This is a bad team.
The final score does not properly represent the parade of errors made by the Browns. The team played undisciplined football, committing 11 penalties and fumbling four times. Even worse, the Browns once again failed to run the ball or stop the run, dropping to 2-5 on the year.
But the fun has just begun. Josh McCown sustained an injury late in the fourth quarter. Depending on the status of McCown's shoulder, a quarterback controversy could be brewing in Berea.
On that note, here are seven takeaways from Sunday's loss to the Rams:
1. Slow start: The Browns again stumbled out of the gate, allowing the Rams to take a double-digit lead in the first quarter. For the fourth time in five games, the Browns fell behind by 10 points in the first half.
The Browns' first two offensive drives resulted in disaster.
On the second offense play from scrimmage, the Browns called a quick screen to Taylor Gabriel. Just a few moments after Gabriel caught the pass, Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins popped Gabriel, forcing a fumble. Rodney McLeod Jr. scooped up the ball and dashed 17 yards for the first score of the game.
Gabriel deserves most of the blame for failing to firmly secure the ball, but Travis Benjamin blatantly missed his block on Jenkins. Either way, the Rams took a 7-0 lead.
The Browns’ next drive also resulted in a costly turnover. Mitchell Schwartz whiffed on a pass block on Rams' defensive end William Hayes. A vulnerable McCown lost the football in the fracas in the pocket, and Akeem Ayers recovered the fumble at the Cleveland 25-yard line.
The Cleveland defense answered the bell and kept the Rams out of the end zone, but the hosts still notched three points on a 39-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal.
If the Browns want to win again, starting strong is a must. This team is incapable of overcoming double-digit leads every week.
2. Fumbling the game away: Four fumbles sunk the Browns on Sunday. The three turnovers resulted in 17 of the Rams’ 24 points. Two fumbles in the first quarter gave the Rams an easy 10-point lead, and two more in the fourth quarter allowed the hosts to seal the game.
As described above in point #1, fumbles by Gabriel and McCown led to an early lead for the Rams. Gabriel and McCown are responsible for not holding onto the ball, but their teammates did not help.
The offensive line allowed Rams defenders to pressure McCown throughout the day, and Benjamin missed a block that allowed Jenkins to crush Gabriel. Fumbling is typically an individual issue, but today it was a team problem.
The third fumble occurred early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 17-6, McCown and the Browns had a 1st and 10 at their own 38-yard line. McCown completed a 20-yard pass to Benjamin across the middle. Upon absorbing a hit by T.J. McDonald, Benjamin coughed up the ball, which Nick Fairley recovered at the St. Louis 44-yard line.
Benjamin’s fumble cannot be blamed on another teammate. Benjamin receives all of the blame for this blunder, which led to the Rams scoring a game-sealing touchdown.
The fourth fumble came on Cleveland’s next drive. Ten plays into a big drive, McCown rolled right on 2nd and 10. As McCown began his throwing motion on a short pass, Hayes hit McCown’s arm, causing a fumble. In the confusion following the forced fumble, a Rams defensive lineman tripped McCown, sending the veteran tumbling. Eugene Sims recovered the fumble, and McCown left the game with a shoulder injury.
Again, McCown cannot be faulted for this turnover. Schwartz missed his block on Hayes, allowing the big defensive end to hit McCown’s arm.
If you commit four turnovers, you’re likely going to lose. It’s a matter of execution and focus. The Browns don’t have either right now.
3. Grounded and pounded (again): Todd Gurley tore the Browns’ front seven apart, especially in the second half. Gurley rushed for 128 yards on 19 attempts (6.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.
For the fourth time in the last five games, the Browns allowed an opposing running back to hit the century mark. In all but one game this season, the Browns have surrendered 150 total rushing yards.
The game began innocuously enough for the Browns’ defense. The first two St. Louis drives resulted in just a net gain of three yards. The Rams’ first 10 points cannot be blamed on the Cleveland defense.
The cracks began to appear as the first half continued.
On his first seven runs, Gurley recorded just 18 yards. On his next two, his last of the first half, Gurley notched 27 yards. On his first carry of the third quarter, Gurley galloped 48 yards to the Cleveland 22-yard line to place the Rams in field goal range, though Zuerlein missed the 35-yarder.
Gurley responded by scoring two touchdowns. Gurley capped off the Rams’ next drive with an easy 1-yard touchdown run and dashed 16 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Gurley’s second score upped the St. Louis lead to 24-6, far out of reach for an inept Browns’ offense.
The culprit of the failure to stop Gurley? Missed tackles. On nearly every big Gurley run, a Browns’ defensive lineman or linebacker had a shot to make a tackle.
The Browns’ front seven began the game well, plugging holes and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. For whatever reason, the defenders simply stopped making plays as the game continued.
As Kevin Jones wrote in a Sports Illustrated article on Friday, this is a significant problem for the Browns. If it continues, it could cost head coach Mike Pettine his job.
4. Failure to block: The Browns’ offensive line performed poorly all game. For a unit that is supposedly the strength of this team, the offensive line looked terrible today.
To quote Cool Hand Luke, "What we got here is failure to communicate." The Browns’ offensive line missed Rams’ defenders all day and frequently missed assignments. This miscommunication on the front line led to sacks, fumbles, and an injured McCown.
Thanks to the Cleveland offensive line, McCown took a beating today. The Rams registered four sacks and seven quarterback hits in the contest.
Individually, the Browns have a top-notch offensive line. Joe Thomas could be a Hall of Famer one day. Joel Bitonio has outstanding potential. Alex Mack is a Pro Bowler and anchor of the line. Joel Greco is a solid guard. Mitchell Schwartz received solid grades six games. Cameron Erving is a stout rookie.
As a unit, however, the offensive line looks awful. The Rams defensive line dominated at the point of attack against the run and swarmed McCown on the edges on passes.
Each lineman made mistakes, but Schwartz receives the lowest grade from me. Schwartz missed blocks on each of McCown’s fumbles and drew a false start call in the second quarter.
To the running backs’ credit, Duke Johnson and Robert Turbin performed admirably in pass protection. The two fended off Rams’ pass rushers and saved McCown from a few more sacks.
I’m not sure how to fix the offensive line woes. This is a deep-rooted communications problem with a solution beyond my expertise. But if the coaching staff does not adjust, the Browns’ offense will struggle, regardless of the quarterback.
5. Foiling Foles: If a silver lining exists in the loss, it’s the Browns’ secondary. Missing Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson, the Browns’ secondary held its own, limiting Nick Foles to just 163 yards.
Except for Kenny Britt’s 41-yard reception and a pass interference call, Pierre Desir enjoyed a banner day as Haden’s replacement. Desir did not allow any touchdowns or too much space in coverage. Desir deserves credit for his part in containing Foles.
Jordan Poyer also performed admirably as a stand-in for Gipson. Poyer led the team in tackles with 10 and also recorded a tackle for loss. Poyer tackled Gurley a handful of times in the open field, bailing out the team’s front seven. The 24-year-old safety also deserves praise for not allowing any receivers to beat him deep.
Tramon Williams did not play as well, missing tackles and allowing a few catches. The veteran didn’t make any big mistakes, though. Donte Whitner turned in a similar performance, though he forced a fumble in the second quarter, stopping a promising St. Louis drive inside the red zone.
As a unit, the secondary played a huge role in limiting the Rams to a conversion rate of 1-of-9 on third downs today.
If only the run defense could play as well on first and second down.
6. Airing dirty laundry: The Browns struggled with penalties on Sunday, handing juicy opportunities to the Rams. The Browns finished the game with 11 penalties for 98 yards.
Penalties bit the Browns at inopportune times on Sunday.
In the first half, false start calls halted Browns' drives. Thomas, Schwartz, and Bitonio were all flagged for false starts in the first half, and Jim Dray later drew one in the third quarter.
Holding calls hurt the Browns in the third quarter. Gary Barnidge, Cameron Erving, and Thomas all received holding penalties on the same drive midway through the third. The penalties erased big gains of 10 and 36, and resulted in an eventual Andy Lee punt.
Penalties in the secondary became vogue in the third and fourth quarters. Desir drew a pass interference two plays before Gurley scored his 1-yard touchdown. Foles’ pass to Britt set up the touchdown, but Desir’s penalty cost the Browns 26 yards.
Midway through the fourth quarter, K’Waun Williams was charged with a 5-yard holding penalty following an incompletion on 3rd and 8. The call granted the Rams another chance, and Gurley took advantage. The Georgia grad sealed the game with a 16-yard touchdown run on the next play. In my opinion, the call was borderline. Regardless, the referee saw it and the Browns paid for it.
The Browns’ lack of discipline is not a new problem. It’s a problem of coaching and execution, and it is inexcusable.
7. Johnny Time: Johnny Manziel entered the game after McCown exited with an injury, turning in a decent outing. Depending on the severity of McCown’s injury, Manziel might receive another shot at starting next Sunday.
Following his second fumble, McCown left the game with a shoulder injury. McCown finished 26-of-32 passing for 270 yards. The Rams went three-and-out on their ensuing drive, giving Manziel the ball at the Cleveland 45-yard line with 3:26 remaining.
Manziel’s stint lasted seven plays, which resulted in a total gain of 17 yards. Manziel completed 3-of-4 passes for 20 yards and scrambled twice for five yards. The drive ended after Manziel ran for five yards on 4th and 6.
The second-year signalcaller stuck to short passes over the middle. Manziel did not look comfortable in the pocket, perhaps due to the offensive line’s iffy effort. On two of the throws, he did not set his feet properly before throwing, and he left the pocket early on his first run.
Manziel did not put on a show, but he didn’t play horribly. If McCown has to sit out next week, Manziel should be fine.
At this point, why not let Manziel play? The Browns are 2-5 with zero playoff potential. It’s time for a change.