
The first flag came on an early chop block by Jordan Poyer on a punt return, setting the Browns back 15 yards. The second was a late hit by Travis Coons in the first quarter, allowing Baltimore to star its possession in Browns territory. That's the first late hit I've ever seen by a kicker not named Sebastian Janikowski.
The kick return unit did not block well on its lone opportunity, as Justin Gilbert only managed a 15-yard return, placing the Browns inside their own 20-yard line.
Baltimore punter Sam Koch kept the ball away from Travis Benjamin on four of his six punts. On the only two punts Koch didn’t boot out of bounds, Benjamin only picked up two yards. The first return resulted in a three yard loss, as the blocking broke down early in the return. Benjamin managed five yards on the second return, though he couldn’t evade a would-be tackler with a spin move.
The punt coverage unit did not contain the Baltimore returners well, as Jeremy Ross and Lardarius Webb notched 30 yards and three returns. Andy Lee finished the day with a 43.4 average on five punts, twice placing it inside the 20-yard line.
The kick coverage unit also allowed Ross to gain big yards. Ross averaged 27.2 yards per return, including a 46-yard return down the sideline (Coons' late hit came on this return).
The Browns' special teams needs to start making the big plays that change games, particularly as the season wears on.
6. Yellow flags everywhere: The Browns again drew too many penalties against the Ravens. The team finished with nine penalties for 74 yards.
As mentioned above, the Browns special teams were responsible for two of the flags, but the offense and defense are plenty culpable, too.
The Browns’ offense was penalized twice for delay of game today, once inside the Baltimore red zone. This type of penalty shouldn’t happen often when you have a veteran quarterback under center.
Fans and pundits alike, including myself, have been quick to sing the praises of rookie Danny Shelton. However, the big defensive tackle did not play disciplined today. The first round pick drew two personal foul penalties. The first occurred on the Ravens’ first offensive drive in the third quarter, allowing the Ravens to move inside the Browns’ 10-yard line. The second came with just over six minutes left in the fourth, giving the Ravens a new set of downs inside the Cleveland 1-yard line on an unnecessary roughness call.
Shelton has potential, but he has to play under control, particularly late in the game.
K’Waun Williams also accrued a key penalty late in the contest. Williams popped Marlon Brown after an incompletion on 3rd and 6 on the Baltimore 24-yard line. The hit was close, but the penalty nearly cost the Browns dearly. The flag gave the Ravens a new set of downs and new life with 2:27 remaining.
Penalties did not cripple the Browns today. But this team needs to be more disciplined, especially in the final minutes of a game.
7. Hitting it big: The Browns’ offense found a way to make big plays today, particularly in the clutch. The Browns gained 20 or more yards on nine plays today. All nine were through the air.
As mentioned above, McCown deserves lots of credit for orchestrating this win. But the team’s pass catchers played a huge role in securing the victory.
For the second straight week, Duke Johnson served as a primary target out of the backfield for McCown. Johnson hauled in six passes for 55 yards, including a 27-yarder on the team's second drive of the day. Johnson could be the playmaker this team needs.
Gary Barnidge is continuing to erase memories of Jordan Cameron . Barnidge accumulated a team-best eight catches for 139 yards. The tight end did drop a couple of easy passes, but without Barnidge, the Browns might have lost. The signing of Rob Housler might have been a mistake, but Barnidge is making up for it.
Travis Benjamin impressed again in another stellar day. The Rabbit secured six catches for 83 yards, two of which went for 20 or more yards. If Benjamin continues to play this way, the Browns will either have to throw lots of money at him or watch him walk in free agency.
Even the oft-forgotten Gabriel and Crowell got in on the action, hauling in big receptions for the Browns late in the game.
General manager Ray Farmer has taken plenty of heat for not drafting a top receiver and missing on Dwayne Bowe. But today, the Browns didn’t need a superstar to beat the Ravens.