John Elway's Broncos still haunt the shores of Lake Erie.
In the sixth meeting between the Browns and Broncos since 1999, Denver won in overtime, 26-23. The Browns have not defeated the Broncos since October 8, 1990.
The Browns battled valiantly in the loss, but flubbed multiple chances to win in the fourth quarter and overtime in another frustrating loss.
Signs of improvement were visible on Sunday, but the loss still cuts deeply. The Browns drop to 2-4 and look battered entering a road matchup against the Rams next week.
Here are the takeaways from the loss to Denver:
1. No game for old men: In a battle between two antique quarterbacks, Peyton Manning outlasted Josh McCown. Manning and McCown looked shaky, combining for six turnovers, but it was Manning’s coolness in the clutch that clinched the Denver victory.
Manning won the game with several big passes in overtime. His completions carried the Broncos into field goal range before allowing his running backs and kicker Brandon McManus to seal the win.
As a whole, Manning did not play well. The 39 year old finished the day 26-of-48 passing for 290 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. Besides his 75-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, Manning looked iffy.
The future Hall of Famer mostly avoided downfield throws early on, not attempting a pass of 20+ yards until midway through the second quarter. Manning relied almost entirely on checkdowns to his backs and receivers in the flats. Many of his passes past the line of scrimmage were wobbly and off-target.
Manning threw three interceptions to the Browns' linebacker. His first did not result in much, but Karlos Dansby returned Manning’s second pick for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Barkevious Mingo recorded Manning’s final interception, a misthrown floater in overtime, though the Browns failed to convert on the opportunity.
The Browns’ failure to finish off the game lies squarely on the shoulders of McCown.
McCown ended the game with a statline of 20-of-39 passing for 213 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a fumble. Save for two touchdown passes to Barnidge, McCown struggled mightily.
The 36-year-old signalcaller looked shaky and skittish in the pocket against the blitz. McCown frequently underthrew receivers on the outside and overthrew receivers coming across the middle. McCown’s lack of patience in the pocket cost the Browns big-time, as the team failed to convert on its chances to take the lead late in the game and win in overtime.
The veteran frequently missed receivers and made costly mistakes. McCown’s first interception resulted in a 63-yard Aqib Talib interception return for a touchdown, while his second ended the Browns’ chance to win the game in the final minute of regulation. Even his fumble resulted in a Denver field goal.
Last week, McCown led the Browns to victory. This week, he guided the team to a crushing defeat.
2. Gaining ground: The Browns’ running backs showed major improvement against a stiff Broncos defense. Using a three-back rotation of Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr., and Robert Turbin, the Browns finally received more production from the running game.
Crowell collected the most carries, carrying the rock 11 times for 32 yards. The second-year back showed better burst and ran the ball with more passion than in previous weeks, though Crowell still has plenty of room to improve.
Johnson also received a significant workload, notching a team-best 38 yards on nine attempts. The Miami product ran with passion against the Broncos, especially outside. Johnson stiff-armed defenders on several runs, pushing for extra yards whenever possible.
Turbin made his Browns debut after sitting out the first five weeks of the season with a high-ankle sprain. The former Seahawk pounded the Denver defense with runs up the middle during Cleveland’s lengthy drive in the fourth quarter, showcasing his bruising style. Turbin finished with 10 carries for 27 yards, which is a low yards per carry average, but not surprising. Turbin should be used almost exclusively in short yardage situations and late in the game when you want to batter the defense.
The Browns enjoyed the most success on outside runs, as the left side of the line paved the way for the running game. Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio bruised the Broncos’ line as the game continued.
The offense turned to the ground game on the team’s crucial drive in the fourth quarter, as six of the 10 plays were runs. The Browns’ backs did not disappoint.
Johnson and Turbin gained 24 big yards and three first downs on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, helping the club scratch and claw its way inside the 20-yard line.
Against one of the best defenses in the NFL, the Browns’ ground game made strides. That’s definitely a reason for optimism.
3. Refusing to break: The Browns’ secondary allowed several long Denver drives, but held Manning to just one touchdown. On three Denver trips to the red zone, the Browns held the Broncos to just nine points. The Browns also intercepted Manning three times, even without Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson.
The Browns’ defense repeatedly bent, allowing many medium gains to the Broncos. The lone exception was Manning’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders. But inside the red zone, the Browns stiffened against Manning and the Broncos.
On the Denver’s first deep drive, once the Broncos entered the red zone, the Browns only allowed one yard on two runs and one pass. Randy Starks had a hand in both tackles.
On the Broncos’ second lengthy drive, the Browns’ defense stopped Manning on 3rd and 5 from the Cleveland 10-yard line. Christian Kirksey tackled C.J. Anderson two yards short of the marker, forcing another McManus field goal.
The Browns also halted Manning twice in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 23. The veteran quarterback threw three straight incompletions on his first drive, as the Browns’ secondary provided solid coverage to force the three-and-out.
Following a late McCown interception, the Browns prevented a game-winning Denver drive. Denver wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders nearly beat Cleveland cornerback Tramon Williams with 16 seconds left in regulation, but the referees ruled the catch incomplete and the game remained tied heading into overtime.
Considering Manning’s clutch history, the Browns’ two late stands are impressive.
Barkevious Mingo’s clutch overtime interception of Manning was even more impressive. Three plays into Denver’s first drive in overtime, Mingo leapt high into the air to give the Browns the ball in Denver territory. Unfortunately, the Browns failed to capitalize on offense.
Given another chance in overtime, Manning’s Broncos exploited a tired Browns defense and plodded down the field for the game-winning field goal.
4. Running downhill: Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman exploited big holes in the Browns run defense. Hillman is now the third back this season to surpass the century mark against the Browns, and the fifth to rush for over 90 yards.
In just three quarters, Hillman reached the 100-yard mark against a lackluster Browns run defense. With Manning struggling early, Hillman carried the Broncos’ offense well, particularly in the early going.
Hillman finished with 20 attempts for 111 yards, while C.J. Anderson also added 41 yards on 13 carries.
The Browns’ defensive line did not absorb blocks well against the Broncos, allowing the Denver offensive line to move on to the second level. Even when the Browns’ linebackers did not face big blockers, the ‘backers repeatedly missed tackles.
For some reason, the Broncos abandoned the run in the fourth quarter, only handing off to Hillman two times in the final stanza. The Browns held Hillman to just one yard on those two runs.
In overtime, though, Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined for 34 critical yards. One of those plays included a 3rd and 1 conversion from the Browns 40-yard line, as Anderson gashed the Browns’ defense for six yards on the crucial play.
The Browns need to shore up the run defense. Period. This weakness played a big factor in the loss today.
5. Predictable playcalling: Except for the first series of the second half, the Browns’ playcalling was unimaginative. The Browns once again showed a lack of creativity on the offensive side of the ball.
For some reason, the Browns are adamantly opposed to passing out of the I-formation and running out of the shotgun. The Browns become much more predictable when using a formation for just one purpose. As soon as a defense sees this, the unit can audible and modify the playcall to stop a run or pass.
The Browns have experienced success when bucking their typical tendencies. Last week, the team ran the ball well out of the shotgun, gaining many of its rushing yards from this formation. But offensive coordinator John DeFilippo did not try it again this week against Denver.
The team’s overtime possession was also disastrous. Following Mingo’s interception, the Browns received the ball at the Denver 39-yard line, about nine yards outside of kicker Travis Coons’ range. The Browns needed just one first down to set up a game-winning field goal attempt.
On the first play, the Browns called a toss play to Turbin. First of all, why chance a fumble on the toss? Turbin fumbled for a second before recovering, avoiding a disastrous turnover, but losing three yards. Secondly, why run Turbin outside? If you want to run outside, use Johnson or Crowell. Turbin is the running back you use on a dive play on 3rd and 1, not a toss on 1st and 10. On the next play, McCown lost eight yards on a sack, failing to checkdown in time. On 3rd and 21 from the 50, McCown tried to run before taking a sack for a loss of two.
The Browns had a great opportunity to win the game following a big pick by Mingo. Instead, the offense squandered the chance with an awful series.
Since the team’s return in 1999, poor playcalling late in games has been a theme, no matter the coordinator. If the Browns don’t find competent minds to run the offense in the booth and on the field, this trend will continue.
6. Big play Barnidge: The Browns’ tight end continues to deliver big plays when the Browns need them. Both of Cleveland’s offensive touchdowns came courtesy of Gary Barnidge.
As the Browns have learned this season, good things happen when you place the ball into Gary Barnidge’s hands.
Perhaps Barnidge’s lack of action played a part in the team’s failure to score in the first half. Either way, the Browns adjusted on the first drive of the third quarter, as McCown completed a 14-yard pass to Barnidge on the first play. Seven plays later, McCown tossed 11-yard touchdown pass to Barnidge to finish off the drive.
Barnidge showed his eye for the end zone on the score. The 30 year old faked a corner route to the back corner of the end zone before cutting inside behind Denver’s safeties. McCown then lofted a pass to Barnidge and the Browns narrowed the deficit to 10-7.
Barnidge’s final catch came midway through the fourth quarter, as McCown again found his favorite target in the end zone. Facing a linebacker, Barnidge ran a corner route and hauled in a perfect pass for six.
Barnidge did not play a perfect game, as he did drop at least two of McCown’s six Barnidge targets that ended with incompletions. But Barnidge is a reliable pass-catcher and a major weapon for the Browns.
7. Home field disadvantage: Since the team returned in 1999, the Browns are 22-37 in one-score games at First Energy Stadium (formerly known as Browns Stadium). Historically, the Browns find ways to lose at home in close games.
Add today’s loss to one of the many in the pantheon of pathetic Browns losses at home. Today’s defeat does not even come close to ranking in the top 10 Browns losses since 1999, but it certainly hurts.
Little has changed in the Mike Pettine era. Under Pettine, the Browns are 5-7 overall in one-score (defined as eight points or less) games in the last two seasons and 2-4 at First Energy Stadium.
Each of the Browns’ last four games has been decided by just once score, and the Browns have won just one of those four. Now the Browns are 2-4 overall.
Coaches who can’t win close games don’t typically survive. Remember Butch Davis, the last coach to lead the Browns to the playoffs? In one-score games, Davis had a record of 3-12.
Not all of the blame falls on Pettine. The players’ poor execution in key moments led to the loss. But Pettine made several curious decisions and the playcalling was questionable.
Whatever the cause of the loss, the fact remains: The Browns choked in the clutch and the team sits at a disappointing 2-4.